In his first column of the season, Shahan Miah takes an in-depth look at his beloved Bristol City as they prepare for returning to the Barclays Women’s Super League – with the longest pre-season the club may have ever had!
A LONG TIME COMING
Bristol City last played a competitive game on Sunday April 30th. Having been crowned champions of the Barclays Women’s Championship one week before in front of a record-home crowd of over 7,000 at Ashton Gate; they lost 2-0 to league runners-up Birmingham City at St Andrew’s in the follow up. Due to the World Cup in Australia & New Zealand taking place in July & August (and another international “break” in September), the new WSL season doesn’t start until Sunday October 1st. That’s a gap of just over five months – or 154 days – or 22 weeks. Compare that to Reading; who finished their season (and stay in the WSL) on Saturday May 27th and began their campaign in the second tier on Sunday 27th August; had a smaller gap of 13 weeks & a day – or 92 days overall.
It has been a busy period for the club as they make their step back into the league that they were founding members of (back in 2011 as Bristol Academy), and having been relegated twice in that time, are looking to stay up in their third spell in the top tier. Even as soon as the season ended, the club were already making moves…
THE NEW “VIXENS IN DISGUISE”: THOSE WHO HAVE LEFT
Aimee Palmer – the former captain left the club on May 1st after her contract expired. A popular player amongst fans, the influential midfielder & set-piece specialist signed a one-year deal with Leicester City in August & reunites with former Bristol City manger Willie Kirk. Will face off against the club she left on the opening day of the season.
Chloe Bull – the midfielder announced on May 1st that she was retiring from professional football at the age of 27 to join the FAW as their first ever Women’s & Girls’ Talent Identification Executive. However, it was announced in August that she returned to former club Swansea City in the genero Adran Premier in Wales; but on semi-professional terms.
Lia Cataldo – déjà vu struck the defender, who for the second successive time left a club that had just won the Championship title (Cataldo was part of the Leicester City side that won the league in 2020/21 before moving to the west country soon afterwards). Having played in blue colours then red colours, it was announced in July that she’d be wearing both as she had been signed by Crystal Palace.
Jodie Hutton – having only joined the club in July 2022, the defender departed at the end of her contract on May 1st. Remains in the Championship with new club Sheffield United, who she joined in July 2023.
Lily Greenslade – a former member of the club academy, the forward signed a dual-registration agreement with Plymouth Argyle in the National League & spent more matchdays with the Pilgrims last season. Having left Bristol City on May 1st, she signed for the newly-rebranded Rugby Borough in August.
Elysia Boddy – the midfielder signed her professional contract with the club in July 2022, but after a mixed season left by mutual consent in May. Formerly with Middlesbrough, Boddy returned to the north east & signed with Newcastle United in July.
Vicky Bruce – the defender only joined in July 2022 but had become a popular figure within the fanbase. Her status with the club was largely unknown after having returned to her homeland, but seeming to have stayed Stateside while several players were starting to return for pre-season. It was looking more unlikely for Bruce to return, and in September it was announced that she had signed with Western Sydney Wanderers in the Australian A-League.
Grace Clinton – the midfielder arrived on loan for the second half of season, getting a few goals & cards in the process. Was voted the club’s Young Player of the Year. Returned to parent club Manchester United before being loaned out again in August, this time to Tottenham Hotspur.
Gracie Pearse – another loanee that joined for the second half of season. Scored the only goal for the club in an 8-1 loss to Manchester City in the FA Cup back in February. Returned to parent club Tottenham Hotspur where she will be teammates once again with Grace Clinton.
Brooke Aspin – the defender had an extremely difficult season, missing most of the campaign due to suffering from a bone infection & sepsis. Having turned 18 in July, she signed a professional contract with Chelsea. However, there was a clause in her contract…
CAN I BORROW A FEELING? THE LOANS
Brooke Aspin – …as I was saying, the clause in her contract was that she would be loaned back to Bristol City for the 2023/24 season. Her future & potential are great, and recently captained the England U19 side in the last international break.
Maddi Wilde – the academy graduate signed her first professional deal in July 2022, but wasn’t always a constant in the first team. Sent out on loan for the 2023/24 season to London City Lionesses.
Liv Clark – the first-choice goalkeeper for Wales joined the club in July 2022, but rarely featured due to the impressive Fran Bentley. Signed a new contract in July before being loaned out to Championship side Watford in August. As Watford are only part-time, Clark trains at Bristol City a few days a week. Will also be running a goalkeeper academy with former Bristol City men’s shot shopper Dean Gerken in North Bristol.
Kaylan Marckese – the American goalkeeper joined Arsenal in July 2022, but rarely featured for the Gunners. Joined Bristol City on loan for the season in August, looking to compete with Fran Bentley for first-team football. Started in goal for the pre-season fixture against West Ham in September. Quoted by Nat Brown of the Bristol City Vixencast as a “jolly beefcake” after seeing her in person at the club open training session in August.
Erin Foley – the academy goalkeeper made one appearance for the first team as a substitute in the Conti Cup fixture against Crystal Palace in 2021/22. Spent last season on loan at the recently-folded Larkhall Athletic. In August she joined Rugby Borough on loan for the season. As Rugby are only part-time, Foley trains at Bristol City a few days a week. This means that the club can have up to four goalkeepers training at one time.
Jess Simpson – not to be confused with the singer & star of MTV’s Newlyweds with Nick Lachey. If you were a fan of that pop culture reference, the club announced her via a drawing of her in the style of The Simpsons. The 18-year-old defender signed her first professional contract with Manchester United in January, and is the latest line of loanees from United to join Bristol City.
ALRIGHT ME LUVVER: THOSE WHO HAVE JOINED
Amy Rodgers – the first new arrival at the club signed a two-year deal back in July. The Scottish midfielder was most recently at London City Lionesses & has previous WSL experience playing for Liverpool.
Satara Murray – the Jamaican centre-back was influential during her first spell at the club back in 2021/22, causing multiple problems for opposition attackers. After a year abroad playing for Racing Louisville in the NWSL, Murray signed a two-year contract in July. Also has previous WSL experience with Liverpool.
Jamie-Lee Napier – the Scottish wing-back signed a two-year deal in August, after having recently left London City Lionesses. Previously played with Abi Harrison at Hibernian, before gaining WSL experience at Chelsea then on loan to Birmingham City.
Amalie Thestrup – the Danish forward signed a two-year deal in August. Most recently played for PSV Eindhoven, but was loaned out to West Ham for the second half of last season. Previously played for Liverpool in 2020/21.
Megan Connolly – the midfielder signed a contract “for the upcoming campaign” in August having spent four & a half years at Brighton & Hove Albion. Played every minute of the Republic of Ireland’s group games in the World Cup. Admitted in an interview that she didn’t tell fellow Irish teammate Chloe Mustaki that she was joining her club. Subsequently named new club captain.
Carrie Jones – a graduate of Manchester United’s academy, the Welsh international signed a three-year deal in September. Has worked with Lauren Smith previously when she was part of the set-up under Jayne Ludlow. Most recently on loan at Leicester City last season.
Sille Struck – the former Danish youth international signed a one-year deal in September, with the option for a further year. The defender recently played in Spain for three seasons, first with Rayo Vallencano & then with Levante Las Planas. The only new signing at the club in this window who has not played in England before
STAYING PUT: THOSE WHO ARE STILL HERE
Emily Syme – the midfielder returned to the club in July 2022 on a one-year deal, and made the most appearances of the season with 29. Signed a new two-year deal in May.
Chloe Mustaki – the defender in July 2022 in a one-year deal, but her season was disrupted by a groin injury. Returned towards the end of the last season, and signed a two-year deal in May. Was an unused substitute for Republic of Ireland in the World Cup.
Jasmine Bull – the academy graduate signed her first professional deal in July 2022. The midfielder signed a new one-year contract in May, with the option of a further year.
Ffion Morgan – having made her return to the club in 2021, the Welsh international signed a new two-year deal in June. Will definitely be one to watch in the WSL with her speed.
Jesse Woolley – the academy graduate signed a new one-year contract in June, with the option of a further year. One of the few surviving members of the squad from when the club were last in the WSL, but didn’t get game time due to a long-standing injury.
Ella Powell – having joined the club in 2021 and go on to make over 50 appearances, the Welsh full-back signed a new two-year deal in June.
Naomi Layzell – the academy graduate signed her first professional deal in March 2022 when she turned 18. The defender signed a new two-year deal in June. Was with the club when they were last in the WSL, making some appearances while still part of the academy.
Rachel Furness – having signed for the second half of the 2022/23 season & securing WSL promotion for the second year in a row at Ashton Gate, the Northern Ireland midfielder signed a new one-year deal in June. Could face off against former clubs Liverpool & Tottenham Hotspur in the WSL.
Fran Bentley – after a successful loan spell in 2021/22, the goalkeeper signed a two-year deal in June 2022. Put pen to paper on a new two-year deal in June.
Abi Harrison – the Scottish forward is the most high-profile name in terms of players who were at the club when they were last in the WSL. With her most recent contract coming to an end last season, the two-time Women’s Player of the Year signed a new two-year deal in June.
Tianna Teisar – the academy graduate made several appearances for the first team last season. Having turned 18 in September, the Welsh youth international her first professional contract. The length of the deal has not been disclosed.
Shania Hayles – the club’s top goal scorer last season joined on a two-year deal back in July 2022. Has not yet signed a new contract but can impress in the WSL. Will most likely face off against former club Aston Villa this season.
Mari Ward – the 17-year-old is still with the club’s academy, but made several appearances for the first team last season. Likely to sign on professional terms when she turns 18 next year.
NOTHING PERSONNEL: NEWS REGARDING THE STAFF
Lauren Smith – having returned to the club in 2021 initially on maternity cover, the head coach signed a three-year deal in October of that year after former head coach Tanya Oxtoby departed the club. With a year remaining on her contract; and securing the club’s first ever title in their 25 year history; a new three-year was signed in August.
Grace Williams – having joined the club as Operations Manager in August 2021 before becoming General Manager, Williams was a key figure behind the scenes at the club. Joined Crystal Palace in May to become their new Head of Women’s Football.
Eliot Caton – After an extensive recruitment period, Caton joined the club in July as the new General Manager. Caton has over 30 years of experience working in sports, from coaching women’s and girl’s teams in the US, to being a GM for Surrey Scorchers Basketball and Surrey Storm Netball. Was most recently GM at Birmingham City.
Jennifer Foster – having joined the club in 2021 to become Lauren Smith’s assistant, Foster left in the summer to join Leicester City as assistant coach to Willie Kirk.
Loren Dykes – no stranger to longtime City fans, Dykes spent over 11 years playing for the club & was announced as one of the first City Women players to go into the Bristol City Hall of Fame. Was most recently at the FAW overseeing the Under-17s programme. Rejoined the club in August to become the new assistant coach.
Anita Asante – after last playing for Aston Villa & hanging up her boots in 2022, Asante joined the club as a First Team Coach that summer. The role was on a part-time basis, and so was able to continue with her media work. Despite removing information about being a club coach from her Twitter/X bio, the club have confirmed that she will hold a consultancy role to support the club’s technical team throughout the campaign.
Natalie Haigh – also retiring from playing professional football in 2022, the former Villa defender soon became Assistant Manager at Lewes before leaving the club in May. Joined Bristol City to become the new First Team Coach.
Dan Smith – no relation to Lauren, the goalkeeper coach joined the club ahead of the 2020/21 season, and was key in the development of such goalkeepers as Sophie Baggaley, Fran Bentley, Sophie Whitehouse & Liv Clark. Left the club at the end of last season to become goalkeeper coach at Al-Ittihad in the Saudi Women’s Premier League in July. The club made headlines by signing former Leicester player & Nigeria international Ashleigh Plumptre.
James White – previously at Reading, White made the move from the Royals to become the new goalkeeper coach with the Robins (or Vixens).
Tom Cresswell & Jess Wells – join the club as the new Lead Physiotherapist and Sports Rehabilitation Therapist respectively, replacing Becky Belbin & Jennie Cox. Cresswell has worked across the sporting world, including rugby union, international basketball, Grand Slam Tennis, and in Formula 1.
Wells takes on her role having recently completed a MSc in Sports and Exercise Medicine at the University of Nottingham.
Phil Alexander – last & probably least is the former CEO of Bristol City. Having joined in February, he left the club after only seven months. Unlike his predecessor Richard Gould, he was not spotted in attendance for any games played by the women’s team (despite being listed as a board member for them). In his final statement released by the club, he acknowledged the men’s team but made no reference to the other affiliated teams.
WARM-UP SHOWS: PRE-SEASON ADVENTURES
Due to the disruption caused by the World Cup & subsequent international break, and league scheduling meaning that fixtures could only be against other WSL teams, the club only played three pre-season fixtures (that the public are aware of, anyway). Beginning with an away trip to Manchester City on September 2nd, the behind closed doors fixture saw Abi Harrison score a penalty to make it 1-0. The lead didn’t last long as a reply from Deyna Castellanos followed by a Brooke Aspin gave the Cityzens the momentum. Bunny Shaw made it three before half-time, before a header by Rachel Furness rescued a second goal in the final third.
Four days later, the Robins High Performance Centre (RHPC) hosted another behind closed doors friendly, this time against Leicester City. Once again, Harrison opened the scoring within half an hour. The lead didn’t last as Missy Goodwin equalised for the Foxes, before Megan Connolly scored from a free kick. The half ended with Aimee Palmer scoring a free-kick of her own to make it 2-2 at half time. It looked like to end in a draw before Amalie Thestrup shot from close range to secure the win.
The final pre-season game (that we’re aware of) was away at West Ham United on September 10th, which was played in front of supporters. For City, this was advertised as the only chance to see the team before the start of the season – due to the logistical reasons mentioned earlier, there was no home game that fans could watch in person (the club did hold an Open Training Session at Ashton Gate on Friday 25th August, however). With it being goalless at half-time, a second half hat-trick Viviane Asseyi secured the win for the Hammers.
Unfortunately, it’s become a bigger pattern that the most successful teams in the WSL are those affiliated with bigger men’s teams in the Premier League. However, we did see the likes of Tottenham & West Ham struggle last season, despite how big their men’s teams are. Reading were on a gradual downhill for the last few seasons, and it was no surprise that it was them as the only team not to be affiliated with a current Premier League side be relegated. But what is interesting is that Bristol City are not the only current WSL team that isn’t affiliated with a Premier League side, as Leicester City are now the other team, with the former champions getting relegated last season.
The WSL has changed a lot since Bristol City were relegated in 2021. There’s now a major TV deal (despite the kick-off times), videogame appearances in EA Sports FC (formerly FIFA), and more popularity due to the success of the Lionesses. The league now attracts bigger names & makes new stars. I am positive that Bristol City can stay up, as long as the team get points off other teams in their possible position (Leicester, West Ham etc), and get good results elsewhere. Also, we are now seeing more games being played at the main stadiums. And Bristol City is only one of two clubs (the other being Leicester City) who will now play all their home league games at their main stadium. The RHPC (home for the last two seasons) had a maximum capacity of over 1,000 (with 400 seats). Ashton Gate has a maximum capacity of 27,000, so it will be great to see increased crowds.
The club have sold a record 1700 season tickets (more than the capacity of the RHPC itself), and it is vital for the support to be behind the team, both home & away. It’s not going to be as straightforward as the last two seasons in the Championship were, and the club have to exceed expectations of just surviving relegation.