Bristol City: The Season So Far

As Barclays Women’s Championship action returns this weekend after the winter break, I take an extended look back at Bristol City’s season so far…

PRE-SEASON TO AUGUST

City ended up in a respectable third place in their first season in the second tier with 37 points; four points behind London City Lionesses and 15 points behind Liverpool, who confirmed their WSL promotion in a 4-2 win at Ashton Gate in April 2022. But unlike the pre-season from 12 months before where there was a mass exodus following WSL relegation, a lot of the players & staff had indeed remained, or already signed new deals. While the country was getting excited with a home Euros, the summer transfer window did see some exciting arrivals plus some unfortunate departures:

IN:
Fran Bentley (goalkeeper, on loan from Manchester United but made permanent)
Chloe Mustaki (defender, previously at Shelbourne)
Liv Clark (goalkeeper, previously at Coventry United)
Jodie Hutton (defender, previously at Aston Villa)
Shania Hayles (forward, previously at Aston Villa
Vicky Bruce (defender, previously at SC Sand)
Elysia Boddy (midfielder, previously at Leicester City, first professional deal signed)
Emily Syme (midfielder, previously at Aston Villa)
Maddi Wilde (academy product, first professional deal signed)
Jasmine Bull (academy product, first professional deal signed)
Anita Asante (first team coach, previously at Aston Villa before retirement from playing)

OUT:
Satara Murray (defender, now at Racing Louisville)
Ava Kuyken (midfielder, now at Hibernian)
Aggie Beever-Jones (forward, on loan from Chelsea – now on loan at Everton)
Melissa Johnson (forward, now at Charlton Athletic)
Izzy Cook (midfielder, now at Cheltenham Town)
Sophie Whitehouse (goalkeeper, now at Lewes)
Maisy Collis (midfielder, now at Cheltenham Town)
Simran Jhamat (midfielder, now at Coventry United)
Gwen Davies (midfielder, now at Hearts)
Erin Foley (academy goalkeeper, on loan at Larkhall Athletic)
Lily Greenslade (forward, at Plymouth Argyle on a dual-registration agreement)
Flo Allen (defender, retired – now General Manager at Norwich City)

As well as some of the women appearing together with players from the men’s team in kit announcements (a further sign of the “One Club” philosophy that Bristol City follow), not much else is known about City’s pre-season as most of it was played behind closed doors – a common annoyance within pre-season in women’s football. However, City did get a 1-0 win over Leicester City on July 30th, with that result being made public. City’s final pre-season game was hosting WSL side Reading on August 7th. The Royals had a few ex-Vixens in the squad; including Gemma Evans & new recruit Charlie Wellings; but it was City’s own new arrivals making most of the impact. Emily Syme & Elysia Boddy have quickly formed a partnership in midfield, with Shania Hayles looking dangerous up in front. Ffion Morgan also appeared to be playing further up in front too (a formation she has excelled in since).

It seems changing positions was the theme here; as regular/singing fans trialled to stand on the other side of the main stand at the Robins High Performance Centre. Luckily this worked for myself & others here, as all three goals were scored in front of us! Reading went into half time 1-0 with an assist from Wellings picked up by Lauren Wade, but Abi Harrison equalised soon into the second half. But the best moment had to be when 16-year-old academy product Tianna Teisar came on as a sub & was awarded a penalty, to which she took ownership of, slotted the ball in to make it 2-1 & ran to us & performed a knee slide. As someone double her age, I’d struggle to do a celebration like that!

The first game of the new season was on August 21st away to Coventry United. With the starting XI, Morgan & Brooke Aspin were the most surprising absentees due to picking up knocks; with Aimee Palmer & Chloe Bull still injured; but this gave others the chance to start & impress outside of their normal position. From the get-go, City had several chances thanks to Harrison & Hutton, but Jodie Whiteman & Coventry’s defence prevented them. The home side; who like City last summer have had a big overhaul on & off the pitch; had their own chances, but nothing to trouble Fran Bentley with.

The defining moment came soon into the second half, when thanks to a dodgy back pass from Merrick Will, Harrison provided the assist for Jesse Woolley to strike into the net. This was Woolley’s first-ever league goal, having only scored once in the Conti Cup back in 2018. The 21-year-old has been plagued with injuries throughout her career, but signed a new contract over the summer. Maybe this season can finally be her true breakthrough.

Photo @BristolCityWFC

City’s first home game was against Blackburn Rovers on August 28th. In front of an impressive crowd of 714, this would be the first time being at the RHPC for some, hearing new songs, chants, & the drum! While goals from Hayles & Syme in the first 45 sealed three points & left City second in the table ahead of the first international break of the season, the fixture marked the return of club captain Aimee Palmer, who hadn’t played in five months due to injury. Fellow Since 71 writer Charlotte Galloway was also at this game & wrote of her matchday experience

SEPTEMBER TO OCTOBER

September began with already the first international break of the season. Ffion Morgan, Abi Harrison, Chloe Mustaki all featured for Wales, Scotland & Republic of Ireland respectively. However the break from the league was unfortunately extended following the passing of HM Queen Elizabeth II on September 8th, with City’s away fixture to London City Lionesses postponed & eventually rescheduled to March 19th 2023.

The next fixture against Sunderland on September 18th became the first City game played in three weeks. I was a little worried that the extended gap would have an effect, as the action did take some time to pick up. The first thing to mention would be on after 5:00 on the clock, where myself & other fans took part in a minute’s applause & singing for Brooke Aspin. It was revealed by the club during the international break that Aspin was recovering in hospital following an infection (towards the end of the year, she did return to training but is not yet match ready).

Another thing to observe from the first half was when Sunderland had a throw-in near the corner, so Harrison decided to pick up the ball & throw it out, causing a few giggles & cheers amongst fans. It did look like Harrison scored when she picked up Mustaki’s cross, but it wasn’t given as the referee judged to have fouled goalkeeper Claudia Moan in the process. This game was rather physical & there were little chances for either side, but the deciding moment was when Harrison’s air assist landed for Shania Hayles to run solo & nutmeg Moan for the winning goal. At full-time, City would be top of the league, following then-league leaders Crystal Palace losing to newly-promoted Southampton. Speaking of whom…

The season’s first Ashton Gate game on September 25th was against the Saints. The build-up that week was eventful; including Harrison doing an Ask Me Anything Q&A where I asked on social media what was the best thing she could say in a Bristolian accent. While her attempt in the video wasn’t the best, she flipped it by asking me to say something in a Glaswegian accent next time I saw her. I waited until after the game & after other supporters got their photos & autographs, then I managed to speak to Abi with the accent & it was definitely worse. I think the pressure, lack of practice & drink got to me, and the clip is here for everyone to cringe at. As for the game itself, Morgan’s superb strike hit the top corner just before the half-hour but was cancelled out with Beth Lumsden scoring minutes into the second half. The first goal of the season was conceded, but City still top of the table with a one-point lead.

City began their Conti Cup group D campaign at home against Crystal Palace on Oct 2nd. This would be the first home game I missed in over a year, due to making plans on a day when I didn’t think there’d be any football. It was subsequently announced by the FA that most Conti Cup group games this season will now be on weekends instead of during the week. While I was catching up with old friends, City had put on their best performance at home this season with a 4-0 win.

Changes were made on & off the pitch; such as Liv Clark making her debut in goal, and assistant coach Jen Foster doing media duties before & after the match – she’s been at the club for over a year and I don’t think I heard her speak before! Mustaki got her first City goal from a set piece, while Syme got hers after another one.

Having not scored so far this season, Harrison was finally up & running with two goals, plus a third had it not bounced off the crossbar. Despite being City’s all-time top goal scorer, she has amazingly never had a hat trick.

Following this game was the second international break of the season. On Oct 6th, Harrison scored the extra-time winner for Scotland against Euro 2022 quarter-finalists Austria in the World Cup play-offs. On the same night Jess Fishlock was amongst the past & present City players for Wales; scoring the winner against Bosnia & Herzegovina. These results took the winners to the second round on Oct 11th, where Wales would miss out on World Cup qualification by losing to Switzerland on the last minute of extra time. Scotland also missed out after losing 1-0 to the Republic of Ireland, who themselves qualified for the 1st time.

This was the potential for Harrison & Mustaki to face off as opponents, but Mustaki was an unused sub. She did make an appearance on Sky Sports News the day after, where she handled herself well in an interview with Rob Wotton after facing difficult or embarrassing questions (depending on perspective) following a clip where some celebrating players were apparently singing a song that referenced the IRA (the FAI did issue an apology).

My highlight of the international break was watching the Lionesses beat the world champions USA 2-1 in a very entertaining friendly at Wembley – I’m very much looking forward to the World Cup next summer to see how well England (plus Mustaki & Ireland) will do.

Photo @BristolCityWFC

City returned to action on October 16th versus Sheffield United, who now play all their games at Bramall Lane. Another game I was unable to attend, and another one I wish I was at. Considering the season started in August, this was only City’s second away game and the first to be played in the Robin third kit. I was checking live updates to read that Hayles ran through the Blades’ defence to score before half-time, and afterwards when she headed the ball up in the air to land in an empty net. Harrison got her first goal in the league, with Mia Enderby scoring in stoppage time to get a consolation goal.

City once again hosted Palace on Oct 23rd…and a game I was actually at! Amongst the 671 strong crowd, City put on an almost-repeat performance from the get go, but with a slight change of weather! With plenty of chances throughout, the goals came from Hayles, Syme & Harrison to give City a 3-0 win & to remain undefeated & on top of the Championship table.

I was at Ashton Gate very early on the morning of Sunday October 30th. It wasn’t to attend a game there, but to board the coach away to Charlton Athletic. I’ve done away trips for City Women before, but for me, this was the first time that didn’t involve a train or car. This was a coach organised between the football club & the Bristol City Supporters Club & Trust (which I also sit on the board of as a City Women Fan Representative). The travelling faithful were rewarded with witnessing a 2-0 win; City’s first win over the Addicks since being back in the Championship. The game was being played at VCD Athletic near Dartford, and it was the type of ground where supporters could swap ends if they wanted to – an experience that women’s football introduced me to after years of watching men’s football in the Championship & League One.

After witnessing Shania Hayles’ header in front of us, we moved for the second half when we saw Maddi Wilde provide a great pass for the Charlton defence to completely miss but get picked up by Ffion Morgan, who had plenty of chances already.

NOVEMBER TO DECEMBER

With an international break looming, the game at Charlton ended up being the last for three weeks – as the match away at Lewes on November 6th was called off with less than an hour’s notice due to torrential rain, but then sunshine appeared at the intended KO time of 3 pm! In the international break, Abi Harrison scored in Scotland v Panama, Ella Powell returned to the Wales squad but was an unused sub, and former City academy product Katie Robinson (now at Brighton) made her senior England debut in the draw against Norway.

Speaking of the Lionesses, it was announced that the final games in the 2023 Arnold Clark Cup tournament will be played at Ashton Gate on Wed 22nd Feb. South Korea will face Italy before England face Belgium. This will be the Euro champs’ first game at BS3 since November 2015 when a goal from future queen of the jungle Jill Scott got the winner against Bosnia & Herzegovina in a Euro 2017 qualifier. It was my first ever international football match & Ashton Gate was still going through its redevelopment. Both the stadium & Lionesses have come a long way since that very rainy game!

Speaking of Ashton Gate, City were back there on November 20th facing old rivals Birmingham City. This game also marked the first time City played in red shorts this season, having previously done so for most of the season without announcement – but have since confirmed that they plan on wearing red shorts in any home kit going forward. In front of a crowd of 2988 (where were the other 12?) City would face their first loss of the season thanks to a Jade Pennock goal but still had some chances. Powell, one of the few standouts from that game, even admitted post-match that the team let their standards drop. I don’t know if it was because it had been weeks without a game; or that Brum are used to the surroundings as they now play all their games at St Andrews; but something seemed off that day. Due to the result, London City Lionesses topped the table after winning that day.

What could have been a one-time blip continued on the road, with City returning to Charlton on Oct 27th losing 2-1 in a Conti Cup group game, with ex-loanee Kiera Skeels haunting her old club twice. In the longest away trip of the season on December 4th at Durham, City’s lead via Hayles was cancelled out by the tightest of angles from Rio Hardy. The Wildcats could have won it from a penalty, but Fran Bentley stepped up & made the save; impressing me more as the club’s Twitter posted her own GIF. London City also drew that day, and therefore topped the league ahead of Christmas.

City’s last home game of 2022 was on December 11th, in a FA Cup third round tie against Southampton, which went ahead after snow was cleared from the Robins High Performance Centre following excellent work from the ground staff. City had Ffion Morgan, Chloe Mustaki & Vicky Bruce all missing; whereas Southampton could only name four substitutes & had key players such as Katie Wilkinson & Lexi Lloyd-Smith missing due to reported illness that had gone around the team.

Photos @BristolCityWFC

In the game, a passing error from former City player Megan Wynne was picked up by Shania Hayles, who alongside a brilliant free kick from Emily Syme ensured two goals & a first win over the Saints, and that there would be no FA Cup repeat like in the previous season.

City would be drawn again at home in the FA Cup, this time against National League South side Oxford United in the fourth round. The contest is due to be played on January 29th 2023. City’s last home game was meant to be against Lewes in the Conti Cup on December 18th, however following a request to move the game from the Dripping Pan to the RHPC due to a frozen pitch at Lewes, the pitch at BS8 fell to the same frozen conditions. The game will now take place on Wednesday January 18th 2023, back at the Dripping Pan.

PRESENT DAY…

Since my interview with Lauren Smith earlier this month which discussed potential transfer plans, the club have announced the loan signings of defender Gracie Pearse & midfielder Grace Clinton from Tottenham Hotspur & Manchester United respectively until the end of the season. It will be interesting to see where she fits into the team, who return to action to face Coventry United this Sunday (January 15th) – who themselves have done some business in the transfer window.

I hope you have enjoyed this three-part round-up of the season so far; I plan to do more of these round-ups on a monthly basis. Come on you Reds!