20 May Championship Play Off Final Preview: Southampton vs Wolves
This Saturday afternoon The FA Women’s National League Northern and Southern Premier Division champions, Wolverhampton Wanderers and Southampton, face off against each other to determine which side will earn promotion to the FA Women’s Championship.
The Championship Play Off is something we’ve not seen in the last three years. In 2018/19 a play-off match took place between Blackburn Rovers and Coventry United but both sides were being granted promotion as league winners due to an extra place being available.
The following two seasons both saw the National League being cancelled midway through due to the pandemic. With no actual league winners over those two seasons, last summer the FA announced that upward movement would take place via an application process which would take into account results on the pitch and the club’s structural eligibility.
Wolves and Saints both dominated their respective fourth tier divisions only to be denied likely promotion when the leagues were cancelled. To the relief of their fans, both were successful in their applications into the third tier and both have continued their excellent form to secure the league title with time to spare.
Both will feel that they are ready to participate in the Championship and should both be there irrespective of the result and I wouldn’t disagree. However there can only be one and by 5:30pm on Saturday evening we’ll know which team that will be.
At the resumption of football after the winter break there was a three-horse race for the Southern Premier title. Ipswich Town lead on thirty-three points, Oxford United five points behind on the same number of games played, leaving Saints six points behind but with two games in hand.
Ipswich were the front runner for the majority of the season but after dropping points against MK Dons and Gillingham they handed the advantage to Saints. Marianne Spacey-Cale’s side suffering a number of postponements due to weather and good cup runs.
When Ipswich and Southampton faced off at the beginning of March Saints were nine points behind but with five games in hand. A 2-1 win thanks to goals from Lucia Kendell and Ella Pusey meant that Saints had full control of their own fate.
While the prospect of two games a week for two months might be seen as a negative by some, Spacey-Cale’s side saw this as an opportunity to build momentum and grow the belief within the squad that it was their title and no one was taking it away. They eventually clinched the title in the best way possible, a 2-0 win over rivals Portsmouth at St Mary’s Stadium in front of a record-breaking crowd of over 5,000.
The Northern Premier contains teams packed full of talent and experience and is arguably a harder division to concur. At times Wolves almost made it look easy and by late September they were top of the division.
At the beginning of the year Wolves had slipped to third, six points behind league leaders Derby County but with three games in hand to catch up. From March they were restored to the summit and it is there they remained, finishing the season eight points above their nearest rivals Derby County and twelve above AFC Fylde.
The biggest disappointment for Danny McNamara’s side would be their cup defeats against Liverpool Feds in the League Cup and Nottingham Forest in the FA Cup. County Cup success over local rivals West Bromwich Albion saw Wolves complete a cup double.
“People would be lying if they said they weren’t thinking about the final from the moment promotion was secured. “It has been in the back of everyone’s mind for the last few weeks. It is a difficult task mentally to have such a huge game at the end of the season but if any group can do it, this team can.”
Kelly Darby (Wolves Centre Back)
Trying to call this game is difficult, in part because I can only assess Wolves’ chances based on what I’ve read and conversations with fans. While I have been fortunate to watch Saints in person a number of times this season, including their FA Cup win over Championship side Bristol City.
If I were to place a bet then I’d suggest that Saints will come away with a tight win after extra time. If you push me for a score then I’ll go 2-1.
When Saints go on the attack then there are few teams who can live with them at this level although I have seen Saints sit back and play with patience this season. I believe that this comes from their belief that if they are patient then they will create and score chances right up until the final whistle.
If they enter the match with this approach then it might open the door for the likes of Tammi George, Amber Hughes, Beth Merrick and Leah Burridge to impose themselves on the game, take full control and find themselves taking the lead.
While Saints are a young side Spacey-Cales doesn’t believe that her side will be overawed by the occasion. Explaining, “I’ve played at the highest level and coached at a high level, so in those conversations with players and the squad, you can share your experience and answer questions for them having been on the pitch in those situations.
“Butterflies are part and parcel of these types of games. Having nerves is a sign that you care and these girls care about what they do, each other and the club, so there will be nerves. But it’s about managing that to overcome them and be as strong as we can on the day.”
The match will be streamed live online globally by the BBC on the BBC Sport website and BBC iPlayer, bringing wider exposure for the third tier of women’s football in England. Tickets for the game are available to buy online now for just £5 for adults, £2.50 for under 16s and concessions, whilst kids under 10 go free.