It feels like the 22/23 season is barely over and we are already looking ahead to the FA Women’s National League (FAWNL) 23/24 season…
With four of the six Divisions being settled on goal difference in 22/23, I expect that whilst the 23/24 will be competitive it won’t be quite as competitive this season – probably a good thing for fans’ blood pressure (and the logistics planning of the FA Women’s National League management team)….
In Tier 3there is a big change with both the Northern and Southern Champions gaining promotion to the Women’s Championship – this is a welcome change and seems to have encouraged further investment from clubs as promotion is guaranteed going forward (rather than the pain that Wolves & Forest have suffered in recent years).
Northern Premier Division
In the Northern Premier, the “big three” are all still in the league following Forest’s defeat in the playoff final, and Wolves, Burnley and Nottingham Forest will all be pushing for promotion this season yet again. Of the other teams remaining in the League from last season, Derby County is the other team that looks most equipt to join that race for promotion. Having been in the title race in 21/22, but fell short in 22/23, they have gained increased investment from the club to assist with this challenge.
At the other end of the table, it will be interesting to see what happens at Stoke, Liverpool Feds and West Brom. The departure of Jenny Sugarman from WBA, a club that as a whole is in a bit of a mess, could end up being most unfortunate. Though, the appointment of Siobhan Hodgetts, from the successful development side, to replace Jenny could be a sign of stability – however this has resulted in the Development side departing from the FAWNL Reserves League.
Of the two promoted clubs we have seen the Oil Money of Saudi Arabia being thrown at Newcastle United to try to purchase promotion to the Women’s Championship. Whilst investment is welcome (without discussing the sportswashing issues), disproportionate investment in player wages etc. could discourage other teams from investing – why invest when the budget is blown out of the water by a rival, and they are likely to gain promotion?
However, having seen Wolves play Newcastle, in the FA Cup last season, I believed at the time that, that squad would achieve mid-table this season and as such with the substantial investment then they will be challenging for the title for this season. Though I am not convinced that they will achieve it, especially with their mixed pre-season results (including a humbling defeat to Sunderland). I do believe that if results don’t go her way Becky Langley could be the first manager to be relieved of her position, with a readymade successor in Andy Cook (formally of Forest) waiting in the wings.
As to Stourbridge, they have achieved “Back to Back to Back” promotions and were the first team promoted to Tier 3 (T3) last season. They have carefully replaced players departing and will be a difficult team to beat – expect upsets. Whilst I don’t envisage them being in the top five next season, I do expect them to be fighting it out with Halifax for sixth place and the best of the rest.
Southern Premier Division
The Southern Premier Division was as entertaining as the Northern Premier Division last season, with a three-way fight for the title only ending on the last day of the season, Watford eventually winning and gaining promotion. This left Oxford United and Ipswich Town to continue the fight this season. They will obviously be joined by Portsmouth who finished fourth but have this season gone semi-pro.
The Southern Division will gain three teams, Rugby Borough (formally Coventry United), Hashtag United and Cardiff City Ladies. I think that regardless of your view of the re-brand from Coventry United to Rugby, you will be surprised by their performance. I believe that they will be comfortable mid-table finish, but it will be a tough season as they start the rebuild, this is likely to be a slow process and will need a couple of seasons to grow into the Rugby Borough shape to go for promotion.
Hashtag and Cardiff have both gained promotion from Tier 4 (T4) and both will be aiming to establish themselves in T3. Hashtag spent two seasons pushing for promotion and managed to gain it last season, but they will take inspiration from their Essex rivals in Billericay gaining mid-table while also welcoming what is one of the more feisty derbies in the FAWNL.
Cardiff are returning to T3 having been relegated in season 21/22. I anticipate that they will wish to secure safety and anything else will be a benefit. This might be more difficult with manager Jamie Phillip departing in the close season though they seemed to have made a number of signings to strengthen.
Cheltenham are investing in its behind-the-scenes support to the women’s team by bringing the management into the club full time. They will wish to push on to challenge for promotion – I expect that they will be around the fifth place team this season.
As for the bottom half of the table, the teams that particularly struggled at the end of last season were Plymouth Argyle and London Bees, who will need to have strengthened to ensure survival. One of the concerns will be with MK Dons as the relegation of the men’s team could cause instability for the women’s team. As such they will want to strengthen the team to avoid getting drawn into a T3 relegation battle. Their pre-season results have been mixed but should be able to finish tenth – above Plymouth & Bees.
Division 1 North
After seeing Newcastle depart for T3, Durham Cestria will be wishing to keep pushing for promotion and this year’s challengers will likely be Doncaster Rovers Belles who have made lateral movement from the Midlands Division.
Other teams such as Barnsley and Stockport will also wish to be in the conversation. With Middlesborough bringing the women’s team into the club we could see them make a bigger challenge than last season. The big question in this division is when will Leeds United support their women’s team properly to enable them to progress and compete at the level a team of their stature should be at.
Favourites for relegation will be FC United and Chester Le Street both were relegated in 21/22 and then won their respective titles in 22/23. So have a challenging 12 months or so ahead of them.
Division 1 Midlands
At the end of last season, I saw this Division as a two-horse race for the title between Peterborough (Posh) and Boldmere St Michaels. Posh are currently building a successful project at the club, bringing in players from T3 and having slowly progressed as a club over the last two years in T4. Continuity will be key for Posh and this will be helped if manager Dan Lawlor can avoid being sent off quite as often. If so I make them favourites for the title.
With regards to Boldmere, if they can keep the majority of the team that were relegated, then they will get back into winning ways and push for the title. They will be disappointed to lose Leo Joyce, as she would have scored them plenty of goals this season, but keeping Wilcox and Formason will be hugely beneficial for them.
However, following an excellent summer recruitment by Sporting Khalsa (Or Grasshopper Khalsa to Wolves fans) I believe will see them challenge for the title as well – in fact, they are my outside bet for the title. They have brought in ex-Wolves players Laura Cooper, Ria Elsmore, Daisy Wickett and Lowri Walker permanently alongside loan signings of Hannah Sparkes & Skye Owen (the latter returning after a successful loan spell with them last season). This gives them strength in depth and quality as well.
At the other end of the table, I anticipate that Leek will struggle again this season. Alongside them I expect Notts County and Sutton Coldfield will be striving for stability this season. Though with the quality in the league it might be too much for both of them to survive.
Division 1 South East
This Division last season finished with ten teams, this season the key will be to finish with twelve teams to continue the growth of the women’s game in the South East.
It is going to be interesting to see what further progress Norwich City make this coming season as they step up their investment in the women’s team. I expect them to challenge for the top three. Alongside them in that top three will likely be Wimbledon – they chased Hashtag last season and pushed them all the way, so we expect more of the same. The other team that will be pushing for promotion is QPR. Whilst it will be a three-horse race, I expect that the Dons will come out on top – which could lead to a tasty MK/Dons battle in T3 in season 24/25.
I anticipate that Crawley Wasps – now called Haywards Heath, will need a season of rebuilding before they push for promotion. London Seaward will also need a season of stability at their new home & growth of their fan base, before they push for the top three, but will no doubt cause difficulties for the top three teams. Whilst also being a champion of the independent football club.
At the other end of the table, both Cambridge City and Chesham will need to improve their form from last season to avoid dropping this time. Similarly, newly promoted Sudbury and Worthing, will likely be the other two contenders for the relegation dog fight – it should be an interesting battle.
Division 1 South West
Exeter City will want to build on last season’s chase of Cardiff, and I anticipate that Moneyfields will be chasing them hard, as well as building on the success of their excellent season last time out. There will be some interesting recruitment at Moneyfields as neighbouring Southampton (in the Championship) and Portsmouth strengthen, will we see T3 quality players at Moneyfields and Southampton Women FC?
Bournemouth, Bridgwater United and Swindon will want to be in the group of teams pushing the top two for the title. Of these teams I expect Bournemouth will be wishing to build on the previous season’s growth and the increased investment that the club is putting into the women’s team. It will also be interesting to see what happens at Swindon following the appointment of their new management team.
Abingdon United and Torquay United will wish to establish themselves as T4 team’s following successful promotion last season though both are likely to be in a relegation battle first this season.
Obviously, these are just my predictions at the end of a pre-season that has seen teams beat higher-level opposition and then lose to teams that they should beat. As such it could be well wide of the mark or spot on, as such I would love to hear what you all think will happen in the FAWNL this season…. The Heartbeat of Women’s Football….