Bristol City are flying high in the Barclays Women’s Championship this season. With six wins from nine games in the league, as well as qualifying for the fourth round in the Vitality Women’s FA Cup, expectations are once again high for the Robins (or Vixens, if you are an old-school fan), who currently sit 2nd in the table & are aiming to return to the Barclays Women’s Super League after a two-year absence.
In my first contribution to Since 71, I have been fortunate enough to have some time with head coach Lauren Smith as the team prepares to return to action following the winter break.
We’ve now reached the second half of the season; having played all teams [in the league] once apart from Lewes & league leaders London City Lionesses. How do you reflect back on the campaign so far? And what is, or still is, the main goal for you come the end of the season?
The reflection on the first half of the season is that we started really well; I’m really pleased with the performances at the start, and that includes pre-season as well, we came out the blocks flying then. We lost our rhythm a little bit in the international breaks and then obviously December with the weather [affecting fixtures], and also with four cup games & one league game in the last four weeks just meant that it didn’t feel the same at the end of the year like it did at the start of the season. The rhythm at the start I was really pleased with, and then the breaks, peaks & troughs meant that we probably felt a little bit frustrated by Christmas.
The next big block of fixtures is going to be huge for us, so the reflection actually goes into what we’re aiming for for the next part of the season and getting that rhythm back – performance-wise, results-wise, how we look & how we play. Being really front foot, scoring goals, creative good & exciting opportunities; if those three things come back into our rhythm, then we should be feeling like we started the season. I want us to start the second half of the season like we started the first.
You mention about the upcoming fixtures, especially in January which will be a very busy month. The team will be facing the top & bottom sides in London City Lionesses & Coventry United respectively; the rescheduled Conti Cup group game away at Lewes; the FA Cup fourth round tie against [National League South side] Oxford United; and even a potential Conti Cup quarter-final at home.
Do you think it’s a concern that there will be more fixtures condensed this month, or are you more looking forward to seeing your players get more game time in quick succession, following the longer winter break [due to the Conti Cup group game against Lewes being postponed back in December]?
A little bit of both, really. We’re working hard to make sure that we’ve got a smooth transition into lots of games. From a coach’s point of view, I always like playing games, I always like seeing the players in games; the more games the better. And hopefully, that just allows us to show off our squad depth. We haven’t needed to have too much rotation with one game a week but when we go into five or six games in a month there, we’re going to have to happily use the whole squad which I think will be really exciting for them, for us and just to see how we look with the whole squad being used. Exciting because we want to see them play, I guess a little bit of nervousness too in that we’re going to get tired by the end of January; it’s going to be tough, but we want to come out of January on a high.
The likes of Ffion Morgan, Vicky Bruce & Chloe Mustaki all missed the FA Cup third round game against Southampton back in December, plus Brooke Aspin has yet to return to action following her illness. Going into these next few fixtures, do you have a full selection of players to pick from again or are some players returning to full fitness?
We’ve still got a couple out with injury; Chloe Mustaki & Brooke are still out. Vicky is looking good, and Ffion is returning from her injury so hopefully in the next few weeks we can build her back in. I think we’re in quite a good place in terms of that; the Christmas break & reload for them has done them really well.
As it is January, the transfer window is indeed now open. Are the club planning on doing any business this month; potential incomings & outgoings; or do you feel that the squad does not need any changes at the moment?
We’re going to look to add one or two players to the squad. We’ve had quite a small squad since the summer; we knew we had the quality in the depth that we had. And as you said with all the fixtures coming up to make sure we’ve got enough depth & quality again to finish the season on a high. We will be looking at bringing in one or two players, and not looking at anyone going out.
January also sees the final month of Richard Gould being the CEO at Bristol City, before he is replaced by Phil Alexander in February. As Richard sits on the City Women board, how much will his contribution to the club be missed when he does depart? Do you have much communication with him in your role?
Firstly, I wish Richard well in what he does next, but he’s been excellent for us on our board since he’s been the CEO. We’ve moved across to the Robins High Performance Centre full-time and we’ve seen a lot of changes in the club structure. He’s been progressive & supportive in us, adding to our staff as well. He’s done a lot to support the women’s team & make sure that we have a “one club” philosophy that we live by every day. He’s been excellent in terms of that, and I look forward to welcoming the new CEO in the same way & see where we can go with him.
I see Richard on a daily basis in & around the offices; he’s always available to have a chat to, he’s met with all the staff every season to see what’s going well & what could be better, so he understands what we need as staff, so he’s been really supportive & I’ve really enjoyed working with him.
As well as reaching the halfway mark of the season, we are also at the halfway mark of your return to the club. You arrived back nearly 18 months ago in the summer of 2021, with your current contract due to last for another 18 months. What significant changes, development & progression have you seen since coming back to Bristol City?
I came back with a hope that I would feel the same way as I did previously when I was working with the youth age group. Seeing just how special the club is; working with young players & seeing progression, giving opportunities; that’s definitely come to life, I’ve loved doing it since the day I stepped back in, but it’s to a whole new realm though. Being here at the Robins High Performance Centre, you’re able to support players & know you can fully commit to their development. Like Tianna [Teisar] coming out of the academy into the first team squad, or Abi Harrison winning the golden boot last year, you know that you can support the players & that’s what really excites me & Bristol City is absolutely the club that allows me to do that & enjoy what I do. That’s one of the huge steps we’ve made coming here full-time.
The second one I think that was really important was the appointment of a full-time youth programme manager. James Thomas runs our youth development programme & oversees all the respective staff & makes sure that we are producing players available for the first team. That being one role in itself rather than many roles is a huge step in the right direction, and James has been excellent in his role & really enjoyable to work with.
The last one is how the game has grown, and you look at the attendances over the last year when we’re playing at home at the Robins High Performance Centre. Regularly getting a good few hundred supporters now just shows how we’ve grown as a club, how women’s football has grown, and how much I enjoy being a part of all of those things.
Many thanks to Lauren Smith for taking time out of her schedule to do this interview, and special thanks to Noah Dougherty from Bristol City’s media team for arranging & setting up the interview.