WSL Preview: Birmingham City

Club History

Birmingham City remain, alongside Arsenal and Chelsea, one of three initial clubs to never gotten relegated from the top flight of football created in 2011. Having been part of the FA Women’s Super League since its inception, the club have an early history of success.  They finished their first two seasons as WSL runners-up, won the FA Women’s Cup in 2012 and were runners up in 2017, and were twice runners-up for the FA Women’s League Cup in 2011 and 2012.

However, it could be argued that Birmingham City have not adjusted well to the 2018-19 WSL transition to a full-time professional league.  While their first season ended with a fourth place finish, the next two were a struggle against relegation.  Having lost a number of top players ahead of their 2019-20 campaign, the Blues narrowly escaped relegation in the curtailed season finishing just one point ahead of last placed Liverpool FC. 

Last Season

11th –  3 wins, 6 draws, 13 defeats, 14 points.

When head coach Carla Ward took over ahead of the 2020-21 season, only eight players remained in the senior squad.  With the then smallest budget of any WSL team, last season saw the Blues struggle in part due to their roster size.  They had several matches where only two to three substitutes were available and even ended up losing three points to Tottenham when the FA awarded their opponent a win because Birmingham could not field a team for their January WSL fixture.  The club also received a one point deduction for another match due to the fielding of an ineligible player.  

The real low point for Birmingham City Women last season, and arguably in the club’s history, was when their first team unanimously sent the club’s board a letter last April highlighting the women’s team’s grievances with a number of issues.  These included a lack of adequate facilities, issues with training conditions including their training pitch, issues with medical support including certain delays over treatments, issues with away game travel provisions and issues with pay including some late payments of match fees and certain players earning less than minimum wage. 

Players highlighted in the letter that: “The grievances laid out thus far have created a significantly unfavourable work environment. This prevents us from performing our jobs to the best of our ability.  It has been significantly detrimental to the mental health of members of the women’s team.” 

The FA also needed to intervene last February and provide St George’s Park as a home ground for the Blues’ women’s team after their home stadium of Dawson Park had only been able to accommodate one game since November due to the constant inadequate pitch conditions.

Despite all of the adversities faced by the team, Birmingham City were able to remain united as a playing squad and for the second season in a row they narrowly escaped relegation.  

The team finishing in 11th position in the league with fourteen points, two points ahead of relegated Bristol City.  They managed only three wins in their season, against bottom ranked teams Aston Villa and Bristol, as well as mid table Reading. Their worst defeat was a 6-0 drubbing to Chelsea.

Off Season Changes

Following the turbulence of last season, one which outgoing manager Carla Ward described as “not sustainable mentally or physically”, the club have made a number of changes to increase player welfare.  

They have bolstered their back room staff through the hiring of additional medical, sports rehabilitation and player performance personnel.  The club train at the men’s training ground and have announced that all home games would now be played at St Andrews, the same stadium as the men. 

Lucy Quinn, who rejoined the club after two years with Tottenham Hotspurs, stated that a lot of improvements have occurred since her return to the Blues that have been very promising and that she has full faith in the club going forward.

The Manager

Head Coach Carla Ward as well as most of her training staff departed Birmingham City at the end of last season.  To replace her Birmingham have brought in Scott Booth as their new head coach.  After a successful playing career which included spells at Borussia Dortmund, Twente and Aberdeen, the former Scottish international began a career in commentating and coaching.

His first and only coaching venture into women’s football was his previous position as head coach of Glasgow City.  While with the perennial Scottish Women’s Premier League winners, Booth won the league five times.  Under his tenure Glasgow also won the Scottish Women’s Cup twice and competed in the Champions League every season.  Their best finish was in 2019-20 campaign when they were the only team in a semi-professional league to reach the quarter-finals of the UWCL.  

Booth arrives at Birmingham from a club where he has shown continued success, but also where he has had to face the challenges of more professionalized and difficult teams in Champions League competition.  This experience should help him adapt to a competitive WSL.  Blues striker Lucy Quinn stated that Booth’s expertise and the knowledge on how to balance depending on who you play will be good to draw on to build forward momentum as a club.

Despite the SPWL’s semi-professional status and the fact that Glasgow City are not associated with a men’s side, Booth was able to recruit a quality side filled with a number of foreign internationals.  Lucy Quinn stated her excitement when hearing of Booth’s switch to the WSL side prior to rejoining the Blues.  His recruitment during the offseason has show an ability to get needed seasoned veterans and a number of younger prospects, despite the previous season’s well publicized problems and the smaller budget.

The club also promoted Tony Elliott to the role of assistant head coach and recruited Daniel Matraszek to replace Elliott as goalkeeping coach. 

Squad Changes

Like last season, the Birmingham City squad saw a large turnover in the off season.  The following eleven players, including all goalkeepers, left the team:  Hannah Hampton (G), Sophie Whitehouse (G), Imogen Maguire (G), Sarah Mayling (D), Mollie Green (M), Connie Scofield (M), Heidi Logan (M), Emma Kelly (F/M), Abbie Grant (M/F),  Constance Scofield (M/F), Claudia Walker (F).   It should be noted that all but Logan, Green, Kelly and Maguire were offered a new contract and chose not to renew.

Four loaned players departed: Georgia Brougham (loan from Everton),  Jamie-Lee Napier (loan from Chelsea), Ruby Mace (loan from Arsenal) and Emily Murphy (loan from Chelsea).  Brougham was offered a permanent deal with the club after her Everton contract expired but turned it down.  

To compensate for these departures the Blues have signed eleven new players: Goalkeeper Marie Hourihan, defenders Louise Quinn, Arabella Suttie and Cecilie Sandvej, midfielders Jamie Finn and Lucy Quinn and attackers Eleanor Ryan-Doyle, Emily Whelan, Jade Pennock, Sarah Ewens and Libby Smith.  They also signed two academy players Gemma Lawley and Lily Simkin, a defender and midfielder respectively.  Finally they have acquired two players on season long loans, goalkeeper Emily Ramsey from Manchester United and attacker Lisa Robertson on from Celtic.

Pre-Season

Birmingham City had four pre-season games to prepare.  The only result that was made public was their friendly against Liverpool which ended 0-0. 

Describing the preseason, new captain Louise Quinn described the games played so far as “massive learning curves” providing opportunities from which the relatively restructured squad can learn and get the best out of each other. 

Upcoming Season

The  acquisition of new club captain Louise Quinn and Cecilie Sandvej will be positive for the team as both are seasoned defenders with a wide range of both domestic and international experience. The Blues’ back line is arguably their strongest line with four of their five listed defenders having several years of top-flight professional experience.

The retainment of Lucy Whipp and the return of Lucy Quinn after two years at Spurs will add needed attacking experience, especially in the beginning of the season with Christie Murray currently out injured.  While Birmingham have brought in a lot of potential with some of their midfield and forward signings, Jade Pennock and Lisa Evans being of note, their two front lines is light on seasoned players who have proven that they can compete consistently at the level of the FA WSL. 

Tough questions do remain.  The team struggled to field a team last year due to a lack of players.  They enter this season with a similar sized squad.  While a number of their players are capable of filling in in more than one position, should injuries strike again they could struggle later on in the season.  

Several positions do remain understaffed.  At present they only have two goalkeepers listed, one of which Emily Ramsey is on loan from Manchester United.  If their other keeper Marie Hourihan gets injured, one has to wonder who they will have available to face the Red Devils.  

Perhaps the most worrying part of their team is their lack of quality strikers.  Walker provided more than a third of all goals last year, for a team that scored very little.  Arguably no better replacement, proven at the top flight level, has been brought in to increase their capability to score goals.  

Other Competitions

FA Cup 2020-21 – Birmingham have made it to the Quarter-Finals of last year’s FA Women’s Cup, whose competition was originally delayed due to COVID. They will face Chelsea FC on September 29, 2021.  

FA Cup 2021-22 – Birmingham will once again enter the 2021/22 competition at the fourth round stage, along with all other WSL and FA Women’s Championship clubs.

FA League Cup 2021-22 – Birmingham are in Group E of the League Cup and will be facing Brighton & Hove Albion, the London City Lionesses and West Ham United.  The group stage takes place from October 13 to December 16, 2021.

Opening FA WSL Fixtures

September 5, 2021 – Away versus Tottenham Hotspurs

September 12, 2021- Home versus Brighton & Hove Albion

September 25, 2021 – Away versus Everton

Expectations

For Birmingham to succeed they will need a season with little injuries in their squad, a season where the team learns to work together quickly and a season where they find diverse sources of goals.  The arrival of their new coach Booth is promising as he has a proven history of both success and positive player management.  However, he will need to ensure that newly arrived WSL talent adjust and meet the demands of the league early on.  

All this will be a tough ask for a once again newly rebuilt squad still learning how to play together.  This could be another relegation battle year for the Blues.

Photo: @BCFCwomen