If there are two words that would sum up Sheffield FC Ladies’ first season in the Women’s Super League 2, they are these: learning curve.
Whilst it’s a turn of phrase that is often used rather euphemistically in sport to put a positive spin on failure, in the case of Sheffield FC it is an accurate description of what has been an undeniably successful season.
In the early stages, watching the World’s First football club was at times a struggle. Goals were hard to come by, and on occasion completed passes were too. By the end, the team was unrecognisable and their meteoric rise up the league in the mid-stages of the season demonstrated quite how quickly that learning curve was climbed.
Manager Mick Mulhern left the club by mutual consent after just one competitive game in March, before the WSL2 season began, and it took new boss Zoe Johnson time to stamp her mark upon the side.
Sheffield FC came into the season off the back of almost a year out after their Women’s Premier League promotion season finished the previous spring, and they came into the new season lacking match sharpness and with the sense of complacency that comes with three consecutive WPL titles.
This complacency was swiftly dismissed as they didn’t score an intentional goal in any of their first five fixtures, but as new signings were added and existing players moulded, the team found their feet.
A 3-1 cup victory over Durham was followed by a stunning victory over promotion favourites Bristol City two weeks later for the first win of Sheffield FC’s WSL era.
Zoe Johnson must take a lot of the credit for this – finding more effective roles for well-established players. Jodie Michalska – top scorer in the WPL for six of seven previous seasons – was moved from striker to midfielder, and dangerous winger Ellie Gilliatt moved back to the left back position from which she could bomb forward with devastation.
For many teams, the constant breaks of two weeks or more between matches would have been a hindrance, but for Sheffield FC it appeared to be a blessing as used the time to continue their adaptation to the higher level.
The mid-season wins gave the team confidence, and the sense of inflation that a run of league victories gave was only punctured by a disappointing WSL Cup quarter-final defeat to London Bees – the first time that either side had made it to that stage of the competition.
A fifth place finish has to be an achievement for a side full of players that had never experienced WSL football before, and would have been more than the club asked for at the start of the season.