Sheffield United Women: Ambitious Blades aware of the need to walk before they can run

For nearly two decades, Sheffield United have done a good job of churning out talented female footballers for other people – now they want a piece of the action themselves.

Three years ago the Blades joined English football’s second tier, and after a 100 per cent September earned Neil Redfearn the Championship manager of the month award, today’s match against Liverpool features two teams with genuine aspirations to play in the Women’s Super League (WSL).

The Blades feel they have something worth showing off, which is why it is at Bramall Lane and tickets are only £1 as they try to break their modest attendance record of 1,521.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

“The feeling in the camp is probably the most positive it’s ever been,” says general manager Zoe Johnson.

Sheffield United Women general manager Zoe Johnson believes having players such as Jess Clarke on board will only help attract players to the game. Picture: Lewis Storey/FA/Getty Images

“We’re trying to capitalise on the fact it’s the men’s international window and attract people who might not have had the opportunity to watch us and bring the children down because going to two games in a weekend might not be what they want to do.

“It is all about that exposure and the cost element goes out the window. We want to entice people, show them what we’re about and hopefully they’ll come back and watch us at our home ground at Chesterfield FC. Hopefully we can pick up some season-long fans.”

In 2002 Sheffield United Community Girls and Ladies was set up to develop players but now the aim is to give those following Ellie Roebuck, Millie Bright and Beth England a platform in the senior game.

“In the past we invested a lot of money in our academy, saw players get to 16 years-old and we had to help them find a higher-positioned club but over the past two or three seasons we’ve started to bring these players into our first team,” explains Johnson. “In the past we didn’t have a team even in the Championship so there wasn’t that option.

Sheffield United Women's general manager Zoe Johnson Picture: Lynne Cameron/The FA/Getty Images

“Now we’ve got young Lionesses in the under-17s and under-19 squads and they can get the game-time in a first-team environment. Hopefully, we can get to the next stage and they can continue their careers with us but if not, we can move them on to a WSL team.”

The Blades might be above third-placed Liverpool on goal difference in the very early league table but are not fighting on an equal footing. They remain part-timers in a division where an increasing number of teams are, like Liverpool, fully professional.

But Johnson says today is proof the women’s team is neither a box-ticking exercise, nor a burden for a club which no longer has Premier League money to tap into.

“Having a game at Bramall Lane just shows the intent from the football club, how much they do back women’s football and want to back it in the future,” she argues.

Sheffield United manager Neil Redfearn watches his team warm up ahead of their FA Cup 5th Round match againstTottenham Hotspur in May. Picture: Catherine Ivill/Getty Images

“The amount of effort from every single department of the football club for this game has been massive so if we can get that record crowd, it will be a proud moment for everyone involved. They’ve prioritised the women’s team this week and everything they would do for a men’s game they’re doing.

“When the club went into the Premier League we were still backed to the exact same level, the club’s ambition was the same.

“We’re on a five-year plan progressing each season, building the foundations. It didn’t impact funding when we went down either. Naturally, we all want the club to be in the Premier League but it didn’t affect things one way or another for us.

“I’ve been involved in the women’s game for many years and the Championship’s just grown each season. The competition has got tougher and tougher, never mind that each year a few more teams go full-time with a lot more investment from these clubs.

CLASS ACT: Sheffield United Women's Sophie Bradley-Auckland Picture: George Wood/The FA/Getty Images

“There will come a point where the top two leagues have to be full-time. We’ve got plans and the ambition is to be full-time but right now we’ve got to work with what we’ve got.

“Turning full-time gives you a better chance but we believe in our model, we believe we’ve got some of the best coaches we can possibly have. Neil’s a fantastic manager whose experience speaks for itself. We’ve got to learn to walk before we can run and we’re still building things properly because if we do get promotion we don’t want to be there to make up the numbers.

“We’ve got a lot of good players and we’re hopeful we’ll be able to win promotion this season. It would be a massive credit to the club if we could but it’s going to be a very hard task.”

For all the talk about future development, today is also about the present.

This season has seen experienced players who can teach the youngsters added to make up for the big loss in the summer of the retired Leandra Little. It gives Johnson hope her team can compete with Liverpool not just today but throughout the season.

“Liverpool Football Club is one of the biggest football clubs in the world and have a history of being one of the best women’s teams in the country,” she points out. “They’re doing everything they can off the field to get back to what they used to be.

“They’re a full-time team and their budget will be a lot superior to ours but, ultimately, it’s what we do on the day. We’re not going into the game thinking it’s going to be a walk in the park because (Liverpool’s) Matt Beard is a superb manager with a superb track record but we think we’re capable of doing something if we are at our very best.

“We’re a quick, direct team and we’re really utilising that. We’ve also got some good experienced players, some who have been England players at junior and senior level like our captain Sophie Bradley-Auckland and Jess Clarke, plus our younger Lionesses, some of whom have come right through the ranks.

“Neil and I sat down very early last season looking at what we needed to do recruitment-wise because he didn’t really have a pre-season last year so we knew we had to get things set early and we wanted to build around experience because we knew what talent we had coming through.

“Last season we lost to some of the top teams by very fine margins and that’s probably been the story of our last two to three seasons. Hopefully that experience will get us through those games.

“But Neil’s very keen to bring young players through. It’s what he’s done in the men’s game too. We’ve got some young up-and-coming talent I’m sure will go to the very top of the women’s game and people can be the first to come out and see them.”