Sheffield United Women can defy odds to reach Women’s Super League - Sue Smith
When the Blades kick off their Championship campaign at Blackburn Rovers tomorrow, most eyes in the division will be on Liverpool as favourites for promotion but Neil Redfearn’s side showed last season they can compete with the full-time clubs.
It will be a competitive division this season and I cannot see a runaway leader.
Having been both a semi-pro and a full-time professional in my playing career, I know what a big advantage the second is, and I would love to see the Bramall Lane hierarchy fully commit to women’s football and give the girls the backing to compete on more equal terms with the growing number of full-time clubs in the second tier.
Even without that, and after the departures of three big players, they have lots of reason for optimism.
They have lost their captain, Leandra Little, her centre-back partner Naomi Hartley, and goalscorer Katie Wilkinson. Leandra has retired but the departures of Naomi and Katie show the difficulties of part-time football. Both joined Coventry City to play full-time.
Fortunately, they recruited two former team-mates of mine as high-quality replacements in Sophie Bradley-Auckland and Leeds-born Jess Clarke, a fresh start for both after time out of the game.
That is the other side of being part-time – you can sign players like Sophie to take Leandra’s leadership role on and off the field.
Sophie is good enough to play WSL but loves her job managing a care home too much to give it up. Sometimes with semi-pros it does not make financial sense to give up the day job.
Her team-mate Courtney Sweetman-Kirk also has the potential to go higher but playing for the Blades fits well around her growing media career.
More foreign players in the WSL means more top English players coming down to raise standards in the Championship.
Jess has because she needs to get playing again after the injuries she suffered at Liverpool. Sophie stopped playing during lockdown because it was just too big a risk to the residents she treats as family.
I have written before in this column how a good manager can be more valuable than a star player, and Neil was undoubtedly a big factor in attracting Sophie and Jess. He looks for players who are good fits off the field.
Leicester City won promotion last season, but Sheffield United and Durham pushed them and Liverpool hard at one point, so it shows what part-time teams can do but there is no doubt the extra hours the full-timers spend on the grass are a big advantage.
I understand why Naomi and Katie left having been a semi-pro in the England set-up, trying to juggle training and work while others rest in the afternoons or do extra fitness work. I did that when I was technically semi-pro at Leeds United but the extra money from my England contract allowed me to just do occasional coaching to top up my wages and work hard on my fitness with Yorkshire County Cricket Club’s Tom Summers, or train with the boys teams.
Lincoln City was very much a professional environment, and we felt the benefit.
Trying to keep up with that when you only train three times a week is tough but the prize of promotion to the WSL is huge because the new television deal should take it to another level.
I was at Everton’s media day this week and the girls were loving the full Sky treatment as they posed for photos. I will be involved in the first WSL Super Sunday next weekend and it will feature on Soccer Saturday and Soccer AM. The other day I drove past a billboard with Fran Kirby alongside Edinson Cavani!
If it makes ex-players like me gutted we are too old to play in it, you can bet the youngsters are desperate to be part of it.
Sheffield United have a team capable of getting there. I really hope they do.