25 November ~ The week Arsenal Ladies clinched the inaugural Women's Super League title in August, Southampton Saints – one of the founding members of the Women's Premier League in 1991 – were having to contend with problems more associated with football's lower reaches. Their pre-season away win at Oxford City LFC was overshadowed when players found their valuables had been stolen from the dressing room. In 1999, nearly 6,500 spectators saw them lose the FA Cup final to Arsenal at the Valley. Since then the club have fallen down the divisions. Last Sunday afternoon, 27 people watched their Hampshire Cup tie away to the University of Portsmouth.
One away fan tried to give directions to the university campus on his mobile: "No, you need to turn left at... oh, the other team have just scored". A team from Portsmouth taking the lead at home against 11 red and white replica Southampton shirts would normally be the green light for a riot. Instead, polite applause was supplemented by the noise of a wooden rattle one woman was using to try and raise Southampton Saints' spirits. It seemed to do the trick. They equalised soon after.
Their replica kit gives some the impression they are – like many women's football clubs – financially backed by their male counterparts. They are not. The kit was supplied by their sponsor, DP World. Southampton severed all ties with the city's ladies team after relegation from the Women's Premier League in 2005. The Southampton managing director, Andrew Cowen, reflected that they had to cut their cloth accordingly in the Championship. The club had already disrupted the running of the women's side by replacing long-term manager, Vanessa Raynbird, with their own appointment in 2001.
Southampton Saints held the record for FA Cup final wins as recently as 2008, at which time they were as far away from the top level as they have ever been. It wasn't until current manager Adam Lee led them to an unbeaten Southern Region title in 2010 that they climbed back to the South West Combination – the fourth tier of the game. Both Lee and coach Martyn Barnett gave plenty of vocal support to their team from the dug-out, and a win looked likely when Hannah Chalk cut in from the left. Unfortunately, she hit the post and her side later lost the tie in near darkness on a penalty shoot-out.
After the game, I asked Barnett about the club's aims for the future. I mentioned their crop of Under-14 players who won the national championships at Pride Park, but my assumption that they could quickly climb the leagues was put into perspective. “We lose players to America,” he explained. “Girls can get scholarships over there and aim to turn professional”.
Two Southampton players are currently at college in Kansas City. The club also faces competition for players from local rivals Portsmouth (now managed by Raynbird) and Brighton, who play a division above. The club are working to further develop their players and consolidate on last season's mid-table finish. Shortcuts to success in women's football are few and far between. Mark Sanderson