Southampton’s bid for a place in the women’s Championship has been four years in the making.
In 2018, the club applied to join the second tier by at the same time as Manchester United. The Red Devils’ bid was accepted but the Saints were forced to start in the fifth tier.
Former Arsenal forward Marieanne Spacey-Cale, who won 91 caps for England, has led Southampton since their reformation.
Their maiden season brought promotion and the Saints were sitting top of the league in their previous two campaigns, but both were curtailed due to the Covid-19 pandemic. However, last summer they were awarded promotion to the Southern Division of the Women’s National League as part of the FA’s upward club movement process.
Marieanne Spacey-Cale is hoping to guide Southampton to the women’s Championship
Now, after finally completing a full season, they have the chance to move up to the Championship in Saturday’s league-play off with Northern Division winners Wolves.
‘Credit to all the clubs that have played in the women’s national league this season because this is the first full season they’ve had in three years,’ Spacey-Cale tells Sportsmail.
‘It shows the strength and depth in the women’s national league that clubs have come through the pandemic and both leagues have been tightly contested throughout the season.
Southampton are in the play-off after winning the National League Southern Premier
The Saints also lifted the FA Women’s National League Cup after beating Huddersfield
‘It was disappointing we couldn’t finish the [previous] seasons but the reality is we’d rather not finish the season than be put into an unsafe environment.
‘It was done for all the right reasons because it was very important that people’s health came first. We’ve had the opportunity to come back stronger and come back from the pandemic to be able to be in a position where we are today.’
Southampton and Wolves are well-backed by the men’s teams and have played games at their Premier League grounds. It is a shame, then, that only one team can go up. The Championship and WSL consist of just 12 teams but there is hope the leagues could be expanded in the future.
Spacey-Cale believes there are more teams further down the pyramid who could also stake a claim for a place in the second tier.
Saints are among the women’s team’s to have played matches at the home of the men’s team
‘We’re not the only club in this league that is in a position to go up. There’s Ipswich, Nottingham Forest, Newcastle and Burnley are coming up on the outside track as well.
‘The game is growing and we’ve got to ensure the game grows with the growth of the game. I’m hoping that Saturday, regardless of the result, is a pivotal moment in change in that the quality is there, the resources are there and hopefully it will be a game which will ignite the winds of change.
‘People will see there’s a lot of good quality in the leagues we’re currently in and that other clubs are well resourced and ready to be part of the next step as well.’
Southampton currently train three times a week with games on a Sunday. Most Championship clubs are part-time but a move to professionalism is the ambition for the FA. For Southampton, how quickly they can take the next step depends on the outcome of Saturday’s result.
Former Arsenal forward Spacey-Cale said the match being streamed will help grow the game
‘Every year you’re looking a year ahead. You’re never looking at one season in isolation,’ Spacey-Cale says.
‘This year we’re looking at what it might look like next year and next year we’ll look at what it might look like in the year after. Our strategy is a three-year strategy so we have to make sure we’re ready for what we’re in, what we could be in and what we want to be in.
‘Our average crowd this year has been 730. We know we’ve got phenomenal support and it’s grown over the season. I can only thank our supporters for everything they’ve given the players because there’s been games where we’ve really need them and we hopefully on Saturday will have their backing again.
‘The game at St Mary’s was a phenomenal night. It shows how well we are integrated into the club that it was just a night of football, it wasn’t about it being the women’s team, it was just a night of football.’
In a first for the third-tier of women’s football, the final will be livestreamed on the BBC Sport website.
‘It will open up another audience,’ Spacey says of the coverage. ‘The more audience we get to the women’s game and the more that audience sees the level and depth and growth of the game, the more that can be a catalyst for change.’
A lack of video footage makes scouting opposition teams difficult but Spacey says they have been able to watch a couple of Wolves’ matches.
‘We’ve done our homework. We’ve had the opportunity to watch them. If you do your homework and set up the week and be as consistent as you can, that’s all you can ask.’
Southampton play Wolves on Saturday in a play-off for a place in the Championship