Southampton FC Women play arguably the biggest match in their history on Saturday as they take on Wolves with a place in the FA Women's Championship at stake. Manager Marieanne Spacey-Cale sat down to discuss the season and what to expect from the play-off fixture.
After topping the FA Women's National League Southern Premier, Saints booked their place in the play-off to ascend to the FA Women's Championship.
Northern rivals Wolves are the side that stand in their way, having won their own division convincingly to reach the final. Like Saints, they have recorded only one league loss this season and most recently bested West Brom 4-1 to win the Birmingham FA County Cup.
However, after seeing her side secure the league and cup double this season, Marieanne Spacey-Cale has plenty of reasons to be positive ahead of the clash.
Commenting on the season, Spacey-Cale said: "It’s been exciting. The girls and the staff have worked really hard to get to the position that we’re in, so it’s been very driven and motivating to be around the group of people that we’ve got. It’s been, hopefully, inspiring for our supporters and young girls who want to play football and it’s been fascinating watching our supporter base just grow and grow.
"It was probably a nice start to the league campaign but without having the understanding of what it’s really like. Once you started to play the likes of Ipswich, Oxford, Bridgwater, Crawley and MK Dons - they were the teams who had been in there for a number of years and had always been challenging. So, we had a nice start to the season but that gave us a chance to bed our players and new signings in.
"I think as the season grew, it certainly met expectations about what it was going to be like if we wanted to be at the top of that division and claim that top spot, because nothing was given."
Despite the incredibly strong season recorded by the side, Spacey-Cale's Saints did record some less favourable results along the way, with one notable example coming against potential promotion rivals, as she revealed:
"People talk about turning points in seasons, and I think losing to Ipswich at home was our turning point. After that game on the Tuesday we sat down and had a meeting, and the players were very honest, the staff were very honest - it was a bit mad that this was just after one game that we were having this meeting but it was what was needed, and I think from that moment, we were unbeaten in the league.
"When you reflect on that now and say that we were unbeaten in the league since October, you think ‘wow’ that was a big turning point. I think what happened for us was that the expectation suddenly sat a little lighter on our shoulders for the players because we might lose more games but we have to control what we can control."
Looking ahead to Saturday's game against Wolves, the Saints manager made it clear that they would take nothing for granted against another table-topping side, as she reflected:
"They’re a very good team. They won their division, and were quite dominant. They’ve got some really experienced and good quality players and they’ve obviously got that emotional tag of the fact that their coach isn’t going to be there - he’s away.
"They’ve had such a strong season and you’ve got to totally respect them. You’ve got to respect the players they’ve got, the management staff they’ve got and the season they’ve had."
The Women's team faced another Northern side in Huddersfield Town earlier this month, as they lifted the FA Women's National League Cup, winning 3-0. It was an occasion that has helped in the preparation for Saturday, as Spacey-Cale notes:
"It wasn’t just the fact it was a Northern team, it's that one-off game - it’s a cup final - and that’s what we’re going into on the 21st. We’ve had that experience, but Wolves played in a county cup final this week so they, again, have had that one off experience."
playing huddersfield was really good; it's hard in one game to get a measure of what the level is, but you know that it's going to be competitive and you know it's going to be quite physical.
With plenty of Saints fans making the trip up to Stockport County at the weekend, Spacey-Cale was also quick to point out the positive impact that the supporters have had on her side:
"If there's one big message, it'll be how many fans have travelled to come and watch you perform in this game. That's got to be a part of the message, definitely.
"They've been magnificent and we keep talking about them being the twelfth player on the pitch - the decibels have just gone up and up over the course of the season. There's this last push for them on the 21st - to be loud, be rowdy and be the twelfth player on the pitch for us."