A dramatic final day of the WSL season awaits with all eyes focused on the action at both ends of the table. Describing relegation battles as a “great escape” seems cliched but it is an accurate representation in these circumstances – for whoever survives between Leicester and Reading, the achievement will be remarkable. The stakes could not be higher – Leicester travel to Brighton having to match Reading’s result; Reading must beat Chelsea and hope the Foxes falter.
That Leicester are in a position to stay up is one of the stories of this season. They looked down and out by the winter break, seven points adrift after seven defeats and a managerial shake-up. “We want to be history makers,” their manager, Willie Kirk, said on Thursday. “No team has ever turned around a seven-point deficit at the bottom in WSL history. We want to be the first to do that.”
Significant backing from the owners – from the provision of top-class facilities to player recruitment – has added to the pressure. Relegation would symbolise a huge step back in the direction of a club striving to establish its status in women’s football.
Fortunes have changed dramatically in recent months. Kirk’s arrival, after the dismissal of Lydia Bedford, has turned things around. Confidence has seeped through a squad playing a developing brand of possession-based football. They have also been boosted by strong recruitment in January, bringing in the quality of players such as Janina Leitzig and Courtney Nevin.
Last weekend’s home defeat by an out-of-form West Ham presented a missed opportunity. A win would have ensured safety. “We had got to a stage where we were proving everybody wrong,” Kirk says. “It had almost flipped on its head and last week we were almost scared to let people down.” How the players handle that pressure on Saturday will be key.
It was a result that handed Reading an almost unimaginable lifeline. Kelly Chambers’ side had been down and out after defeat by Tottenham 24 hours earlier, players and manager standing on the pitch at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium in almost weary acceptance that an eight-year tenure in the top flight was coming to an end.
There is no denying that it has been a troubled season for Reading. One too many injuries, one too many comebacks required, one too many poor refereeing decisions – this has been the story of their campaign. Losing Deanne Rose to a ruptured achilles in the first game was a body blow. The electric Canadian forward was the focus of their attack, leaving a hole they have been unable to fill.
The hallmarks of a Chambers’ team are their resilience and tenacity. Many consider them to be one of the best-coached clubs in the league, indicated perhaps by the calibre of players involved over the years: Fran Kirby came through their ranks; Fara Williams closed out her illustrious career there; the Wales centurion Helen Ward spent four seasons with the club. But without the resources to match, it has been a struggle. “You can look at other teams and even those in the relegation battle with us [and see] what their player budget is and what they were given in addition in January to make sure they did stay up or try to stay up,” Chambers says. “We just don’t have that.” Reading’s financial issues are well known and the worry if they go down is whether they will be able to recover.
The challenge ahead could not be much bigger – heavyweights Chelsea stand in their way, vying for their fourth consecutive WSL title. It will require a monumental effort but in a strange sense would be trademark Reading, the tenacious underdogs who just never give in. “You have to [believe],” Chambers says. “I think if you just give up now or you don’t believe then what’s the point in stepping out there on Saturday? There’s obviously still a glimmer of hope there for us and like I said we just have to give everything we can on the day to do what we can.”
In a sport where almost anything can happen, this season’s relegation battle has been eye-catching. For the club that survives, it will surely go down as one of the most remarkable comebacks in the league’s history; and for the one that doesn’t, there has to be the hope that the backing remains to aid their recovery.