City's entry into the top flight by signing five internationals raises the stakes as the Women's Super League expands
Chelsea Ladies have signalled their intention to keep pace with an exciting arms race in the Women's Super League by completing the signing of two England internationals, Katie Chapman and Gilly Flaherty.
The midfielder Chapman has won 82 caps for her country while the 22-year-old defender Flaherty has been capped at youth level and has been called up by the England manager, Mark Sampson, for next month's training camp in La Manga.
Both players have joined Chelsea from Arsenal, where they won a host of honours and previously worked with Emma Hayes, who was assistant at the north London club before being appointed Chelsea manager in 2012. Their arrival follows the recent captures by Chelsea of Laura Bassett and Rachel Williams from Birmingham Ladies.
"Emma is looking to build a team and they're moving in the right direction," says Chapman, whose triumphs at Arsenal include six league titles. "We've made some good signings this season and strengthened the squad. Obviously we've come from a winning team and we are winners ourselves so we're aiming to come here and prove ourselves as players and make the club stronger."
"Katie is the best at what she does in this country and I am sure any manager would say the same," said Hayes. "Her experience and winning mentality is what sets her apart and she is a fabulous role model too. Gilly is the best uncapped player in the country. She will become a bedrock for club and country as she has all the hallmarks of a top-class player."
Chelsea finished second from bottom of the league last season but are determined to challenge at the top end when the new season kicks off in April with a fresh structure, as an eight-team league is expanded to include 18 sides spread over two tiers and featuring promotion and relegation. The stakes have been raised higher by Manchester City, who will compete in the top flight for the first time this season and have declared their ambition to make an immediate impact by signing four England internationals in recent months as well as the New Zealand midfielder Betsy Hassett.
That investment exceeds the increased commitment shown to the women's game last season by Liverpool, who transformed themselves into champions after two successive bottom-place finishes. That was the first time in nine years that Arsenal did not win the league.
"There's been a lot of movement in the women's game to strengthen different teams," says Chapman. "Hopefully that will make it more competitive and there will be more teams in the running for the league, which is a good sign in itself."
This season's expansion of the league is part of the Football Association's plan to improve the women's game and spread its appeal. It represents the latest evolutionary stage of the semi-professional WSL, which was introduced in 2011 with fixtures running through the summer rather than the winter in a bid to attract bigger crowds, a move that has met with success so far as average attendances across the league exceeded 500 for the first time last season.
The introduction of Manchester City this term is expected to raise the interest and standard still further. But Chapman, while welcoming City's participation, reckons the Manchester club should not be considered as favourites and Chelsea's greater experience will count. "They're obviously new to the league so it's a whole new ball game for them," says Chapman of City. "They've got to come in and stamp their authority and see what the league is like, whereas Chelsea have been there and know the league and have strengthened the squad for this season and are aiming high … I think we stand in good stead and Chelsea are going to be the ones to watch."