Last in the league for the past two seasons, Liverpool could complete a remarkable turnaround against Bristol Academy
There was a time when women's football was dominated by one club. Regular as clockwork, for the past nine seasons Arsenal Ladies have won the league each and every year. Many expected 2013 to be no different. But the north London club that have reigned for more than a decade – a team routinely packed with talent and galvanised by a winning mentality (as well as suggesting an often worrying lopsidedness to the sport) – will not be part of the most thrilling final showdown on Sunday afternoon.
Instead Liverpool Ladies, a draw away from winning the FA Women's Super League (FAWSL) title, host Bristol Academy Women, who trail the leaders by two points. The championship is Liverpool's to lose in the game at the Halton Stadium in Widnes, a remarkable thought given that before Matt Beard became manager last summer the Merseyside club had finished bottom of the league two seasons in a row, winning two games in total. Under Beard's stewardship, however, they have executed an impressive turnaround, firing in 44 goals, and prompting his name to appear in the running for the England job following Hope Powell's departure.
The former Chelsea Ladies manager, who used to combine football with a full-time job as an estate agent before Liverpool hired him, chuckles at how the outside world seemingly underestimated his rejuvenated side. "I remember reading Faye White's predictions," he says. "She predicted Arsenal would win it and Liverpool would finish sixth … It's provided that bit of motivation for the players and the staff."
Beard had always publicly stated that the league title was in his plans as a long-term goal but many questioned how long it would take his six foreign signings to bed in and the team to gel. That latter point is important because in women's football foreign players remain a less familiar sight than they do in the men's game and, despite the club being the first in the FAWSL to train full-time, there was much pondering over whether Liverpool could overcome language barriers and enable the talent to bond.
A stream of English lessons, funded by the men's club, put paid to that concern and Natasha Dowie, the league's top scorer who was snubbed by Powell for the summer's Euro 2013 finals, believes it has been the foreign players who have injected confidence into the Liverpool side. "They've got a different mentality and it's quite refreshing really," says the 25-year-old who scored on her return to England duty in the World Cup qualifier against Belarus last Saturday and again on Thursday against Turkey. "The American girls are used to winning, even the Swedish girls and German girls, they're winners, and that's had a good effect on us English players because at international level we're not used to that as much."
Key to that confidence was a fearlessness about Arsenal Ladies. "Definitely a lot of the foreign players, they don't know who these players are [at Arsenal] so it doesn't faze them. A lot of the time you're mentally already beaten when you play against Arsenal because they've won it so many times and they've been the dominant force, but for a lot of these foreign players they're just playing against players they don't even know and they're just playing their game. That's been a positive this season."
Dowie – niece of the former Crystal Palace and Charlton manager, Iain Dowie, and one of two Everton players to switch from blue to red this season – is flourishing at her new club alongside imports such as the USA defender Whitney Engen and 21-year-old Nicole Rolser of Germany, who has put in a series of stunning performances over the second half of the season, as well as impressive domestic talent in Fara Williams and the captain, Gemma Bonner.
Dowie says the team's ambition was there from the start of the season. "The gaffer played it down [publicly] saying he wanted to look at mid-table but we all sat down and discussed how we wanted to win trophies and titles … said where we wanted to finish [and] the biggest one for us is the title. Arsenal have been the dominant force, I can't remember anyone else winning the title for the last 10 years but it's in our hands now and that's a huge achievement."
If Liverpool triumph, Dowie says, it will repay the faith shown in the side by the men's team. The women train at Liverpool's academy, as well as having a stint at Melwood alongside Luis Suárez et al, and have access to Brendan Rodgers for advice (he texted Beard after their last FAWSL game when Liverpool smashed Everton 4-2). With extras such as English lessons for foreign players and a newly created role for a general manager, Angela Roberts, helping to professionalise the setup off the pitch, Liverpool's is a model that may well be copied by others next season – not least by Manchester City, FAWSL debutants.
Arsenal, meanwhile, will miss out on a Champions League spot after the FA deducted them three points for fielding an unregistered player when Katie Chapman came on as a substitute against Liverpool last month. If having to settle for third seems unthinkable, it is perhaps more surprising still that the club's points tally would not have been enough to challenge for the title in any case.
Whoever lifts the trophy on Sunday, the achievement will mark a new era in women's football. All those involved in the sport can only hope it helps pave the way to greater profile, recognition and support for the game.