Manchester City Women always believed they would turn their awful start to the season around, but the manner of their improvement has seen them silence the doubters, climb back up the Women’s Super League table, and reach a Continental Cup final against Chelsea this weekend.
“It’s a real testament to us and how we’ve stuck to our principles and worked our way out of a storm,” Gareth Taylor declared ahead of City’s cup final against tormentors Chelsea.
“The storm was massive injuries. We’re still not completely out of the woods, still missing a few key players but things have been really healthy in the last couple of months in terms of the way we play, we’ve applied ourselves and the performances we’ve put in.”
ALSO READ: Man City boss questions ‘strange’ Continental Cup final venue choice for Chelsea Women fixture
At one point, City had dropped 14 points from their first seven WSL games, as well as crashing out of the Champions League before the group stage. Taylor was under pressure for his job, while City’s title challenge was over before it began.
The injuries Taylor refers to were a key factor in the calamitous start, although the players who stepped in hardly showed they were good enough to be first choice when the injured contingent returned, with a low side in confidence struggling to do the basics right.
After 13 players returned late after playing at the Olympics over the summer, City were without a different combination of 14 players at the worst points of the season. Key players Ellie Roebuck, Steph Houghton, Lucy Bronze and Chloe Kelly had long-term absences while, stand-in right-back Esme Morgan suffered a horror injury early on and remains out.
Forwards Georgia Stanway and Janine Beckie were among those to deputize at right-back, while second-choice goalkeeper Karen Bardsley was also out prompting third-choice Karima Taieb to stand in for a period – with Stanway even named as designated back-up keeper at the worst of the injury crisis. Taieb was unfortunately responsible for a number of poor City goals conceded as they suffered two heavy defeats to Chelsea and a cup derby loss at Manchester United, to leave Taylor’s side with five wins and seven losses from their first 14 games of the season.
Since then, however, Roebuck and Bronze have returned to the starting lineup, although influential Captain Houghton’s return was cut short by a new long-term injury, and City have put together a run of one defeat in 12 since that United defeat. They could still finish third in the WSL to qualify for the Champions League, while Saturday’s final represents a chance to win a trophy to show for a season where everything seems to have gone against them.
“We’ve always stuck to what we always do and that will never change,” said experienced defender Alex Greenwood, who has been partnered by many stand-in centre-backs this season during City’s worst injury problems.
“Obviously having players back has helped massively. And confidence, one win leads to two and two leads to three and that grows confidence massively in the team. Everyone’s really enjoying their football, we go out and play with a lot of freedom and express ourselves and that’s shown in our performances.”
Captain Houghton, praised by Taylor for her off-field influence despite the injury setbacks, told her teammates to use the final cup as a springboard for the final months of the season.
She said: “When we play to our best, there’s no better team in this league. When we’re on the top of our game, we have lots of energy, we’re aggressive and of course, this is a trophy we want to win – it’s one that means a lot to this club and that’s why players come here: to win silverware.
“This is our first opportunity this season to be successful and if we do all of those things, hopefully the trophy will be coming back to Manchester – and we deserve to lift a trophy.
“We had a difficult start to the season with the number of injuries we had but we all rose to the challenge. There were good and bad moments but I’m so proud of the way we reacted, pulling together as players and staff.
“There was so much outside noise as well and that could have affected us but we didn’t let it – we were really professional and stayed focused on ourselves. That gives me even more motivation to prove to everybody that we can have a successful season, then get even better and then go on to lift more trophies.”
Taylor stressed the importance of winning a trophy in this season as much as any other, gave more insight into the changes City have experienced behind the scenes over the last 12 games. With just one defeat in that time, City arrive at the cup final in far better form than those two thrashings by Chelsea in November.
“It’s obvious there’s no secret that getting players and having a healthier squad to select from helps us,” he explained, saying a positive mindset and backs-against-the-wall mentality got the club through the worst of their issues before Christmas.
“The main one was sticking to our principles, our beliefs. Making sure we really got our ‘Plan A’ spot on. Sometimes it was difficult to achieve that with the lack of support the squad had in terms of able bodies fit enough to execute It was not panicking, that was a big one.
“We appreciated and had perspective on what we did really well – sometimes in a game we were a bit unfortunate in our performances. Things didn’t go our way, we had referee decisions go against us. There were plenty of excuses that we could have made but we looked internally, focussed on the positives.
“Full credit to the players, it’s the players who go out and perform and play how I ask them. More recently we’ve done really well, but we still want to improve and do more.”
Versatile Stanway, who told Sky she would prefer not to be labeled as a utility player despite her many roles this season, said City are finally showing their true selves.
She said: “We set out at the start of the season, we had goals and things we wanted to achieve and we hit the first hurdle within the first few weeks. It’s about riding it out and that’s what we’ve done, you can see since December and January what we’re capable of.”
Reflecting further on those hurdles, Taylor admitted that he felt criticism of his team and his management was unfairly directed earlier in the season, adding that victory in the final would be a statement of intent for his side ahead of the WSL run-in.
After those 3-0 and 4-0 defeats to Chelsea in quick succession – one in the delayed 2021 FA Cup and the other in the league – City were far better against Emma Hayes’ side recently when they fell to an unfortunate 1-0 defeat in the capital, but are still to score against this weekend’s opponents in three meetings this season.
However, Taylor says the previous meetings don’t bear much relevance to Saturday’s final showdown, and instead chose to focus on his own side in their never-ending search to win silverware in every competition.
“Winning games creates confidence,” he said.
“Putting together a run of performances that turns into three points or progression in a tournament always helps. It really reinforces the belief in the players and gives confidence.
“We understand that many players… need confidence. We supported them in the right way within the individuals and as a team. We’re great with it, we stood up to the criticism they were taking at the time, that I was taking at the time.
“It’s part of football, sometimes some of it was fair, sometimes a little bit was unfair. Many people probably didn’t realize the actual situation and the real detail around what was happening with us.
“I wouldn’t say we need to win, we want to be successful. We’re expected to be successful. Every competition we go in, we try to do our very best. We know the reality of winning trophies is extremely hard. We’ve won seven trophies in our last seven seasons and we want more. Simple as that.
“I’m under no disillusions. I came here for a reason, to win trophies and make a difference. We’re trying to do that every time we turn up. It would mean a lot [to win], all of the other stuff previously is a lot of outside noise. We understood what was happening here because we’re aware of the situation. For us it’s normal service to resume, keep working. Understanding we knew we’d be in a better place once we got players back. We’re starting to see that now.
“Both teams want to win this trophy. Both have done really well to get here. The demands in the Continental Cup are really high. We were in a five team group, had to work extremely hard under pressure in some difficult scenarios and we should be proud.
“It’s a statement of progress in terms of where we’re going. But we know we’re not there to turn up, we want to win.”
Sign up to our City newsletter so you never miss an update from the Etihad Stadium this season.
Catch up on all the latest Blues headlines in our Man City section
George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.