Bristol City: Bottom at Christmas, but no cause for concern?

The first ten rounds of the 2023/24 Barclays Women’s Super League have now been played, and as teams enjoy a well-merited break throughout the festive period, managers will be left to ponder what they could have done better throughout the first part of the season.

Perhaps Lauren Smith will be the manager with the most on her mind, as her Bristol City side occupy the unwanted relegation spot – picking up just five points from an available 30.

Many had predicted the Robins to make an immediate return to the Women’s Championship after their promotion last season – but is life in BS3 as bleak as it looks, or is Smith just in desperate need of some luck?

The second tier

Bristol City were relegated from the top flight of domestic women’s football at the conclusion of the 2020/21 season, and it was at that point that Lauren Smith returned to the club she had previously worked for as an U14s coach.

She guided the Robins to a respectable third-placed finish in 2021/22. Despite finishing fifteen points adrift of Liverpool, just four points separated Bristol City from the runners-up, London City Lionesses. Smith had enjoyed an immediate impact, and the club looked totally transformed from the side that had shipped 72 goals in the prior season.

2022/23 was a much closer affair in the second tier. With just one promotion spot available for teams seeking to make it to the Barclays Women’s Super League, competition was fierce. Bristol City found themselves embroiled in a three-way fight for the title, competing alongside Birmingham City and the London City Lionesses again.

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In perhaps one of the most enthralling campaigns to date, that three-way battle remained until the penultimate day of the season. Ahead of Bristol City’s highly-anticipated clash with Birmingham City on Matchday 22, the Robins held a four-point advantage – ensuring they’d be returning to the top flight after a two-year hiatus, regardless of the result of their final match.

Perhaps that was just as well. Bristol City were defeated 2-0 at St Andrew’s, meaning Birmingham City finished just a singular point below them in the table. London City Lionesses finished just a further two points behind, as the gulf in quality between relegated WSL sides and Championship stragglers continued to shrink.

Early defeats

With Leicester City having narrowly escaped relegation in 2022/23, many saw an opportunity for Bristol City to acclimatise themselves to the top flight once again as they welcomed the Foxes to Ashton Gate on the opening day of the season. After 90 minutes though, a 2-4 defeat looked to prove that Lauren Smith had a sizeable challenge on her hands if the Robins were to even attempt to remain in the WSL.

They headed to Tottenham’s Brisbane Road the following week, falling to another defeat – and that was swiftly followed by a penalty defeat in the Conti Cup, having held Southampton to a 1-1 draw. But by her own admission, Smith cites the 5-0 defeat to Manchester City that followed as the turning point for the Robins, whose defence remained watertight in the second half at Joie Stadium despite shipping five first-half goals.

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It was apparent that something needed to change, and fast. Bristol City were yet to resemble a top-flight team, but as the only side in the division that isn’t associated with the Premier League team, was a lack of funding the root of their problems or did Lauren Smith need to be scrutinised?

Stealing the show

On paper, things weren’t to get any easier for Bristol City. Just a week after that hefty defeat in Manchester, the Robins were to welcome Jonas Eidevall’s Arsenal to Ashton Gate – and the Gunners would be baying for blood after registering just four points from their opening three league fixtures.

With Kaylan Marckese unable to start against her parent club, Smith was forced to offer Olivia Clark her debut between the sticks, but the Welsh international proved to be one of the stars of the show as Bristol City frustrated a desperate Arsenal side.

Individual brilliance from Katie McCabe saw the Gunners take the lead from a set-piece, but they’d be left to rue squandered opportunities when, against all odds, Rachael Furness struck gold to sweep past Manuela Zinsberger and level the match.

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In no uncertain terms, Smith’s Bristol City had put on a defensive masterclass. Against a side oozing with quality, the Robins held their own – until another strike from McCabe sealed a hard-fought three points for the visitors.

But with that match swiftly followed by the international break, Smith insisted that her side had ‘had a great run in terms of getting things better’ and joked that perhaps the two-week absence from club football had come at the wrong time – just as the Robins had begun to turn their fortunes around.

The first win

A trip to West Ham’s Chigwell Construction Stadium would be the Robins first task after the international break, and it was one that saw Lauren Smith’s side record their first victory of the season – though it certainly wasn’t easy.

The visitors fell behind just before the half-hour mark through a Viv Asseyi penalty, and while quickfire goals from Amalie Thestrup and Ella Powell put the Robins swiftly ahead, Riko Ueki was on hand to level the match in first-half stoppage time.

Ten minutes after the break though, Brooke Aspin rose above Mackenzie Arnold to nod Megan Connolly’s cross into the back of the net, sealing a superb victory for Bristol City that looked to kickstart their campaign.

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Hitting rock bottom

But it soon looked to be a false dawn for the Robins, who fell to a hefty Conti Cup defeat against Arsenal before welcoming fellow strugglers Aston Villa to BS3. While Lauren Smith’s job seemed safe, Carla Ward’s was very much being questioned – and a Villa win seemed almost necessary if she was to remain in charge.

Against a side billed as top-four contenders in pre-season, the Robins held their own remarkably well – until an unfortunate own goal from Megan Connolly in the final fifteen minutes handed the visitors the lead. With the wind in their sails, Ebony Salmon added Villa’s second soon after, with another scoreline yet again failing to represent an impressive performance from Lauren Smith’s side.

A trip to Everton followed, and despite falling behind twice to goals from Martina Piemonte and Megan Finnigan, Bristol City salvaged a respectable draw through Amy Rodgers and Amalie Thestrup – ensuring their points tally rose to 4, though a win for a now in-form Villa meant that the Robins remained rooted to the foot of the table.

Not another one?

Looking to recover from a midweek Conti Cup defeat against Tottenham, Bristol City welcomed Manchester United to Ashton Gate on 26 November. The Red Devils had been comprehensively defeated by Manchester City the week before, and escaped from Prenton Park with a rather flukey win in midweek – and there was a palpable feeling around Ashton Gate that the Robins had a genuine chance of pulling off a monumental upset.

But a first-half injury to key centre-back Brooke Aspin seemed to dampen those hopes, and two goals within five minutes at the start of the second half saw United escape with three points. Once again though, the Robins had looked more than capable up to that point – and the iconic ‘not another one?’ soundbite seemed to sum up yet another of their matches.

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Picking up the points

Just three games remained before the lengthy Christmas break: a trip to Liverpool, a home Conti Cup match against relegated Reading, and the final league match of the year against Emma Hayes’ high-flying Chelsea.

Given that throughout the season, Liverpool have been praised as one of the most consistent sides in the division, it was a shock to see Amalie Thestrup open the scoring at Prenton Park just after half-time – though their lead was short-lived, with Sophie Román Haug restoring parity seven minutes later.

The Robins picked up another point in midweek in the Conti Cup, holding Reading to a 1-1 draw at the HPC – but with Amy Rodgers and Jamie-Lee Napier both missing penalties, it was the Championship side that escaped with the bonus point.

Signing off for 2023

Chelsea were always going to be a tough test to round off Bristol City’s calendar year, but after a hefty defeat to Arsenal and a goalless draw in the UEFA Women’s Champions League, the reigning champions needed to pick up form – and fast.

Lauren Smith acknowledged in her pre-match press conference that ‘they might be coming out to put things right and that’s quite a scary position to be in’ – and it would soon prevail that the Welsh manager’s instincts were correct.

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Despite holding their own for the opening fifteen minutes, a thunderous goal from Chelsea’s Lauren James saw Chelsea open the scoring – and the Blues never looked back. Erin Cuthbert doubled the lead before the break and Sam Kerr added the third on the hour mark, with the two teams finishing the match as polar opposites in the league table.

…so are there problems?

It’s difficult to quantify just how big of a mess Lauren Smith’s Bristol City find themselves in. As a newly promoted side without the financial backing of a Premier League club, the Robins were always bound to struggle and linger towards the bottom of the table.

Admittedly, the table isn’t a pretty picture for the BS3-based side. Having already played West Ham, they’re level on points with Rehanne Skinner’s side – trailing them as a result of inferior goal difference. Furthermore, they’re three points behind Brighton.

Bristol City aren’t pushing for anything in particular this season. The whole aim is to avoid relegation, and it’s clear that Lauren Smith has a side that is up to the task. Despite falling to defeat in seven of their 10 WSL matches so far this season, the manager always paints a calm and composed figure post-match – her mind fully focused on the next match, whenever that may be.

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‘We are looking exciting,’ she insists, ‘and we’ve always said whether it’s Championship or WSL, we want to play exciting football. I think it’s far more competitive with the teams in the bottom 8 – and that means yes we might be bottom, but we’re so close a win takes us to mid table.’

At the end of the day, football is a results business, but circumstances must always be taken into consideration. Given her shoestring budget and the increased quality across the league this season, Smith has shown that her Bristol City side are more than capable of staying up – though they may just need to find a four-leaf clover to avoid being dragged into a relegation battle.