Season 2020-21: An unusual SWPL 1 campaign that still delivered

Glasgow City won the title as normal, but it was anything but a routine campaign

I started the season at the Rangers Training Centre. Masks on, temperature taken, everyone required to stand two metres apart. Three of us were there with press passes, privileged to be able to enjoy some live football.

Malky Thomson’s side were relentless against a stoic Hearts, rarely giving up a chance. They had began the season in dominant fashion, laid down an early marker.

I walked away excited by the football on show and the title race to come, but really hoped I wouldn’t have to witness many more social-distant-friendly games like that. With the fixtures to come, especially the nine games between the three title chasers, fans simply had to be there to see them.

Nine months on at the season’s climax, I walked into the Penny Cars Stadium in Airdrie for Motherwell against Celtic. Masks on, temperature taken, everyone required to sit two metres apart. The numbers in the stand had swelled due to Celtic taking a rather healthy contingent, but still no paying fans allowed in.

It undoubtedly took the shine off another fine afternoon of football on the pitch. Celtic won 8-0, celebrated wildly after the game with champagne as they secured Champions League football at the expense of Rangers. A few miles away Glasgow City were lifting their 14th title in a row to more celebrations, this time at least with a small support allowed in.

It’s been a strange season. For those of us covering it, the campaign was special. A three-way title fight that lived up to the pre-season promises. The standard across the division has risen and it is clear the only way is up for the Scottish game.

It was punctured by a four-month break due to Covid-19 restrictions. We were denied two knockout cups and the chance to see two cup finals. And only at the end were fans allowed in to some games. A great season tinged with sadness that we’re not quite there yet with kicking Covid into touch.

But lets enjoy what we had. And look ahead to what is already a mouthwatering campaign ahead of us next season, when the top flight will be swelled by two more teams who are currently fighting it out in SWPL 2.

Proving the critics wrong

Confession time; I predicted Rangers would win the title. At first, I thought City would be runners-up, then ahead of the season restart I thought Celtic would leapfrog them into second.

I could see the improvement in Fran Alonso's team and fancied them for a Champions League spot. But I couldn't see a relentless Rangers being knocked off top spot. I knew Glasgow City would still be tough nuts to crack, but I didn’t envisage their signings being as good as they were.

That Glasgow City did actually go on to secure the title was remarkable. The January transfer window ultimately changed the championship, but it was more about just throwing some money about. They were playing catch up having lost three players to Rangers. Every signing they made was a fantastic addition.

The only disappointment of the campaign was the Champions League exit to Sparta Prague. But if Scott Booth can keep this City side together for next season, then as long as they avoid the dangerous Juventus in the qualifiers, you fancy them to make their way into the lucrative group stages where they are more than capable of holding their own.

What was interesting about speaking to Celtic players the past couple of weeks was how they mentioned being written off. Kelly Clark in her interview with Anyone’s Game after the win over Hibernian said: “It’s so great that we’re still so close to the top. I don’t think that many people expected it, but we’re happy to prove all the doubters wrong.”

On Sunday, Chloe Craig echoed those comments as they celebrated Champions League qualification. It was clear it was something that had driven the Celtic team.

Many felt Glasgow City were the team at a disadvantage, taking on the might of the Old Firm. But Fran Alonso has been at pains to point out that Celtic were the underdogs, spending less than Rangers and Glasgow City. And he had problems to deal with in January with the loss of Spanish duo Anita and Brenda Castellano, as well as Summer Green.

But the response was to bring in Jacynta Galabadaarchchi, Mariah Lee, Izzy Atkinson and Anna Filbey, with every one of them making huge impacts.

Celtic will have it tougher than Glasgow City in the Champions League qualifiers, having to go through the league path rather than the champions path and they will need top performances coupled with a bit of luck in the draw. But with the club promising to play more games at Celtic Park, there could be some special European nights at Parkhead.

As strange as it may sound for a club currently licking their wounds after missing out on a top two spot, Rangers had a successful campaign.

Sure, they wanted the title. They invested heavily to achieve it. But sometimes failure has to be measured against other factors.

Rangers for the majority of the season were fantastic. So often I spoke to Malky Thomson after games and he was glowing about his side. They could score goals for fun. Defensively they rarely conceded. As a team they gelled so well.

Did they bottle the big games? No. Against Celtic in November they went toe-to-toe with their Old Firm rivals in a breathtaking 90 minutes. It was the best game I witnessed all season where 5-5 could have easily been the scoreline. One bad decision handed Celtic a penalty that cost Rangers the game.

When they had Glasgow City weakened by taking Rachel McLaughlin, Kirsty Howat and Sam Kerr from them, they showed no mercy; demolishing them 5-0.

At Celtic Park they were the better team, but this time a moment of class undid them.

Rangers had bad luck on the injury front. Howat suffered a season-ending injury in the defeat at Celtic Park. Megan Bell never managed to get a run of games going. Even Zoe Ness, who still managed to hit 12 goals across the campaign, was beginning the season after over a year without football.

It was fine margins for Rangers and a key player available may have helped changed their fortunes. Had they won just once against Celtic they would have finished second. Win two and they would have went into the final day of the season top of the table. But there was no doubt that by the end Glasgow City were worthy champions, and showed that strength on the final day of the season. Even if Rangers had got their noses in front before the final day, they may well have still been usurped by Booth’s impressive side.

Some, admittedly few, have pointed the finger at Thomson and demanded a new manager. I can only imagine they haven't had more than a passing interest in the women's game this season.

For those that were watching every week, they could see the improvement in Rangers - both in individuals and as a collective. They'll continue on an upward trajectory. Yes, they waved the chequebook about, but they also targeted mainly young, Scottish talent. And Rangers progression is going to be Scotland’s benefit in the next few years.

What would a different management team have done differently? It's easy to pick apart tactics in hindsight, but Thomson couldn't legislate for individual errors. Those same players will deliver silverware to the club soon enough.

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Ups and downs

Hibernian won the battle for fourth place on the final day of the season, adding more woe to Forfar Farmington with a 7-0 win to finish above Spartans on goal difference.

Dean Gibson has said many times the league placing was irrelevant to him. There was a 19-point gap between Hibs and third-place, and 24 from a Champions League spot. Closing that distance is his only interest.

They drew with Glasgow City, lost by just a goal to Celtic, and for an hour were the better team against Rangers with two set-pieces their undoing. The campaign overall has been disappointing but his side finished the season well and have shown enough to suggest that, coupled with some key signings, Hibs could well be a force again next season.

Spartans will, though, be disappointed fourth wasn’t theirs. They made no secret that was their aim. The key match for them was drawing 1-1 with Hibs - Leah Eddie scoring a late equaliser for Gibson’s side.

Next season Spartans will go semi-pro, and although the division is set to get tougher with the likelihood Aberdeen will be one of the two teams promoted from SWPL 2, Spartans are continuing to go up the way.

The same can’t be said for Forfar Farmington. A season that had so much promise, and in the Anyone’s Game predictions before the season restarted most of our pundits had them finishing fourth. Instead, they were bottom in the form table post break.

They lost too many players. Manager Kevin McGreskin was vocal in his frustration at trying to bring in replacements, with player loans from SWPL 2 falling through. And the club now have a big summer ahead with many likely to tip them for relegation. But that’s not the main worry - no-one wants to go into a campaign knowing they are going to be on the end of regular heavy defeats. They conceded 24 goals in their last four games, 34 in their final six.

That worry will be someone else’s, with all three of the sides who finished in the bottom three set to begin the next campaign with new managers. McGreskin has flown to pastures new in Mexico leaving a vacancy in Angus.

Hearts and Motherwell will be under new management too. We already know Paul Brownlie will take charge at Motherwell, who showed shoots of recovery under interim Stewart Hall. The 16 goals conceded in two defeats to the Old Firm hit hard, but before that they won three times under Hall and many of the defeats were just by a single goal.

When Andy Kirk was handed the role of women’s head coach at Tynecastle following Kevin Murphy’s departure, many suggested it was simply Hearts needing to find something for him to do around the club, and it will not surprise those same people that as soon as the season has finished he’s left to become manager of Highland League Brechin City.

But all the players talk highly of his time in charge. Hearts did show signs of improvement as the campaign went on and it’s a shame Kirk won’t be there to continue that.

Whether they will recruit from within or look outwards remains to be seen. Hearts made big noises about their ambitions two years ago, but since the men’s team were relegated and funds weren’t so freely available, the women’s side has suffered from a lack of investment. It will be interesting to see what happens there now, and the new managerial appointment will be a show of just what sort of intent they have.