As Brighton Women boss Hope Powell prepares her side to take on Chelsea Women this weekend, chances are you will find her as perplexed about the state of her grass as outwitting the defending champions.
“I wish my grass was as nice as the grass we train on but sadly not, l’m always talking to the groundsman here to give me some tips, but it never quite looks the same. It’s work in progress.”
The same could be said of her Brighton team. Last season, they finished in sixth – their highest finish in the Barclays FA Women’s Super League – and this time around they’ve already topped the table.
So while her players are not allowed anywhere near her gardening domain, they have clearly been put through their paces on the grass of their new training hub.
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“We try and create situations on the grass that expose them to the challenges they face on any given game and that gives the confidence to do that on matchday,” Powell told Sky Sports’ lead WSL presenter Caroline Barker.
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“We’re trying to get the players to play in the moment and be good decision makers. That all sounds very easy, but it’s not an easy thing to do when you haven’t got a lot of the ball, the game is whizzing by you and you are forever chasing. It’s really hard mentally and physically to stay alert, so we try to expose them to that in training.”
And it’s paying off. The Seagulls head into the weekend sitting in fifth, level on points with Chelsea and with two wins and a defeat under their belt.
Hope Powell celebrates with Megan Connolly after her winning goal against Chelsea in February
Powell’s Brighton were the only team to beat Emma Hayes’ eventual champions in the league last season – ending a 3-game unbeaten run in a wind-assisted 2-1 win at a snowy Kingsmeadow. Powell says someone had to beat them, so will her team measure up again when the two sides meet live on Sky Sports this weekend?
“Last season was tough. We beat them but it was hard work. We defended for our lives, we put everything on the line and it will be no different on Saturday.”
“Sometimes you need a bit of luck. I recognise in that game, we got a bit of luck with the wind. If we can have some of that luck and defend as well as we did last year, we give ourselves the best possible chance. But we are under no illusion it’s going to be a very, very difficult game.”
That win over Chelsea put to bed any suggestion that the Londoners were unbeatable, but with Hayes insisting her side are now “a better team than we’ve ever been”, is the league really any more competitive this season?
Aileen Whelan nodded home from Megan Connolly's corner to equalise against Chelsea
Powell thinks it depends on the team, saying: “We don’t have the strength and depth that Chelsea have, that Arsenal have, that probably Manchester United have, so for us every game is a difficult proposition.
“I can only talk from a Brighton perspective. Every game for us is a challenge, even the ones we win. The 5-0 against Birmingham was still a challenge and we know every game we go into is a challenge. It’s a tough league, depending who you are and where you sit.”
This game will see another landmark moment for Hayes – her 150th match as a manager in the Women’s Super League. Powell credits her opposite number’s longevity, like her own, to old fashioned graft.
“She’s been in the role a while now and anyone that’s in position as we are, it is hard work and dedication. Every day presents a different challenge and it’s rising to that challenge and trying to better every day,” Powell said.
Highlights of the Women’s Super League match between Brighton and Aston Villa
“What Emma has achieved, she strives to be the best and wants to be the best, as we all do. But it takes some dedication and effort to consistently achieve at that level. It’s hard work, made easier though if you have got good players, if you’ve got a group of players that are international, it is made a little easier, but that is credit to her to have the will to bring those players in that have that quality.”
There’s no doubting that quality in the Chelsea squad. Brighton come into the game having achieved a bit of history, making the semi-finals of the FA Cup this week with a 1-0 win over Women’s Championship side Charlton and changing four players in the process. Chelsea, such is their strength in depth, made eight changes as they progressed.
So when Powell was part of the team who talked about creating the WSL over a decade ago, did she envisage such international quality?
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“From my personal perspective, when we started to talk about the WSL, we did talk about it being the best league in the world, but also a league where perhaps English players could thrive. That’s the challenge.
“While you want it to be the best, you also want to see homegrown talent, so that on an international stage, it helps the national team.
“For all sorts of reasons, that is still a challenge in the WSL, to get the best English talent playing in the league – it’s the challenge that presents itself today.
“You’ve only got to look at the best teams in our league are filled with the best players from other countries, so where does that young English talent get an opportunity to thrive and grow? That’s why the homegrown rule will come in, that helps give those young talented English players a chance.”
Those players will get their chance to shine on the biggest stage with a home Euros next summer. Powell became the first-ever full-time manager of the England Women’s team in 1998 and would manage the team for the next 15 years. The expectations will be high for success in the upcoming tournament.
Hope Powell spent a number of years as England Women manager
Powell said: “There’s more depth, I would argue, than there has ever been and I think [the players] want to prove a point. I think there’s been a lot of expectation on that England team given the investment over the years in the league, the way that they have gone about their business and haven’t quite got there.
“The Olympics, the World Cup, the expectation was high and they haven’t quite achieved that. I think nothing other than winning the thing, it wont be acceptable for the players. The expectation is they want to win it and perhaps they should win it.”
From setting up the WSL and guiding England to seeing Brighton ride high, there’s probably no one better placed to talk about the future of the league. So what’s the next stage for Powell and this team?
“Generally across the women’s game, it would be stadia. We play out of a stadium that is far away from Brighton – that affects our fan base. So the women’s game going forward, having their own stadia where it’s close to the environment they are from, that will increase the fan base.
“When the fan base increases, that inspires the girls to do better. When the girls do better, we climb the table, we attract more and better players and it just goes on and on.”
The Seagulls kicked off the season at the Amex, but play most of their games at Crawley, which is 21 miles and a 30-minute drive away. This weekend though, they’re on the road at Chelsea, hoping to upset the odds again.
“It’s been a challenging week with three games in six days, so it’s kind of a bit of a rollercoaster at the moment. We lost a day in preparation, so I’m not sure we have had that much time to enjoy it [reaching the FA Cup semi-finals], the realisation of it, so we’re just rolling with it.”
One bit of history in a week could become two this weekend. Chelsea have scored in their last 54 WSL games – the longest run in the history of the league.
But this Brighton side are used to digging in and have conceded just once this season. You would not bet against the Seagulls springing another surprise, tended to by their manager. This team have done the groundwork and are ready to blossom after another summer of growth.
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