Is it bad to feel that finishing eighth in a very competitive Women’s Super League feels like a disappointment? Is it being greedy, harsh and entitled to think that ‘just’ one more win (or three more points) would have seen the Royals finish in a very good and impressive sixth place, above West Ham United and Brighton Hove Albion?
Kelly Chambers described 2021/2022 as a ‘season of two halves’. Looking back it feels more like a season of three parts, with a record-breaking (and much needed) mid-term. Below are some of my highlights (and lowlights) of the season.
Part one: What a welcome to the 2021/2022 season!
It was always going to be difficult for Kelly Chambers to rebuild her squad following the release of eight players at the end of the previous season. Those leaving included experienced and senior players such as Molly Bartrip (joining Tottenham Hotspur), Angharad James (Orlando Pride), Lauren Bruton (Charlton Athletic) and the retirement of England legend Fara Williams (how do you replace Fara?).
The Reading manager, however, worked wonders to reassemble her squad and continue her role as surely one of the most underrated managers in the league. Still learning, only 36 years old and, at the same time, hugely experienced with a proven successful track record.
New signings included the experienced Natasha Dowie (From Milan), Welsh international Gemma Evans and Faye Bryson (both from Bristol City), Chloe Peplow (travelling in the opposite direction to Molly Bartrip, from Spurs), Belgian international Justine Vanhaevermaet (LSK Kvinner) and Olympic bronze and 2020 gold medallist Deanne Rose (from Florida Gators). The last signing, and early Christmas present, was Denmark’s Sanne Troelsgaard (Rosenberg).
Even with this quality the season didn’t start in the manner anyone wanted. The first four matches saw the Royals lose every match, conceding 10 goals and, even more worrying, failing to score in reply. I remember thinking (and typing) that perhaps second from bottom didn’t seem so bad after all!
Part two: Record-breaking Royals
So, ye of little faith, I had a huge slice of humble pie when the girls not only turned the season around but set new club records along the way too. The home match against Aston Villa started the Royals’ incredible run of winning form, with Amelie Eikeland opening the scoring via a fortuitous cross (who cares right?) that sliced its way into the Villa goal after just 15 minutes. Rachel Rowe and Natasha Dowie put the Royals 3-0 up before half time and set the trend of what was to follow.
After a sigh of relief all round, the team put the doubters to one side and went on a record-breaking unbeaten run of eight matches (including a 2-2 draw away to West Ham United), scoring 17 goals and conceding just five. What an amazing turnaround. Kelly Chambers said it would need a bit of time for the squad to gel and this proved to be case, including ‘that match’.
That match: Reading v Chelsea
For those who attended the early 11.30am kick-off, Saturday Sky TV televised match, the Royals fans were rewarded with the best performance of the season and a 1-0 victory against champions elect (and eventual league winners) Chelsea.
Superstitions put to one side, after Kelly Chambers received the award of manager of the month for November, the Royals opened the scoring early, with Deanne Rose exchanging passes with Emma Harries to put the blue and white hoops into the lead after just four minutes.
What a moment for Deanne Rose and what a win for Reading against Chelsea #BarclaysFAWSL— Sky Sports WSL (@SkySportsWSL) December 13, 2021
A triple substitution by Chelsea manager Emma Hayes at half-time made no difference and, with great effort, teamwork and heroic defending, the girls hung onto a deserved victory - their first in the history of the club against Chelsea.
Part three: The bubble bursts
I don’t like using the word bubble as it reminds me of West Ham United and that they continue to be a bogey team and thorn in our side. Reading managed only one league point against the Hammers this season and another FA Cup knock-out, this time in the fifth round.
It was Brighton Hove Albion that burst the Royals’ winning cloud on what was, ironically, a horrible wet and windy February afternoon - with a deluge of four goals from the Seagulls and a late consolation cross-come-shot goal from Amelie Eikeland.
This defeat set a disappointing run and end to the season, seeing the Royals without a win in their last 10 WSL matches, drawing three (Tottenham Hotspur, Aston Villa and Leicester City) and that FA Cup defeat too… To complete the stats, the Royals scored four goals and conceded 25, finishing with a goal difference of -19.
Reading’s squad is limited in size and injuries certainly played a part throughout the season, with Kelly Chambers missing key and experienced players at various times throughout - and often unable to field a full substitutes bench. There was a further setback and horrible long-term injury for young starlet Emma Harries.
The last match of the season saw a well deserved but emotional guard of honour for Brooke Chaplen after she announced her early retirement from the sport (she’s only 30). The ‘good news’ is successful surgery for a bone tumour, and hopefully an exciting new future ahead for the talented striker.
Out of the 11 teams, Reading enjoyed seven victories against six different teams (Brighton, Villa, Everton, Leicester, Chelsea and Birmingham x2). Including the four draws, the Royals finished with 25 points and eighth place.
Optimism: For next season
There’s plenty of reasons to be optimistic for 2022/2023. Besides a surprise farewell to Royals stalwart Tash Harding, Kelly Chambers has a settled squad and hopefully one on which she will be allowed to build and add to.
If you haven’t already, you’ve got until June 17 to renew those frozen, great-value season tickets (£5 or less per match), including free entry to pre-season friendlies and the Continental League Cup matches and a chance to bring a friend with two free tickets too!
See you next season, enjoy the summer and, of course, the UEFA Women’s EUROs Championship in July (come on England!).