While the growth of women’s football boomed in 2023, following the Lionesses’ Euro 2022 victory and the World Cup 2023 final, the same can’t be said for Reading Women who have, unfortunately, managed to buck the trend in some style.
But as any fan of the club will know, under the current ownership regime, this is sadly not a surprise, with the women’s team suffering their fair share of the ongoing and endless turmoil and problems, until a new owner is found.
Below is a look at the turbulent 2023 calendar and, hopefully, some positivity for 2024 - and maybe new owners soon too?
January to May
The inevitable disappointing start to the year (and end to the 2022/23 season)
At the start of 2023 Reading continued their disastrous Women’s Super League (WSL) form, picking up just four points from 12 matches, through to the end of 2022/23 (the only victory at home to West Ham United on March 5.
With Reading Women part of a club under the mismanagement, lack of investment and (lack of) stewardship of Dai Yongge, you didn’t need to be a soothsayer to foresee their inevitable demise - resulting in a new low (and new unwanted record) of Reading becoming the first club to have both the men’s and the women’s teams relegated in the same season.
The club wasted no time with the announcement that the women’s team would move to a part-time operation.
Kelly Chambers (after 20 years at the club), along with many of the first-team squad, took this as a signal to move on and look for employment elsewhere - and who could blame them?
July and August
Last-minute rebuilding for the start of the 2023/24 Championship season
The rebuild started (without a new manager in place) with what looked like a ‘beg, borrow and persuade players to return’ approach (maybe that’s harsh…?). New players welcomed in July and August included Charlie Estcourt (returning), Ava Kuyken (signing from Hibernian), goalkeepers Emily Orman (season-long loan from Chelsea) and Rose Kite (ex-Oxford United and after a successful trial).
Before the season had even started, new signing Ava Kuyken received the sad news that she would be ruled out for the season after suffering an all-too-common ruptured anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injury. A blow to both the club and, obviously, Ava.
The eventual announcement of a new manager, Liam Gilbert (and assistant coach Dan Logue), came on August 18 and left them just nine days to prepare for their first match of the season (away to Crystal Palace) on August 27.
Gilbert needed further players to strengthen the young squad and further names were quickly added: Rachel Dugdale (returning), Georgia Wilson (from Danish side AaB Kvinder), Josie Longhurst (Lewes), Halle Houssein (season-long loan from West Ham United), Lulu Jarvis (season-long loan from Brighton & Hove Albion), Caitlin Smith (returning to the UK after a spell - and degree! - at US university side Clemson Tigers) and, finally, Freya Gregory (season-long loan from Aston Villa).
August to December
A difficult start to life in the 2023/24 Barclays Championship
With just days to prepare for the start of the season, and with a new, young and inexperienced squad of players - thrown together in super-quick time - it’s not a surprise that the Royals find themselves in the wrong half of the table.
They currently sit just one place above the relegation zone - but, importantly, four points ahead of Lewes and five ahead of Watford - who both currently occupy the bottom two positions.
It feels like the Championship is at the start of a new journey of change, with fresh investment, contracts and structures meaning the women’s second tier is at the stage to grow and develop both commercially and professionally.
Reading don’t want to get left behind and miss out on the fantastic opportunity ahead, but I’m sure that, under the current setup, they’re struggling to compete with some clubs that will be enjoying more ambition, bigger budgets and deeper pockets.
With the likes of Newcastle United, Nottingham Forest and FA Cup visitors Wolverhampton Wanderers, there’s added pressure and threat below from the two tier-three northern and southern leagues.
The stats, exactly halfway through the season, are respectable (all things considered). Reading have played 11, won two, drawn five and lost four.
Looking ahead to the rest of 2024
Moving to the EBB Stadium (Aldershot)
The women’s team have only recently made the SCL Stadium their permanent home (after having to play matches at Adams Park, Wycombe), so this feels to me like a bit of a worrying trend, with another match - the fourth-round Adobe FA Cup match against Wolverhampton Wanderers - being moved to Aldershot. A small expected crowd, now made even smaller. It’s pay on the day (£10/£5), Sunday January 14, 2pm kick-off.
Perhaps the club missed a great opportunity, when the Bearwood training ground was being designed, to have a second smaller stadium set-up (similar to Bristol City’s High Performance Centre) where fans could watch the academy, under-21s and women’s team if an alternative to the SCL stadium was required.
The transfer window is now open! With three exiting and one graduate promotion
Just a matter of days into the New Year transfer window and Reading have announced the departure of three players. Gregory (‘on loan for for the season…’) was recalled by parent club Aston Villa, Kite came to a mutual agreement to terminate her contract, and academy graduate Freya Meadows Tuson left to join Maidenhead, but has also signed a dual contract, meaning she can still continue to represent Reading’s under-21s in the County Cup.
Whether this leaves capacity for Gilbert to bring in any more players is yet to be seen. Maybe one position has already been filled with the news of another pathway promotion for academy graduate Mae Hunt to the senior squad?
Positivity for 2024
Gilbert and Logue were brought in for their skills and expertise in stabilising and turning around a struggling club and, like a winter bulb, the green shoots are there with promises of good things to come. There are also encouraging signs with the team looking like they are gelling, learning to play together and, although the results have not always gone their way, they appear to be enjoying their football.
Gilbert’s side are currently on an unbeaten run of four matches in all competitions - beating WSL side Bristol City on penalties in the Conti League Cup and Cheltenham in the Adobe FA Cup, and getting draws against Watford and Crystal Palace in the Barclays Championship.
It’s all about turning those draws into wins - with the Royals having only lost one more match than Championship leaders Birmingham City (with three defeats). The lack of a consistent goalscorer, and general fire power, is costing them dearly in missing out on the much-needed three points to rise up the table (and away from another season of relegation fears).
After another long break, there are three ‘home’ matches to look forward to in January:
- Adobe FA Cup match vs Wolverhampton Wanderers, Sunday January 14 (Aldershot) 2pm
- Barclays Championship vs Birmingham City, Sunday January 21 (SCL) 1pm
- Conti League Cup vs Arsenal, Wednesday January 24 (SCL), 7pm. This game is free to season-ticket holders, but note that you still have to log on to book and secure your seat