Feature article: Exeter City Ladies

Ladies battle back from the brink in Women's Premier League South West Division One

Exeter City's matchday programme on Saturday The Grecian featured the following article on the club's ladies team. Simon Larkins spoke to manager Adam Grove and first team captain Dani Skinner about the team's season in the Women's Premier League South West Division One and looked at how far the club had come since a turbulent summer in which they nearly folded due to a lack of players.

It was Roman poet Horace who wrote: “adversity has the effect of eliciting talents, which in more prosperous circumstances would have lain dormant.”

You just wonder how fitting that sentence would be in summing up the last 10 months of Exeter City Ladies football club.

They have had a fair bit of adversity to endure – the summer was a turbulent one to say the least. In June, they were without a manager, practically all of last season’s first team had left and there was a real worry the club might fold.

That was when Adam Grove – now the club’s manager – was approached to join a new setup, along with head coach Tommy Wheeldon and director of football Christopher Heaynes.

At the time of their appointment, Exeter City Ladies were only weeks away from the start of the season but there was a lot of work to be done and plenty of players to recruit. 

“I was approached in June to be part of the new setup,” explained Adam, who is a UEFA B Licence candidate about to begin his MSc in Performance Coaching. 

“I remember the summer and the concern at that time was just about keeping the club going,” he added. “We had three players who carried on from last season into this one, so we had to work hard to recruit a lot of players.”

“During the summer months, we recruited over fifteen players. That was aided through Exeter College, Exeter University and Kings College Taunton. They all assisted the recruitment cause and we took a group of girls from each institution and mixed them in with local players and formed our new team.”

The team started the season okay, taking Enfield to extra-time in the Women’s Premier League Cup. They then suffered a narrow defeat in the opening game of the Women’s Premier League South West Division One at home to Southampton, before suffering a heavy defeat to Plymouth Argyle and Keynsham Town.

However, with the majority of the squad having never played in the fourth tier of the women’s football pyramid before, Adam said it was less about the results and more about improving and developing the young squad he had. 

“If you have only got four players out of 20 who have experience of this level of football, then it is going to be difficult,” he said. 

“This was their first taste of senior women’s football and many of them were not even adults. We had limited knowledge of the level of football we were competing in. The start of the season was about developing and growing.”

Was it difficult to keep the squad motivated though when they began the campaign with a run of 10 defeats in all competitions? 

 “I am not going to lie, the results have been difficult to take,” said Adam. “We always knew it was going to be difficult but when it actually happens it is a different story.

“It’s difficult to stay motivated when you are not winning football matches, but with time we began to realise there was a bigger picture. 

“The bigger picture being stablising the club in the current season, ensuring we continue for seasons to come. Player development was always my priority at the beginning of the season, building a team that could compete at this level by applying the right principles in training and ensuring team chemistry constantly improved. The players deserve a huge amount of credit for staying focused and they are now reaping the rewards in terms of improving their individual ability competing at this level on a weekly basis.

“We have had a few players come and go, but the large majority of the squad have stuck with us since the summer. It has been a real privilege watching them advance as footballers and people.” 

Exeter City Ladies have seven games of the season left to play and, having picked up two draws from their last three games, they have given themselves a fighting chance of avoiding relegation to the league below.

Having not won a game yet this season though, some might argue that dropping down a division would be a good idea. However, that is not a view Adam shares. He has seen the improvement the squad has made first hand and is confident in the decision they took in the summer, to stay in the FA Women’s Premier League South West Division One, was a good one. 

“It has been a challenging league to compete in,” said Adam. “But staying in this league was an opportunity for these players to participate at a challenging level. We had nothing to lose. 

“If we had pulled out and gone and played in the leagues below then they would have missed out on playing against top level players and teams.

“We have got seven games of the season left to go and if we maximize our performances in all of them, we have a real chance of staying in the division which is pleasing. If the season started now, with the progress we have made, I truly believe we would stay up without a doubt. The players have done themselves immensely proud and I couldn’t be prouder of them myself.”

“We have had 10 months in this league and it has just been an upward trajectory in terms of mental toughness, technical development and all round game understanding.

“The players understand now when to do certain things at the right times in games and back in the summer that wasn’t the case. They had a good level of understanding but it just wasn’t applied in unison.

“If we stay up this season we can establish ourselves at this level in the seasons to come, if we go down then we would want to win the league.”

Those thoughts are echoed by Dani Skinner, the Exeter City Ladies captain who joined the club in the summer. She says the team have really gelled and are looking to get some wins on the board between now and the end of the campaign. 

“The team spirit is good,” she said. “You can notice that we have had a defeat here and there, but we are trying to build on that. We have got more games to come between now and the end of the season and we are trying to get the best results we can.”

Exeter City Ladies have also benefitted from a move to bring them back under the main umbrella of the football club. Julian Tagg, who chairs the main club board, has been appointed chairman of the Exeter City Ladies and they have been given use of the 3G facilities down at the Cliff Hill training ground on a Thursday night.  

“It is so nice to be able to use the 3G facility,” said Dani, who has played for Devon and Somerset Centre of Excellences as well as Yeovil Town.  

“Normally at football clubs, the women’s team and the men’s side are very separate but that is not the case here,” she added. 

“We had our first game on the 3G against Keynsham and it is such a nice surface to play on.

“We are part of the club. When the pitches are all muddy and horrible to play on during the winter, you can use this facility and play at a good, high tempo.”

Dani and Adam now hope plenty more supporters will come to watch them play on a Sunday afternoon. Their matches take place at Speeds Meadow in Cullompton and Adam is urging the fans to get behind the team. 

“I would urge supporters to come and cheer the ladies team on,” he said. “We have got five home games remaining that we want to win and the performances we have put in recently against Cheltenham and Brislington show we are capable of doing that. We keep the ball on the floor, play out well and attack with pace.”

It is all a far cry from the state the Exeter City Ladies was in back in early June, but step-by-step, week by week, game by game, the team and the situation has become more prosperous. It hasn’t happened overnight though, but then Rome wasn’t built in a day.