Exeter City Women can look back on the 2022/23 season with a considerable amount of pride, despite the disappointment of missing out on the South West Division One title on goal difference.
After a third placed finish in 2021/22, the management team of Abbie Britton and Aaron Wakley made few changes in the summer months. Becky Dandridge was one significant addition to the squad, whilst key performers from the previous campaign all committed to another year in red and white.
As the Lionesses' gained national attention for the Women’s game, City endured a nightmare pre-season. Several scheduled fixtures saw the opposition pull out at late notice, leaving the Grecians with only two games of preparation as they faced Swansea City and Bridgwater United.
Initially, that lack of readiness did not seem to be a factor with City hitting Keynsham Town for seven on the opening weekend with Sarah Stacey notching a hat trick. A Becky Dandridge goal claimed a hard-fought point at Moneyfields before a second half comeback at home to St Austell earned a second home win.
Another comeback in a disjointed performance at Southampton Women’s FC saw Stacey slotting home the winner in injury time, which began to underline that City’s lack of game time over the summer months was beginning to show. A humbling at Cardiff City Ladies a week later highlighted a stark difference, as City struggled to piece together a performance against a rampant Dragons side. Dandridge limping off with what would prove a season ending broken foot rounding off a terrible afternoon in South Wales.
Despite the rocky start, Britton and Wakley made two significant additions to the squad. Jenna Markham and Chloe Gilroy both arrived from Bridgwater United to add strong competition and energy to the forward options.
Eight successive wins followed, with City finding their rhythm and defensive shape into the autumn months. Markham struck her first two goals in red and white as AFC Bournemouth were dispatched in front of a crowd of 2,621 at St James Park. Connie Pengelly hit five in a resounding win in the FA Cup First Round at Saltash United, whilst the Grecians were comfortable winners over Torquay United in the Devon County Cup after an initial early scare, Abbi Bond saving an Ellie Bishop penalty.
November saw Southern Premier side London Bees dispatched at the Exwick Hub in a League Cup second round tie, before AFC Bournemouth would be beaten in Devon once more in the FA Cup Second Round.
With City now gaining momentum for the season, the run into Christmas would see a moment of uncertainty. A surprise defeat to Portishead Town in the FA Cup was hugely disappointing, a much-improved performance against MK Dons the following week deserved better, but missed chances and defensive errors favored the Dons as they won by two goals to nil to progress in the League Cup.
The unexpected departure of the previous season's top goalscorer Connie Pengelly was followed by a labored win over Larkhall Athletic at the Hub, the Christmas break appeared to be coming at the right moment for City. With Cardiff five points clear at the turn of the year, the title race was looking set to be a one-horse race.
The Grecians would return from the festive break knowing the importance of the early months of the year. Moneyfields were beaten at the Sports Hub before a thumping victory over Southampton Women’s FC set up a chance to get back in the title race with the visit of Cardiff. Goals from Emily Toogood and new signing Ishbel Zuurmond gave the Grecians all three points and a chance to put pressure on the relentless Dragons for the final third of the season.
A fortunate late victory over Selsey followed, Mollie Taylor and Toogood scoring in injury time for ten player City after Jaydee Seaman had seen red. However, it would be late heartbreak the week after, Molly Gladwell slotting home an injury time winner for AFC Bournemouth to take any title hopes out of the hands of the Grecians.
An astonishing run of eight successive league wins followed, thirty-nine goals scored with only two conceded. Another record-breaking crowd at St James Park were treated to a Sarah Stacey hat trick during the run of wins, her season’s tally coming in at twenty-nine from twenty-one league fixtures.
Such a finale to the season would surely have seen promotion on an ordinary season, but this was no ordinary season and Cardiff City matched the Grecians all the way to take the title with a goal difference of plus eight.
Devon County Cup victory over Plymouth Argyle helped ease the disappointment, Markham putting City ahead before a late penalty from the Pilgrim’s Rosie Train levelled the tie. After last season’s penalty heartbreak, it was a better outcome this year, Mollie Taylor converting the decisive penalty.
A truly remarkable season only eclipsed by an equally impressive Cardiff team. With attendances increasing by 143%, over 8,500 people attending games, a record points total, over one hundred goals scored in all competitions and Sarah Stacey claiming the Golden Boot by some distance, it is hard to see what more Britton and Wakley’s side could have done.
A restful Summer and a few quality additions heading to the Hub should make for another strong season in 2023/24. Whilst the final day disappointment may have been a frustrating end to the season, on and off the pitch, the momentum for this team continues to grow.