Preview: Oxford United (A), Sunday 24 September 2017
Sheffield FC's second full season in the FA Women's Super League kicks off this Sunday with an away trip to Oxford United WFC.
An impressive debut season in which Sheffield finished in fifth place, was followed up by a disappointing Spring Series which saw the team just one place off the bottom - one place above their opponents of this week-end. In what is likely to be the division's most competitive season so far, this opening contest is a key one for both team's to test out the robustness of their pre-season preparations.
Sheffield have enjoyed two wins out of three against Oxford United in the past 18 months in WSL2, their only defeat coming away from home in May 2016 when a single Ini Umotong goal gave United all three points. Striker Umotong has, in fact, scored all the U's goals against Sheffield in their three previous meetings - four in total - but the highly-rated forward is now a Brighton & Hove Albion player, and Oxford have not been slow replacing her.
The U's have brought in some quality signings over the summer, the pick of which arrived on transfer deadline day as highly-experienced and highly-rated defender, Corinne Yorston, was signed from Bristol City. She is joined most notably by defender and Welsh international Hannah Short from Yeovil Town, Danielle Carter from Tottenham Hotspur but who was part of Yeovil's WSL2 winning squad in 2016, and Kayleigh Hines who returns to her former club after two seasons at Reading.
Added to these have been Flo Fyfe from Arsenal, Cardiff City trio Chloe Chivers Emily Allen and Ellis Hilman, goalkeeper Claire Skinner from Aston Villa, and Steph Williams from Yeovil Town.
Rounding off their pre-season with two very impressive results against WSL1 opposition in Yeovil Town (a 2-0 win) and Bristol City, (a 3-3 draw), Oxford will be full of confidence to register their first league win since July 2016.
Sheffield, too, have had a positive pre-season with solid wins against strong FA WPL opposition and narrow defeats to Sunderland and Reading. Their squad has had plenty of time to gel with most players having spent the last season at the Club, with new signings in goalkeeper Danielle Gibbons, forwards Mel Johnson and Beth Donoghue, and defender Niamh Cashin bolstering the group.
Youth development has been hugely important at Sheffield FC, and the rewards of investment in this area are already bearing fruit. Four players have progressed from development team to first team in the Club's first 18 months in the FA WSL, and three more have made the step up for the start of the 2017/18 season, giving Sheffield's side a superb blend of quality and experience alongside young and exciting talent.
Sheffield boss Zoe Johnson anticipates a tough opener against Oxford United, but is looking forward to seeing the team's preparations put into action:
"We're naturally looking forward to getting our latest FA WSL campaign up and running this Sunday as we travel to Oxford United. Having finished just below us in the Spring Series, we know Oxford will be a very different test this time out having strengthened massively in the summer, so we expect this opening fixture to be a real test for us."
"We come into the game after a positive pre-season and, although falling short against a very good Reading side last week-end, we felt there are many positives to take into our first competitive game. We know we will have to improve things again this Sunday to take anything from the match, but we've been working hard in training this week to do that."
"We had an extremely difficult Spring Series, and we must improve on that quickly. We used that season to experiment a lot, try different formations and tactics, and move personnel around. We've learnt some valuable lessons from that, and have used that knowledge gained to make sure we bed in the style and principles we want going forward this season - and the players have responded well to that in pre-season."
"We have strengthened in a couple of key areas over the summer, and brought a few more of our youth players through for this coming season - we can't wait to get started this Sunday in what I'm sure will prove a difficult away game."