It has been quite a summer for Millwall Lionesses!
Last season saw two different stories at the club. There was the fairytale 15-month unbeaten run in FAWSL 2 that turned the team from a mid-table side into real title contenders. But financial problems hit in the closing stages of the campaign and for a while, it looked doubtful if they would be able to see it out.
A huge crowd-funding campaign got underway with the women’s football community pulling together.
Captain Leanne Cowan says it meant a lot to see the reaction:
“It was a hard time. We got the statement about an hour before it went public. So to have the support from everyone, like people in our league or even people who don’t follow women’s football but heard what was going on was amazing.”
Many of that team and staff have now left the club, leaving more uncertainty, but things have been turned around over the summer.
First a new board was appointed, quickly followed by new management. Former Arsenal manager, Pedro Martinez Losa was named Director of Football before Chris Phillips joined as Head Coach from Arsenal’s development side.
Chris Phillips says that the club has stabilized over the summer period and is hopeful that his partnership with Pedro will help push Millwall forward as a club over the next few years:
“I think last season, while the women’s team wore the badge, they were left to their own devices. Now, with a new board coming in and board members on the women’s team that are also on the men’s team, it’s fantastic. With Pedro being based at the Den now, full-time, is going to strengthen that relationship.
Pedro’s main job is to come in and stablise the club. We have gone with the young model for two reasons: a) because we believe in them and b) because we haven’t got the financial power to go out there and buy and pay the wages that some of the other clubs are paying. We also thought that we are in London; there is a crowded space here with Chelsea, Arsenal, Charlton, London Bees, Crystal Palace, so what can we be the best at? We can be the best at giving young players the opportunity to play first team football. That’s the model that we’ve set out.
If you look at when Pedro first came to Arsenal, the first team was training twice a week, in the indoor hall, from 5-7pm. Pedro was a major part of the transition at Arsenal from semi-professional to professional. I think that’s what his main role will be here – over seeing that process to take the club forward.
Obviously, I know Pedro inside out and I couldn’t resist the opportunity to come and work with him again. Hopefully we can do well and take this whole club forward. It’s not easy; we’ve got a lot of young girls in the squad, some are still at school or still at university, so whether we’ll be able to go to a day-time programme is something we can look at in six months time. We’ll be sticking with evenings at the moment but it’s definitely our vision to raise the standards at this club and hopefully get Millwall back into the top division.”
Within ten days of joining the club, the new management had signed 21 players. The squad is full of new and young faces and everyone is aware that they will need time to gel.
Phillips is very excited by what he has seen from his young squad so far but is keen not to put too much pressure on them with specific targets for the coming season:
“A lot of teams have spent a lot of money this season, so it’s hard to know where we will fit in the league just yet. I think we’ll surprise a few but with the team that we have, yes there are going to be some difficult moments. Some of these girls have never played first team football. We have players on the pitch that are 16 years old. So, I’m not going to put any specific targets on the team. I would say, let’s see the first five league games and see where we’re at. That will give us an idea of what we can expect from this season.
We can afford to do that. I don’t have to send my team out with the pressure that they must win every game or that they have to be winning trophies, that we must be qualifying for competitions. It’s about looking at what this side can do and in three years time, they’re going to be a very good side.
I’m very happy with my squad this season and we’re going to go out there and try and play entertaining football. The energy they’re bringing into every training session and into the S&C sessions as well is amazing. It’s pleasing as a coach to see that. It makes me want to come to work every day and stay up until 2 in the morning, trying to do my best for this team and provide whatever we can for them.”
Goalkeeper Grace Taylor is positive about how pre-season has gone:
“I think we are doing really well considering that we’re mostly all new. It feels like we are all in the same boat.”
The development of players is clearly a priority for Millwall not just while they are at the club but for whatever comes next.
At just 28, Georgie Giddings is one of the older members of the squad and she is starting to get involved in what happens off the pitch as well:
“I met with other clubs during the closed season but I sat and spoke with Chris and Pedro and they spoke about their visions for the club and it was exciting. Now I get to work alongside them off the pitch and be involved in the meetings. It’s a real building process and it takes time but there’s a plan in place that’s realistic and achievable.”
Phillips was keen to emphasise this as an integral part of Millwall going forward:
“We want to give our players the tools they need to develop, not only as players but as people as well. Part of the chairman’s ethos is that we want to be a club that inspires women and girls for life, not just in their football career. The exit routes for some of these girls will be playing first team football elsewhere, or for us or maybe looking at America. We have different models for different players depending where they’re at.
Looking ahead to the new season, all agree that they are looking forward to the Continental Cup with new signing Beth Powell saying: “I really like cup games and cup runs. It’s good to challenge ourselves as young players.”
A lot can change in six months. To think where this club was at in April to where it is now as they approach the 2018/19 season is amazing and we for one can’t wait to see what the future holds for the Millwall Lionesses.