A team that has gone from one extreme to the next, Liverpool face a gruelling second half of the season in attempts to avoid the drop to the Championship. Although the frustrations about the team are no new thing, most of the blame has been dropped at the feet of manager Vicky Jepson but is she to blame and how just did we get here?
In the 2012 WSL season, Liverpool managed just one win and two draws. They finished the year at the bottom of the pile, grateful to be in a closed league without relegation. Finishing the season in early October against Doncaster Belles, the Reds confirmed their last place finish as they lost a six-pointer that could have seen them trade positions with the Belles and finish one from bottom. The disappointing season ended with a whimper in Skelmersdale, the team undergoing a vast transformation over the winter.
In came Matt Beard and with him a raft of new signings. WSL had a modest history with imports; Arsenal’s all-conquering teams had been a mix of British and Irish, and had set the tone for the league. Some teams would flirt with foreign players, but it wasn’t until 2013 that Beard – and Emma Hayes at Chelsea – set about changing the landscape of women’s football in England with footballers from around the world. And it was indeed that balance of British and everything else that paid immediate dividends for Beard as Liverpool (three-time Northern Division champions) won their first title of the new era. Dramatically retaining their league crown on the last day of the following season, the WSL champions fast learned that everything that goes up must come down.
Blighted by injuries during the fragmented 2015 season, the Reds slumped in the table and finished seventh out of eight teams – saved from relegation by the worse form of Bristol City. Beard left for the Boston Breakers and Liverpool once again looked to rebuild, turning to Scott Rogers. The young manager had mixed results during his time with the Reds but ultimately left under a cloud with rumours milling around the league of a broken dressing room and unhappy players, most of whom departed at the end of the 2017-18 season. Again, Liverpool had to go back to the drawing board; a manager was required, as was the majority of a team.
Neil Redfearn had had success in the second tier with the Belles and his appointment was met with warm murmurs of encouragement but after signing a new squad, bringing in a number of Championship players, the former Leeds United man left as quickly as he had arrived. The Liverpool job was a long way from a poisoned chalice but came with tangible baggage and the club had little time to find a replacement so looked in-house. Chris Kirkland, Liverpool Women’s goalkeeper coach at the time, was given the interim role, with Vicky Jepson keeping her role as assistant. Come the end of the season, Jepson was the first team manager as Kirkland departed.
Throughout their recent history, opinion has been divided when it comes to Liverpool; Jepson, Kirkland, Rogers… why not someone established? Why not someone to push the envelope? The managers have been safe appointments, but have they been uninspired? The feeling often being that the hires speak to the apathy of the club as a whole when it comes to the women’s side. Yet after her years of dedication to Liverpool FC, to working in almost every department possible, there was logic involved with Jepson’s appointment. For a team that promotes from within, both on the pitch and in the dugout, the coach who has worked for so long with the younger players at the club was a nod to the identity of the team.
Yet working with a limited budget and a limited squad, Jepson has drawn heavy criticism from the fans for the lack of results. Again, the dissent has been angled at the club as a whole – why, with a men’s team returning such high profits, having just won the Champions League and riding higher and higher in the Premier League, is the same care not given to the women’s side? The manager admits that last season she was organising the majority of behind the scenes jobs, running as much as the team as she could – left to run the ship alone with just the team’s physio and sports scientist. (Just for a second, imagine if Jürgen Klopp had to do it all to keep Liverpool Men going, to take each session, to analyse and cut each game up to prepare his team and everything and anything in-between).
For Jepson, who never allows her smile to slip, she insists she was pleased with the extra workload. A woman who has consistently been running around for years, keeping a whole dinner service’s worth of plates spinning, the additional work played to Jepson’s strengths and helped her grow as a coach. And when you peel away all the noise and contextualise what happens on the pitch over 90 minutes, the young manager is clearly doing a good job. Teams are analysed – no longer by the coach but Jordan Kevan, one of the handful of backroom staff brought in for the new season – and plans are put into place to neutralise the opposition. And, looking purely at results, no team has run riot against the Reds, the most common scoreline a 1-0 loss.
On the pitch, the problem for Liverpool is they don’t, or can’t, score goals. The team have largely favoured pragmatism, conceding possession but making their opposition work and save for one or two costly errors a game, the application has been better than most would assume. For Jepson, who can never speak highly enough of her players in interviews, there is caution and an unspoken understanding of the limitations within the squad. It’s easy enough to look at the squad’s teams like Arsenal and Chelsea have amassed and understand why they’re two of the teams fighting for the title. (The two London sides almost look like they looked to the Liverpool team of 2013 and copied the blueprint, understanding that investment and imports were paramount). Yet after two successful seasons, the Reds stagnated, setting a budget that was proficient in a semi-professional world but not one that can compete with the ever-evolving league. So, it is of no surprise that as their Premier League-affiliated counterparts prospered, Liverpool sunk, sliding downwards leading to discontent from the players and fans.
When you speak to Jepson after a match, she speaks in clichés, “Rome wasn’t built in a day,” one that’s fine to use two matches into the season but that dies a death if it’s reused half-way through the season. She smiles in her post-match interviews and even peppers in comments that she’s “still smiling” or “looking smiley,” and will make jokes about the job turning her hair grey. Like most managers and players in the league, she says the right things, but [like most managers and players in the league] there is a disingenuity to it. Occasionally there’s a comment about the referees or a moment in the match, like a veneer slipping in frustration but overall there’s a feeling from her of a tired schoolteacher, handing you back an assignment with a low grade. She’s sure you can do better and is mindful to tell you so, each C grade sat next to a hand-drawn smiley face.
It’s clear Jepson has spent the majority of her career developing younger players and there is certainly the suggestion that she’s found her ceiling and isn’t suited for the senior game, or is at least, not suited to be the manager of a senior team. Yet when you watch Liverpool play, you can see the ideas she’s trying to employ, as you get the sense for just how tough is for teams in WSL without the budgets to rival the recent title-winners.
Against Manchester United, the team that came out in Leigh was set-up to nullify whilst maintaining a cutting edge on the counter and for 45-minutes, Liverpool competed and were the better team in spells. Yet, the manager, and therefore the team, didn’t react when Casey Stoney made half-time adjustments. It’s that lack of reactive reaction that has been stinging the team but is what you’d expect from a younger manager still making her way in the world – as it’s all part of the clichéd learning curve.
There is also the underpinning feeling that if Jepson had a few extra players in her squad to call upon, a few more mid-table players, the team would be able to turn losses into draws and draws into the wins that have been so inaccessible this season. But of course, players cost money and for a team that has found a home at Tranmere Rovers’ Prenton Park, sharing Rovers’ Solar Campus training ground, detached from their own men’s team, any real investment seems a long way off. Even speaking to Jepson earlier in the season, she beamed that the women’s team had been taken back in house – Liverpool’s pre-season American tour a nod to a one-club ethos – yet still volunteered the information that she’s been working on arranging sponsors and commercial partnerships for the women’s team. Which doesn’t seem like a necessary or usual concern for a football manager.
There are great contradictions around Liverpool Women as a team and a club, but if people were to compare the team and their form this season to others in their position around the league – the Bristols and Birminghams rather than the Chelseas and Arsenals – then the entire visage shifts. As many around the league have already suggested, Liverpool FC need to do right by their women’s team and invest to a degree that makes their competitive with other teams that have Premier League counterparts. Without that even-footing, it feels like Liverpool Women and Jepson will always be judged as a top team, regardless of current context.
With relegation still a real prospect and the teams around them edging out the head-to-heads at the foot of the table, something needs to change before the Reds suffer a similar fate to Merseyside rivals, Everton. Liverpool are not a bad team and Vicky Jepson is not a bad manager but too often all people remember are the losses and frustration, should the team tumble into the second tier, it’s unlikely few will remember all the good the coach did.
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