Life beyond the Premier League: 'Female Michu' can fire Bristol minnows to fairy-tale triumph
Life beyond the Premier League
Thursday 26 September 2013
It goes without saying that the life of a Women's Super League footballer is rather different from that of her Premier League counterpart and the case of two former Rayo Vallecano forwards – Swansea City's Michu and Natalia of Bristol Academy – merely underlines the point.
When Natalia, a Spain international, joined the Bristol club from Rayo this year, one of her chief aims was to improve her English and, with it, boost her prospects of one day getting a primary school teacher's job back in Spain. That is hardly a concern of Michu who earns in a week what Natalia (below) will pick up in a season, yet for all the former's exploits with Swansea, there is one thing Natalia has that is simply no longer available in the men's game: the opportunity to win the league with an unheralded club.
When Natalia and her team-mates board a bus to Widnes on Sunday morning to face Liverpool in the day's title-decider, they will do so believing that anything really is possible. They need to beat a Liverpool side two points ahead at the summit, but then this is a team who trailed 3-0 in their last fixture at Doncaster Rovers Belles before recovering to win 4-3, with Natalia hitting a hat-trick. "It's the first time I ever managed to come back like that, with four goals in 45 minutes," says Natalia, one of the club's three Spaniards along with Laura del Rio and Keka. "The team have shown in the past few games that we're capable of anything."
It would be an unlikely triumph from a club who lost their best player, Jess Fishlock, to Seattle Reign before the start of an impressive season that has already featured an FA Cup final appearance. It would also be a triumph worth applauding from the league's only club not affiliated to a men's team. Though previously linked with Bristol Rovers, they changed their name to Academy in 2005 when entering a partnership with South Gloucestershire and Stroud (SGS) College – where players study for A Levels or BTEC qualifications. It is a fruitful relationship, as manager Mark Sampson explains: "We've got six players who are current college students and another five who progressed through the college programme. We also have strong links with local universities where we send some of our players."
The club – which benefits from access to all-weather pitches and a full-time fitness coach – is also a hub for an impressive youth-development scheme. "We have around 250 players involved with all our programmes from first team right the way down to our 'mini-kickers' at five years old," adds Sampson, who oversees it all.
Encouraging attendances have led to the recent appointment of a full-time commercial manager, while Sampson also notes the significance of this term's five-figure shirt sponsorship deal with Bristol City Community Trust. "We needed that extra level of support, to not just bring some extra quality to the first team but to make sure the [coaching] programmes are given a chance to grow."
That said, it pales beside the money invested by Anfield's American owners in Liverpool. "The coaching staff there get to spend a lot more time with the players," explains Sampson whose only full-time players are his Spanish trio and who has his full squad together only two days a week (one player's post-match recovery after a recent trip to Lincoln comprised a 6am shift the next day stacking supermarket shelves).
Yet they have unity and stability and a touch of magic in the movement and scoring ability of Natalia.
"She stands in the right place," Sampson says of a player who, despite a trip down to Swansea to meet Michu, actually models her game on Raul, the former Real Madrid striker. With Champions League qualification unexpectedly assured ahead of Arsenal, they are also playing "without any pressure", Natalia says. Sampson concurs: "Whatever happens on Sunday, we'll still finish at least second. Liverpool are the team that could go from first to second – for us it's a huge bonus and a huge opportunity."
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