Life beyond the Premier League: 'Female Michu' can fire Bristol minnows to fairy-tale triumph

Life beyond the Premier League

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."

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Bleacher Report

Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Day In a Page

Syria civil war: Meet the military commander who says his soldiers will not rest until every inch of their war torn country is free of Islamist 'terrorists'

‘We won’t stop until Syria is back to normal’

Near the front lines with Islamist-controlled towns where Assad’s troops were besieged just last month, Robert Fisk meets a commander confidently preparing his soldiers for battle
Fifa corruption: Strip Qatar of the World Cup? Not likely

Strip Qatar of the World Cup? Not likely

But if a real smoking gun is found, that might change things, says Tom Peck
Twenty two years later Jurassic Park series faces questions over accuracy of the fictional dinosaurs in it

Tyrannosaurus wrecked?

Twenty two years on, Jurassic Park faces questions over accuracy
The inside story of how Bill Clinton built a $2bn global foundation may undermine Hillary's chances

The inside story of how Bill Clinton built a $2bn global foundation...

... and how it may undermine Hillary's chances in 2016
Genes greatly influence when and how many babies a woman will have, study finds

Mother’s genes play key role in decision to start a family

Study's findings suggest that human fertility is still evolving
12 best olive oils

Extra-virgin, cold-press, early-harvest, ultra-premium: 12 best olive oils

Choosing an olive oil is a surprising minefield. Save yourself the hassle with our handy guide
Rafa Benitez Real Madrid unveiling: New manager full of emotion at Bernabeu homecoming

Benitez full of emotion at Bernabeu homecoming

There were tears in the former Liverpool manager’s eyes as he was unveiled as Real Madrid coach. But the Spaniard knows he must make tough decisions if he is to succeed
England can win the Ashes – and Elvis Presley will present the urn

England can win the Ashes – and Elvis will present the urn

In their last five Test, they have lost two and drawn two and defeated an India side last summer who thought that turning up was competing, says Stephen Brenkley
Sepp Blatter resignation: The beginning of Fifa's long road to reform?

Does Blatter's departure mean Fifa will automatically clean up its act?

Don't bet on it, says Tom Peck
Charles Kennedy: The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

Charles Kennedy was consistently a man of the centre-left, dedicated to social justice, but was also a champion of liberty and an opponent of the nanny-state, says Baroness Williams
Syria civil war: The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of this endless conflict

The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of Syria's endless civil war

Sahar Qanbar lost her mother and brother as civilians and government soldiers fought side by side after being surrounded by brutal Islamist fighters. Robert Fisk visited her
The future of songwriting: How streaming is changing everything we know about making music

The future of songwriting

How streaming is changing everything we know about making music
William Shemin and Henry Johnson: Jewish and black soldiers receive World War I Medal of Honor amid claims of discrimination

Recognition at long last

Jewish and black soldiers who fought in WWI finally receive medals after claims of discrimination
Beating obesity: The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters

Beating obesity

The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters
9 best women's festival waterproofs

Ready for rain: 9 best women's festival waterproofs

These are the macs to keep your denim dry and your hair frizz-free(ish)