Women's Football: Bristol aim to feast at top table helped by the Tapas Three

 

Not a tough one for the neutral. On one side the might of Liverpool Ladies, a dominating presence in the FA Women's Super League all season spearheaded by their prolific goal-scoring England international, Natasha Dowie (yes, related to Iain Dowie). On the other side, Bristol Academy WFC, a cluster of young players who include a chef and an Aldi check-out girl and an HQ rarely mistaken for Anfield. It is a shed, but a nice one.

This is the nature of today's title showdown. Giant vs minnow, in principle. But in practice there are a couple of factors that may tilt the playing field (specifically, the pitch at Widnes Vikings) a little less towards Liverpool.

There is the Academy's fanatical fan base to begin with. They claim to be the best-supported team in the League, with turnouts of around 1,000 for their home games, and their own face-painted Barmy Army called the "Smurfs". But the real secret weapon is on the pitch where manager, Matt Sampson, has ingeniously assembled a triumvirate of senior Spain internationals to foster the home-grown talent.

"Just like when Eric Cantona went to Manchester United, I wanted someone to instruct and encourage our younger players. I was looking for a foreign player or an England international. In our first season in the Super League [in 2011] we had a Dutch player perform that role, but last season we found Laura Del Rio. She loves football and her input has been crucial to our success."

This season Del Rio (31) was joined by the leading scorer, 27-year-old Natalia, and recently the veteran Keka (32) has supplemented the midfield, as well as vastly improving the cooking at the house shared by the Spaniards. The "Tapas Three" have helped transform the team's fortunes even though Natalia arrived from Rayo Vallecano only understanding "Man On" and "Goal" in English. "Yes the weather is bad," she conceded. "But it feels like home now."

Natalia has also been instrumental in growing the Academy's celebrity fan base. She is good friends with Michu at Swansea who recently invited all three of his compatriots to lunch where they had duck, not tapas, disappointingly. He regularly texts the team good-luck messages and even starred in their FA Cup final preview film this year by dutifully waving his shoes.

The genesis of this strange behaviour is their team chant: "Shoes off if you love Bristol" following one of their under-17 players randomly waving her shoes in excitement during their FA Cup semi-final victory over Lincoln Ladies. It was immediately adopted as a symbol of support for the League's underdogs.

Perhaps that is the attitude which has spurred their triumphs this season. "Our spirit and our hard work are our biggest strengths," said Sampson, 30, who also plays for the Cardiff Corinthians. "I don't want the players to be robots. I want them to express themselves. Just technique and tactics isn't enough. We have to have the emotional element. There's been a lot of tears and tantrums but they've been defining moments for us.

"We go to this match full of confidence. Even if we get beat 10-0 we're still going to be second. What an exciting challenge for this young club. This time next year we could be in Europe."

This fact is not lost on the local paper who have plastered the women's team all over their front page and taken a considerable pop at their male counterparts, Rovers and City, both suffering woeful starts to the season. It is particularly hard on City who actually sponsor the women.

Even so, Bristol's perennial problem is shortage of funds. They receive £70,000 annually from the FA and are nowhere near affording the FAWSL salary cap of £25,000 per player. Their best players are permanently vulnerable to extraction but they survive, even flourish, thanks to a successful barter deal with Bristol Academy who provide their immaculate pitch, housing and – crucially – the opportunity to educate their young players or open career paths to older players. "We're like the Naughty School," said Sampson. "We train up the youngsters and we polish up rough diamonds."

The buzz of anticipation is palpable. The only problem they face today is the 2pm kick-off. Or as Del Rio put it: "Siesta time!"

Follow women's sport with Sue Mott (@suemott1) on Twitter. BTSport will be showing Bristol v Liverpool live on BT Sport 2 today, kick-off 2pm. Check out BTSport.com for more information

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