Sport

Spacey-Cale’s Southampton target WSL as ‘amazing journey’ continues

Marieanne Spacey-Cale is discussing ceilings and, more specifically, the thrill of smashing through them. In the space of four years the former England forward has managed Southampton to successive promotions and will be justifiably proud as she takes her seat in the home dug-out for Saturday’s opening Championship game at St Mary’s where Charlton are the visitors.

“We’ve been on an amazing journey and, as we progressed up the League ladder we started talking about ceilings,” says the 56-year-old whose side will play all their home games at St Mary’s this season. “Some players smashed through them, others reached their ceiling and moved elsewhere, but everyone’s played a major part in getting us here.”

Southampton have never played at second tier level before but when, back in 2018, they lured Spacey-Cale from a senior coaching job at the FA it was all part of a long term plan to eventually establish the team in the Women’s Super League.

Given that she ranked among the first English women to gain the blue riband Pro Licence coaching qualification and, as Mark Sampson’s assistant, played a key role in the Lionesses winning the bronze medal at the 2015 World Cup in Canada, it represented an ambitious appointment.

Throw in Spacey-Cale’s status as one of the finest footballers to have played for England – customarily deployed as an attacking midfielder or second striker blessed with vision, technique, pace and power, she won 91 caps, scoring 28 goals between 1984 and 2001 – and it is small wonder Southampton regarded her arrival as quite a coup.

“I had a fantastic time with the FA,” says Spacey-Cale, who also coached assorted national junior teams from Under-23 to Under-15 level. “We had a lot of success but coming to Southampton has really revitalised me.

“It was an exciting chance to start with a blank piece of paper and know the support was there to do what I wanted. The attitude was: ‘Let’s go, let’s make it as good as we can,’ and, so far, we’re doing OK.”

Significantly Spacey-Cale’s team – which, bolstered by seven new summer signings has now turned fully professional – shares facilities with Ralph Hasenhüttl’s men at the club’s Staplewood training base.

“The beauty of integration is that I can walk into one of the men’s coaches’ rooms and have a serious football conversation,” says Spacey-Cale. “At Southampton it’s seen as normal that men and women are treated the same way; not all clubs are as forward thinking.”

She knows widespread change will necessitate the recruitment of more women across the football spectrum. “It’s not just about playing, it’s about getting involved as coaches, administrators, physios,” she says. “More women having that opportunity to work in the game is something we’ve got to drive and push for.”

The same goes for increasing female football’s fanbase and Spacey-Cale is anxious to tap into the enthusiasm generated by England’s Euro 2022 triumph.

“We’ve got a real hardcore of supporters who’ve already booked their flights from Southampton to Newcastle for the Championship games at Durham and Sunderland in January and February,” she says.

“But our season ticket sales are up 160% so there’s a whole new audience and I’m sure we’ll have a really good crowd against Charlton. The challenge is to see how many of those who still aren’t sure about women’s football we can win over.”

Rising standards in a highly competitive and increasingly professionalised division promoted Liverpool were relieved to escape last season should help. With ambitious Bristol City and Durham among those pushing for a WSL place this season, Spacey-Cale is braced for a tough induction.

“The Championship’s a strong league,” she says. “All 12 teams have invested, everyone’s recruited so it’s going to be extremely tight and extremely challenging. Everyone here is really excited to discover what playing in it feels like.”

Several of the England players she worked with during her FA tenure now know precisely what it means to be a European Champion. “I feel proud of them – and excited about what they can do at next summer’s World Cup,” she says. “But everyone who has been involved in women’s football, right back to the days when we were banned from playing, are part of this success.

“Now it’s up to the current generation to ensure they continue making their predecessors proud. It’s about building on this summer’s success in the right way.”

At Southampton, too many ceilings have already been shattered for Spacey-Cale to call a halt to her own construction project any time soon. “We’ve always said we want to be a WSL club,” she says. “We know it’ll take maybe three or four years but that’s where we want to be.”