Nearly one year ago we highlighted the success of Bolton Wanderers Ladies, who had just enjoyed their best ever season and only missed out on promotion to the unbeaten Crewe Alexandra. Fast forward to the present and the side has gone from strength to strength, and is now on the verge of achieving the highest level of football in the club's history - themselves so far unbeaten this campaign.
Bolton Ladies currently sit atop the North West Womens' Premier League hoping to gain promotion to Northern Division One, Step 2 - which is essentially the fourth tier (I think) - of the English football pyramid, for the first time in their 18-year history. But, as manager John Oliver tells us, there remains plenty of work still to do to realise the club's lofty ambitions.
Major changes bring major results
Oliver took over as manager of the side last summer but has already instilled plenty of changes - from players and staff to coaching philosophies and organisation. Oliver said: "We’ve challenged players to develop and improve individually and in collective units and have always tried to foster a togetherness and cohesion, on and off the pitch. Ultimately we hope the very positive times can continue."
Off the field, Oliver has brought in Gary Jones and Martin Thomasson as his assistant coaches, instilled new training methods and new expectations for the team.
Those changes have led the Ladies team to a six-point lead at the top of NWWPL, with only Wigan Athletic still capable of catching them. With three league games to go in the 22-game season, Bolton have won 15 and drawn four - scoring a mighty 80 goals en route.
Sunday's 7-0 dispatching of Birkenhead means they now need just four points from their last three games - away to Birkenhead, Blackpool and City of Manchester, against whom they've already scored a combined 19 goals in three games this season - to guarantee promotion and the league title.
In addition to the league success, the side has also reached the final of the League Cup, in which they will face Liverpool-based side MSB Woolton at Bootle Stadium on May 14th.
This campaign's form is down to a change of approach and a shift in footballing mindset. Oliver explained: "I’d like to think we play attractive but winning football. We can be very silky in possession and dynamic in attack but also, importantly, know how to dig deep and face a physical test. As a coaching staff we encourage a technical, tactical and attacking style of play, utilising and adapting a FA / UEFA influenced structure to introduce fresh ideas and approach.
"These new methods have been really well received but there have been inevitable challenges along the way and our positive approach hasn’t always enabled an easy path, especially against tougher gritty sides and on the less quality pitches. But our vision has really come together as the season has gone on and we hope to further build on this foundation."
Oliver is keen to focus on the exemplary efforts of his entire squad, but it's hard to ignore the impressive efforts of, in Oliver's words, "legendary striker" Michelle 'Mich' Kirkman-Ryan - who has notched 29 goals this season, including a hat-trick on Sunday.
Oliver told us: "Mich is well known as a clinical striker with an exemplary work rate and technical ability to match her impressive goal return. But it's hard to pick out just two or three players because as a squad, let alone a team, the girls have shone this season as a whole - the best defensive record and most goals scored in the league shows we have quality throughout."
With the club on the edge of promotion it's hard not to have one eye on the future so, after building on last year's best season ever with an even better one this time around, what lies ahead? Oliver said: "Hopefully the club can continue the upward trajectory of improvement it has enjoyed and can take the next steps forward in terms of development on and off the field."
Womens' football is enjoying an increasing profile generally, part of which was the standout success of England's women at the World Cup two years ago. So we asked Oliver for his view
He said: "It’s all very positive and promising. Regionally there are many credible womens' team as well as plenty of opportunities for girls to get involved in football at grassroots level to the top of the game. In my full-time role at Bolton Wanderers I see on a daily basis the great work we do within the girls' game and I’m sure things will only continue to improve generally.
"I, like most football people I’m sure, was aware and proud of the national team’s success. This is my first season as a manager and head coach within womens' football after years of experience within professional academy and grassroots youth and mens' football, so I can’t claim to be an expert, but in my view the womens' game should go from strength to strength. That’s quite honestly out of our hands and not something we think about as we channel all our collective energies to ensuring as much continued success as we can this season."
Oliver has clearly done a superb job this season and it's great to see the ladies' team build on last season's success by going a step further this time around. Good luck to them in their remaining three games of the season and let's hope there's a promotion to celebrate both for them and their male compatriots.
And, if you're around on May 14th, then get yourself down to Bootle to cheer the ladies on to cup glory!
Bolton Ladies & Girls Football Club are always looking for girls from the age of 5 to get involved in playing football, with girls' teams from Under 10s upwards and a development centre for younger girls.
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