Liverpool were promoted back to the WSL from the Championship last season; Matt Beard and Shanice van de Sanden have returned to the club to help them back in the top flight; Liverpool face Reading in their WSL opener on Sunday; kick-off 2pm
Some may look at Liverpool and be forgiven for thinking they had jumped back a few years. Perhaps most importantly, the club are back in the Women’s Super League after a triumphant Women’s Championship campaign last season.
It also sees Matt Beard back in the WSL, having returned to Liverpool as manager last May. In his previous three seasons with the Reds, Beard guided them to two WSL titles.
Adding the Championship win last season, it marks a good return for the former Chelsea and West Ham manager. He has now won three league trophies in four campaigns as Liverpool manager across two spells.
When asked what has clicked with him and Liverpool, Beard exclusively told Sky Sports: “I don’t think there’s any magic answer. We just work hard, we enjoy ourselves as well, which is a big thing.
“I was very lucky in my first time, I worked with some fantastic players and great people. That’s the big thing in football, people getting on. If you’re happy in football and out of football, then it takes care of itself to a certain extent. It’s just one of those things – we come in, we work hard, we enjoy ourselves and that’s it really.
“I’ve always been a fan from afar and I loved my time here before. Me and my family, we were settled in the north west during my first time at the club.
“The reason I left in the first place was I wanted to try something different, test myself in a different country and I took on some different challenges since leaving Liverpool, which I think has rounded me and made me who I am today.
“I love the city, love the fans and what the club means to the city. It just feels like home for me.”
Although not at Liverpool at the same time as Beard, Netherlands international Shanice van de Sanden has also returned to the club after previously spending two seasons with the Reds in 2016 and 2017.
She had a successful spell away too, playing for two of Europe’s best teams in Wolfsburg and Lyon. With the French side, Van de Sanden won three successive Champions League and Division 1 Feminine titles, as well as two Coupe de France trophies.
But the forward has returned to Liverpool to rediscover her joy for the game in a city that changed her as a player.
“When I came to Liverpool a few years ago, it was my first time playing in a different country and I learnt so much,” Van de Sanden exclusively told Sky Sports.
“There were so many people who helped me, telling me where things were like the supermarket. That’s something I’ve developed as a person as well so when I went to Lyon, it’s not my country but I knew when new people came into the squad, I had to help them and give them the feeling that they were so welcome.
“As a person as well, you grow so much. You don’t have your family around, you’re just by yourself with your team-mates so you get strong. Mentally as well, you have tough moments in your career, sometimes you don’t play, sometimes you do play and you have a bad game so you have to figure it out yourself.
“I’ve learnt so much of that at Liverpool and from there, I signed for one of the biggest clubs in the world in Lyon so that’s why Liverpool has a place in my heart for sure.
“I really love this club, I’m a big fan of Liverpool since I was a kid and I really love the English people, they are always so social. I missed that in Germany, they are a bit more stiff so I thought ‘let’s go back to the league and to this country’.
“I’ve been enjoying the game again. I missed that in the last year because I didn’t play that much at Wolfsburg and I didn’t really enjoy it. It was a good season, we won some trophies, but still, if you’re not enjoying the game, trophies are nothing.
“You need to enjoy it and be happy, so I’m happy to be here because I get the confidence and belief from my team-mates and the staff so that’s why I’ve missed over the last couple of years.”
In a cruel blow, Liverpool were relegated from the WSL on points per game during the eventually cancelled 2019/20 season as the Covid-19 pandemic gripped the world. It saw them drop into the Women’s Championship – an increasingly competitive league that has seen Manchester United, Tottenham and Leicester promoted over the last few seasons.
After finishing third in the 2020/21 campaign under Vicky Jepson and caretaker manager Amber Whiteley, Beard returned and saw Liverpool promoted at the first time of asking. But just how did he do it?
“There weren’t many differences [from before],” he reflected. “We were at a different training ground, playing at a different ground. The club were always supportive when I was here before and during my time now.
“The game has moved on since I was here before, with the WSL and now the Championship. From a club perspective, not much has changed, the support is there.
“From a recruitment point of view, we wanted to address the balance of the team. We had a lot of players that were similar so we could only really play one way. We also wanted to recruit a team that could play against different sides, like last year against Sheffield United, they were quite organised and direct, Durham were physical and dangerous on set plays so we needed to address the balance so we could deal with whatever was thrown at us.
“Then we changed the staffing side as well, we added more staff in so we could prepare the players better and give ourselves the best possible chance of getting out of the division.
“It’s funny when I see things like ‘back where we belong’ last year, because no one has a divine right to be in the top division. You have to earn that and we certainly did last year.
“As a brand, it’s great for the league. We’re one of the biggest clubs in the world so to have the women’s team back in the WSL, and especially with our history.
“We know that transition from the Championship to the WSL is going to be tough, but we have the squad and the depth to cope with the demands of the division. We appreciate it’s going to be different from the Championship and we can potentially learn from Aston Villa and Leicester’s transition as well.”
While Van de Sanden missed out on the promotion party, she also reflected on the changes at Liverpool and in English football having watched on from the continent.
She said: “It’s much more professional and now, we play and train on grass. That’s something that has changed because we played before at Widnes and the pitch was very bad, we trained there every day too and it was bad for your body. Everything is better organised.
“There are big players here [in the WSL] so you get better as well. It doesn’t matter which team you’re going to play against, you’re coming up against the best in the world so it’s very interesting.
“The England squad also won the Euros at home and I know how it is to play a Euros at home and win it, there’s so much attention and on the league as well when it starts. That’s also something very good that’s happened here.
“The WSL has grown so much as well. Players like Sam Kerr came to this league, but the young, English players have developed because they’ve had the belief from their clubs.
“That’s something that is very important because the league in Holland isn’t growing as much because the young players, they don’t get that much confidence or playing minutes and in England, they do. So the young players also get better, that’s why the game is getting better as well, not only the stars are playing good games but the kids are playing here. That’s also why it’s so competitive at the moment.”
Although Liverpool may be a world-renowned club and previous two-time WSL champions, as Beard said, returning to the top flight will not be easy.
In a relatively small league of just 12 teams, every point counts and the margins are small. The competition for the Champions League places is just as fierce as the relegation battles.
However, the Liverpool boss has been planning for the WSL since his Liverpool return and believes they can make an impact this season.
“We have ambitions to do as well as we can in the division,” he explained. “I feel we have the squad depth to compete and stay in the division for sure. We’ve got a lot of experience in this team that knows the league and if you look at our recruitment, we’ve bought in four players so far that know the league and are internationals.
“The key thing for me was to strengthen the XI and add more depth to the squad. When we recruited last, we did so with an eye on the WSL the year after. So we bought in players like Jasmine Matthews, Yana Daniels, Leanne Kiernan – all players who have played in the WSL before.
“It’s been a pretty similar process with this recruitment but we feel we’re equipped to cope with the demands of it with what we’ve got. For the most part, we just want to concentrate on ourselves and make sure we do our basics right. If we can do that, then we’ve got a lot of players in our squad who can hurt teams.”
One of the biggest matches of the season will be the return of the Merseyside derby. The first on September 25 will be staged at Anfield as Liverpool take on local rivals Everton, live on Sky Sports.
“It’s fantastic,” Beard said of the upcoming occasion. “Last time, when they played here, there were 23,000 to 25,000 fans so hopefully we can get more than that this time round.
“If you look at the WSL last year and even when I was at West Ham, when the main stadiums were opened up, there were a lot of people there. We’re really looking forward to it. That’s the first fixture I look for when they come out so we’re really looking forward to it. It’ll be a great occasion for the players to play here.”
Playing at Anfield is one area where Van de Sanden can draw on her wealth of experience, as well as fulfilling a life-long dream to play at the famous stadium.
“I’m very much looking forward to the derby, especially being at Anfield. That’s something that I’ve dreamed of so hopefully, it will now come true.
“I’m someone who visualises, I’ve done it a lot of times in my career. I’ve done this already with playing at Anfield with the team and the supporters and stuff like that.
“I’ve got so much experience, like winning the Champions League a few times, and playing at home for 30,000 people in a sold-out stadium. The young girls in the squad, they have not played for so many supporters so I can help them before big games.
“I can make a speech and tell them to be confident and it’s about us, not the people around you. It may feel like that, but it’s just about us and I believe in you so believe in yourself as well.
“I’ve had those days when I was very nervous being on the pitch and all the people watching me, but I took the energy from them [the fans] and played my game. They came there for me and my teammates, so why should I be nervous? That’s also the message I want to give to my teammates.”
With Beard, Van de Sanden and plenty of other talent in their ranks, Liverpool are shaping up for a competitive season with a mix of experience and youth. They will be hoping the combination will see them secure their WSL status for another year.