When England legend Marieanne Spacey-Cale began life as Southampton manager in the lowly Southern Region Women's Football League in 2018 competing with grass-roots outfits Warsash Wasps, Barton Rovers and Woodley United, the road ahead to reach the Women's Championship looked as long and twisting as some of the country lanes leading to their opponents' pitches.
Three promotions and only one league defeat later, the 91-times capped former England, Arsenal and Fulham forward will see her Southampton side open the new second-tier season at St Mary's Stadium against Charlton Athletic on a Saturday afternoon that will represent the seismic transformation of the club following their rapid rise up through the pyramid.
"Going to grass-roots pitches, going down little windy lanes and finding there are dog walkers around the outside, that’s all part of the experience and helps drive you to get to the next level," Spacey-Cale told Telegraph Sport, reflecting on some of their away trips in her first season in charge such as travelling to New Milton Town's Fawcetts Field home. "Those memories should never be forgotten, because they give us resilience, robustness and that desire to keep getting better. It gives you the grounding and that humility.
"We’ve fought for this, we’ve earned this, and we shouldn’t forget any player who has been part of this journey - without those players at the beginning, where would we be now?"
Some of the current squad have been on the whole journey too, not least academy graduate midfielder Georgie Freeland, who scored four goals in Spacey-Cale's first league game in charge in September 2018, an 11-0 win over Newbury, and then provided the assist for their crucial winning goal in May 2022's promotion play-off win over Wolves to reach the second tier. And that latest promotion came at a prime time for the sport, as they now begin their new campaign less than three weeks after England's historic Euros triumph at Wembley, a landmark success that Spacey-Cale doesn't want the English women's game to just settle for.
"The Lionesses in the summer were phenomenal, they deserved to win the tournament, and now we have to grasp this opportunity," she continued. "We’ve got to really push for football in schools, more female coaches, more opportunities, but also we’ve got to ensure we don’t miss this. We’ve got to really live the hell out of winning the Euros. Let’s make sure the fans and the supporters who sit on the fence and say ‘do I go, don’t I go?’, that they do come along and it continues to grow."
Spacey-Cale has extra reason to feel proud at seeing the Lionesses triumph, having spent 11 years coaching at the FA prior to joining Southampton, including being on the staff when England finished third at the 2015 World Cup and working with many of the current squad when coaching the Under-23s. Prior to all that she was a leading light for the national side as a player in the sport's more primitive years in the Eighties and Nineties, and at club level lifted 16 major trophies before being inducted into the national Hall of Fame in 2009.
"I spoke to a couple of my ex-team-mates from the England squad and we’re all super, super proud of what’s been achieved, but also what we don’t want is to be sitting where we are now having won the Euros, it’s about what’s next - how do we progress to win the World Cup and to win the next Euros and the next World Cup? Progress doesn’t sit still."
And she knows all about progress. Prior to her arrival in the summer of 2018, Southampton did not have a senior women's team but had been running a youth women's side in the Hampshire county league. They had applied for a licence to move up to the Championship for 2018-19 when the leagues were restructured, but were overlooked in five other teams including Manchester United. After that rejection, instead they have worked their way up through the tiers and - despite a one-year delay when Covid-19 saw promotion scrapped in 2019-20 - they have won 54 of their 59 league matches completed in Spacey-Cale's tenure and now they have gone full-time. So what will be the aim this term?
"This is an adjustment season, we’ve not played at this level before," Spacey-Cale said of the upcoming campaign. "Recruitment was key, that we’ve got players who have played at this level or played above, because they can share their experiences. But the players aren't just saying ‘we’re the new kids, come and have a go at us’, they certainly want to compete. I’m happy with what they’ve said and where they’re setting their sights."
Sharing the club's Staplewood training ground with the men's first team, Spacey-Cale is able to have conversations with men's-team manager Ralph Hasenhuttl and his first-team lead coach Ruben Selles, as well as with the 'B team' and academy coaching staff, and says the women's team feel fully-embraced by the club. Spacey-Cale adds that it was the board's desire to see them switch their home league games to St Mary's, continuing: "You talk to the board and we’re a ‘first team’ at the football club, treated the same. It was really pushed by the board for that to happen. Everybody is all-in."
That switch to St Mary's, perhaps coupled with Euros fever, has led to a 160 per cent increase in season ticket sales for the women's side and Spacey-Cale added: "One of the demographics we're seeing rising is new supporters who aren’t men’s season ticket holders which is fantastic as it opens the club up to a new fanbase.
"Every club is individual in terms of why they would or wouldn’t do it [move to playing at their main stadium], and you have to respect the decisions of clubs to do that. I think it’d be great if in the next two, three or five years the games are all at the main stadiums and the fanbase has grown because the stadiums can accept more people. But we’ve always got to make sure that everything we do is at the right time for the right reasons for the club for them to ensure they can sustain themselves in their league.
"This is probably one of the strongest Championships that there has been, in terms of the number of clubs investing more and training full-time, so it’s going to be a great season. We all talk about the WSL but there are future England players playing in the Championship so come and watch them."
Recently-relegated Birmingham City, last season's runners-up London City Lionesses and former WSL side Bristol City will be among the favourites to challenge for the Championship's sole promotion spot this term along with Durham and Crystal Palace, in a fiercely competitive division which saw just four points separate the teams in third and seventh last season.