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The cultural revolution at the heart of Lauren Smith’s new vision for Bristol City Women

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It could just be coincidental but as the final bricks were laid at the Robins High Performance Centre, and the club moved en masse to the new facility in March, two major restructuring works soon began at the club.

As Nigel Pearson has been entrusted with a three-year contract to try and get the men’s team into the Premier League, bringing in new types of players, staff and a different way of working, an equally wide-ranging cultural change is taking place at Bristol City Women.

Relegation from the Women’s Super League (WSL) has forced huge change both within the squad and off the field: 11 new signings, five academy players brought into the first team with just six survivors from last season’s squad as budgets needed to be reassessed and recalibrated.

High-profile playing departures such Sophie Baggaley, Ebony Salmon and Carla Humphrey was mirrored off the field with Head of Women’s Football Lee Billiard departing along with assistant manager and youth technical director Marco Chiavetta.

And earlier this month it was confirmed head coach Tanya Oxtoby would be stepping down permanently having been on maternity leave since January with her interim replacement Matt Beard now in position at Liverpool.

Gavin Marshall was recently appointed chairperson, this week a new operations manager arrived in Lauren Smith from Watford, but to move forward on the pitch, City have looked back to their recent past with the arrival of Lauren Smith as head coach.

At just 33, Smith brings a freshness, energy and new ideas to the club but also familiarity given it’s where the foundations of her coaching career were established.

Smith served a number of roles across the club from 2012 to 2017, including technical director, Under-15s coach and media officer, before departing to be Wales assistant manager and working as Tottenham assistant head coach in the WSL last season.

She admits her desire for taking a first head coach’s position was down to the club itself rather than the gravitas of the role in the context of her career.

“It was an easy decision, I said a few times – nowhere has felt quite like Bristol,” Smith said. “I had loads of great experiences and some very high highs in international football and in the WSL with Spurs but nothing felt like Bristol, and this home feeling.

“And when this job came up I was like, ‘that is absolutely what I want to do next’. Luckily the club wanted exactly what I did, to make it feel like a community club again, with its roots in the local area.

“It’s the club, the ambitions, Gavin as a chairperson – that makes me want to be here. I’m not that much of a local in terms of the city but in terms of a football club, it’s been the only one I’ve ever supported.

“From that point you find out about the people that run it, the volunteers that help and it just has that great feel of what a football club should be like.”

Smith has a big job on her hand effectively building a squad from scratch and the new signings have been drip fed into the building to allow cohesion and chemistry to build at a natural rate as her ideas, tactics and instructions permeate into the players.

There is a method to it all beyond just the desire to have a group of competitive footballers in the Championship; Smith wants to build an identity and connections with the community through the promotion of local players.

She wants her team to play exciting, inspiring football and build an aspirational quality for young girls in Bristol.

The relentless run of defeats throughout last season and the slight sense of isolation the team had being stationed at Twerton Park can hopefully be corrected by wins in the Championship and a proper home ground in Bristol at the High Performance Centre.



Fans watch on at the Robins High Performance Centre (Andy Watts/JMP)

“I like to do things differently,” Smith adds “I want things to be flexible, how we work in terms of shape. What we have in strength, we’ll make sure we use against teams in weakness so that means there’ll be changes in our shape throughout the season.

“But exciting is probably the thing I want from the team so the fans will look out and watch us and say, ‘God, that was exciting football’. So to do that and emulate that we have to do that in (training sessions), so if the players don’t enjoy that they’re not going to do it well.

“So we have to make sure, me and the staff, the environment is so that the players come in and they want to be here and they love being out on the grass because they’re challenged in different ways. They enjoy what they do and they’re excited to do it.

“What we have is a really passionate group of players and great people which makes that gelling so much easier on the pitch. We’ve had a few games in pre-season and worked on a few different shapes and principles and they’re willing to try everything.

“It’s been a very smooth sail so far which means there has to be some rocks to come at some point.”

Crucial to that desire for excitement will be City’s frontline of Abi Harrison, who remains with the squad having been part of the WSL team, and Melissa Johnson who arrived this summer having scored six goals in nine games last season in the Championship for Sheffield United, and 12 the previous campaign for Aston Villa.



Abi Harrison in action during pre-season against Lewes (Andy Watts/JMP)

Smith insists there is no internal pressure for promotion but undoubtedly it’s a goal and a target for the team to aim for. However, there also appears to be an understanding that matching the impressive scope of the job with consistent points could take time.

“The ambition is definitely there, every game we go into we want to win and ultimately if you do that you will be promoted,” Smith added. “It’s definitely something we want to do, but is the pressure there that we must do it? It doesn’t have to happen unless it’s right for us. We’re not going to be scrambling to get there, we’ll do what’s right for us.

“The Championship is more exciting than the WSL because everyone will be taking points off of each other. In the WSL, you have the top four, that middle league and then the relegation challengers and it’s very set which makes it hard for the likes of Everton to push and get in there.

“In the Championship it really is a blank canvas, there’s been so much change in terms of players, management, facilities, even some teams that were part-time in the past have gone to full-time like Lewes, Charlton – they’ll surprise teams who are expected to be at the top. It’ll be a very open league.”

Satara Murray is one of the new faces in the squad with the American-born defender tempted over the channel from FC Austin Elite having previously played for Liverpool in the WSL.

In what is a fundamentally youthful City squad, the centre-back will be assigned with a leadership role to draw on her vast experience in the game and help set the tone of performance for City.



Satara Murray in action at the Robins High Performance Centre (JMP)

In her own words, the Texan “loves putting in a hard tackle” and has taken to Bristol and Smith’s coaching methods quickly and with real enthusiasm as direct evidence of the type of open environment and culture the head coach has already created.

“I didn’t think I would adjust as quickly as I have done, to the culture, the style of play, everything but I’ve settled in fine and Bristol is a beautiful city, and the club is even better!” Murray said, whose mum Glenda will be up bright and early back in Austin to watch her daughter in action.

“My first day I walked in, the girls were super welcoming, the staff were super welcoming. In the past I’ve walked into teams and it’s not quite as welcoming an environment.

“Her (Smith’s) knowledge of the game is unbelievable, she’s one of the best coaches I’ve had in my professional career and I’ve had a lot over the last 5-6 years.

“Her vision of the game, what she wants from us, is very clear cut and she’s really nice and she doesn’t put this immense amount of pressure on us. She wants us to go out there and have fun and express ourselves and that’s why we play the game, because we love doing it.

“She allows us to unapologetically be ourselves and she never holds back from that. I love having her as manager and I see myself growing and developing here.”

First up for City is a trip to Crystal Palace on Sunday (kick-off: 2pm) before the Vixens return to Failand next Sunday to take on Lewes.

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