The lauded Lionesses, fresh from their exploits at the Women’s Football World Cup, have been championed by Prime Minister and public as a classic example of a bonded unit. All for one, one for all. They hugged their goodbyes and instantly fragmented to their constituent parts at their various Women’s Super League clubs all over the country.
However, an advanced state of rivalry exists now that the second half of the WSL has resumed with Chelsea as leaders, but still smarting from their biggest defeat of the season last week at Sunderland, who had contributed no players to the England team who won bronze in Canada.
But Chelsea’s Claire Rafferty believes last weekend’s 4-0 defeat to Sunderland is a “blessing in disguise” ahead of Sunday’s high-profile clash with Manchester City at Staines Town.
The Lioness left-back identified a complacency within the Chelsea squad, which lead to the surprise result after an efficient over-turning of Bristol Academy the week before.
With one of the most hotly anticipated games of the women’s season set to reunite World Cup heroines, albeit on the other side, Rafferty is under no illusions: Manchester City is a big game.
“The Sunderland result was a kick up the backside for the squad, especially given that we have to face City next,” she said.
“It was a blessing in disguise and I’m glad it’s happened early on instead of during the FA Cup final next week.”
Next week Chelsea will be gearing up for their Wembley date with Notts County on August 1, but for now Rafferty is focused on facing her England teammates on Sunday.
Having spent every day with the likes of Steph, Toni, Jill, Lucy and Karen during the World Cup, the transition from a sporting family to sporting rivals is one which the Chelsea Lionesses are relishing.
“We don’t have a problem with it, it’s just like doing the job somewhere else. I know some players who don’t like to talk to other England players before a game, so they don’t lose their focus,” Rafferty said.
“For me, it will be quite nice to see some familiar faces. I’ve been with the girls for seven weeks and without them for two now.”
Those familiar faces now in opposition include Steph Houghton, the England captain, forward Toni Duggan, midfielder Jill Scott, Lucy Bronze, scorer of that memorable goal against Norway, and goalkeeper Karen Bardsley.
Scott identified the competitive edge between clubs in the Women’s Super League, even though the majority of them feature ‘bonded’ Lionesses.
Scott said: “Although we are used to playing as England, the club rivalry will always be there and I suppose you slot back into that role.
“At the end of the game you just shake hands and all is forgotten.”
The Lionesses’ homecoming has sparked a mass interest in women’s football since Super League action has resumed.
Record ticket sales – up 78 per cent – have led to remarkable scenes of hero worship throughout the league, with City’s Toni Duggan experiencing gaggles of fans chanting her name throughout the win over Birmingham.
“It’s a nice feeling to hear grandmas, grandads, young girls, or young boys shouting your name, and I’m sure there will be many more coming through the door.
“It’s nice to know we have probably changed the perception of women’s football,” Duggan said.
Scott also gave recognition to the reception her squad have received since the Lionesses returned from Canada.
She said: “It’s been brilliant. The crowds have increased dramatically and there’s a lot more people staying behind after matches for autographs and selfies. I’m enjoying the new selfie craze.
“It’s been fast-paced since we’ve been back. But we’ll have some time off in December, so I would be lying if I said I won’t be looking forward to a few weeks on a beach somewhere.”
While Scott is dreaming of white sands and sea, Rafferty has been getting used to life back in the office in her role as a business analyst for Deutsche Bank.
“It was great to return to work and see everyone’s response to the World Cup success, it’s nice to see colleagues who weren’t necessarily interested in women’s football becoming inspired.
“They threw me a welcome-back party, but obviously after the first five minutes I actually had to do some work,” Rafferty said.
Chelsea manager Emma Hayes also reflected on the nation’s reaction to the World Cup and how her Lionesses have responded to the outpour of attention.
“The fact we have sold 16 times as many pre-sale tickets this week is a great indicator of how the World Cup has attracted new fans, whether they are Chelsea season-ticket holders from the men’s side or families.
“All four Lionesses have been absolutely superb, they sign no end of autographs, take thousands of selfies, but I’m also conscious of spreading the love across the rest of the Chelsea players, so there’s a real sense of pride within the squad,” she said.
Hayes has already prepped her team ahead of Sunday’s fixture by setting out the importance of results and records when it comes to Manchester City.
“The message is clear, if you want to be in consideration for the Cup final, you will have to perform.
“It’s not a game to be taken lightly and it’s one where we want to protect an unbeaten home record,” Hayes said.
“It doesn’t come any bigger than this on the women’s domestic football calendar. Both sets of players will be looking for bragging rights come the end of the evening.”
Additional reporting: Ted Thompson
Chelsea Ladies v Manchester City Women will be shown live on Sunday, July 26 at 6.30pm on BT Sport 1
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Megan Joyce is an English Literature graduate from Queen’s University, Belfast, with an MA in Sports Journalism from St. Mary’s University, Twickenham. She covered all sports for a variety of media organisations while in Belfast, and currently blogs for BT Sport Rugby and writes for The Rugby Football League. Megan is reporting on Chelsea Ladies football team this season. Megan’s latest articles.
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