There will be no return to the top-flight for Liverpool FC Women, but strong foundations have been laid for a second tilt at bouncing back to the big time.
The Reds started the season under Vicky Jepson in the knowledge that the top spot in the FA Women’s Championship was the only route back to the WSL at the first time of asking.
But they would end the campaign short by 11 points and without a permanent manager following the surprise departure of Jepson after the turn of the year.
Amber Whiteley would step into the role and oversee a run of five wins, three draws and only one defeat in nine games to send Liverpool into the summer with momentum on their side.
With a manager to name and personnel to land and move on, the Reds are set for another important few months as they look to learn the lessons from their year in the Championship and strike back.
Draws prove damning
Liverpool closed out the league campaign with an eight-game unbeaten run, one which saw only five goals conceded and 18 points amassed.
The strong finish led to a third-place finish, 11 points off Leicester at the top and only three behind Durham, but it was their inability to hold onto their lead that proved costly.
The Reds had to share the spoils on six separate occasions, four more than the league winners and alarmingly in five of those games, Liverpool had been in a winning position.
A 10-point swing would have thrown their name into the mix for promotion and placed pressure on the Foxes and will be a key area to improve next season.
But, overall, it was a campaign with plenty of bright spots as confidence and games were injected into a 19 strong squad which saw young stars rise to the fore and experienced heads shine.
New arrivals Meikayla Moore (two goals) and Ceri Holland (three goals and two assists) provided optimism for the future, as did 20-year-old Missy Bo Kearns and goalkeeper Rylee Foster.
Rachel Furness, ruled out with injury late on, continued to show prowess in front of goal to end the season as top goalscorer while Niamh Fahey led with conviction and added a much-needed goal threat.
Spots to fill & futures to sort
For all of the positives which emerged from the campaign with goals scored more freely than the year before amid defensive stability, there is still plenty of work to be undertaken in the off-season.
The first is to appoint a new manager, which is expected to come in the form of a familiar face in Matt Beard – who managed the team between 2012 and 2015, leading the club to back-to-back WSL titles.
He is expected to pip Whiteley to the post despite the clear upturn in form after she assumed the role in January.
And he will be thrown straight into the fire as Liverpool look to keep hold of the core of their team with other clubs no doubt lurking to poach some of their talent.
Furness will headline such a list, one which the likes of Melissa Lawley, Ashley Hodson, Leighanne Robe and Amy Rodgers will also no doubt feature on.
But resolving Rinsola Babajide’s future will be high on the list having failed to feature since January after putting in a transfer request which was declined.
On the other side of the coin, investing in the squad will be important in the face of departures and to add a new spark and competition for 2021/22.
Quickfire 2020/21 stats
League Position: 3rd (39 points)
FA Cup Finish: Fourth round
Goals Scored (all comps): 40
Goals Conceded: 21
Top Goalscorer: Rachel Furness (7)
Most Assists: Ashley Hodson (4)
Clean sheets: 11
Looking ahead to next season
The fact that they remain in the Championship will be an obvious disappointment and it will be interesting to see if the necessary support is supplied by the hierarchy.
The women’s side have often been left in the dust with the ‘two teams, one club’ mantra not lived up to, and assurances may be required to prevent another mass player exodus.
The finish to the 2020/21 campaign provided a much-needed injection of belief and the know-how to compete in the division should hold the Reds in good stead.
The key now will be to build on their good work and ensure that come this time next year they are welcoming another change, that being a return to the Women’s Super League.
Target for 2021/22: Promotion back to WSL
Players to watch: Meikayla Moore and Ceri Holland