Neil Redfearn and Sophie Bradley-Auckland confident Sheffield United will set the pace in Women's Championship and not be left behind
Sheffield United Women are confident of setting the pace next season, rather than being left behind.
As their rivals evolve, the Blades, who finished fourth in the last campaign, will, for now, remain part-time until such time as they achieve their ambition of promotion to the Women’s Super League.
They will be one of five semi-professional sides outnumbered by seven professional clubs competing in the expanded 12-team Women’s Championship for the 2021-22 season.
Sunderland and Watford have joined the league after successfully applying for promotion following two curtailed seasons, while Charlton Athletic, Coventry United and Lewes have turned full-time.
Relegated Bristol City, Liverpool and London City Lionesses are already professional, while Durham train four times a week – once more than United.
"Everybody has got expectations to do well but we feel like we are in a good place,” says head coach Neil Redfearn
“We are part-time but with one foot in a full-time mentality. We have got to gear ourselves to think like that – we are thinking full-time, everything other than the day-to-day stuff with the players.
"We have got to be ahead of the game, we have got to recruit well, we have got to think in front of other teams. Then you get an advantage."
The summer rebuild is well underway with eight players moving on - including top-scorer and player of the year Katie Wilkinson, who has joined Coventry to pursue full-time football – while a further six have signed new deals.
Former Team GB and England defender Sophie Bradley-Auckland has also joined from Liverpool, having previously played under Redfearn at Doncaster Rovers Belles in the 2017-18 season when they won the second division.
"She’s a fantastic signing [...] unbelievable experience,” he adds. “It would have been a marquee signing for anybody.
"There will be a little bit of [additional] movement. We have got to evolve, if we can get better than what we have got then we have got to try to.
“There’s quite a bit of experience proven and young with potential. I think we have had a good recruitment drive but the proof is in the pudding. There’s plenty there to work with.
"We have got some really, really talented young players and it’s important that the players who come in are of that ilk and get a good way with them. Sophie comes into that category, without a shadow of a doubt.”
Another “marquee” signing "on par” with Bradley-Auckland - who will replace Wilkinson’s goal contributions – will be unveiled soon, the former Leeds United and Rotherham boss reveals, with his transfer business nearly complete ahead of the start of pre-season at the beginning of July.
So, given the changing nature of the league, what would a successful season look like?
“Success eventually is to go up but success is to keep evolving, keep getting better,” he says.
"I think the league is better so I think there’s a bit of a race on and we have got to evolve with it. Last season was a good season. If we look at the sides above us, we have got to be more creative and score more goals against them.
"I would like to think we will be up there, or if we are not we won’t be far behind.”
Redfearn’s confidence is shared by 31-year-old Bradley-Auckland, who is returning to football after a season away from the game. She put her career on hold at former club Liverpool to focus on work at her family-run care home in Nottingham and reduce the risk of transmitting Covid-19 to vulnerable residents.
But, with the worst of the pandemic hopefully over, the busy mum-of-two is ready to return to playing just two months after the birth of her second child, Harley.
"I want to help Sheffield United in as many ways as possible,” she tells The Star. “I have not even met all the team yet but my aim would be to get promotion.
"Football is something I love to do, it’s my time away from work and the kids where I can concentrate on me.”
Several residents at the care home run by the 28-time-capped international have followed her football journey over the years – and, since she signed, one resident who usually attends her games has been chanting ‘United’ every time they meet.
“I’m dead excited to be back,” she adds, “a little bit anxious, having just had a newborn, so it’s going to be strange leaving him and getting into the swing of things but I’m really excited to be getting back into a team environment.
"I have definitely missed it but, to be honest, I haven’t had time to do anything else. It’s been tough.”
She’s clear on why she chose to join Sheffield United – and admits it wouldn’t have been possible had the club been full-time.
"If I’m really honest, Redders [Redfearn], he’s the main reason. I worked with him at Doncaster and I also went to Liverpool because he went there. When he left Liverpool everyone was absolutely gutted.
"He’s one of, if not the, best managers I have worked with. He understands me as a person, which is quite hard, especially having two children.
"I said to him on the phone: ‘I’m not coming unless we are winning’. We have got to try to push on as much as we can.”
And the club’s current part-time status should not be blamed if they don’t, she says.
“I have got every confidence in Neil and how he’s going to prepare us for the games. Everything will be taken seriously and the time that we will have together will be used to our benefit.
“We will utilise the time we will have together and I’d like to think that won’t be used as an excuse.”