Tipped for relegation before the season started, Tottenham Hotspur have taken to WSL with the same ease that they did the second and third tiers.
Originally a small club from humble beginnings, they were Broxbourne Ladies in their first incarnation in 1985 – a replacement team after the [now defunct] East Herts College team folded – before being allowed to use the “Tottenham Hotspur” name in 1991.
As Spurs were settling into their new name in their modest regional surroundings, the club’s fiercest of rivals were stamping their authority all over women’s football. Almost the proverbial tortoise to Arsenal’s hare, Spurs refused to rush their development as a team and it wasn’t until the early 2010’s that the team really began to make waves.
Although the team didn’t earn promotion to the second tier [then WSL 2] until 2017, co-head coach Karen Hills was always very clear that the success didn’t come overnight but had been four or so years in the making. At the club since 2007 – like the Lilywhites’ longest serving player, Jenna Schillaci – Hills has overseen the majority of the most significant developments in the team. Yet it wasn’t until she was partnered with [now co-head coach] Juan Amoros in 2011 that the club began to take shape, the two needing time to get used to each other before Spurs could take their next step.
On the rise
Having come oh so close to a shot at promotion [via the mandatory play-off final] in 2016, Tottenham made no mistakes when they finally reached the final in 2017. Season one was the club’s most remarkable to date, not just having won the southern half of the third tier but having scooped the FA Women’s Premier League Cup and the Ryman Women’s Cup along the way. The team had memorably won the league title at the old White Hart Lane stadium and by the time they reached the play-off final, with confidence and big game experience driving them, the Lilywhites made light work of their opposition, Blackburn Rovers, to complete the quadruple.
Where others might have looked at the step up to the second tier as a time for change, Spurs largely stayed the course. There were a few new faces but the team was unmistakably WPL. Although ultimately finishing seventh out of ten teams in their first season in the second tier, the team was clearly a mid-table one: well above those below them yet, not quite up to those above.
The summer break brought more adjustments and tweaks, a few new faces around the team but it was never wholesale from the Lilywhites, the team with an unwavering identity.
Tottenham’s second season in WSL 2, then rebranded as the Women’s Championship, was a far more prosperous one, the team with six wins in their first six league outings. A bruising loss to full-time Manchester United was the jolt that brought the team crashing down to Earth. Another loss followed two matches later before another run of six successive wins. The team oozed confidence and as all eyes were on the rampaging Red Devils, the Lilywhites took up a firm position as the second best in the league to earn promotion to WSL.
Things finally had to change as the licencing for playing in WSL was more rigourous than the Championship. The team would finally switch to a full-time model, meaning the inevitable parting of ways with long-standing players. Some simply wouldn’t be up to the standard of the league; others cruelly couldn’t give up their full-time jobs to commit to professional football. Even still, the new signings were far from outlandish.
With everyone in place, there was still nothing about the team on paper that said “WOW!” - nothing to suggest that Spurs would be able to compete with the star-studded likes of Arsenal and Chelsea.
Given a test on the first weekend of the season against big dogs Chelsea, the Lilywhites took a while to grow into the game – conceding before they had found a clean foot-hold – but very quickly looked more than capable of holding their own. In a noisy and partisan Stamford Bridge with a clutch of away fans, the new-look team, still adjusting to full-time football, went toe-to-toe with the former champions and were unfortunate not to take anything from the match. They were only truly outplayed by Manchester United in the league (an unfortunate constant from last season), as well as Reading in the league cup; otherwise the team have played smart football. The complimentary work of Amoros and Hills has been one of the biggest strengths of the team.
The two admitted that their relationship is more akin to a marriage, the yin to the others’ yang. Their different opinions and approaches and willingness to challenge each other only makes their partnership a stronger one, the pair always steadfast in their ability to learn from defeat and through it all remain highly respectful of the rest of the backroom staff. From the physios to those who do video analysis, everyone at the club has their own role to play and the co-operative like environment is something that seems to sum up the ethos of the club. Even when talking about Spurs’ recent success, captain Jenna Schillaci was careful to note that every person who’d come and gone over her long career at the club had all played a part in getting the team to where it is now.
Long gone are the days of Hills having to take care of all the odds and sods around the club,. As she told the Telegraph, “…Paying the ref money, doing team sheets, making sure the sandwiches were done, making sure the girls took their kit home to wash it themselves. I had to drive minibuses to away games, go on courses to get my minibus license. You organised the end-of-season presentations – I had to go and buy all the medals for 186 players.” No more of the part-timers only managing to get to one training session a week.
For Spurs there is no going back but the club is still immersed in their humble beginnings, the salt of the earth feel to the team one that is unlikely to be shaken off whilst Hills and Amoros are at the helm. The coaches approach each game as if it were a cup final, and the players that have had to take the step up to professionalism are still adjusting to the physical exhaustion and strain. Through it all, the club is still growing into its new surroundings, learning all the time.