Newcastle United Women targeting league title as 2020/21 campaign kicks off on Sunday
Written by Dan King
After a six-month wait, Newcastle United Women return to competitive action on Sunday as they kick off their 2020/21 FA Women's National League Division One North campaign at home to Bradford City Women - with manager Becky Langley setting a big goal for the new season.
The team were on a fine run of form in the league and had also reached the final of the Bluefin Sport County Cup, where they were due to face Wallsend BC Ladies, when last season was curtailed in March due to the coronavirus outbreak. The campaign ended with United in sixth place - their highest final position since the club was relaunched as part of Newcastle United Foundation three years ago.
But Langley has spent the last few months strengthening her team both on and off the pitch, bringing in five key new players and coaches Lloyd Miller (pictured above with Langley) and Thomas Gallagher, and after an encouraging pre-season - including a 1-0 win against Sunderland earlier this month - she has high hopes for the new term.
"Our aim for the season will be to win the league and gain promotion," Langley told nufc.co.uk ahead of the first game, which kicks off at Druid Park at 2pm (BST). "It's a big outcome goal but we feel like we've got an environment that supports that goal. With the new players that we've recruited and with those foundations that we built last season, our only aim will be to win the league.
"Although it'll be tough - we recognise that - we're not afraid to say that's what our aim is, and anything less than that will be short. We're really pushing, we're all ambitious, we've all got the same aims; we really want to push on to win that league, and we're not shy in saying that."
Last season was the first of a new partnership between Newcastle United Women and Northumbria University - where Langley is Head of Women's Football - which has seen the university commit to helping Newcastle United Foundation to develop a support network around the women's team, while health and life insurance and investment company Vitality announced a new partnership with the team earlier this month.
"The girls last year built really strong foundations to bring into this season," explained Langley, who is hoping to welcome back captain Brooke Cochrane and defenders Ellen Packham and Maisie Cole over the next few weeks following long-term injuries. "We've developed a really strong, positive culture now with our key, main values at the heart of that. We've retained some really strong players and they're looking to really kick on from that building year last year and push on to compete to win the league this season.
"It's been a long time coming and we've been waiting for that competitive league fixture for a while now. We've had really good preparation over the last six-to-ten weeks with our pre-season; we've played a lot of friendly games against teams in the league above and the league below to get a real good feel for it, so we're just excited to get going now.
"We finished the season strong last year - we gained a lot of momentum and we felt like we could have finished in the top four. We've recruited really well since the end of last season and we're ready to push on."
Katie Barker, a summer signing from Sunderland Ladies who has played under Langley at Northumbria University, has scored seven times in pre-season. "She's been absolutely on fire and she's got a hatful of goals," said Langley. "She's so exciting when she gets the ball. She's a young player who's previously played in England age groups, so we're really excited for her potential in our league.
Winger Imogen Longcake in pre-season action against Sunderland earlier this month
"Georgia Gibson signed from Sunderland as well, alongside Sharna Wilkinson and Rachel Woolston, and Laura (Wareham, goalkeeper), who has signed from Middlesbrough. She's got a lot of experience, she's a really good communicator and will organise our back four, so we're really pleased to have her between the sticks." Grace Donnelly, whose performances in goal earned her two player of the year awards for 2018/19, underwent a knee operation in July.
Spectators will be able to attend Sunday's game - the updated FA guidelines mean the capacity will be 140, with entry on a first come, first served basis. Face masks must be worn throughout the match. Admission is £3 for adults and £1 for under-16s, while season tickets are available priced at £25 for adults and £10 for under-16s and can be ordered by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
And Langley said: "We're all really excited that we can have fans at our home pitch at Druid Park. Without being able to go and watch the men's Newcastle United side, people are looking for that football kick, and we welcome any new fans to come down and watch the women. We play exciting football, we're aggressive and want to win the ball back early, and we play a counter-attacking style of football as well, so we're really looking to attract more people to come and watch the games and it's a really good opportunity to do that.
"Obviously times have been tough with Covid and we face various hurdles, but it's a massive boost for us that we'll have fans in to come and watch.
"We want to start strong and we want to start the first game of the season with three points. We beat Bradford last year and we'll be going for exactly the same thing this season - to get three points off them and kick start our season strongly."
Photographs courtesy of Colin Lock/@Tyneside_NUWFC
"Our aim for the season will be to win the league and gain promotion. With the new players that we've recruited and with those foundations that we built last season, our only aim will be to win the league."