Ask most people who the top clubs in the Women’s Premier League are and you’ll probably get the same few names. Which of you said Clifton? I’d be willing to bet not many. Despite being constantly overlooked, Clifton have been in the National League for over 15 years, boasting highest finishes of 3rd in 2003-04 and 4th (making the Championship Playoffs) in 2011/12. They have won the EH Cup twice, (in 1997-98 and 1999-2000) and finished runners up four times, (95-96, 96-97, 2004-05 and 2012-13.) The Bristol side have plenty of pedigree and yet once again, this season they have somewhat flown under the radar: Whilst everyone talks about the other top teams Steve Rixon’s side have moved quietly into second place in the league without losing a game. The Top of the D caught up with three of their players, Captain Aileen Davis, Els Mansell and Helena Faust to find out the secrets of their success.
Based just outside Bristol, I first thought that their lack of proximity to the Central Programme at Bisham Abbey might mean they struggled for players. Davis, the Scottish International tells me it’s probably the opposite:
“The fact it’s the strongest women’s club in the west means we naturally draw players in from a wide area. They come from Wales, Bath, Cheltenham, all over. It’s a really large catchment area and once they come in we don’t really lose many, which is great.”
Getting players to join the club is one thing, but as Davis rightly says, there is not a high turnover of players. This season they lost just two and gained six new players. It seems people find it very hard to leave once they have joined. Els Mansell, Clifton’s Dutch Striker explains why:
“The first thing you notice when you come to the club is how much everyone does their part. Players run the junior sessions, the socials and so on. Everyone gets involved. It’s very easy to become a part of the club and feel at home which naturally makes you want to commit to Clifton.” She adds: “Everyone puts so much into the club, travelling, time, training, coaching etc. We have a really great club atmosphere and that helps us to do well on and off the pitch.”
Mansell came over to study at Bristol and has continued her academic career in England, allowing her to keep playing for the club. Faust too, a Germany U21 International, chose to come and study at Bristol and opted to play for Clifton. Students are undoubtedly a big part of their recruitment; however as Davis points out, they have managed to get the blend just right:
“We have quite a few students but there are also the players who are set up in jobs and actually live nearby so it’s a really good balance. Some clubs lose lots of players when students graduate, but we have been quite lucky: We have players who come up through the club, but also there are those like Els who want to stay on because they’ve invested so much into the team and bought into the club as a whole.”
Faust has only been at the club a short time, playing a handful of games but the 22-year-old echoes the sentiments of her teammates and is in no doubt she has made the right choice in joining Steve Rixon’s squad:
“I had the choice between two universities, one in the north and Bristol. I got into both but decided to go to Bristol, partly because of Clifton. I’m really happy I decided to play here. We are a young team which is great and everyone puts so much into training I’m really enjoying myself.”
Clifton’s continued success means their players have started to pick up international recognition. The list of honours is impressive and stands the squad as a whole in good stead, the 25-year-old skipper tells me:
“We might not have household names but the level of experience in the squad is massive. We’ve got a lot of players who have played junior international level and some at senior too. We have German U21s, England U21s, Welsh and Scottish internationals, there’s a real mix.” She adds: “At the moment Jo Leigh is involved in international hockey, Zoe Leach is around the international programme, Caitlin Jeffries, our goalkeeper is in the U21s, Stephanie Addison too. It’s actually a really strong group, but not necessarily big names.”
Big names and the lack thereof is a topic that crops up constantly during our conversation. Davis does not see it as a hindrance, more an advantage:
“It suits the way we play to be honest. We’ve never been about star names, just about the team and how we play as a unit. That’s what makes us such a threat, because of how we operate as a group.” She continues “Obviously we try to support our players with their international hockey as much as possible. We want them to become the best players they can be. We recognise that people have other commitments and it’s not solely about Clifton, but I think that attitude is appreciated by all those players which is why they stay loyal to us.”
Despite the ghost of not having any big name stars, Clifton has anything but a small club mentality. Davis is very clear in her aims for the season:
“Last year we finished sixth so realistically we’d like to finish higher. Top three or four would be a great achievement. We have the capability to do it; it’s just a question of putting everything together.”
Mansell, last season’s top scorer reinforces her captain’s ambitions telling TTOTD:
“I think it’ll be an interesting season. Player-wise we have a stronger squad than we’ve had before. We used to play as underdogs whereas now we know what we can achieve we need to step up against the bigger teams and start to win those games. I think six teams will compete for the playoffs this season, and I hope we’ll be one of them.”
On current form, you’d have to say there is every chance of Steve Rixon’s team being there or thereabouts at the end of the season. Maybe another appearance in the Championship Playoffs will take them from being viewed as “The Best of the West” to one of the best in the land. The rest of the league had better beware.
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Great to see Clifton getting column inches. A proper club that goes about their business in a very classy way. A win this Saturday would give them the belief to go on and achieve their ambitions this season. As you say, for the first time in a while they probably go into this game as favourites but you get the impression from how they come across that you shouldn’t doubt that they will handle the pressure.
england hockey seemed to have docked Clifton a point – obviously for daring to try and break up the status quo! “Know your place Clifton….”
Interesting stuff. I never really thought about the loss of players due to graduation before.
The site is looking rather sinister today.