Going into the final week of this season, Canterbury were top of the league, needing a win on the final day against Clifton to qualify for Europe. They made no mistake as goals from Nikki Lloyd and Kim Young got them over the line with a 2-0 win. To some extent it was redemption for the disappointment they felt the previous year: Going in to the last game of the 2012/13 season, they were in the same situation, but a defeat on the final day came and Leicester overtook, with the Kent side finishing third in the playoffs.
Their chances looked bleak as they approached the new campaign. The Kent side had endured a difficult summer with the departures of Jade Mayne, Sarah Kerly and Lucy Hyams, three of the team’s leading goalscorers with 14, ten and eight goals apiece, plus the loss of star player Susannah Townsend.
“Our overall target this season was to steady the ship, really.” said Jen Wilson, Canterbury’s Player-Coach. “We needed to see who we had and how that set us up. Winning the league was never in our minds at that stage, we were more focused on getting the balance right and ensuring we performed to get the best results we could.”
Despite the loss of those key players, Wilson and her team recruited well with Nikki Kidd and Nikki Lloyd, two Scotland internationals settling straight into the squad and adding some much needed quality as well as plenty of goals. Goalkeeper Helen Fagg, signed from Chelmsford too and had a fantastic season, keeping ten clean sheets in her first year in the Premier League.
“We were very lucky with how they settled, but you can get a sense from talking to potential new recruits about whether they’re the right fit.” said Wilson. “The ones who joined, already seemed to know all about the club and how we approach things, so we had a good feeling about them. Helen, Nikki and Nikki all really bought into not just the team, but the club, too. They understand it’s not about them but what they can bring to the group to make us stronger overall. It’s not something you can teach someone so we were really pleased to have signed players who had that attitude.”
Even with the new players hitting the ground running, Wilson typically kept her feet on the ground. Her mantra of “one game at a time” became a running joke as she consistently refused to get carried away in public. After 1st place was secured, she was more frank, offering an insight into how she felt over the course of the season.
“We had a good pre-season and early on it was clear we had plenty of resilience, passion and showed some excellent team work. We ground out some good results when we weren’t at our best and I started to see the team really growing into the season. We got to the half-way point at the top and we felt comfortable and strong but having seen what everyone else could do, we knew the second half of the season would be tough.” she adds “The final seven games, were really challenging. Almost everyone needs the points so it makes every game tough in its own way. We did well to get through those games and then towards the very end, we really started to believe we could finish first.”
Finishing top would send some teams into the playoffs with a real spring in their steps. However, their chances have suffered a blow with the news that the two Nikkis, Kidd and Lloyd will be absent due to commitments with the Scotland squad.
“Scottish Hockey have been very cooperative and accommodating with how much we’ve been able to play those two over the season. It’s a big year for them and they have some big tournaments coming up so we understand why they need to look after their players. Obviously we’d rather have them in the squad but we accept that it’s just the way it goes.”
Wilson’s attitude towards the situation is a refreshing one and the South African even manages to draw some positives:
“Our approach to the playoffs will be slightly different to the league. We don’t have a full squad and we knew the league was our best chance of Europe so having secured that we feel like it’s taken some of the pressure off us. We might not be at our strongest but the players we’ve had in the squad have done brilliantly when they’ve come in so we’re seeing it as another chance for them to impress.” she continues: “The players have shown great maturity and flexibility and dealt with everything that’s been thrown at them so I don’t doubt they’ll step up at playoffs, too.”
Although some might think their tie with Clifton is one they will win having beaten their opponents on the last day, the three-time Olympian, as you’d expect takes nothing for granted:
“We’ve always tried to focus on what we’re doing. There isn’t anything you can do to affect what other people do so we try not to worry about it. That won’t change just because it’s the playoffs. We’ve been determined and professional every step of the way and we’ve relished the challenge set for us by the other teams. We want to do well in the playoffs, of course but previous results count for nothing.”
Reading that last quote back, it sounds suspiciously like another way of saying “one game at a time” an approach that has so far not steered Wilson and her side too far wrong.