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'Was it meant to be?' - Inside Liverpool's return to the Women's Super League

4:00 AM EDT 4/25/22
Niamh Fahey Liverpool Women 2021-22
After relegation in 2020, Matt Beard's side sealed promotion to the WSL and the FA Women's Championship title, lifting the trophy on Sunday

It was the day before Liverpool’s Champions League quarter-final against Benfica and Jurgen Klopp’s press conference was about to close.

The final question of the day, though, prompted the German coach to show off one of his famous fist pumps: Liverpool’s women’s team had just won the Championship title, sealing a return to the Women’s Super League after relegation in 2020.

"I was following it all the time around our games, looking when they played, who they played,” he said. “I'm really happy for the girls. It's a big thing.

“Liverpool in the last years was not famous for dealing with the women’s football [team] outstandingly well, they didn’t go down for no reason, but now they are back and we have to make sure we use the situation."

Lots has been said about Liverpool in the past few years and how it treats the women’s team, and Klopp did not shy away from that. His answer was genuine and recognised past mistakes.

It was another positive sign as this team prepares for its return to the top-flight.

On Sunday, after beating Sheffield United 6-1, the players finally got their hands on that Championship trophy, lifting it in front of their own fans.

And when GOAL speaks to those involved in the achievement, there is an aura of optimism, but also the one word that goalkeeper Rachael Laws uses to describe the feeling the most - “relief”.

Head coach Matt Beard, who won back-to-back WSL titles with this club in 2013 and 2014 before returning last summer, veers in that direction, too.

“Mentally, it was draining, when you're so close to securing it,” he says.

After an unstoppable run of 19 games unbeaten, it became a matter of when rather than if the Reds would reign supreme.

Some will take the cynical view on their success, in that if a club of Liverpool’s stature is in the second tier, they should be winning it. But it has been more difficult than some may think.

“The lows were low last season,” Laws explains, reflecting on a campaign that saw the Reds finish third, 11 points behind champions Leicester City. “We went through a lot as a team, on and off the pitch.

“I think coming off the back of [that], we did want to prove people wrong, and the mental side of the game was massive for us to do that.”

This is not an easy league, either. Beard has tons of experience at the highest level, in England and the United States, but he describes the Championship as “a fantastic learning curve” that has “really tested” him and his staff.

So, how did he lead Liverpool back to the top-flight?

“He creates this culture where everyone feels comfortable to be themselves and you feel like he genuinely cares about you, on and off the field,” forward Katie Stengel explains.

“You have more confidence on the field and you feel like, in the locker room, everyone supports each other because he demands that.

“That type of environment breeds a lot of confidence, but it breeds a lot of team camaraderie as well where you want the best out of each other.”

“Stability is probably the main word that sticks out just because he's consistent in everything he does,” Laws adds. “Whether we will win, lose or draw, we'll sit in the meeting room and we'll go through stuff. Sometimes you don't want to hear it, but sometimes you need to. I think that little bit of honesty does go a long way.”

As well as Beard bringing good staff in with him, he has recruited well - signing Stengel, in January, for example, the forward scoring eight goals in 11 league games since.

The coach has also got the best out of players already at the club, such as Missy Bo Kearns, one of Liverpool’s brightest stars this season.

Another factor has been the way the team has dealt with inevitable pressure.

“We couldn't just turn up and say, 'Hey, we're Liverpool, we're going to win',” Stengel says. “We knew we had to turn up every week. Every week we had that pressure to get three points.

“We dealt with a lot of different adversities, but I think together we came together and knew: 'We're going to deal with this pressure, but we're going to breathe and just get through it together and make each other look good'.”

It must be said that the fans have played their part as well, with Laws recalling several away games that felt like home matches, such has been the level of support.

At which point did the team really feel they could do this, then? Beard, Laws and Stengel all single out one particular match: Charlton away, won in the 84th minute by a Jaz Matthews header.

“You just felt a shift in energy, because we were nervous the whole time,” Stengel remembers. “We knew we needed points here and when that went in so late, we were like, 'Okay. It actually is going to go our way. We can do it'.”

That result came in the month of March, in which Liverpool had four very tough fixtures. For that reason, Beard highlights his team's fantastic unbeaten run in the league through January and February, too.

For Laws, there is also another game that sticks out – a 1-0 win at home to Watford, when Stengel scored her first Liverpool goal in the 83rd minute.

“My first thought after that game was, 'We would've drawn or lost that last season',” she says. “That was the moment where you think, 'God, our luck might be in here'.

“There was a reason why you came to the club and scored that goal,” she says, turning to Stengel.

It is no surprise the goalkeeper believes in little twists of fate. Nine years ago, she was part of Beard’s Liverpool team that lifted a league title. “Was it meant to be?” she asks, reflecting on a similar turn of events this year. “Maybe.”

Next season, she will be back in the top-flight with the same club and manager as the Reds try to re-establish themselves among the country’s best.

The benefits that Beard’s experience and knowledge of the league will bring are evident when he looks forward, discussing the importance of limited player turnover this summer, for example.

“It's probably going to be two or three transfer windows before we can say, 'Yes, let's start competing at that top end',” he says. “I believe that we can compete against anyone in the country, for sure, but we have to be realistic and know the jump from the Championship to the Super League is going to be a big jump.”

The support from within the club can certainly help in shaping this squad to fulfil the ambition Beard shows.

“You always get those keyboard warriors, don't you?” Laws says. “'The men don't support you' and all this. But they do. We can assure you that they do, and it goes a long way.

“I think going forward, you'll probably see a little bit more of what's going on behind the scenes at the minute.”

There’s still one game remaining in Liverpool’s season, as they close their Championship campaign on the south coast against Lewes on Sunday. Then, the players can really enjoy this success and, shortly afterwards, start looking ahead to 2022-23.

Given the standards Liverpool are setting on the men’s side, it is exciting to think of the potential of its women’s team as they return to the top.