LOOKING off into the distance at Southampton’s Staplewood training base, Marieanne Spacey-Cale can be spotted jogging over to the furthest 3G pitch in the far corner.

It’s just over a week since Spacey-Cale’s Saints side earned promotion to the Championship and the manager is in a hurry. A hurry to finally take a break.

“It’s been a busy week,” she smirks. “Enjoyed some celebrations on Saturday then we got back here, had a family and friends barbecue Sunday and then went to the all-staff party on Sunday night. So Monday morning that was it, the new season started. Back to work.

“Break from today now. Head away for a little bit and then come back into it.

“You give the players a break, give the players some time off and it’s just as important that the staff get that time. Going into the programme full-time, going into the Championship which is a tough league everyone’s gotta be fresh and ready to go again. You can’t keep working every day for the next six weeks and still expect to be fresh when you come back."

Of course, just because the logical and seemingly never fazed Spacey-Cale ‘knows’ all this, actually taking the time off is much more difficult - particularly with such an exciting proposition on the horizon.

Daily Echo: Spacey-Cale and her staff after play-off victory against Wolves. Image by: Tom MulhollandSpacey-Cale and her staff after play-off victory against Wolves. Image by: Tom Mulholland

“It is hard,” she laughs loudly. “But the beauty is my husband is very much ‘turn your phone off, you’re with me now.’ My daughter’s flying over from Australia, I haven’t seen her since 2019 so that gives me a real reason to switch off and I will.”

Spacey-Cale is on the clock. Her family have given her until 2PM before it’s time for the full focus to be set on their well-deserved break.

With her final minutes of a hugely productive 2021/22 season, the 56-year-old has made sure to stop by the pitch where two classes of girls from local schools have played a mock ‘Euros’ led by Saints academy coaches and former England international Karen Carney. 

Aimed at inspiring and continuing to cultivate interest ahead of this summer’s Euros, the day ends with a medal ceremony in which Carney and Spacey-Cale also give out signed images.

The event comes at a poignant time. Just days earlier the Southampton Women’s programme officially became full-time following promotion to the Championship.

“We’ve been having talks for a while,” Spacey-Cale says of the decision. “And regardless of the result at Stockport the plan was to be full-time next season because the club wants us to be successful, we want to be successful, and to be able to do that the obvious step is to go into a full-time programme. 

Daily Echo: Saints celebrate promotion to the Championship. Image by: Tom MulhollandSaints celebrate promotion to the Championship. Image by: Tom Mulholland

“So the fact that we won promotion, we can now go into the Championship with a strong mentality that we’re full-time and we can really put some hours in. We had some great times with how we were before but we were concentenering everything into a small amount of time in the evening. Now we can have more time with the players, more time with the staff, and just more time on the pitch and in the different training areas. It’s going to make a massive difference.

“It’s a great opportunity for us in terms of recruitment because we do need to recruit some players with Championship experience. We’re a young squad and last season we brought in Raff (Laura Rafferty), Leeta (Rutherford), Ciara (Watling) and Rosie Parnell with that experience while still retaining the core of young players that have been around us. 

“But now you move up again and you have to step up with that experience again. It will be an interesting time but we believe in what we’re trying to do. We believe it comes down to the recruitment plan and what we’ve set ourselves a target to do. And we just have to follow the process."

After applying for a place in the National League last summer, Spacey-Cale’s side won the Southern division by a nine-point margin while scoring 99 goals and conceding just 13. But with only one team getting promotion to the Championship from the third tier as a whole, a play-off against Wolves was needed to decide their fate.

Daily Echo: Sophia Pharoah celebrates her winning goal against Wolves. Image by: Tom MulhollandSophia Pharoah celebrates her winning goal against Wolves. Image by: Tom Mulholland

Sophia Pharoah’s first half goal proved the difference in a nervy affair. Not that anyone connected to Southampton will care about that footnote on what was a unforgettable day for Spcey-Cale and the entire Women’s programme. 

It’s taking a while to sink in for the manager.

“Not yet! I keep threatening that the minute it sinks in I might be in the supermarket and do a knee slide down the freezer aisles! Yes we did it! But what’s important is that we start planning for next season as well. We’ve done a lot of work but now we can actually do the detailed work knowing where we are.

“We talk a lot about culture and environment and this is a fantastic environment and the culture of the players and group and the club…we talk about all-in and being part of the strategy but it’s exciting because you know the values of the club and that’s what we all truly believe in. I’ve had some special moments in my career and this certainly lives up there with some of those moments.”

The Championship combined with the move to a full-time programme no doubt presents major opportunities as well as very real challenges. But Spacey-Cale feels her team and the club are ready.

“We worked a lot this year around ‘what does the load look like in training?’ What we didn’t want to do was have a massive spike from training at this level to then going up to the next level. So we worked really hard and fairness to the medical performance team, they made sure we were training at a level where it isn’t such a big jump. You’re going into the Championship plus a full-time programme - those are big changes. The difference between being professional. So we’ve worked on all kinds of things to get us ready for this moment.

“You had to (prepare for it). We had Plan A and Plan B. Plan A was the Championship, Plan B was staying in Tier 3, in the Southern Premier. But whichever way it went we were going to be full-time so we just had to press the button on Plan A once it went in.”

Spacey-Cale makes a jokey comment about the ‘egotistical’ nature of the signed pictures she hands out to the schoolgirls present at Staplewood. It’s an off the cuff quip matched by a chuckle but it’s a window into the mastermind behind this triumph, someone who seems to constantly hand out credit rather than take.

After arriving at the club in 2018, Spacey-Cale has sat at the drivers’ seat of a remarkable rise up the pyramid.

“You look at what’s happened in the last five years, from tier seven to the Championship,” she says. “Everybody that’s been part of that, because it hasn’t just been this season, it’s been big steps from tier seven to tier six to tier five. Everybody’s played a part in that, the players that have been with us and now go on, we wouldn’t be where we are now without their support and what they did in the early years.

“The work that the guys do in the RTC, the young talent. You look at Meg Collett, Milly Mott, Lucia Kendall, those players who are coming in now who came through the RTC programme. It’s great that we have the pathway in place and now there’s a real aspiration in place for those players to drive towards playing at the highest level.”

It has been quite the journey and while there is satisfaction in looking back, Spacey-Cale prefers to look forward and with the move to full-time there are no plans to slow down.

Daily Echo: Spacey-Cale applauds the Saints fans in Stockport. Image by: Tom MulhollandSpacey-Cale applauds the Saints fans in Stockport. Image by: Tom Mulholland

“We’re going to have a period of settling down and understanding and competing in the Championship but from the moment we started and built this programme we’ve always had an aspiration to be in the Super League. That doesn’t change. We’ll keep sticking to the plan, sticking to the process and we’re now on the next part of that.

“That evidence and that proof is fantastic for the community of Southampton as well as the people around the club. The application process for the Championship, you had to win your division, win the play-off and meet the criteria for the application. So all of that was done with everybody. The application was an outstanding application but that was all-in from the club. 

“So for us it’s exciting but a lot of hard work went into it and we’re really thankful to everyone at the club who supported it. But also can’t miss out our supporters because they have been immense all season. We started off with a couple of hundred at games and to build up to having that many at the play-off and as loud and as rowdy they were - in a good way - they’ve been immense for us. They’ve been the difference in some games.”

As the clock ticks closer and closer to 2pm, Spacey-Cale looks around as she contemplates a question about the responsibility and opportunity she and her team have to inspire future generations of Women’s football in this community.

“You see the girls out on the pitch today…” she finally says. “They’re playing football, they’re enjoying themselves, they’re laughing, they’re smiling, they’re having fun and that’s what’s important. 

“But it’s not just playing now. The opportunity to work in football is far better now than it’s ever been. You look at all the work the club does around the Saints Foundation, there are so many opportunities now that if you don’t want to play you’ve got another route to being in football. Whereas those were really few and far between back in the day. 

“So the fact that the game is growing at the rate it is…yes for players…but also for coaches, administration, physios, it’s important that young women feel there’s a place for them and that they belong. And once they belong you know you’ll get a lot of work from them and they’ll work hard to ensure they get success in their careers which in turn will provide success for the club.”

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