Speaking to the Daily Echo just days after Saints’ historic promotion to the Championship, manager Marieanne Spacey-Cale was already looking toward the new season.

Moving into a full-time programme and the significant jump from National League to Championship football, Spacey-Cale was under no illusions about the challenge facing her side. Put simply, this was a good team with a great core of young players. But they needed help.

READ MORE: Spacey-Cale on a special season and next steps for Southampton FC Women

Enter the summer transfer window…

“It’s a great opportunity for us in terms of recruitment because we do need to recruit some players with Championship experience,” Spaey-Cale said. “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."

Now, just under two months after sitting down with the Echo to discuss an exciting future for the club, Spacey-Cale’s ambitions are being met in equally thrilling fashion. Last week, Saints Women their sixth signing of the summer window, perhaps the biggest statement of them all: prolific forward Katie Wilkinson arriving from Championship rivals Coventry United.

Daily Echo: Wilkinson poses after signing for Saints. Image by: Chris MoorhouseWilkinson poses after signing for Saints. Image by: Chris Moorhouse

Goalscorers are never easy to find but Saints have got one who has an elite track record and arrives in what should be her prime at the age of 27. 

Wilkinson’s CV speaks for itself: Making her debut for Birmingham City at the age of 17, she scored six goals in five games while on loan at Aston Villa before a promising spell at London Bees led her to Sheffield United where she showed the kind of transcendental form Saints will be hoping she can find on the South Coast.

Across two seasons with the Blades, Wilkinson notched 34 goals in 34 games, earning back-to-back Championship Player of the Season and Golden Boot awards. She couldn’t quite repeat the heroics last season with Coventry but still played a crucial role as they narrowly avoided relegation.

This is a statement and the statement is clear: Saints haven’t arrived in the Championship to hang out and make up the numbers. They aren’t just happy to be there - they’re here to win and earn promotion to the Women's Super League.

Daily Echo: Spacey-Cale waves to fans after Saints confirm their National League South title against Portsmouth. Image by: Tom MulhollandSpacey-Cale waves to fans after Saints confirm their National League South title against Portsmouth. Image by: Tom Mulholland

That idea - of continuing to rocket up the tiers - is nothing new and has always been the plan for their ambitious manager and the ambitious set-up behind her.

“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," Spacey-Cale added. 

"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."

The key distinction, however, is that it’s not just an idea or plan: real action is occurring and the arrival of the impressive Wilkinson is just the latest domino in that route to the top. She’s not the only one this summer either.

Ten days ago, Saints announced the signing of Megan Wynne, another attacking player with an exciting track record. At 29 years old, Wynne arrives with 14 Welsh caps as well as experience in the WSL and Championship - most recently with Saints’ first foe this season - Charlton Athletic.

Speaking after the move was complete, she said: "I came down a few weeks ago and went for a walk with Marieanne around the whole of the training ground. Just seeing the facilities and the ambitions of the club and where they’ve grown from, and after having a few conversations, I knew it was the place for me."

Daily Echo: Megan Wynne pictured after signing for Saints. Image by: Chris MoorhouseMegan Wynne pictured after signing for Saints. Image by: Chris Moorhouse

The belief in this project radiates from Spacey-Cale at the top but it is clearly seeping down into everyone else associated.

In addition to the two attackers, Saints have brought in 27-year-old goalkeeper Sophie Harris - armed with WSL experience - as well as forward Beth Lumsden - who at just 22 years of age has already played Championship football with Charlton before scoring 27 goals in 33 games for Oxford United in the National League last season.

From the moment Saints earned promotion to the second division, it was a priority for Spacey-Cale to bring in individuals with experience at this level and the departures of seasoned contributors including Katie Rood, Shelly Provan and Shannon Sievwright just made that even more essential.

Those players have all played hugely influential roles in where Southampton are today but they've been replaced with individuals who Saints couldn't have realistically targeted just a few years ago and the squad looks much stronger for it.

But more than replacing the now-departed experience, Spacey-Cale knew that her team needed help to go up to the next level. This was, after all, a side that was largely propelled by youth last season.

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

Of the team that started Saints' successful play-off against Wolves, just three members - Rafferty, Parnell and Rutherford - are over the age of 25. Four of the 11 are still under the age of 20. This is not to say these players can't be Championship-calibre. This is a golden generation of young talent coming through the club's RTC (Regional Talent Club) programme and they've now proven just how important they can be.

Lucia Kendall - 18 years old - won the Players' Player of the Season while Megan Collett and Millie Mott both started the play-off final. Meanwhile, Sophia Pharoah - scorer of the goal that sent Saints up - made RTC history by becoming the first player from the centre to be called up to a competitive England squad, the U16s.

These young stars will continue to lead the new wave, something Spacey-Cale doesn't want ignored.

READ MORE: New signing 'confident' of competing with ex-side in season-opener

“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.”

But still, to properly compete after such a major step up, Spacey-Cale and Saints hierarchy have felt that games at that level were a crucial addition. They haven't stopped recruiting young either with 19-year-olds Paige Peake and Lexi Lloyd Smith joining the aforementioned Lumsden in arriving at Staplewood this summer.

The result of this rebuild is a team that should be able to not only survive - but thrive - in the Championship. They've already matched up well with Celtic, earning a 1-1 draw in pre-season, and as the group continues to mesh and gets to grips with life in the second tier, there's no reason to hold back on the ambition - Spacey-Cale and the club certainly haven't.

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