Women's Championship: Is this the most brutal title race?

Only one of Sunderland, Crystal Palace, Southampton, Charlton and Birmingham can be promoted to the WSL - and the title race could not be closer...

Credit - Getty

In what is the season of title race excitement, there is one that stands out as the most brutal of them all.

In the Women's Championship - the second tier of English football - just one team are promoted to the Women's Super League from five current contenders.

As things stand, it could not be closer. Sunderland lead the way on 34 points - closely followed by Crystal Palace, Southampton and Charlton all on 33 points, separated only on goal difference.

The two South London sides - Crystal Palace and Charlton - both have a game in hand. Meanwhile Birmingham, currently four points from the top spot, also have an additional game to play, making for the most fascinating of title races.

As Sunderland captain Brianna Westrup told Sky Sports: "There's teams with games in hand, and that could drastically change things when they play those games. It emphasises the importance of every single game regardless of where you are in the table."

Here, Sky Sports takes a look at each team in the race with exclusive insight from players and managers, plus how equipped each could be for life in the WSL...


Current Championship position: 1st with 34 points
Manager: Mel Reay
Top scorers: Emily Scarr, Jenna Dear and Mary McAteer (4)

Championship leaders Sunderland are the biggest surprise. Last season, they finished in 11th place - a position that would mean relegation in the 2023/24 campaign.

Now, they stand on the cusp of promotion to the WSL for the first time since the league turned professional, having previously had licence applications rejected by the FA (the application took into account all aspects of the club’s operation - from coaching standards and facilities to marketing and commercial plans).

Players like Lucy Bronze, Jill Scott and Beth Mead all came through the ranks at the club, showing their pedigree and history in the game.

But this season's promotion push has arguably come out of the blue, and it is perhaps the struggle of the 2022/23 campaign that has spurred Sunderland on.

Westrup said: "It's probably unexpected. At the beginning of the season, a lot of people anticipated us to be in a relegation battle instead of a promotion battle.

"A lot of teams strengthened and retained a lot of people and we had a fair bit of turnover, so we're probably achieving above and beyond what people would have expected.

"But once we got into our rhythm in the season, we thought 'we can expect that from this group'. It's not a one-off game we're winning. As we've grown into this, it's provided more belief in the team. Hopefully we're hitting form at the right time and putting together better football performances than we did at the beginning of the season.

"But it's equally as important to win those games when you're not putting in a great performance per se. Now, we expect it from ourselves and you've tasted a bit of being so close that you kind of want to just see it out.

"Coming off the back of last season, it's hard to have a losing season. To come in every week and feel like, on the weekend, it was a 1-0 defeat in the 87 minute and especially when you could potentially be relegated, it does start to get to you.

"We know how we don't want to feel. It almost makes you put that much more effort into working to scratch and claw out everything to not be in the same position.

"Everyone here wants to win. The players that we have brought in not only brought quality on the pitch, but they brought positivity. Some of them came from winning teams so they have definitely helped the mentality."

Along with Charlton and Birmingham, Sunderland have also conceded the fewest goals this season - just 14 in 18 games.

"If the other team can't score the least you're getting is a draw and a point out of the game. As a defender as well, that's very important.

"Claudia [Moan] is a tremendous shot stopper and she's come on leaps and bounds in terms of in possession. I feel like last season, she didn't get to develop that because we were rarely in possession of the ball, we were very defensive.

"It's about not allowing teams to even get their shots on her, that then increases her ability to save the hopefully few shots that she does get. That has contributed a lot.

"We've also found more resilience and grit. It is a testament to every player, not just Claudia or the backline and we're very much a team that presses from the front. We don't say to the strikers 'you just hang out at the top of the pitch and wait for us to get you the ball', they also put a huge shift in to make it easier for everyone behind them to win the ball back so it's been night and day from last season."

It's definitely one of the most competitive leagues I've played in.... As nice as it would be to have a nine-point difference and be relaxed going into the last games, that's not fun for anyone else. As stressful as it might be for the people involved - trying not to get relegated or trying to get promoted - that’s football and it's crunch time. It shows what your team is made of when your back is against the wall.
Sunderland captain Brianna Westrup on the Women's Championship

Despite the huge improvements, heading into the final few games of the season, very little is changing for Sunderland.

"We are not putting any added pressure on ourselves," Westrup added. "Everyone can see the table, everyone knows it's crunch time, but it is brutal.

"Everyone is playing for something. The good majority of the teams we're facing are either trying to avoid relegation or trying to get promoted. It's a completely different motivator, but at the end of the day, it makes it such a hard game.

"You just have to look at the next team in front of you. Once you box that off, then you can enjoy it for that day, then you go on to the next thing.

"We've not tried to do much different or say 'this is so important'. We'll try not to use language that puts more pressure on people because you have some people who have been in teams that have been successful. You have people that haven't you, have young players, you have experienced players and not everyone handles pressure in the same way, so as much as we can, we keep it like a normal week.

"And you don't have to tell the team how important the games are, so I don't think saying anything like that in any of our analysis sessions or pre-match talks does anyone any benefit.

"It's not like now we're into the final few games, we're going to do more or less and change everything. We're trying to stay the exact same, see out the season and keep that routine."

Crystal Palace

Current Championship position: 2nd with 33 points
Manager: Laura Kaminski
Top scorer: Elise Hughes (14)

From one of the league's shutout specialists to the Championship's top scorers. Crystal Palace have scored an incredible 44 goals - 11 more than their next closest rivals, Southampton.

Two of their players - Elise Hughes and Annabel Blanchard - are in the top three for goals scored across the entire Championship.

But after a fifth place finish last season, Crystal Palace are another team who find themselves in the unexpected position of a title race.

Eagles defender Felicity Gibbons told Sky Sports: "To still be up there at this point of the season is brilliant, but I'd say we've exceeded our own expectations.

Crystal Palace's Felicity Gibbons spoke exclusively to Sky Sports

Crystal Palace's Felicity Gibbons spoke exclusively to Sky Sports

"With the season we had last year, which was so up and down, when Laura [Kaminski] came in, she wanted to steady the ship and build on what we did last year.

"It sounds very cliché, but it's true - we're just taking one game at a time. We're not looking too far ahead.

"But in terms of our targets for this year, promotion was never one of them, so it’s pleasant surprise.

"The scoring record has also not really been part of the plan, but it’s incredibly important. You never know what sort of difference goal difference might make.

"The games we've scored a lot of goals in is credit to the strength of our squad. We feel like we have a strong starting XI, but the options we have off the bench means we're able to maintain our performance levels over 90 minutes. So that's probably the key to that."

Seasons before now, you've had a team like Liverpool or Man United who sort of ran away with it. But this is probably the first time for as long as I can remember that there's been this number of teams this close this late on. It’s really nice that the league is competitive... the quality of football across the league is getting better year on year and hopefully it's exciting to watch.
Crystal Palace defender Felicity Gibbons on the Championship title race

So how have Crystal Palace gone from mid-table to promotion hopefuls?

"Laura and Adam [Jeffrey], her assistant, have instilled a real confidence and self-belief within the squad," Gibbons explained.

"We have that belief in ourselves and each other, individually and collectively so credit to them. As a group, we've also been very receptive to what they want us to do.

"We've also created a really nice culture this year of high standards, but also looking out for and being supportive of each other.

"I don't want to say it's happened by accident because there's a lot of thought that goes into it, but I think everything has come together really nicely for us. It's been a really good season so far."


Current Championship position: 3rd with 33 points
Manager: Marieanne Spacey-Cale
Top scorers: Sophia Pharoah, Katie Wilkinson (8)

Southampton have one of the trailblazers of English women's football at their helm in Marieanne Spacey-Cale - adding on the MBE too, of course.

With 91 England caps, numerous trophies - and goals - with Arsenal and Fulham as well as coaching spells with the Lionesses among others, Spacey-Cale is applying all of her experience to what is now a Saints title push.

Marieanne Spacey-Cale was part of the England staff when the Lionesses won bronze at the 2015 Women's World Cup

Marieanne Spacey-Cale was part of the England staff when the Lionesses won bronze at the 2015 Women's World Cup

She has been at the club since 2018, firstly as head of girls and women's football, before taking on the managerial role too. Southampton were promoted to the Championship in their first season under Spacey-Cale.

"You're always chasing what's next and it's hard sometimes to reflect on what's happened," the Saints boss told Sky Sports.

"If you look at our journey, five years from tier five - or tier six as we were originally due to start in - into the Championship, it's been phenomenal.

"We've had this clear focus on where we wanted to be in five years, and that was in the Championship so we've hit that target.

"So sometimes we've got to give ourselves a pat on the back and say we've done well. But in football, you're always driving to the next thing.

"For us this season, promotion was something we were aspiring to and to a point it's kind of still there.

"But we wanted to have a clear focus on what we should to be concentrating on. And if you don't reach your aspiration, then how close can you get to that and that's probably where we are at the moment."

You have to have the aspiration and you can never apologise for having aspirations that are the highest that you can achieve.
Southampton manager Marieanne Spacey-Cale on ambitions

In just their second Championship campaign, Southampton are among the best in the league for goals conceded (joint-second with 19) and goals scored (second highest with 33).

But, perhaps crucially, they haven't drawn any games this season.

Spacey-Cale reflected: "We’ve had seven losses and you don't want to be losing that amount of games when there's so few games that you play in the league anyway.

"We are a young side and sometimes you want to turn zero points to one point and that’s certainly something that we would look to develop and grow from.

"If we've learned anything, it's how to get a point from a position where sometimes you deserve the point, and we've just not quite cracked that yet."

It is a sentiment echoed by Saints defender Ella Morris, who told Sky Sports: "We're pretty satisfied with how it's gone. We definitely feel like we could have pushed on a bit more, but overall, we're still in this promotion race. 

"If you look at it, we're winning games, but the games we have lost, we need to find a way to either win those games or do well enough to come back and get a draw.

"It’s a massive learning point for us as a team moving forward to try and get those extra points if we can."

This season shows how much more competition there is in the second tier of women's football. It shows the progression the game is making overall. You've got the WSL which is super competitive, but now you also have the Championship which is also equally as productive. It’s brilliant for women's football. We want it to be close because it draws more fans and makes it more fun a player. It is brutal with one team going up but it's great overall.
Southampton defender Ella Morris

However, both Spacey-Cale and Morris are keen to stress that it is the top two - Sunderland and Crystal Palace - who are in the driving seat.

The defender said: "This season, we've put it out there that we wanted to be in that promotion race. We still are mathematically, but if you look at it really, it's more Crystal Palace and Sunderland right now that are looking to do that.

"Now it's about us chasing to get as many points as we can to put them under as much pressure as we can."

Spacey-Cale added: "Internally, we're kind of looking at Sunderland and Crystal Palace in the driving seat. It's their title to lose.

"We're very focused on finishing the season really well. We've got to concentrate on us, working hard day in, day out on the training pitch and trying to chase them down.

"A lot of people say it's not over yet and I agree, it's not really over yet, but we know that we're chasing two good teams. We've got to continue to do our very best and try and hang on to their coattails."

Charlton Athletic

Current Championship position: 4th with 33 points
Manager: Karen Hills
Top scorer: Kayleigh Barton (5)

Southampton are not the only club with an experienced head at the helm - Charlton manager Karen Hills has been here before.

She was promoted from the Championship with Tottenham in May 2019, alongside co-manager Juan Carlos Amoros - doing so as runners-up behind Manchester United - and oversaw Spurs' transformation from an amateur, part-time team to a professional outfit who continue to go from strength-to-strength on the foundations Hills built.

"When Spurs got promoted, the Championship was very different," she reflected on her previous promotion campaign.

"We were still part-time, we trained in the evening on a 9-a-side indoor dome - we never even trained on an 11-a-side pitch - and we ended up getting promoted to the WSL.

"Now, if you look at the Championship, it is probably what the WSL was five years ago.

Karen Hills spent 11 years at Tottenham, including promotion from the Championship into the WSL

Karen Hills spent 11 years at Tottenham, including promotion from the Championship into the WSL

"So the game is moving in a great direction incredibly fast and the Championship has got a consolidate what we're doing here."

Hills has seen a similar transformation at Charlton, although doing so over only two and a half years, reflecting the pace at which the Championship is developing.

"We'd already built a really good foundation, so this season was all about being better than last year. The aim was to finish in in the top three and the season's gone really well so far, " Hills explained.

"And we know that every team, every year are always going to keep investing more resources, so we need to keep moving forward.

Now, if you look at the Championship, it is probably what the WSL was five years ago.
Charlton manager Karen Hills

"People are catching up with everyone and now it's more of a level playing field, more teams are evenly matched.

"You see that with the results this season, the games are a lot closer. For example, we lost against Reading, who are in a different fight, Birmingham lost to Watford and they're in a different fight. Any team can beat anyone on any given day.

"The WSL is also probably a reason as to why the Championship is more competitive. If you look at across the top five Championship teams now, there are a lot of players that have experience in the WSL that are maybe not quite getting the exposure that they need, so the best thing for them is to drop down into another full-time environment, but continue to play.

"There are more opportunities now across the women's game, so more players having the opportunity to be a full-time professional football player, which is great."

If you can't win a game, you don't lose the game and we've got a solid foundation of an unbelievable defence. The challenge for us, and it's always the hardest part of the game, is putting the ball in the back of the net. We're creating so many opportunities and the defenders now are as good as forwards, goalkeepers have gotten better, so it's getting harder. But if we can keep a clean sheet, we've always got the opportunity to go on and potentially score to win 1-0 and that's what we have done in many games this season.
Karen Hills on Charlton's joint-best defensive record in the Women's Championship

And what about that tricky conundrum of only one team being promoted?

"I think there's going to be a plan in the next two, three seasons, where there will be more teams getting the opportunity to play in that league," Hills added.

Karen Hills took over at Charlton in March 2021

Karen Hills took over at Charlton in March 2021

"I think the infrastructure of the Championship just needs to be a little bit more sustainable. Every team needs to be full-time, and I enjoy the fact that every team is competitive and can beat anyone.

"When you go up to the next league, it looks very different, but that's where everyone wants to be, so I don't know the answer. All I look at is are Charlton and ready to go up and if we did do it, we would give it a good go."

Birmingham City

Current Championship position: 5th with 27 points
Manager: Darren Carter
Top scorers: Charlie Devlin, Libby Smith, Ivana Fuso (3)

On the face of it, Birmingham might be the least likely to win the Championship - but having beating Reading 4-0 in one of their games in hand, and an increasingly competitive league, it would be foolish to rule them out.

The Blues - relegated from the WSL in the 2021/22 season - were just a point behind Bristol City last season, and have been just as active in the promotion race this time around.

Defender Neve Herron arrived at the club in the summer as Birmingham looked to compete again, and spoke of some of the lessons the team learned from their previous campaign.

She told Sky Sports: "We had a bit of a slow start and a bit of a rough patch.

"There were a lot of new players that came in during the summer, we had a lot of girls coming back from the World Cup, some who we signed a bit later on, so it took us a little bit longer than other teams to gel together.

"But after that, we went on a really good run, and then got ourselves in another little sticky patch, but hopefully we can get out of that. 

"Speaking to the other girls, it was about sticking together [last season], trying to get a bit of momentum and getting points back on the board.

"And when that starts working and happening, then you notice the difference in the table."

And once again, Herron uses that 'competitive' buzzword is used to describe this season's title race.

She added: "I think a lot of teams in our league at the minute could be in the WSL and have the facilities and everything like that to be up there.

"It's disappointing that only one team goes up, but I think it makes it more of a challenge. Every week you have to work hard and do the best for your team. 

"I've played in the Championship for the last three years and I don't think I've seen a title race this close. This is definitely the most competitive in terms of how many teams are trying to go up, the quality in the league and how many clubs are investing in players."

So... who is best equipped for life in the WSL?

A loaded question. Positively, all five teams say they are supported with the right infrastructure, have backing from the clubs hierarchy and, as Hills says, 'we would give it a good go'.

But perhaps one of the criticisms of football as a whole is often the gulf between top divisions and the ones below it, such as the Women's Championship to WSL or Championship to Premier League in the men's game.

"It's one thing winning the Championship," Crystal Palace's Gibbons said. "Actually maintaining a place in the WSL is a huge ask, but I definitely think the club is ready.

Bristol City were promoted from the Championship last season. They are currently bottom of the WSL

Bristol City were promoted from the Championship last season. They are currently bottom of the WSL

"The club are trying to operate at WSL level before the club is there. We have a full-time programme in place, this is our second season, and we've had a number of extra staff come in this year. Even the quality of players that we're signing is better now.

"This club wants to be in the WSL - that's the aim for everyone. We're not naïve enough to think that we’re going to be able to do that without the suitable support and infrastructure in place, as well as that improving on the pitch.

"It's just about finishing off the season strong now, but I'd definitely say Crystal Palace has the WSL in its sights."

Southampton's Morris is also confident they would be able to compete in the WSL, having already faced teams from the league in the recent past.

"I think we can definitely do it," she said. "We’ve played friendlies against WSL teams where we performed really well.

"In the FA Cup, we've played Manchester United, which we gave a really good go, and against Arsenal as well.

"We're competing against these big teams full of international senior players, we're a really young team and we've shown our capability. I think if we were to go up then it would be even better for us to develop as much as we can as a team and as individuals.

We’ve got an amazing infrastructure and are integrated fully with the club. The support we get from the owners and the board is amazing and the aim will always be promotion for us... If it's not this year, then next year, we will hopefully be pushing again.
Marieanne Spacey-Cale on Southampton in the WSL

"With the backing in the club has given us, we would definitely be able to go up and facilities wise, it's brilliant here."

While investment and additional resources are key in what is a long, tough season, there are a number of teams who have proven it can be done.

"Your first year of going up is always to try and consolidate," Hills added. "Your ultimate aim is to stay in that league and then you build again.

Millie Turner after Man Utd's promotion to the WSL. The club have maintained their status in the league since and finished second last season

Millie Turner after Man Utd's promotion to the WSL. The club have maintained their status in the league since and finished second last season

"That's what Aston Villa, Liverpool, Tottenham, Man United have done."

Ultimately, one of Sunderland, Crystal Palace, Southampton, Charlton or Birmingham will take their place in the WSL come April 28. In fact, it could be a straight shootout with Charlton vs Southampton and Crystal Palace vs Sunderland on the final day.

What can be predicted though is how close this race is going to be with plenty of drama still yet to come. And at the end, there will only be one winner.