Raynbird still rues FA denial

Vanessa Raynbird
Vanessa Raynbird
Dion Donohue. Picture: Colin Farmery

New boy’s bitter-sweet Pompey experience

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When the revamped FA Women’s Super League kicks off in the summer of 2014, don’t be surprised to find Vanessa Raynbird out on a golf course somewhere escaping all the fanfare.

The restructuring at the top of ladies’ football in this country has, after all, had a huge impact on her and her football club.

Rewind to the summer of 2012 and it was all smiles for Raynbird as she guided Pompey Ladies into the national division of the FA Women’s Premier League.

But just a few months later there was a cataclysmic change to the landscape at the top of the game.

The after-effects of that are still being felt – not just in Portsmouth but across the nation.

Raynbird – who has now stepped down from her position as manager, after 11 seasons in charge to take on a role promoting the business side of Pompey Ladies – was building a side she felt could survive in the national division.

Her team started the season superbly, pushing defending champions Sunderland all the way, then stunning Manchester City 3-2 away and crushing Aston Villa 3-0 at home.

But in December, Pompey were made aware of the Football Association’s plans to expand the Women’s Super League, with a second tier in the summer of 2014.

It was not just a case of the goal posts being moved – more the turf being ripped up from underneath their feet.

It quickly became clear the battle off the pitch would dictate their destiny – not what was happening on it.

Clubs were invited to put together a bid to earn a place in the expanding Super League.

Pompey duly did so but their hopes were dashed, overlooked by the FA while the likes of Yeovil and Barnet were handed places among the elite.

It still irks Raynbird that the team she put together will not get a chance to prove themselves at Super League level, with entry into the set-up via FA approval rather than promotion.

‘It’s a shame for all at the club that we have not made the Super League,’ she said.

‘The girls deserve it. They are good enough for it on the pitch.

‘That’s the disappointing thing for me. I thought we were on to the next level.

‘We ended up in the bottom two of the national league which, for me, was a little bit disappointing. But everything deflected away from what we were doing on the pitch.

‘We started the season extremely well, with a good 3-2 win at Man City and our first win at home against Aston Villa 3-0.

‘It soon became clear it didn’t matter where we finished, though.

‘We have gone down from step two to step three because our Super League bid wasn’t as good as other people’s in the FA’s opinion.

‘It has been taken away from us, through no fault of our own.

‘It was really frustrating. Not only for me but for the players as well.

‘They have worked hard to get there and it has taken the icing off it a little bit.’

To say the final selection for the Super League was controversial would be an understatement.

Doncaster Belles will be demoted to the second division of the Super League after 22 seasons in the top flight of ladies’ football.

Their place has been taken by big-spending Manchester City who jump up from the national division.

Leeds, who finished second in the national division, were denied a place in the Super League all together.

It certainly points towards clubs who could offer the financial backing of their men’s team being looked upon favourably.

But despite the events off the field, 59-year-old Raynbird will always look back on the achievement of winning promotion in 2011-12 as a memory to treasure.

It was the long-term goal, ever since she took charge of the ambitious club at the start of the 2002-03 season.

Immediately, Pompey Ladies climbed out of the South-West Combination with success in her first full season in charge.

The next aim was to establish the club in the national division.

That objective proved difficult to achieve and plenty of near misses along the way only served to make the feeling all the more special when it arrived.

On a dismal, rainy Sunday against Plymouth last year, the Blues finally secured the win they needed to seal the southern division crown. It sparked an outpouring of emotion from players and staff alike.

For Raynbird it was the undisputed highlight of her tenure as manager.

She said: ‘Getting the promotion was the pinnacle of my time at Portsmouth, really.

‘It took a while – it took longer than I would have anticipated.

‘We had a four or five-year plan, really, to try to get up into the national.

‘There were some close calls – we were runners-up a couple of times.

‘We wanted that extra little push on occasions to get us there.

‘The match with Plymouth was a real nail-biter.

‘It was an awful day. It poured with rain all day long and the pitch was like a quagmire.

‘But they scored the winner for us near the end of the match.

‘A cross ricocheted off one of their full-backs and just completely threw the keeper.

‘She was going one way and it went in the opposite side of the goal.

‘When the final whistle went we were all jumping up and down.

‘Nobody is going to take that away from us.’

After striving so hard to win promotion, only to see events off the field virtually relegate the team a year later, you could forgive Raynbird for being a little disillusioned with it all.

But that is not the reason behind her decision to stand down and take on the new challenge of Pompey Ladies’ business manager.

Her remit is to oversee the youth development side of the club, forge stronger links with the men’s side of Pompey and work on boosting the ladies’ profile in the community.

It was a position Raynbird was earmarked for, even if the Blues had made the Super League.

On the field, Raynbird believes it is time for change at the head of the club.

Katie Poore and Perry Northeast have taken over as a new management team.

The challenge will be to get Pompey firing at the top of the southern division next season.

On matchdays, Raynbird will still be present but in a supporting role – cheering on the team and backing the new management duo.

She said: ‘The time for me was right and the time for the team was right as well.

‘This was a role I was going to take if we got Super League anyway.

‘I still want to go and watch the girls playing football.

‘It’s something I really enjoy doing.

‘But I don’t enjoy standing out in the freezing cold on a Thursday night watching them train.

‘I’ll admit that because I got a bad back about six months ago and it was the worst thing in the world, just standing out there getting cold.

‘The trouble is, I’m the sort of person that has to give 100 per cent all the time.

‘I wouldn’t feel right if I didn’t go even to one training session.

‘I don’t think I’ve missed one!

‘I’m always there. If ever Perry and Katie need to run anything by me I am going to be around.

‘I wouldn’t want to say “bye then, I’m going now” and just leave them in the lurch.

‘But I thought at some point I am going to have hang it up.

‘I want a little bit more time to myself – I do play a bit of golf now and I like to go away for a weekend or two.’