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Sophie Goodwin: The story of Aberdeen Women’s first season back in the top-flight

Aberdeen Women football team
Aberdeen Women. (Photo by Stephen Dobson/ProSports/Shutterstock)

Aberdeen Women’s fifth-place finish in SWPL 1 proves their season has been a success on the pitch – but this campaign has also been marked by their achievements off it.

The league season started with an opening day defeat to Celtic, but it was an encouraging display which would instill confidence in Emma Hunter and the newly-appointed Gavin Beith in the dugout.

It indicated Aberdeen had the foundations in place to progress and improve to better compete with SWPL 1’s professional sides, but the priority was always going to be to beat the teams in and around them this term.

That objective started off as good as the Dons could’ve hoped, with successive wins against Partick Thistle and Hamilton, before a 0-0 draw against Spartans, who had already established themselves in SWPL 1 by finishing fifth in the two seasons prior.

It had been a promising start to the season, but a 3-2 defeat against Hearts in October, kicked off the start of a six game winless run, and the Dons did not pick up any more points until December.

A winless run of that kind doesn’t look good on paper, but it was a blip in the season which would’ve been expected in some shape or form, considering this campaign was the first back in SWPL 1 and the first ever for most of Aberdeen’s young players.

A season-changing reaction to defeat

The Dons came back into the top-flight off the back of two title-winning seasons, where defeat was not a familiar feeling. In 2019, they finished the SWF Division 1 North season as ‘invincibles’, before only losing twice the following season in SWPL 2.

But, for a predominantly young squad, mixed in with the likes of the experienced Kelly Forrest and Loren Campbell, the reaction to the extended run of SWPL 1 defeats has to be commended.

Returning to winning ways, Aberdeen won six out of their next seven games in all competitions, starting with the 2-1 victory against Hamilton in December, as they moved up to fifth in the league and progressed to the quarter-finals of the Scottish Women’s Cup.

There were standout performers during the run, as Bayley Hutchison netted 10 of her 20 goals during this period – including braces against Hamilton, Hearts, Glasgow Women and Motherwell.

Hutchison wasn’t the only Don scoring for fun, as Francesca Ogilvie went on an impressive run of form, netting six of her 11 goals, meanwhile, Eva Thomson scored a crucial long-range winner against Hibernian.

Aberdeen Women midfielder Eva Thomson in action against Hibernian earlier this season
Eva Thomson scored the only goal as the Dons beat Hibs during their winning run.

Defeats to Glasgow City and Celtic – combined with Spartans picking up points – saw the Dons drop down to sixth, but it wasn’t for long, as March wins against Partick Thistle and Hamilton moved them back up to fifth.

Aberdeen were able to pick up points when it mattered, though, and a draw against Spartans, and another win against the Jags in May, increased their points tally to 29, which would be enough to secure a top-half finish.

Despite losing their last three games of the season, including a 3-2 defeat to Motherwell on the final day, it wouldn’t affect their position in the table – as the Dons had already been confirmed as the fifth-placed side for the 21/22 SWPL 1 season prior to kick-off in their final match.

Milestones for Aberdeen and the women’s game in the north

The future of women’s football in the north and north-east changed for the better when Aberdeen announced the club are moving towards semi-professional football near the end of the campaign.

Hutchison, Ogilvie, Thomson, Eilidh Shore and Jess Broadrick have been secured on contracts until 2024,  and are the first female players to be paid to play for the Pittodrie club.

It’s another step in the right direction which will ultimately help Aberdeen’s prospects on the pitch, as the players – more of whom are expected to be put on semi-pro contracts in the years ahead – will have more time to use the better facilities also promised in the contract announcement.

Nearly 2,000 supporters cheered on Aberdeen Women in the historic match against Rangers at Pittodrie.

Moving towards a semi-professional status isn’t the only historic development this season, as the Dons were involved in two record-breaking matches.

The matches at Pittodrie – the first ever – and Ibrox have set a precedent, one that should’ve been set long before now, as both games achieved new club attendance records of 1,894 and 4,421, respectively.

Those numbers show there is an appetite for women’s football, but the ball is quite literally in each club’s court (well, pitch) to build on this season’s progress, and ensure that, when the women take to the field at those stadiums again, the attendances are even bigger.

What might change next season?

An area the Dons must improve on next season is their points return against the top-three. This season Aberdeen failed to pick up any points against Rangers, Glasgow City or Celtic.

However, Aberdeen were not alone as only one team outside the top-four took points against SWPL 1’s professional sides, which was a 2-2 draw between Celtic and Spartans back in October.

The elite women’s game moves to the SPFL next season, where the league will split into the top and bottom six after the first two rounds of fixtures. If the Dons were to have another successful season, post-split they would end up in the mix with the professional sides.

If that ends up being the case, Aberdeen will play Rangers, Glasgow City and Celtic a total of four times each over the campaign and, having gained experience against those sides, this season’s competitive performances would have to be matched with more competitive results next term.

Moving to semi-professional and the SPFL marks a new era for Aberdeen, but it’s one they’ll move into without stalwarts Forrest and Carrie Doig, who have announced their retirement.

Aberdeen Women retirees Kelly Forrest and Carrie Doig

The squad will miss the defenders’ experience, who have over two decades worth of Dons appearances between them, but, with Forrest calling it a day, Aberdeen will also have to appoint a new captain.

Campbell would be the natural successor, having skippered the side when Forrest was absent, but she herself has admitted that she might only have a couple seasons left in her.

The question will be how far ahead are Hunter and Beith preparing for, and if it’s more than just a couple years. Life-long Aberdeen fan Donna Paterson would be a good fit for the vacant role in the longer term.

At only 23 years old, she has more SWPL 1 experience than anyone else in the squad – other than Campbell – having turned out for Forfar Farmington and Glasgow City before rejoining the Dons last year.

It’ll be a difficult decision for the Aberdeen co-managers, but whoever is bestowed the honour of captain, they will be guiding the Dons into a bigger and brighter future.