A Premier League trophy was displayed at Anfield for the first time earlier this month, but it was the women’s team rather than the men’s who were parading the precious silverware.
As Luis Suarez, Daniel Sturridge and a Steven Gerrard penalty gave the red half of Liverpool victory over Crystal Palace, the club’s ladies sat watching from the Director’s Box as champions, having ended Arsenal’s remarkable run of nine league titles in a row. At half-time, the squad were invited on to the pitch to soak up the applause from the 44,721 crowd and complete a lap of honour, passing the famous Kop end in the process.
Leading the team was captain Gemma Bonner, who was signed from Chelsea at the beginning of the campaign. The 22-year-old took a gamble leaving the London club as Liverpool had finished bottom of the league in the previous two seasons. Yet now Bonner has a championship winner's medal and her first England cap to vindicate the move.
“It’s been a whirlwind 12 months and I never thought it would have happened this time last year,” she told FIFA.com. “I’m still coming to terms with it all!
“I think the turnaround for Liverpool has happened because we’ve had a massive amount of support from the club itself, and that’s helped enormously. At my previous clubs, the men’s and the women’s teams have been kept apart, but at Liverpool they’ve really embraced us and provided the platform we’ve needed to concentrate on the football side of things.
“We’ve been able to train at the club’s academy and had full access to the medical department, which has been magnificent. Other clubs train two or three times per week, but we can train four or five times a week. That has played a massive part. We’ve even trained with the men. It’s been great.
Bonner linked up with her former manager at Chelsea, Matt Beard, who assumed the Liverpool reins in August 2012. He set about revitalising the squad, bringing in the likes of USA defender Whitney Engen, German forward Nicole Rolser and Swedish star Louise Fors to link up with English talent such as Natasha Dowie, Fara Williams and Lucy Bronze – all signed from neighbours Everton.
“Credit has to go to Matt and his backroom staff,” said Bonner. “I think they could have gone out and bought any player in the league, but they concentrated on getting the right players and personalities into the club. At the beginning of the season, the people in our squad weren’t that well known – there were a lot of young foreign players brought in – which shows the amount of research that they’ve done. It’s paid off. It took a few games to gel, but once we got into a rhythm we did well.”
Other clubs train two or three times per week, but we can train four or five times a week. We’ve even trained with the men. It’s been great.
Liverpool didn’t just do “well”, they excelled in every department, winning 12 of their 14 games, including a 9-0 thrashing of Doncaster Belles, a nail-biting 4-3 win at runners-up Bristol Academy and a 4-0 win over Arsenal at the Emirates Stadium. Gerrard and Co were so impressed that they invited the champions to Melwood, the club’s training centre, for breakfast to chat about their success.
Finishing top also booked the club’s place in the UEFA Women’s Champions League next season, which evokes memories of Liverpool’s five successes in the men’s game. The famous European nights at Anfield are well known by fans of the beautiful game and now Bonner is looking forward to welcoming some of the continent’s leading sides to England's north-west.
“As a squad we said that one of our aims was to secure Champions League football – and obviously we’ve done that,” she said. “We can’t wait to get started, but we’ve got a while to wait. It’s a challenge we’re looking forward to: the chance to play Europe’s best teams will be great for us.”
'Amazing' to be a Lioness
So far, European football has had bittersweet memories for the defender. She was called up to be a part of Hope Powell’s UEFA EURO 2013 squad, but was forced to watch from the sidelines as the Three Lionesses finished bottom of their group.
However, England’s interim manager Brent Hills has shown faith in the Leeds-born star, selecting her to start in the 8-0 win over Turkey in FIFA Women’s World Cup™ qualifying.
“It was an amazing feeling,” recalled Bonner, smiling. “I’ve had to be patient. My first call-up was last March, 18 months ago, but now I’ve had my chance I want to push on. There’s no greater feeling than making your debut for your country and I can’t wait to experience it again."