2020/21 - Creating history as Championship champions
On Sunday 6 September 2020, LCFC Women kicked off their first Barclays Women's Championship campaign as a full-time, professional outfit.
The move to become an official part of the Leicester City family led to several players with experience at the top level of women's football being recruited, signalling the dawn of a new era.
A summer of learning names, getting to grips with new team-mates and new surroundings followed, as preparations for the upcoming season intensified.
There was added anticipation among many to resume, as the shortened 2019/20 campaign, due to the coronavirus pandemic, meant Leicester had not played a competitive game since beating top flight opponents Reading in the Vitality Women's FA Cup on 20 February, 2020.
The new season quickly arrived and the fixture schedule threw up a home clash with Blackburn Rovers at the Foxes' home of Farley Way Stadium. Few knew quite what to expect as City entered into the new world of behind-closed-doors matches, COVID-19 protocols and a fresh squad looking to make a serious challenge in the second tier of women's football.
It could not have gone much better for the Foxes as they recorded a 3-0 victory in the Leicestershire sunshine, to get off to the perfect start as a professional side. Charlie Devlin opened the scoring before summer signing Natasha Flint found the net twice against her former club.
Back-to-back 2-2 draws followed against two possible promotion rivals - Sheffield United and Durham. Flint was among the goals again, converting a last-minute penalty to draw level after Millie Farrow had given the Foxes an early lead versus the Blades.
Despite the influx of players over the summer break, a team spirit had clearly developed within the group.
The character required to bounce back was on full display again when Durham arrived in Quorn. Trailing twice in the game, including in the 90th minute once more, Leicester native Remi Allen, a summer recruit from Reading, and then Lachante Paul, popped up with crucial goals to level the scores.
The confidence City had gained from those comebacks led to an accomplished display on home soil against two-time Women's Super League champions Liverpool, who were newly-relegated to the second tier. Paul, on the scoresheet again alongside another former Arsenal youngster, Paige Bailey-Gayle, helped to secure a 2-1 victory over the Reds, who were tipped for the one promotion spot at the start of the season.
Leicester really started to click into gear when they travelled to face Crystal Palace at Hayes Lane on 18 October. Despite the early setback of conceding inside the opening four minutes, the Foxes roared back with both Flint and Paul among the goals, alongside Allen, who scored a brace in the 4-1 triumph.
The only blot on Leicester's copybook so far this term was an uncharacteristic 4-1 loss away to London City Lionesses, a result that they put firmly behind them just three days later, by defeating Blackburn in the Continental Tyres League Cup. It was a five-star, five-goal performance from the rampant Foxes, who raced into a two-goal lead courtesy of Flint.
Following a fightback from the visitors, City nonetheless scored three times in the final quarter of an hour to move to the top of Group E.
A 1-0 home win over Lewes, courtesy of Bailey-Gayle's third goal in as many games, demonstrated the Foxes' defensive capabilities, keeping a first clean sheet since the opening day of the season.
November ended in spectacular fashion, with seven different players on the scoresheet in the 9-1 hammering of Coventry at Butts Park Arena, including braces for Paul and top scorer Flint. Allen, Bailey-Gayle and Farrow also added to their goal tallies, while Sophie Barker and Ruesha Littlejohn both netted their first for the Club, to record City's biggest-ever Championship win.
Three successive shutouts came in December, as goalkeeper Kirstie Levell, behind centre-backs Ashleigh Plumptre and Sam Tierney, formed a formidable defensive partnership that took a League Cup meeting with Birmingham City to penalties and ultimately ensured the Foxes would progress into the quarter-finals of the competition for the first time in Leicester's history.
Back in the league, meanwhile, it was a 3-0 win at home to London Bees that sent Leicester to the Championship's summit for the first time, as Flint, Bailey-Gayle and Farrow wrapped up the scoring in Quorn.
The visiting Foxes were then made to work for victory in south London, eventually coming away from Charlton Athletic with a 2-0 result, courtesy of goals from the ever-reliable Flint and Allen. A hard fought 3-2 triumph at Blackburn followed, ensuring the Foxes would remain top of the tree at Christmas, backing up a successful first half of the season.
City showed no sign of slowing down after the winter break and the new year began as 2020 had finished - with yet another victory, as the fearless Foxes marched on thanks to consecutive 2-1 wins over close rivals Sheffield United and Liverpool. Leicester-born Plumptre's first goal for the Club had City ahead against the Blades, before Flint conjured up a vital second to cancel out the visitors' equaliser in the second half.
The former England youth international soon popped up with her 14th goal in all competitions to equalise against the Reds, continuing a fine first season for the forward. Devlin was the other name on the scoresheet on Merseyside, firing in an unstoppable drive that maintained Leicester's winning streak.
Moves were made in the January transfer window as 19-year-old midfielder Charlotte Fleming joined from Women's Super League champions Chelsea and Coventry United forward Shannon O'Brien also linked up with the Foxes, while goalkeeper Sophie Harris signed from Watford after Demi Lambourne suffered a long-term injury.
Now in new surroundings, a dedicated training ground in the heart of the city, Belvoir Drive is the envy of many within the women's game. Leicester were still making strides on the pitch too, as they won their first-ever Continental Tyres League Cup last-eight tie, finding a 90th-minute winner from Flint to reach the semi-finals.
A meeting with top-flight outfit Bristol City awaited, but it proved to be a step too far for the Foxes, who were narrowly defeated by a single second-half goal at Twerton Park. With all focus now on the league, the galvanised group hit back by beating Crystal Palace - thanks to Hannah Cain's maiden goal for the Club following her long-term injury.
Although teams around them continued to pick up points, Leicester kept their focus on themselves - leading to a near-perfect afternoon at London Bees in early March. Scoring seven goals without reply, City were ruthless in their approach against Bees, particularly in the second half, when O'Brien scored her first two Leicester City goals.
Paul also netted a brace - for the second time this season - alongside goals for Farrow and Flint, but it was full-back Esmee De Graaf, a summer recruit from West Ham United, who netted the pick of the goals, striking a rocket from distance to round off the scoring.
Next up came a crunch clash with second-place Durham, behind the Foxes on goal difference only heading into the encounter at Maiden Castle Sports Park. Centre-back Tierney was the unlikely source of both goals in the 2-0 win, extending Leicester's winning run to 10 matches and opening up a slender three-point gap at the Championship's summit.
A brace of strikes from Flint on 28 March in a 2-0 victory over Coventry United put the Foxes on the cusp of glory and, with Durham not playing the following weekend, they knew a 15th win of the season against London City at Farley Way on 4 April would seal promotion and the title.
It proved to be a tense affair in Quorn until the 69th minute when Tierney stepped up to continue her trend of scoring huge goals for City with a close-range finish to spark delirious celebrations among players and staff. There was still work to do, however, until Flint's 15th goal of the season gave Leicester breathing space with 14 minutes of normal time remaining.
As the clock ticked down, LCFC Women were resolute to hold onto their precious lead and, on the final whistle, their dreams were realised.
FA Women's Championship champions, with two games to spare, and the newest members of the Barclays Women's Super League.