There’s a Scottish derby in the BUCS this Wednesday (1st March) as Stirling University host Edinburgh University in the Semi-Final of the 2016-17 BUCS Trophy Cup Semi-Final. We caught up with Stirling University’s Head Coach Tommy Craig before the big game.
Generally, it is a fantastic time to be a female footballer at Stirling University. Their SWPL side was, in many ways, the stand-out performance in 2016 in Scottish Women’s Football and by the time the academic year is over, they could be sitting with two cup trophies and their first team promoted to the British Premier Division.
Tommy Craig is feeling confident about the upcoming Semi-Final, saying that Stirling will approach the tie in a confident mood, due to their form in the competition – but he is also realistic. Currently, in the Scotland Division 1A, Stirling are just ahead of Edinburgh on goal difference, with both sides only defeat of the season coming against each other. And just to underline the closeness between the sides, both winning scorelines were just two goals.
The fact that the Semi-Final will be played at home is a unique situation for the side in this cup run. All three of their matches have been long-distance away travels: beating Wolverhampton 4-1 in the Round of 32, Nottingham Trent by 1-0 and then defeating Nottingham 1st 2-0. Craig praised his side for not only defeating the quality opposition that they’ve been drawn against but for dealing with the difficulties the travelling distances threw up. You can see why when Craig said, “it’s almost been leave on the Tuesday, all day on Wednesday playing and travelling and then recovery on the Thursday.”
However, he felt that the travels also showed the progress the side have made. The last time Stirling University had reached the Semi-Finals was two seasons ago when all their games were either at home or a short distance away (they beat Edinburgh in the Round of 16 in extra-time). But when they faced an away tie to Sheffield Hallam in the Semis, Craig felt that it was the travel factor that was the difference, saying, “I felt the away tie, with the travelling because we weren’t used to it was what defeated us.”
Playing Edinburgh University is bound to add some extra spice to the fixture, and this is something that Craig agreed with predicting that when “the whistle goes I’m sure it will be as ferocious and feisty as ever.” But he also praised Edinburgh University, saying that the games are played between the two sides are “always played in a really competitive but fair spirit.” With the Scottish Universities side being formed this year, for which Craig is also the Head Coach, this had led to a friendship between the universities. Craig commented, “with the inception of Scottish Universities this season, I think most of the girls get on really well off the park, they seem to have that bond sort of like the Scotland squad do when we were with Scottish Universities over the weekend [vs Rangers]”.
Although Stirling faces the tricky tie against Edinburgh, if they do win, it will be their best performance in the competition since the scholarship fund was introduced three seasons ago. “We had a lot of goals within the initial five-year plan: one was to be an established SWPL club, which I think we’ve done, the other was to win lots of trophies, one of our main aims is to qualify for the main British Premier League which the play-offs will be in April and probably into May too. We’ve done it almost within three years which is good.”
And it is not only Stirling’s First Team that are going for cup glory this year with their Second Team reaching the Conference Cup Final. This is the second season in a row they’ve reached the final, and they will be hoping that they go one step further than last year. Craig felt that this showed how well the University was doing, saying, “I think it just shows the strength in the programme as a whole that it’s not just about the top performance squad, but all the squads at the university.”
Stirling finished fourth in the SWPL 1 last season and they will be hoping to replicate again this year. Craig felt that the university benefited their SWPL performance because it allowed them to attract players looking for a degree. “If you look at Lankin who just signed for us this year, she’s previously played for some of the best university teams in America and she’ll be starting a master’s degree in September. Katy Morris whose played for England U19s and has been out at a university in Alabama for four years.” He spoke about his desire to attract the best Scottish young talent to both the SWPL club and the university.
With the SWPL season about to start on the 12th March, it will mean that they will have to balance between domestic and university competitions. However, some of their university squad don’t play for Stirling in the SWPL (like Rangers’ Hayley Sinclair) or don’t play in the SWPL. They also have players in their SWPL squad who aren’t at university.
Craig said, “We’ve been fortunate that the SWPL season hasn’t actually started yet. It’s given us a staggered preseason but if we want to be successful across both competitions – domestic and university – it’s just something we need to get onto. Having a number of non-students in the SWPL squad has been really useful too, that allows us to rotate a little bit if we need to. And within the university squads there’s a number of players who don’t play for the SWPL team on a Sunday so we always try and look after them for their clubs – but they’re not necessarily playing Premier League, we have a few from Cumbernauld for example and some that don’t play Sunday football at all. We’ve kind of got the balance right.”