If there was a game that could sum up the season that Gareth Taylor’s Manchester City side have had so far, then Saturday evening’s Continental Cup final triumph came close to perfectly doing so.
The holders and their opponents in the showpiece event Chelsea might have started on the front foot, often pinning City into their own box early on, but it was the Manchester club that emerged victorious from a goal down, with Caroline Weir scoring twice and Ellen White once in the turnaround.
For a side who were knocked out of the Women’s Champions League in the qualifying rounds this season, and were as low as ninth in the Women’s Super League standings at one point, a comeback like this to win the first major trophy on offer this campaign was fitting. “It mirrored that, if I'm honest,” Taylor said.
There have been many points throughout this turbulent year that the City coach’s future has been called into question.
Ravaged by injuries to key players and going into the season cold after no pre-season, with so many of the squad away at the Olympics until late in the summer, City won just two of their first seven games.Getty
Arsenal beat them 5-0 in September. Chelsea beat them 3-0 the following month, and 4-0 a few weeks later. Their challenge for the WSL title evaporated early doors and there have been moments where qualification for next year’s Champions League has looked out of reach, too.
After the game on Saturday, Chelsea manager Emma Hayes even described City’s season as “woeful” until now. “Credit to them for the bounce back from a really, really tough start.”
Slowly but surely, fortunes have changed. Players have returned to fitness, Taylor has made tactical tweaks in the long-term and also in-game changes that have helped turn things around. That they boasted a bench with more than four names, all genuinely established ones too, on Saturday was a luxury that simply wouldn’t have been imaginable a few months ago.
“I came off of all social media at that time,” Taylor said, recalling that period he spent under pressure from the fans. “I literally surrounded myself with the right people.
“I’m an ex-player. I’ve had criticism all my career, so I kind of know how to handle it – that doesn’t mean I like it.
“I just tried to cut out the noise. I knew that I was working as hard as I was previously. I felt that it was a little bit unjustified, if I’m honest, with the amount of injuries that we had.
“What were they expecting in that situation when we were only able to field two or three outfield substitutes in a game and playing players in unfamiliar positions?
“I’ve been in this game for a long time, it is what it is, it’s part and parcel. It’s easy these days to point a finger and say, ‘Is this person up to it or not?’
“But I think you have to have belief in what you do. I have real faith in how I work and how I try to get the best out of players. The players are the most important thing though, the most important marker is that they’re moving in the right direction for you. They’ve shown that they’re fighting, they’ve been fighting the whole season, and sometimes things haven’t gone our way.
“Fortunately, more recently, things have started to edge our way, which is nice.”Getty
There are still steps that City need to take and ways they can get better, too. The first half on Saturday, slow and under the cosh, has happened a few times this season, most recently in the Manchester derby last week. On that occasion, Taylor’s side again came from a goal down at the break.
There are big players to return too, be it winger Chloe Kelly, one of only two players to hit double figures for goals and assists in the league last year, or Steph Houghton, the leader and captain of this team who lifted the Conti Cup on Saturday with her crutches.
“It’s difficult sometimes when you've played against Chelsea previously and suffered a little bit, like we have this season, but I think the league game recently showed that we were getting closer in an OK display,” Taylor said.
“But I think what this gives us goes beyond winning this trophy. I think it really gives us real confidence going into the remainder of the season.
“Our objectives are really clear on what we want to try and do, what we want to try and achieve after having a difficult start. The belief levels will be huge after this because it just gives the players so much confidence.”
This was a glimpse into what Taylor’s reign at City can bring. Now, It’s about how he and his side take that forward.