Sheffield United Ladies clinched the East Midlands Premier League title at the end of April with two games to spare to mark a memorable and historic season in the club's history.
Whilst the playing staff and management remained the same from the previous season, everything else was about to change.
United had finished fifth in the North-East Premier league the previous season and with long away day trips to the north a consideration, a regional relocation was approved to take United back to their old stomping grounds in the East Midland Premier League. United had been here before, since the team's conception in 2002 culminating in a fantastic league and cup double in 2006 winning every single match! After two seasons at Combination level, United were relegated back to the level below but in the North-East region. A second league and cup double was achieved in 2012 taking them back to Combination level but relegation brought the team back down again in 2015.
The next change was a historic one as the Ladies were officially partnered with the United men's team for the first time, this being announced in September 2016. The old club name of Sheffield United Community Ladies was shortened to simply Sheffield United Ladies to reflect this.
The immediate changes for the players were an increase in training and access to the United Academy facilities, whilst on the pitch the team moved home venues. Saying goodbye to the Swallownest Miners Welfare ground and moving to the United Academy.
United having started the season well, actually lost their last league game at the old ground to Bedworth, which would prove to be the only league defeat of the season. Leaving the grass pitch behind for the artificial surface at the Academy certainly suited United's on-the-floor passing game and their first encounter on the new pitch saw a record team victory of 14-1 against bottom of the league Ruddington Village.
That marked the start of a tremendous 12 consecutive league wins to take United top. Having already taken four points off early leaders Mansfield Town, United played the role of tortoise to Mansfield's hare as a succession of cup games proved a pleasant distraction from the main objective of promotion.
The Women's FA cup run was a season highlight with a historic first home game granted at Bramall Lane for the day for the first round proper tie with Leicester City Development in December. A new team record crowd of 429 saw United win 2-0, with a spectacular opening goal from Kim Brown the highlight. For many of the United players this was a personal ambition to play on the Bramall Lane turf achieved as they are genuine supporters anyway. The cup run finally ended after five games with a narrow 2-3 defeat at Derby County from two league higher after taking a shock early lead and defending superbly thereafter until eventually Rams pulled it back. United were the lowest ranked team still in the competition at that stage.
In the League Cup United reached the semi-final only to lose to Peterborough and it was also disappointment at the same stage in the County Cup, losing at Barnsley. Whilst it wasn't to be in the cups, the 12 league wins on the trot saw United haul in Mansfield's big lead and the crucial game was the return game at Bedworth. The artificial pitch there probably helped United as the first half performance in particular was the best the team played all season, winning 5-0 in the end. At the end of the game the United players for the first time allowed themselves to start believing the title could be theirs. This became nearer reality with a vital 2-1 win at the only other contenders left, Peterborough, gaining revenge on the cup defeat a week before.
It is hard to quantify how much the tie up with the men's teams has boosted the Ladies team. The recognition gained with pitch walkabouts at men's game, in the media and the Bramall Lane game promoted a new focus and professionalism through the squad and it showed in the results. The continuity of manager Dan O'Hearne's close-knit squad was a factor too and when the squad were on the verge of a mid-season injury crisis everyone stepped up.
The loss of captain Rosa Neary before Christmas could have be a very costly one but the re-signing of Nat Froggatt after a break from of the game was a vital one. United's solid defence only conceding three away goals in the league all season is remarkable. At the sharp end four players had reached the 20-goal mark and three are midfielders with Jen Pearson overall top scorer with 25, Kim Brown, captain Sophie Bell and the experienced striker Tania Marsden accounting for 90 of the 151 goals scored. Only one regular outfield player in the squad hadn't scored.
United completed their long season with a 13th unbeaten league game to take into next season.
"Stats don't lie, we have been the best team by far in the league this season," said a proud O'Hearne, "and the Ladies fully deserve all the credit in clinching the league trophy with two games left to go. Personally it's been a rollercoaster since I arrived at the club three seasons ago but we have turned it around by bringing in not just good players but good people as well and now we are reaping the rewards."
It has been a memorable season all round as both the Ladies and men's teams won their respective leagues culminating on May Bank Holiday weekend. The Ladies were recognised by being part of the men's presentation even when Players' Player of the Season, Jodie Hartley gained her award as one of the hard-working unsung heroes of the team. Also present were injured captain Rosa Neary, current captain Sophie Bell, the club's inspirational veteran player Rachel Ruddach, the only survivor from the team's first season in 2002, and the extremely dedicated club secretary Tony Santoro.