Melissa Phillips left her role as London City Lionesses manager on Monday
When preparing for a huge FA Cup meeting with top-division opposition, losing your inspirational manager in the week of the game ranks pretty low in ideal pre-match preparation.
London City Lionesses host Women’s Super League side Tottenham Hotspur in the FA Cup fourth round on Sunday, with the game being shown live on the BBC.
The Lionesses are currently top of the Women’s Championship, and are eyeing an upset against an out-of-form Spurs team who have lost their last five WSL games.
However, they must do so having suffered a big blow this week when manager Melissa Phillips left the club to become assistant boss at National Women’s Soccer League club Angel City in Los Angeles.
Phillips had been in charge since October 2020 and steered the Lionesses to top spot in the second tier and with realistic ambitions of promotion to the WSL.
However against Spurs, her former assistant Nikita Runnacles will be in the dugout.
“Monday was always going to be difficult no matter the timeline, she [Phillips] could have told us six months ago and it would be difficult,” Runnacles said on Thursday, after being asked by BBC Sport how much she had known in advance about Phillips’ departure.
Phillips’ exit on Monday led to an outpouring of emotion from London City’s players and staff on social media.
Co-captain Amy Rodgers led the tributes on Twitter: “I am so grateful to have played for you for these past 18 months. You have had the biggest influence on me and I am thankful to have learned so much from you.
“The club today is a testament to you. Thank you for everything. Angel City have truly got a good one.”
Rodgers was one of several players and staff to post effusive praise to social media after Phillips’ departure – including Runnacles herself.
Now, however, she says the players are ready for action.
“They wanted to get back out there on the pitch,” Runnacles said. “It was one of the biggest shocks of the season but they still wanted to train together.
“There was not one moment when I wondered how they would react. Are they upset to see her go? Yes, but it adds to their emotions. She brought us here to do a job together.”
‘We like to bring entertainment’
While the Lionesses’ preparations off the pitch have been disrupted, on the field there is plenty to suggest they can give Spurs a good game.
Only one team from the Championship is promoted to the WSL each season, and the Lionesses are firmly in the hunt.
At the halfway point of the campaign, they have 24 points from 11 games. Bristol City, one point behind but with a game in hand, look like their main challengers for the title.
London City have also already shown they can stand toe to toe with WSL sides this season too. In the group stage of the Women’s League Cup – colloquially known as the Conti Cup – they took West Ham United to penalties and were narrowly beaten at home by Brighton and Hove Albion.
“We always pride [ourselves] playing WSL teams, that is everyone in this club’s ambition,” said Runnacles.
“We approach each game like we are a WSL side. It adds that determination. We faced WSL sides in the Conti Cup, and put in great games. Now we take that momentum forward.”
Lionesses are the Championship’s top scorers, with 25 league goals so far – six more than second-best Charlton.
Scottish striker Sarah Ewens, the division’s joint top scorer with seven goals, will be a player Spurs need to keep quiet – and Runnacles promised her side will not alter their usual attacking style against top-division opponents.
“We are a creative quick-playing team, we like to apply pressure all over the pitch, we like to have possession, combine and break down teams,” she said.
“We like to bring entertainment, we will see that on Sunday despite playing a WSL side. We only know how to play in a way that allows players to express themselves.”
Sarah Ewens has led the Lionesses’ line impressively since signing for Birmingham last summer
‘Our future is in our hands’
As English women’s football grows and attracts greater investment, so does the influence of the men’s game. In the WSL, all 12 teams are associated with a professional male side.
Not so the Lionesses, who have operated independently since splitting from Millwall in 2019.
“We want to prove that a women’s team can now be run as an independent club and not rely on handouts from an older brother,” former manager Chris Phillips told BBC London Sport four years ago.
Having almost gone into administration in April 2018 before being saved by £17,500 raised by crowdfunding, and winning just one of 20 league games in 2018-19, Lionesses have gone from strength to strength.
Now, with a television audience on Sunday and a genuine shot at top-flight promotion this season, Runnacles says the cup clash can show how the club has grown both on and off the pitch.
“We’re in a privileged position, our future is in our hands,” she said of London City’s independence.
“That’s really special, but you need special people on board. The results on pitch are because of hard work off it.
“It’s a great club occasion, we are looking forward to putting London City on the map.”