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After an absence of four years, Reading Royals are back in the Premier League after securing the South West Combination title last week. The Championship success completes the comeback after successive relegations took them from the National Division to the Combination and, after finishing as runners-up in each of the last two seasons, they finally take the step back up again.
In more than fifteen years at the club, Debbie Lackey has seen all of the good times and the bad and, after seeing her team lift the Combination trophy on Sunday, she told Women's Soccer Scene how much the success meant to her. "It's a really fantastic day, after what has been a difficult few years," says Debbie, who is currently not playing due to her expecting her first baby. "After being in the top league of women's football and getting relegated two years on the trot, it's taken time to rebuild. This is the start of another era and I think this day shall go down as one of the most memorable in the history of the club. It's nice that we have got two squads that are thriving now, after having three or four years when we've had to rebuild from scratch.
"Some people would have thought that that is the end of Reading Royals but there was still a little fire burning in there and it's got bigger and bigger. We've had some good coaches coming in - Brian Lackey and Dave Caswell, who have really taken the club from strength to strength."
In Debbie's absence, Shelley Strudley has taken over the captaincy and she is another loyal servant who played for the club in the National Division. As with Debbie, she reveals that going back up is that little bit extra special for her. "It means a little bit more (to me), I think," admits Shelley. "We've been runners-up for the last few years and it means so much to the girls. We're looking forward to next season. We learnt from last year and the girls have shown courage and turned things around, for example we were 2-1 down to Clevedon after 60 minutes (and won 6-2) and the girls have shown great commitment."
Royals have had a strong squad to pick from this season but Debbie points out that there may be more to come. "In going up, some people have approached the club and they are willing to come pre-season training," she says. "There are no names down on the team sheet for next season, everyone's going to have to fight for their place and I think that is very healthy. This season, we have used 24 players in the first team squad so there is a huge rotation - competition for places is good and we look forward to that."
So, with their previous experience of Premier League football, how do Debbie and Shelley feel their team can do next season? "We've beaten four teams in the F.A.Cup from the league above so we have shown we do have the ability to compete in that league," replies Debbie. "We beat Bristol City in the Cup last year and they hadn't lost all season until then. If we get some fresh players in and strengthen even more, I think we'll be even more competitive so we'll see what next season brings."
"If we look at our past, we went up and won the league straight away but we're looking for consolidation," adds Shelley. "We've done well in the F.A.Cup and reached the last sixteen in the last two years, so we know we're equipped for it. Obviously we need to strengthen, but we're just looking forward to playing good teams week in week out and seeing what we can do."
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