There is a strong sense that something more than a new season is starting for Watford FC Ladies on Sunday when they kick off their new life in the FA Women’s National League Southern Premier Division at home against Cardiff City.

The club may have dropped down to the third tier of the women’s game but Ed Henderson is convinced a turbulent 2017/18 campaign will prove a blessing in disguise and a “really good opportunity” now exists to build the club in a positive and progressive manner.

As the Golden Girls’ general manager, Henderson had to contend with the fall-out from last season’s decision not to apply to join the new full-time Women’s Super League, leading to the departure of head coach Keith Boanas and a number of senior players. It left a young and inexperienced squad, who finished the WSL 2 season with just one win and four points to their name.

Admitting “it was a stressful period but I had to remain calm”, it was that 2-1 victory at Oxford United Women in the third-last match of the season which fuelled Henderson’s belief better times lay ahead under new head coach Armand Kavaja and assistant Clinton Lancaster.

He said: “We won a game right at the end and that just showed with the environment, we kept working hard, had a good coach and with a bit of belief with people that wanted to be there we could achieve what we wanted to.

“I think it was just reward winning that game for everything that we went through, the players deserved it because getting hammered every week – in terms of scoreline, not performance – isn’t very nice.

“We knew what was coming, we planned for it, we retained the players we wanted to retain, so we’re in a very good position heading into the new season.”

Asked if the difficulties of last season could prove a blessing in disguise, Henderson responded: “Definitely. I think long-term this is a really good opportunity to build Watford FC Ladies, build the support with the fans and give local players who want a chance at a very good level of football within probably the best infrastructure at this level a chance to play and progress.

“The club knows, for now, we’re not in a position where we’re going to buy and sell players, this is basically an academy for women’s football. We want the best young players to come in. Obviously you need experienced heads as well to win games but this is a really good opportunity for a young player to come in, play first-team football in a very good environment and then move on to the likes of Manchester City, Chelsea where they’re playing in Europe and the top level.

“In theory, the infrastructure and set up we have is deserving of a full-time squad status, but at the moment we’re not quite there in terms of the playing staff and the business side of it. But I don’t think it will be hard to transition from part-time status to full-time because we have a very good infrastructure now in place.”

The Golden Girls head into the new campaign off the back of some positive results in pre-season and the club have made no secret of their intention to be challenging at the top end of the table. That was reiterated by Henderson when asked about his targets going into the new season.

He explained: “I think it’s making Watford fans proud and making people realise that women’s football has improved a lot over the last three or four years. These are athletes, they’re not players who are playing for the fun of it. These players are technically very good and I think people under-estimate the level.

“Last year, we lost a lot of games, it was difficult and you’re trying to promote as well. You want to increase the revenue and you want to get people through the gate but you can’t sell a product that isn’t delivering.

“This season is about having a very good season from the off and building a bit of a buzz around the place. We’ve invested a lot of money at Kings Langley. I think Watford fans should take a lot of pride in that as well because the investment that a club has made into a local non-league side is really positive and you don’t really see that much anymore in football.”

If one act over the summer illustrates Watford mean business this season, it was keeping Helen Ward at the club.

Yes, the 32-year-old now has a media and marketing role for the Ladies in addition to being appointed captain and family was a very big factor in her decision to stay, but Ward is also in the Wales squad that will aim to reach the World Cup at the end of this month.

Henderson said: “It was a sign to everyone outside that yes, we are actually serious, we’ve managed to keep hold of the Welsh record goalscorer in the third division.

“For us to keep our main player, if you dig a bit deeper and find out what’s actually going on here we have a very good set-up, we have very good coaches, we have a good budget and we’re able to attract that type of player.

“Looking at the players we had last season, Emily Hill will play at a top level no doubt, Leanne Bell, those type of players are probably too good for this level but they understand the opportunity they’re getting and it’s an exciting challenge for them to take this club back up.

“If we win that league, the club will look to reapply to go back into the Championship. It’s not dead and gone, the FA changes came too soon for us but we know long-term where we want to be and I think it’s an exciting project for them as well.”