It's back! The Women's Championship is up and running!
So, as Sunday arrived, I had a choice. Sit at home and watch the men's team play away at Sheffield United, or go to Hayes Lane to watch the women's team start their new season at home to Coventry United. In all fairness, there was no choice, I already knew weeks ago that I would be going to Hayes Lane! So, on match day, I packed up the family and took them to watch the start of the new Women's Championship season.
The fixture clash with the men's game was annoying, as it meant that most of my fellow CPLFC Loyal members were absent, pulling their hair out at Bramall Lane instead. Despite this, a few of us were there, with our flags flying high, while others were situated in the main stand to give the ladies support. On a personal note, before the game we had an extra bonus, as my daughter Hermione was asked to be a mascot, which she was thrilled to do. So the game started for us, by watching her walk out hand in hand with new signing Cherelle Khassal. What really made me chuckle, is that after shaking hands with the officials(she should have punched him in the groin}, as the mascots ran off the pitch, Hermione ran after the players to join the huddle! But, I digress, so let me put beaming father aside, to return to intrepid reporter for a bit.
This match marked the start of our second consecutive season in the Women's Championship. Our adventures last season have been well documented here at Back Of The Nest, starting with the last minute promotion putting our squad on the back foot, followed by a season of difficulties stepping up a level, and crippling injury crisis. Also well documented, is the fact that from start to finish, our ladies gave it absolutely everything they had. The passion, pride and determination never waned, despite the results, and while finishing 10th out of 11 could be seen as a negative, it was in fact a triumph in adversity. I have also recently covered the huge summer of change at the club, from team name, to a large amount of outgoings and incomings. So this game was our opportunity to start fresh. It was our chance to show what we had learned last season, and improve on it. It was an opportunity to show why so many changes had been made, and to give an idea that we are moving in the right direction.
The fixture list had given us a very intriguing tie too, against newly promoted Coventry United. Now, on paper, some would say that is an easy start. We should all know by now, that football does not work that way. Coventry had momentum. They would have been flying after a successful season last year that saw them promoted. They would have known all summer what division they were going to be in, and so could prepare accordingly. They would also be going into this game with a point to prove, and looking to hit the ground running as soon as possible. In a way, you could easily argue that we were the better fixture for them to start with, given our low finish last season, and summer rebuild. All in all, it made for a great prospect on opening day.
The gaffer Dean Davenport picked an interesting line up. Lucy Gillett returned in goal, having made her loan to us last season, permanent. The only other regulars from last season to make the starting line up, were skipper Freya Holdaway, midfield dynamo Andria Georgiou, and Player of the Year Ashlee Hincks. The rest of our backline was new, with Amy Goddard taking up a place alongside Freya in the centre, while Annabel Johnson was at right back, and Lizzie Waldie at left back. Ashleigh Goddard and Leeta Rutherford joined Andria in our midfield three, while Rea Laudat flanked Ashlee on the right, and Cherelle Khassal flanked Ashlee on the left. It was a starting eleven, that I would imagine, had not actually played a game together yet.
This certainly showed in the early going, as Coventry started strong. You could tell they were looking to unsettle us and not let us get into a rhythm. The opening twenty minutes saw a lot of heavy tackles from both sides, and a few probing forays into our box by Coventry, only for our backline to hold strong. Coventry were playing some good football, and to be honest, were outmuscling us, albeit at times they were straight up fouling, and being allowed to get away with it by the ref. After twenty minutes, the tide turned, led by Ashlee Hincks up front. She started to use her quick feet and upper body strength to bully the Coventry defenders, and they could not handle it. This would lead to our first good chance, as Ashlee worked her way into the box, only for her cross to be blocked. It fell to the on rushing Laudat, but Rea could not keep her shot down. This combo became the theme of the first half, as once more Ashlee dominated two defenders and put a good ball into the box. Rea broke from her marker into the box, but was just unable to reach the cross on the stretch. Then, it was Ashlee's turn to have a go, as she got on the end of a long ball from Lucy Gillett, to hold off the defender and fire off a shot, that went wide. Finally, before half time, a scramble in the Coventry box saw the ball hit their defender and go towards goal, only for their keeper to tip it wide for a corner. As the half time whistle went, there was a lot to feel positive about. After an initial tough period, the team had settled, and started to work well together, and for all Coventry's good play, we had created the better chances.
The second half saw Coventry start well again, with two dangerous attacks into our box, thwarted by some great defending, especially from Freya. Then, once more a long ball was taken control of by Ashlee, only for her shot to go wide. This got us back into gear, as we began to press once more. The 800th foul by their number 7(who never even got booked in this game, when she could easily have been sent off for totting up), saw us put a free kick into the box. Ashlee flicked it on to Rea, but she took one touch to many and was tackled before she could get the shot away. Coventry continued to push back, but a scramble in their box saw another chance for us go begging, as it fell to Cherelle outside the box. She played a lovely floated shot across goal, only for it to fall wide. Then came the best piece of team play, of the game. Starting with Lucy, the ball was passed out to Freya, who then rolled it on to Amy. A series of one touch passes saw us swiftly advance the ball to their box, where Rea played a great ball in to Ashlee. A first time shot could have seen it into the bottom corner, but the touch didn't quite come off, and Coventry cleared their lines. The action was not done here though. Our defence pulled off some more firm tackles, forcing Coventry to resort to long balls into the box, which were well claimed by Lucy in goal. At the other end, Cherelle pulled off the best bit of individual brilliance of the game, as a perfect control and turn saw her bamboozle her marker, before driving through two defenders into the box, only for the ball to end up going wide. Then came our best two chances. The first was a corner, swung in by Waldie and flicked on by Freya at the near post towards goal, only for their keeper to make a great save. Then, in the last few minutes, Ashlee broke free down the right and played a great ball across the face of goal, but Cherelle was just unable to make contact for a tap in.
For a 0-0 draw, it was an entertaining game, that on another day, could have easily been 4-3. For me, as much as I would have loved to see us tuck one of our chances away and bag the three points, it was still a very good start with lots of positives. Coventry are a good team, well organised, high spirited and have some very good players. They will cause plenty of sides problems this season, and should be proud of their start to the new campaign. For us, to start with an eleven that were new to each other, yet grow into the game and have the best chances in it, that is a real plus point. It says a lot, that the Coventry keeper made the Championship team of the weekend.
This is a new project, it will take a little time for it to build and grow. Yet, there were plenty of signs to indicate that it will blossom into a good team, and a good season. Our back line was solid, and if I am honest, looked stronger than last season, especially on the flanks. Up front, Ashlee was dominant, and Cherelle and Rea provided good support on both sides. Andria continues to be a force in midfield, and hopefully, those midfield three can form a unit that controls games, which is something we desperately need. The foundations were laid in this game. Last year, we started with a 2-0 home loss, so this year, to start with a point and a clean sheet, was a huge step forward.
A special mention must go to the ref, who was poor. He didn't make a great impression from the start, given he left the players waiting in the tunnel for ages, and had to have someone knock on his door to get him out. I think he must have left his cards at home too, because how he never got them out, especially for their number 7, is beyond me.
Now, Andria was voted the Selco Player of the Match, and her hard work and tenacity earned her that. For my reviews though, I want to do something different, and adapt the NHL Three Stars of the match. Basically, the three players that stood out for me.
FREYA HOLDAWAY - Captain fantastic, she led the line, and in the second half, made two or three absolutely fantastic last ditch tackles, making the difference between a deserved point, and an undeserved 1-0 loss.
She took the pressure off our defence, and sparked us to life after twenty minutes. Coventry simply could not handle her, and it is of no surprise that almost every chance we had, involved her. Showed just why she got Player Of The Year last season.
This could have gone to several players, but for me, Cherelle just pipped it. Having stepped up from Chichester City, it would have been easy to have taken a back seat in this game. Cherelle did anything but that. She grew into the game, and in the second half, showed great feet, good pace and really caused Coventry problems. An exciting player, she could play a big part this season.
So, there you have it. Game one, done and dusted. It was a pleasing start, and one all the ladies should be proud of. The point really gives them something to build on, and with players to come back into the fold, as well as these eleven continuing to gel together, the signs really are positive. There were some big wins elsewhere yesterday in the league. However, with Man Utd and Spurs now in the WSL, this league is wide open this season, and I can't wait to see what part we have to play in it.
*All Phots Credited To Tara Hook Photography*