Leicester City v Sheffield Utd, FA Women’s Championship, Sunday 31 March 2019.

Report: Leicester City 1-2 Sheffield Utd

This Women’s Championship match at Quorn FC was only the third match I had been able to make this season, but it was well worth the effort of travelling down from Nottingham and I wanted to write something for Since’71 about this. In particular, I wanted to put myself into the thinking of someone who had either not seen women’s football before at all, or who had been to see the Super League, but was wondering whether a Championship match could justify the time and effort involved. My opinion is that they would be well rewarded to go and see the Championship in action, and I wish they would because larger crowds could be the best means of attracting more money and sponsorship into women’s football. Although this will have been written elsewhere by many committed supporters of women’s sports, I wanted to add my opinion to theirs.

First of all, anyone new to women’s football or to the Championship needs to put aside an arbitrary male template for football, which the women’s game cannot possibly resemble in every single aspect, due to the Laws of Nature and the semi-professional status of the players. However, I think there will be much in the Championship that would remind new fans of their favourite players in the Women’s Super League, which is now professional.  On top of that, I think people can see a good number of moments which will call to mind some of the best current male players who fans are very used to seeing in the media, and even some of the Past Masters, male or female. This has to do with what I have always argued, since the inaugural FAWSL match in April 2011: that women’s football cannot be an exact replica of the men’s game, but there are commonalities which will reward fans their time and money in travelling to see women in action. For example, there were moments in the match which is the subject of this article, where Leicester’s tackling on the edge of their own penalty area definitely reminded me of Paul Ince, but I’m not suggesting that people can see exact replicas of him at a women’s match. Leicester write in the match programme of how pleased they are with the progress of their young midfielder, Mai Moncaster, and I thought her tackling was every bit as strong as Kim Little (Arsenal) and Leanne Champ (Chelsea) going face-to-face in the inaugural WSL match back in April 2011. When they collided over the ball on several occasions, they must both have been putting in exemplary, no-foul block-tackles because I remember distinctly how play continued, but they both crushed the football so powerfully that it was making these **BANG** noises which I had literally never heard before on a football field. It is difficult to find the right metaphor for people to picture the sound. It’s NOT like pistol or rifle fire, which makes a sharper ‘cracking’ sound and is very distinctive (certainly not a sound you ever forget), but more of a **BOOM** which I think you only hear in elite football, where the timing of tackles is just on another level to most people’s. [This is similar to the sound of the ball hitting the frame of the goal in elite football – a massive metallic bang, not like amateur football; elite players literally hammer the ball, given the chance.]

Anyway, to continue with the example of Leicester’s Mai Moncaster: she would have been 9 years old at the time of the WSL’s debut in 2011, but I thought her tackling against Sheffield upheld the highest traditions of football: the sound of the ball being crushed took me right back to Opening Day in April 2011. [To be fair, Sheffield Utd went right up against her, to create the spectacle and the sound.] In those days, Katie Chapman used to weigh in with some big hits of her own, but I don’t remember her giving away too many free kicks in the matches I saw, so again her timing must have been pretty exact. All of this while, for most of her career, Katie Chapman was not a full-time professional footballer. She held down other jobs, and Mum Duty, on top of her football career. Mai Moncaster’s semi-pro situation is the same – she is not a FT player, and yet she can already (aged 17) awaken memories of the Past Masters. I always remember what Karen Carney once said (probably in 2012 when the Olympics were on), about how it is “frightening what these players might achieve if they could train full-time.”

In terms of other players who would have been worth the entrance fee on their own, we could start with Demi Lambourne in the Leicester goal. On the way down to Quorn from Nottingham, I had wondered whether I would know any of the players in either squad. On the handful of occasions when I had seen Oxford United play in what was WSL2, Demi Lambourne had been literally outstanding. I tried to capture some of her saves on camera but the action used to unfold so quickly, and she moved so fast across the goal to block the shots, that I would have needed a much bigger lense (to let in more light for a faster shutter speed). I did get one or two stills but they never seemed to do the players justice. I hope that as many people as possible will go to see women’s football because I think they will be really impressed with the GKs. Of the two in this match, Demi Lambourne was way busier and this enabled her to show the whole crowd why she can be worth the attendance costs all on her own. However, Sheffield United also seem to have found one in Fran Bentley, on loan in their goal from Manchester United. I thought she showed a calm assurance throughout the match, directing the outfield players when necessary and handling the ball securely. In women’s football, I always like to mention the GKs and give them due credit, because they play in a position which is also very unforgiving for men, but with the added challenges for women that the ball is the same size as the men use, but women’s hands are on average an inch smaller in surface area than men’s. The goal also remains the same size for women’s matches, but no women are as tall as the GKs in men’s elite football. I remember seeing Joe Hart in goal for England against Bulgaria in September 2010 and he was literally imperious. Bulgaria had some good attacks but he was just fantastic. But, at 6’5” and a full-time athlete, you could argue he ought to be. Basketball uses a ball for women’s matches which is an inch less wide than for men, and cricket also uses a slightly smaller and lighter ball for women, which is said to avoid a lot of broken fingers among female players, with their more slender bones than men. There are no such concessions in football for female GKs, and perhaps the players wouldn’t have it any other way, but then they deserve full credit when they do well. I would urge people to go and see women’s football on this basis, as well as to see the outfield players. [The same is true in women’s field hockey and ice hockey, in my opinion: the net-minding is often brilliant, leaving aside the skaters or outfielders for a moment.]

I feel bad now that I can’t mention all the players in this sitting, but I would need more matches to get to know these clubs better. On the way down to Leicester, I was just wondering what had happened to Ella Franklin, another Oxford Utd alumna who used to run their attack sometimes and always showed wonderful close control of the ball and accurate passing. I needn’t have worried, she is on Leicester’s books and started at right-back in this match, cleverly turning defence into attack, which the top players make look easy, but isn’t. In the second half, Leicester moved Ella to attacking midfield, which I used to think was her natural position but she did just fine at right-back against some powerful attacking by Sheffield in the first half. One match is not enough to comment on a whole squad, but after a single viewing I could say I really enjoyed Simran Jhamat’s endeavours up front for Leicester, and Hayley James’ input after she subbed on in the second half. Not only did she score for Leicester from a set piece, her throw-ins were really strong and I can’t help but feel she would already be attracting attention on the back pages of our newspapers, had she been born male.

If I went to see Leicester again, I would definitely hope to see Fiona Worts, who hit such powerful* shots past Demi Lambourne in the warm-up that I thought we must surely see her on at some point, perhaps after her team went 1-2 down in the second half (a score which I thought was fair reward for Sheffield’s determination and creativity in attack, as well as their defence as a team which meant GK Fran Bentley was seldom called into urgent action). *By “powerful shots”, I don’t just mean they went in, I mean literally tomahawk: GK’s presence irrelevant.

As for Sheffield United, I would urge any fan of football to go and see them. I remember Carla Ward managing Sheffield FC in 2016 when I used to see them play in Dronfield, and at that time there was no doubt for me that she had the team closely organised in defence, and confident enough in attack to pose serious questions of any opposition in what was then WSL2.  In attack, Ebony Salmon is another loanee from Manchester United with great potential. She crashed a shot against Demi Lambourne’s post in the second half and she was generally a livewire throughout, as Sheffield say in their own match report.

I remembered Ellie Gilliatt from her time at Sheffield FC and in this match she was worth the gate all on her own, leading by both example and spoken instruction. She equalised for her team in the second half by hitting something out of Star Wars past Demi Lambourne. Sheffield’s full match report can be found here: www.sufc.co.uk/women/news/2019/march/womens-leicester-report. While there would be no purpose me repeating it all here, I would say that as someone who has not been able to see as many matches in the FAWC this season as he would have liked, including games involving either of these two clubs, I saw more than enough in this match at Quorn FC to make me want to go again to see them in action. I also remembered Dan Cox from her time at Sheffield FC and Maddy Cusack from when she was at Villa. I was going to say that neither of those players usually makes the headlines, but their contribution to ball-winning in particular is not in doubt, except that Maddy Cusack has just made the nomination list for FAWC Player of the Month for March. This is a fine achievement for a player whose industry and strength in midfield usually escape people’s attention, unless they go to watch the matches and then these qualities will be evident.

Photo from @LCWFC_official

Ben Greatorex
greatorexbt@gmail.com