This weekend will see the FA Women’s National League Division One South East season draw to a close. For Norwich City, this means a trip to Plough Lane to face AFC Wimbledon. The Canaries battled with the Dons for second place for much of the season, before falling away after experiencing four defeats in seven games between late January and late March.
Nonetheless, while AFC Wimbledon have now secured second place (themselves falling just short of champions Hashtag United), there is still a lot riding on the game for the Canaries in the battle for third place.
Last time out
Norwich come into the game following a two-week break, with their last action having been the team’s showpiece fixture at Carrow Road on April 16th. An incredible crowd of 7,585 spectators was present for a thrilling 5-3 victory (the team’s third win in succession) against Ashford Town.
The Canaries led 4-3 at the break following a breathless first period that also saw a superb penalty save from home goalkeeper Bryony Williams. Winger Megan Todd then added a magical fifth goal on the counter-attack to seal the three points in stoppage time of a much quieter second half.
AFC Wimbledon, on the other hand, have had a busier schedule of late. While the Dons’ last league action also occurred on April 16th, in the form of a routine 5-1 home victory over Cambridge United, they have since participated in the Capital Cup final. Despite taking a first-half lead against Arsenal Women’s Academy, Wimbledon eventually succumbed to a narrow 2-1 defeat on Wednesday night.
The reverse fixture
It has been just over three months since Norwich welcomed Wimbledon to The Nest, with the Dons proving to be among the most well-drilled opponents that the Canaries have hosted this season.
The match took place under crisp Norfolk skies on the afternoon of January 22nd, and Wimbledon took a deserved 1-0 lead just before the half through a Hannah Billingham header.
With right-back Jess Harper deputising in goal for the injured Williams, Norwich held firm in the second half, and eventually equalised through Natasha Snelling in the last minute of regulation time. In dramatic fashion, the prolific forward stabbed into the roof of the net from close range after good work from wingers Freya Symonds and Megan Todd.
Roared on by the majority of the 330 spectators in attendance, Norwich almost scored a stoppage-time winner, but had to settle for a point after a late Todd miss. Seeing the robust title challenge that the Dons gave eventual champions Hashtag United, it was a point that has proven to be one of the Canaries’ most impressive this season, given the circumstances.
The sides also met at the end of last season
Norwich and Wimbledon are used to playing each other at the back end of the season, having also faced off in the penultimate round of the 2021/22 campaign. The Canaries went into that game under rather different circumstances, fighting to avoid relegation rather than to secure third place.
That particular fixture ended 1-0 to Norwich, thanks to an Ellie Smith goal that was ultimately enough to keep them in the fourth tier. They ended up finishing eighth, just two points clear of the drop, so to now be battling for third place a year later highlights the Canaries’ remarkable journey in the 2022/23 season.
Depite having a large squad at his disposal, Norwich manager Shaun Howes has primarily centered his starting lineups around the same core of players, particularly in the latter stages of this season.
With Williams in goal, and following an injury to centre-back Chardonnay Johnston, the back four has largely been picking itself of late, with captain Anna Larkins and double Carrow Road goalscorer Alice Parker flanking determined centre-backs Ceri Flye and Mary Croft.
The midfield three in recent weeks has seen player of the season Ellie Smith play at the top of a triangle featuring Rebecca Russell and Eloise Morran at its base. That being said, the recent returns to action of midfielders Millie Daviss and Katie Knights may be giving Howes the odd selection headache.
With top goalscorer Natasha Snelling a shoo-in up front, where Howes is particularly spoiled is out wide. Young wingers Ella Gambell and Freya Symonds started against Ashford at Carrow Road, with the latter getting on the scoresheet.
However, Kathryn Stanley and Megan Todd have also been regular starters throughout the campaign, adding several crucial goals of their own. As such, it is this part of Howes’ team selection that holds the most intrigue ahead of the weekend’s clash.
What’s at stake?
Although AFC Wimbledon are now out of the title chase, sitting four points behind Hashtag United ahead of the final game, the Dons will be wanting to end the season strongly, particularly on home soil at Plough Lane. Needless to say, they will certainly be one of the teams to watch out for in next season’s race for promotion.
Meanwhile, Norwich City have a little more riding on the game. Going into the final weekend of the season, the Canaries sit third, one point ahead of Actonians. As such, they travel to southwest London knowing that all they have to do to secure a brilliant third-placed finish is match the Northolt-based side’s result.
However, with Actonians facing eight-placed Cambridge United, the Canaries certainly won’t be able to take anything for granted, particularly against what is, in my experience, a tremendously well-organised Wimbledon side. It certainly looks set to be an exciting end to the season, and, in an EFL ground like Plough Lane, it has been given the stage it deserves.