There were scenes of jubilation from the Portchester team and bench at full time on Sunday at Hatches Farm Sports Ground near Romsey – a hard fought win against a strong AFC Varsity side meant that the Royals Ladies had gone the entire league season undefeated – a remarkable feat considering the team only reformed at the beginning of this season. However it wasn’t plain sailing as aforementioned. Varsity have themselves had an excellent year, only starting life as a side in 2020, securing 2nd place in the league. In addition to the fact that Portchy had come away victorious in the reverse fixture a few months prior, there was certainly a determination for them to crash the party atmosphere that was due to come at full time.
The venue itself is in a small settlement called West Wellow, which is a few miles west of Romsey. I didn’t know fully what to expect when I heard the game was at a place called ‘Hatches Farm’ – but we were pleasantly surprised at the facilities – with a spectator railing and dugouts in place, as well as a new pavilion for changing as well as an outdoor gym for those facing a few chin ups during the half time interval. A pleasant space to spend 90 minutes in the scorching Hampshire sun. Although I’m sure many would agree that it appeared the groundsman had gone to Portugal for a week – the grass could do with a trim!
The game started brightly, with both teams exchanging attacks and trying to work the ball into the box. It could be argued that Portchy started the brighter of the two sides, trying to play some expansive football through passing the ball out to wings to exploit their full-backs with the pace of Shannen Woods and Ella Wilson. However the Varsity keeper, who was excellent all game, was wise to this and confidently collected or parried several balls that made their way across the opposition box.
Portchy’s best chance in the first half came from a curling effort from just outside the box by 17-year-old Ella Wilson, only to be tipped around the post for a corner from the diving keeper.
Varsity then proceeded to come back into the game, growing in confidence after lofting a few direct balls forward trying to take advantage of Portchy’s high line. They had two or three opportunities that came into fruition through this tactic – one cross behind the defence which fizzed across goal – longing for a Varsity head to connect with it, as well as a couple of foot races between Portchester’s sweeper keeper Roxy Roberts and the oncoming attacker which the experienced Portchy keeper managed to deal with in the nick of time.
With the first half finishing 0-0 and the temperature rising – Portchy’s manager, Mark Dugan, had some crucial words for the girls at half time to ensure they don’t get caught up in the occasion and just need to play ‘their football’ which they did well for the first 20 minutes.
Although these words were taken on board and Portchy started the second half brightly, Varsity almost gave them a shock. Another lofted ball over the top was met by Kayleigh Rogers. The hot-shot forward, leading the division’s golden boot race with 10 goals in 9 appearances, struck a looping half volley that took an age to come down, Roberts in goal was clearly beaten but fortunately for Portchy the effort slapped the top of the crossbar.
Clearly awoken by that close call, Portchy sparked back on the offensive and this was rewarded with taking the lead.
This time it was the Tango’s turn to try the direct approach, with a counter attacking ball thrust forward over the defensive line, where a pacy Shannen Woods took the ball sweetly on the half volley. She rifled the ball across the goal, giving the keeper little chance to save it, which led to rapturous applause erupting from the Portchy bench and supporters.
Clearly buoyed by the goal, Portchester began to crack up the tempo and began a series of swift confident attacks. The best of these efforts came when a ball into the box was fumbled by the Varsity keeper, only for Woods to knock the stray ball just over the crossbar.
Nevertheless, Portchy’s driving attacks continued which eventually led to them getting their second of the afternoon. The confident Shannen Woods received the ball on the right wing, burning past the full-back to create an opportunity whereby she crossed the ball into the six-yard box where teenage forward Bella Longyear was perfectly positioned to side foot the ball past the Varsity shot-stopper.
With nothing to lose, Varsity threw everyone forward for the last 10-15 minutes, which meant that Portchy began to sit deeper. Portchy had substituted one of their pace merchants in Ella Wilson, so the counter-attacking threat was lessened for the final portion of the game.
After a few attacks that Roberts in goal had to thwart, Varsity got their golden chance from a corner. A good ball resulted in a chaotic scramble for the ball in the box. Limbs flying everywhere, the ball bobbled to Varsity’s Jade Collins, where she hit the ball low into the bottom right corner of the net which set up a nervy few final minutes for the Tangerines.
Despite this, Portchy managed to use their experience to weather the onslaught and the final whistle arrived. Portchy’s ‘Invincible’ Ladies – they had made it through the league season unbeaten.
Varsity were formidable adversaries and gave Portchy a real game and had it not been for some excellent goalkeeping from both sides the score could have been different. They were true professionals and formed a guard of honour for the league champions, as well as applauding them as Lynsey Crewe lifted the league trophy up in celebration. It has been a fantastic season for both sides, with both likely receiving promotion for next season. Both sides no doubt deserve a well-earned rest before coming back next season ready to make a real impact at the next level.