On the final matchday of the FA Women’s National League Division One South East season, Norwich City travelled to AFC Wimbledon knowing that matching Actonians’ result at Cambridge United would be enough to secure a third-placed finish.
Having played their final home match in front of a 7,500+ crowd at Carrow Road, the Canaries would also end their campaign at an EFL ground in the form of Wimbledon’s new Plough Lane stadium, where, on Sunday, 1,138 spectators were in attendance.
Manager Shaun Howes made three changes to the lineup that started the 5-3 Carrow Road triumph against Ashford Town two weeks previously, including swapping wingers Freya Symonds and Ella Gambell for Kathryn Stanley and Megan Todd. Meanwhile, Millie Daviss replaced Ellie Smith in midfield, with Norwich’s player of the season not in Sunday’s squad.
Kicking off on a warm afternoon in southwest London in front of a young and vibrant crowd, Wimbledon had the better of the opening exchanges, with an early period of pressure around the five-minute mark forcing three left-wing corners in a row, but with no end product.
Two minutes later the Dons forced another corner, after Ashlee Hincks’ long-range shot was saved by Norwich goalkeeper Bryony Williams, but the Canaries succeeded in scrambling the right-wing delivery away.
The Canaries had their first good chance after 10 minutes, when Megan Todd controlled the ball in midfield and played a smart ball over top to fellow winner Kathryn Stanley. However, Dons keeper Faye Baker just got there first, racing off her line to beat the onrushing Stanley to the ball. Todd continued to show good invention, delivering a whipped cross from the right shortly afterward that couldn’t quite find a yellow shirt.
The hardworking Norwich number seven had a similar chance on 14 minutes, after striker Natasha Snelling brought a deep Alice Parker free kick under control in the Wimbledon half. Her pass found Todd on the right of the Wimbledon box, whose cross-cum-shot flashed low and wide of the bottom left corner.
Todd’s next chance came on the left, where she won the ball on the halfway line and burst down the wing to force a corner. Norwich came close after a scramble in the box following Rebecca Russell’s delivery, but the ball ultimately went out harmlessly for a Dons goal kick.
Despite this decent spell of Norwich pressure, which also saw a headed chance for Stanley saved by Baker, it was Wimbledon that took the lead around the 35-minute mark. After the Canaries lost the ball midfield, Wimbledon’s Chloe Sampson advanced into the Norwich area. Despite being denied initially by a good tackle from centre-back Mary Croft, Sampson did well to recycle the ball and cross for Emma Plewa to fire home first time at the far post.
Plewa got in behind the Norwich defence again on 38 minutes, but Williams quickly came off her line to clear the ball, and Hincks’ shot from the subsequent throw deflected off centre-back Ceri Flye for a corner on the right-hand side. The set-piece delivery prompted a scramble on the edge of the box, before Ellie Dorey volleyed over the bar.
Just before the interval, Norwich striker Natasha Snelling hit a half-volleyed shot on the turn from the edge of the box straight at Baker. This proved to be her last major involvement of the game, before being replaced by Olivia Cook at half time.
Wimbledon started the second half strongly, with Hincks slipping Plewa in behind on the left wing on 46 minutes. Her cross was fired over from close range by Chloe Sampson, under pressure from Anna Larkins and Bryony Williams, who briefly went down injured due to the collision with Sampson.
On 56 minutes, Norwich winger Megan Todd was forced off by injury, and replaced by Ella Gambell. Shortly afterward, a well-worked Wimbledon move saw the Dons breeze through the Norwich midfield with ease, but Emily Donovan was unable to keep her shot down when the ball fell to her on the edge of the box.
Just before the hour mark, Norwich midfielder Millie Daviss was replaced by Freya Symonds, and headed straight down the tunnel. The Canaries’ number eight recently returned from injury, and was perhaps feeling the burden of her first start in several months, having struggled to make an impact during her 59 minutes on the Plough Lane turf.
Shortly afterward, a goal-saving penalty area tackle by Norwich captain Anna Larkins catalysed a good spell of possession for Norwich. However, the Canaries were unable to make anything from this promising period, despite controlling the play for several minutes.
The game then swung Wimbledon’s way, and the Dons forced a corner after Hincks’ long-range shot was saved by Williams. Centre-back Ceri Flye headed the first delivery clear for another corner, but nothing came of the second set piece.
On 68 minutes, Norwich made another change, with Rosie George coming on for Larkins at right-back. This prompted the captain’s armband to be handed to left-winger Kathryn Stanley.
Wimbledon continued to threaten from set pieces, and Norwich goalkeeper Williams made two good saves on 72 minutes after the hosts recycled a corner. First, she tipped away a deep cross at the back post, before stopping the follow-up shot from close range.
Wimbledon’s momentum continued in the aftermath of these chances, and Billingham sliced a first-time left-footed shot wide at the back post following a low right-wing cross. Williams made another good save on 74 minutes, getting down to her left to parry Rebecca Chitolie-Porter’s shot away for a corner after she cut inside centre-back Mary Croft on the edge of the Norwich box.
It was then Norwich’s turn to push forward, and Rebecca Russell had a strong first-time shot blocked on the edge of the box after good hold-up play from Kathryn Stanley, following an Alice Parker cross from the left.
However, the Canaries began to look a little tired in the latter stages, and will have been relieved to see Chitolie-Porter’s shot fly over the bar after she recovered a miscontrolled goal kick on Norwich’s left. The visitors made their final change on 89 minutes, when Summer Ward came on for Parker amid a spell of Wimbledon corners.
Norwich upped the pressure in the added time that followed in search of an equaliser. However, as was the case throughout the game, they were let down by poor decision-making in the final third, and a general lack of a cutting edge going forward. As such, the match ended a fairly comfortable 1-0 to Wimbledon, with the hosts having put in a professional performance, but rarely being stretched by the visiting Canaries.
Results elsewhere, namely Actonians’ 4-0 win away at Cambridge United, meant that Norwich end the season fourth in the FA Women’s National League South East. Despite having aimed higher after a strong start to the season, the Canaries’ campaign as a whole still represents a significant improvement over last season’s eighth-placed finish.
Norwich appeared to missed the physicality of Ellie Smith and Katie Knights in midfield at Plough Lane, and this toughness looks like a key area for Shaun Howes’ squad to work on in the off-season in order to avoid being easily controlled by well-organised sides like Wimbledon.
Nonetheless, with a large and young squad at Howes’ disposal, it will certainly be interesting to see what next season holds for a Canaries side that, all being well, will keep on improving on the pitch and inspiring Norfolk’s next generation of talented footballers off it.
Norwich City: Williams, Parker (Ward 89′), Larkins (George 69′), Todd (Gambell 56′), Daviss (Symonds 60′), Snelling (Cook 46′), Russell, Stanley, Flye, Croft Morran
AFC Wimbledon: Baker, Russell (Oliver 72′), Brooks, Highman, Billingham, Ali (Heria 66), Donovan, Dorey (Taylor 84′), Plewa, Sampson (Chitole-Porter 66′), Hincks
Goals: Plewa (36)