Wales all-time leading goalscorer and Watford club captain Helen Ward ended her stellar career on a high after announcing earlier in the season she was hanging up her boots at the end of the 2022/23 campaign.
It was judgement day for the two sides who had already met earlier in the season with Watford seeking revenge after narrowly missing out on the League Cup this time with a place in the second tier of Women’s football at stake.
In April, the teams faced off for the Women’s National League, League Cup with Forest emerging victors after a dramatic 3-2 extra-time win.
Stadium Mk was the host of the last ever National League Play-Off as the winners of both the Northern Premier and Southern Premier would automatically be promoted to the Women’s Championship as of next season.
Nottingham Forest finished the regular season as champions of the Northern Premier Division after edging out both Burnley and Wolves on goal difference on the final day of the season while Watford won the Women’s National League Southern Premier Division in contrasting fashion fortunately for them Ipswich beat title leaders Oxford to hand ‘The Golden Girls’ the trophy.
The Hertfordshire club who was original founders of the second tier before being unable to attain a license after eight consecutive seasons in the league went into Saturday afternoon’s match looking to bounce back to the Women’s Championship at their first attempt. Defeat on the last game of the season to Coventry City meant they were relegated to the third tier whilst Forest was looking to end an 11-year absence from the second flight.
Forest Manager, Andy Cook who became the club’s first-ever full-time head coach in 2019 was forced into one change for the final game of the season as Mai Moncaster missed out due to injury so in came former Doncaster Belles forward Yasmin Mosby with tier 3 top goalscorer Charlotte Greengrass leading the line after 22 goals in all competitions this season.
Watford manager Damon Lathrope named an unchanged line up with former England international Gemma Davison in the heart of midfield, her experience being called upon after winning 10 top-flight titles with Arsenal, Chelsea, and Liverpool.
The eagerly anticipated tie began with Watford dominating early spells of possession amidst all the pre-match nerves and tension with Bianca Baptiste who is duel registered with Arsenal threatening Forest from the opening whistle with her pace and direct runs from the right wing.
As the support of respective fans echoed in numbers around the stadium from both clubs the Northern Premier League champions grew into the game with the first real opportunity of the match falling to Greengrass but her effort fell straight into the arms of Watford keeper Jacqui Goldsmid.
Both teams looked to build out from the back in the early exchanges. Forest opted for a more direct approach whilst Watford popping the ball around neatly with longer passages of possession.
It was Goldsmid who was called into action first producing a fine save with her legs after a great lay off by Sophie Domingo fell into the path of Mosby who did well to keep the shot low but denied by the Watford keeper.
Megan Chandler was enjoying being on the ball spraying balls to the flank for Baptiste to run onto as well as playing the ball into playmaker Davison where the majority of the attacking threat came from and it was from their the next half chance came as Annie Rossiter dragged a shot wide from the edge of the box, never really troubling the WNL golden glove winner Emily Batty in the Forest goal.
Against the run of play, it was the ‘Golden Girls’ who took the lead and what proved to be the only goal of the match with literally their first attempt on target finally getting behind the Forest back line after numerous balls into the box. Former Bristol City player Poppy Wilson grabbed her 10th goal of the season managing to get on the end of a delicious deep cross from Davison. She timed her leap to perfection, looping her header over Batty’s and the defender’s head into the back of the goal to the delight of the team and the fans.
In similar circumstances to the league cup final, where Watford took the lead, Forest’s resilient nature saw them look to hit back straight away through the constant threat of Greengrass, Domingo, and Mosby with the latter calling Goldsmid into action producing a tremendous save with her legs.
The Watford keeper had been the busier of the two keepers in the open half an hour and was again called upon punching a Lyndsey Harkin through ball clear of the charging Domingo.
Chance after chance came Forest’s way. A Becky Anderson free-kick was curled wide whilst Amy West was unable to find a teammate in the opposing box allowing the opposition to clear their lines and relieve some pressure.
Former Derby County Young Player of the Year, Domingo was quick to pounce on a loose pass from the Watford back line only to be denied by a goal-saving block tackle from Alli Palisch. The Red’s main threat in the first half had come from capitalizing on sloppiness in possession from their opponents after substantial on the ball pressure from the Garibaldis with Domingo being the real live wire of the Forest attack.
At half-time, it wasn’t just the scoreline that was in the Golden Girls’ favour but also the stats as 4 out of the 6 championships play offs, the team who had scored first had gone on to win with the southern team also winning 4 of them.
Following on from the Plate League Cup victory last season the East Midlands club had used that as a catalyst to build on their success of this season as they looked for the treble but found themselves trying to plot a comeback in the dressing room at half-time in what had been a free-flowing entertaining first 45 minutes.
As the game progressed it was Watford who looked the fresher of the two sides despite The Reds having a week long break. They were more controlled in possession and quicker to react to the second ball despite lacking the accuracy of the pass in the final third of the pitch. Wilson nearly created a carbon copy of her goal but fortunately for the Northern Premier champions, she was not able to get a full connection on the header this time round.
As the half hour mark approached Forest were threatening an equaliser. Domingo pulled back for Greengrass; whose side foot shot appeared to be going towards the bottom right-hand corner before a deflection took it into the path of Mosby who was unable to get on the end of it at the back post.
Watford began to dominate in the central area with Player of the Match Andria Georgiou producing a few fine tackles preventing the direct counter attack and Davison being a constant threat with her composure on the ball and charging runs quickly turning defence into attack
Ellie Head looked to have put the game beyond the Reds’ reach but her fine half-volley into the bottom right-hand corner was immediately chalked off for offside.
Andy Cook turned to the bench to try and breathe fresh lungs into his forward line with time against them and their dreams of a championship place fading
Greengrass had not been her usual firing self which saw her score 22 goals this season struggling to get any direction on a Hayley James free-kick heading over which summed up her frustrating afternoon. It had not really clicked between the upfront three of Forest’s attacking line
As the final whistle fast approached there was time for a moment of madness from Watford keeper Goldsmid as she needlessly charged out of goal, stranded 10 yards outside of her box clattering straight into Greengrass with only the two covering defenders prevent her from getting a red card. A rare lack of concentration for the 23-year-old as a straight ball down the middle caused mayhem. Anderson sent their last chance and hope of an equaliser wide as the ref blew for full time.
A cruel ending for Nottingham Forest who played their part in an entertaining game but defeat by the slenderest of margins means Watford head back to the championship after one season away. No doubt the Reds will bounce back stronger, learning valuable experience but it just was not to be their day
In Damon Lathrope’s first year in charge, he and his coaching staff have managed to put the club re back where they believe they belong in the second tier of Women’s football.
A team huddle of joy and ecstasy all over their faces. All the hard work and training sessions. Came down to this. They will celebrate long into the night before pre-season preparations and the task of staying in the women’s championship begins.
Nottingham Forest (4-1-2-3): Batty, James, Harkin ©, Cook (Powell 89), Daniels, Steggles, West, Anderson, Domingo (Mitchell 77), Mosby, (Reynolds 77), Greengrass. Unused Substitutes: Hewitt, Taylor