A Celine Ray save from the penalty spot saw Stevenage FCW lift their fifth County Cup, as a crowd of 507 were treated to a match for the ages in their 8th successive final appearance, second only behind Watford Ladies.
However, this game was all about Stevenage and Royston. Two teams who had met each other three times before this season and with 16 goals scored between them, the one thing that appeared to be guaranteed was a glut of goals.
This was not immediately forthcoming. Both sides, understandably, were apprehensive and worked hard to keep the ball, while probing for a killer ball forward. It was Royston who were first to break the line successfully, but Laura Mills shot was dragged wide.
Stevenage worked to create chances of their own, without ever really testing Amy Martin in goal. The shot stopper did turn around a Holly Greenwood shot from distance, but it was creeping wide, which is where the tireless Kelsey Millen’s shot went minutes later after latching onto a ball over the top that bamboozled Amy Houghton.
Greenwood had the best chance of the half when Millen dragged a ball back across the penalty area for her to strike, but her touch let her down this time and she couldn’t get the shot off to give Boro’ the lead.
Instead, it was Royston who took the lead with ten minutes of the half remaining as a Stevenage legend, Amy Josland, lifted the ball over Mia O’Brien and into the net. AJ had made 143 appearances for Boro’, the second most of all time, but this moment was a bittersweet one for many watching as she tucked away her second goal of the season.
Royston finished the half strongly with efforts from Annie Georgiou and Poppy Smith sent narrowly over the bar. With three changes made at half-time, it took just ten minutes for Stevenage to draw level.
It was a scene that repeat viewers of the club will have seen play out regularly. Becky Shephard, one of the trio of substitutes, took the corner, which was earned from excellent endeavour by Amy Makewell. The delivery was sent perfectly to the far post, where Vicky Neal powered home yet another header for the ninth goal of her Boro’ career.
Buoyed by the goal, Stevenage took control of the tie. Rosy Wodhams saw her effort turned wide after Shephard’s free kick was punched clear and Neal headed wide. Royston, to their credit, rode out the onslaught and battled back into the game. Mills saw her effort expertly palmed over the bar by O’Brien, who moments later held onto a low-driven shot that, if parried, would have left a tap in.
Nicole Hendricks had the best opportunity of the half for Royston as the ball was worked in from the right and into space, but her effort flew narrowly over the bar.
As full time drew nearer, Wodhams had a superb burst of pace down the right and with a sight of goal, unselfishly played in her attackers. Makewell, Amy Gooderham and Shephard all had a snatch at it, but none could test Martin.
Penalties loomed large and the 89th minute saw Laura Mills go to ground as Lucy Webster sent a tantalising ball for Gooderham to chase. She did so and in the muddle of Gooderham and Martin the ball came loose and fell kindly for the Boro’ forward to calmly slot the ball home into an unguarded net. Cue scenes of delirium from the red half of the watching faithful.
Royston simply refused to give in and pushed until the very end. After a booking for Hendricks, there was still time for one more attack in the fifth minute of three added on. Georgia Miller it was who took advantage of the long ball and slotted the ball home before running the entire length of the pitch to celebrate with family. Cue scenes of delirium from the black and white half of the watching faithful.
With the game surely ending upon kickoff, Boro’ made a change straight out of the Louis Van Gaal playbook as Celine Ray replaced the excellent O’Brien in goal. The whistle blew and penalties were upon us. “I was ready from the start,” the young keeper said afterwards. “Anything can happen in a game and you need to come on. I was buzzing at 2-2”
Jodie Bellinger and Houghton started the contest well with two fabulous penalties. Royston stole the advantage however, when Nicole Farmer, who has been deadly from set pieces recently, saw her effort saved. Gemma Croucher, Gooderham, Ailish Straver – a scorer from last year’s final, and Becky Shephard all completed the assignment successfully before Miller, a hero moments before, saw her powerful effort crash off the bar and back towards her. A cruel blow, but yet, the game was only in penalties at all thanks to her.
Birthday girl Emily Schofield converted her penalty alongside Char South and the tie entered sudden death. Neal stepped up and sent her ball roughly where her header landed and piled all the pressure onto Royston who had to score. Becky Charter stepped up and sent the ball low to Ray’s left, which was where the ‘keeper smothered the ball before sprinting off to celebrate.
It was a cruel way for such a hard-fought battle to end, and a way that has only happened once before in the previous twenty-two County Cup finals when Berkhamsted Ladies defeated Watford in the second ever final in 2001. Interim Manager Dave Perry was delighted afterwards, “Royston gave us a good game, they hung in there and we had to work hard. It’s not a nice way to win on penalties, I don’t like it myself, but it is how it ends and I couldn’t be happier with how we played today.”
Stevenage: O’ Brien, Farmer, Neal (c), Price, Nebbitt, Bodily, Greenwood, Schofield, Millen, Makewell, Wodhams
Subs: Ray, Shephard, Gooderham, Webster, Bellinger
Goals: Neal, Gooderham
Royston: Martin, Fox-Barker, A. Georgiou, Straver, Miller, Houghton, Smith, South, Croucher, Mills, Josland
Subs: Bourne, Page, Holt, Charter, Hendricks
Goals: Josland, Miller