Norwich City welcomed AFC Wimbledon to The Nest this weekend in a first-vs-second clash in the FA Women’s National League Division One South East. The Canaries made two changes from their FA Cup defeat against Boldmere St Michaels as they looked to close the gap to the league-leading Dons.
Natasha Snelling replaced Shannon Shaw up front, while Hope Strauss came in for Freya Symonds as the Canaries returned to the five-at-the-back system that has served them well under manager Martin Herdman, who was appointed in the summer following the departure of Shaun Howes.
After an even start to the game under drizzly Norfolk skies, Wimbledon had the game’s first big chance with 10 minutes played. The Dons got in behind the Canaries’ defence after a lovely flick from Ashlee Hincks, but the shot that this created was dragged wide.
The Dons continued to pile on the pressure, with Ellie Dorey forcing a right-wing corner after Strauss blocked her cross. The set piece resulted in a loose ball after the delivery, which Dorey fired over on the half-volley.
She remained instrumental in the visitors’ first-half efforts, sending Hincks in behind the Norwich defence on 25 minutes. However, Canaries keeper Sarah Quantrill did brilliantly to come out and save Hincks’ shot at close range.
This proved to be a key turning point for Norwich, who took the lead six minutes later. With Natasha Snelling having already come close with a volley from a left-wing Lauren Tomlinson, the Canaries’ number 10 gave her side the lead on 31 minutes.
Ellie Smith made the goal, hustling hard to win the ball on the left and deliver a perfectly weighted cross for Snelling, who fired home first-time off the post to make it 1-0. However, this would prove to be Smith’s last action of the afternoon, as she came off injured to be replaced by the industrious Rachel Lawrence in the aftermath of the goal.
Wimbledon kept the pressure up, and came close to equalising on 38 minutes. A fairly innocuous left-wing cross looked to be falling comfortably to Quantrill in the Norwich goal, but it slipped through her hands in the wet conditions. Luckily for the hosts, Hope Strauss was well-positioned on the goal line to clear the ball to safety.
Buoyed by their defensive resilience, Norwich doubled their lead shortly afterwards on 41 minutes. Young midfielder Eloise Morran started the move, chesting down a goal kick on the halfway line before playing in Rachel Lawrence, who had the beating of her defender on the left.
Her fizzing cross was flicked into the far corner at the back post by Natasha Snelling to make it 2-0 just before the interval, much to the delight of the majority of the 320 supporters in attendance.
Moving into first-half added time Lawrence won a free kick on halfway after Norwich soaked up a spell of Wimbledon pressure, with the Dons still showing no sign of letting up despite the deficit having doubled. From this set piece, Tomlinson’s long ball was comfortably gathered by Faye Baker in the Wimbledon goal to end the half.
Norwich came flying out of the traps in the second half, winning a corner on 48 minutes after good pressure from Alice Parker and Natasha Snelling. Captain Anna Larkins looked to do something a bit different by playing it short to Lawrence, but her shot was straight at Baker.
After this initial pressure from the Canaries, Wimbledon really took the remainder of the game by the scruff of the neck, stringing together some beautiful passing moves that underlined their status as promotion hopefuls. Meanwhile, Norwich defended resolutely, with the spectacle as a whole having been a fantastic advert for the division.
The first meaningful Wimbledon attack of the second half came on 50 minutes, when a good passing move ended with Ellie Dorey shooting straight at Quantrill from the right edge of the box. A similar chance fell to Dons captain Hannah Billingham on the left a minute later, but her low effort was also saved by Quantrill.
The Canaries’ keeper was certainly made to work hard in the second half, pulling off a point-blank save on 65 minutes after a fizzing cross came in from the Wimbledon right. Norwich winger Megan Todd brought the ball forward on the counter in the aftermath, but couldn’t get a shot away as the Dons won the ball back deep in their own half.
10 minutes later, the hosts had a fantastic opportunity to seal victory, when a sublime outside-of-the-foot through ball from Lawrence put Snelling through. However, her shot from the edge of the box was well saved by Baker, who gathered the ball at the second attempt. Wimbledon went forward shortly after and flashed a shot across the face from the right.
As the relentless tide of time washed the game into its 80th minute, Wimbledon’s Emily Donovan was the next to come close, firing a half volley just over the bar from 18 yards after a brief period of pinball on the edge of the box.
By this time, Freya Symonds had replaced Megan Todd for Norwich, and her fizzing right-wing cross on 85 minutes almost caused trouble when it was spilled by Baker. However, no one was forward to bury the loose ball.
Moving into stoppage time, the Canaries really had their backs against the wall, as they heroically defended wave after wave of Wimbledon attacks. The hosts’ clearances, while well-intentioned, were a little aimless at times, with one such loose pass setting Wimbledon up to cross from the right. However, Quantrill was able to claw the ball away from danger as it flashed across the face of goal.
Norwich centre-back Ceri Flye became the star of the show in the closing phases, making a perfectly-timed slide tackle in the box to prevent a scoring chance as Wimbledon got in behind in the seventh minute of added time.
The final wave of Dons attacks saw Flye continue to repel the visitors, this time with two towering headers. Wimbledon recycled the second of these to win a right-wing corner, but Norwich managed to scramble the ball clear for one last time as the final whistle blew, prompting jubilant scenes of celebration under the darkening skies.
Norwich are now just three points behind Wimbledon with a game in hand, although the Dons have goal difference in their favor (+28 to the Canaries’ +19). With Wimbledon now not playing again until the New Year, Norwich will be hoping to end 2023 in style with a win against Chesham United in two weeks’ time. Either way, the title race certainly looks like it could go right down to the wire come the end of the season!
Norwich City: Quantrill; Strauss, Flye, Larkins (C); Tomlinson, Knights, Parker; Smith (Lawrence 33 (Hailes 90+3)), Todd (Symonds 71), Snelling (Daviss 86)
Goals: Snelling (31, 41)
AFC Wimbledon: Baker, Russell (Soares Martins 78), Highman, Ali, Hinks, Gibson (Porter 68), Donovan, Billingham (C), Dorey, Goddard (McLachlan 62)
Player of the match: Ceri Flye