Imagine you are the Head of Women’s Football at the Football Association. It is January 2013. Coming off the back of a startling rise in interest and profile for the women’s game generated by London 2012 and sitting proudly in the glow of late-2012’s strategic review of women’s football, you would be hoping for two things: a strong performance from England in the summer’s European Championships, and; an exciting, engaging FA WSL season, the final time the domestic league will be played in a single-tier format.
Now, fast forward nine months. England flopped and the iconic head of women’s football in England, Hope Powell, has been deposed; sacrificed amidst rumour of blossoming unpopularity within the game on the altar of England’s miserable tournament. Your reputation has been damaged, almost irreparably, following the contentious decision to relegate Doncaster Rovers Belles. All your remaining hopes from those sparkling January days rely on an exciting end to the domestic season.
It is Sunday 15th September. And you are thanking whichever footballing higher powers you believe in.
And so three became two. And not just any two. Two who veered between ‘unfancied’ and ‘not a hope in Hades’ at the beginning of the season. Two whose early season form looked like it may have withered in the summer heat. Two who will now battle it out, head-to-head, in the final game of the season to lift the FA WSL title for the first time in their history.
Liverpool Ladies, Bristol Academy Women – you are going to give us one heck of an end to the 2013 season.
Before the last week’s action, a third contender had appeared to be in the reckoning. Erroneously so, as we have detailed below. By the time this afternoon’s disciplinary announcement arrived (see below) the script for Arsenal Ladies’ season had been written in any case. The 2011 and 2012 champions – the defending behemoths of women’s football – had been toppled, even in victory.
At Half Time on Sunday, Liverpool Ladies may have been icing the champagne in celebration. The title race was over.
Liverpool put it firmly in their own hands days earlier with a dramatic 4-2 victory over Merseyside rivals Everton. First, Everton led through Nikita Parris – Liverpool struck back through Natasha Dowie. Then Liverpool led, again Dowie finding the net – Everton restored parity, Parris finding her own equalising strike with a stunning lobbed finish. At 2-2 and midway through the second half, Gemma Bonner restored Liverpool’s lead, before Dowie’s hat trick ensured the three points would stay in the red half of Liverpool. 5 points clear. Bristol with a game in hand. Pressure on.
And how the pressure told. Away to the league’s basement club, Doncaster Rovers Belles, Bristol simply fell apart. 1-0 down after 34 minutes to Jess Sigsworth, Academy went in shellshocked at half time having shipped a further two goals to Millie Bright and Leandra Little. Bristol’s title race over.
Stunned into action, Academy flew out of the blocks in the second half and raised away hopes through Natalia’s 47th minute goal. 3-1 became 3-2 with the Spaniard’s second after 66 minutes and with just 8 minutes remaining, Ann-Marie Heatherson came off the bench to force home the equaliser. With title race hopes hanging by a thread Natalia, Bristol’s best player this season and the signing declared by Bristol Academy boss Mark Sampson ‘the female Michu’, hit her third and Bristol’s fourth with just a minute remaining to complete a remarkable turnaround.
And so it all comes down to Sunday 29th September.
Liverpool Ladies vs. Bristol Academy.
Liverpool need only a point. Bristol need all three.
Make no mistake – this is the denouement that the 2013 FA WSL needs and the title race that it richly deserves.
Don’t miss it.
Bristol 1 – 0 Birmingham
Liverpool 4 – 2 Everton
Arsenal 2 – 0 Birmingham
Doncaster 3 – 4 Bristol
Everton 1 – 0 Lincoln
To cap what has been a far from vintage season for Arsenal Ladies, the North London club was today charged by the Football Association for fielding an ineligible player in a league fixture against Liverpool Ladies. Katie Chapman, the Gunners’ former England midfielder, appeared as a substitute in Arsenal’s 3-0 victory over Liverpool in August. Chapman’s shift off the bench marked her first appearance since the birth of her third child, but it has subsequently transpired that the player had not been registered for league action at the time of her appearance.
Arsenal have admitted the error and elected not to appeal, with the FA handing down a 3 point deduction. The penalty means it is now impossible for the Gunners to qualify for the Champions League, marking a miserable culmination to a league season which has seen them surrender their FA WSL title. Despite victory in the FA Cup and an appearance to come in the Continental Cup final, the club’s failure to defend a title they had won with some ease under Laura Harvey in 2011 and 2012 will be a black mark against boss Shelley Kerr in her first season in charge.
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