“Pay what you think” said the flyer for today’s game, so it’s probably well that I took this game in on my own rather than in the same company with which I’d seen the Belles face Lincoln City last week. As entertaining as it would have been watching Matt trying to pay with inappropriate thoughts about Doncaster full-back Maria Karlsson I suspect there would have been a point when awkwardness crept in.
Lazy jokes aside, the flyer wasn’t lying, this final FA Women’s Super League match of the season was free to get in, on the proviso that you pay what you thought the experience was worth on the way out. A noble gesture on its own, even more so when you consider the profits were going to charity rather than the club itself. It was still a disappointing crowd in attendance however, suggesting more could have been done by the Belles’ co-tenants to help promote the offer, with at least a fifth of the 254 crowd there in support of the visitors Birmingham City Ladies. The Blues fans had travelled in the hope of silverware, with City starting the day just a point behind Arsenal at the top of the table, though the chances of the Gunners slipping up at bottom of the table Liverpool were admittedly slim. The Blues fans, though vocal early on, would have a similarly uphill task trying to drown out the Belles’ bell.
That said it was Birmingham who got off to the better start in a lively opening few minutes, Dunia Susi on the right squaring for Emily Westwood, inside the opening thirty seconds but the Blues’ forward fired over the bar. At the other end the Belles’ first opportunity would come from the dead-ball, as midfielder Vicky Exley struck a vicious thirty yard free-kick which Marie Hourihan tipped onto the post. Back came the visitors with Rachel Williams getting in behind the Belles back-line, only for a heavy touch to enable goalkeeper Mary Earps to come and gather smartly off the forward’s toes.
Williams had looked to be offside when the ball was played through to her, and a couple of minutes later the same could be said of Karen Carney as she escaped down the right. Away from the back-line Carney had space to square for the unmarked Westwood who turned the ball home to give City a 1-0 lead. Minutes later a blatant offside in the corner would go ignored by the nearside linesman, suggesting that he had elected to liven up the afternoon’s game simply by not to employing Law 11.
City did not hold back after their lead and continued to push with Earps out well to intercept a Carney through ball, whilst it took a great last-ditch challenge by Kylla Sjoman on the edge of the area to prevent Rachel Williams getting in. Williams is the league’s top scorer and comes across as women’s football’s Paul Barnes, an absolute pain in the arse to mark; all arms and arguments. The Belles were struggling to create and their best chance of the opening half hour came from a long kick down field; the City defence and ‘keeper adopting an “oh no, after you I insist” approach to clearing the danger and Jessica Sigsworth almost capitalised, winning the ball, but shooting wide on the turn.
It was a rare sight of the North Stand goal as Birmingham kept up the pressure; Williams almost in again but her touch was heavy and Earps collected the ball bravely, before collecting Williams’ boot seconds later. The sort of challenge which would have brought a lot of histrionics, faux card-waving and petty arguments in the men’s professional game, simply brushed off as Earps got straight to her feet. Former Belles full-back Chelsea Weston was next to threaten, firing wide following a Birmingham corner, whilst neat approach play from City minutes later ended with Susi firing over from distance.
City kept the pressure up with a couple of corners from which Jo Potter threatened twice, first with a well struck half-volley which Earps saved well, and then from the other flank Potter’s inswinging corner struck the top of the bar. Belles few chances came from the dead-ball, most notably as a high hanging free-kick from the left was spilled by City keeper Hourihan, but the Blues defence scrambled the ball clear off the line. There was to be one more scare for the Belles just before the break as a mis-hit Earps clearance fell straight to Williams, though the keeper redeemed herself with a perfect sliding tackle on the forward on the edge of the area. Perplexingly the nearside linesman (perhaps encouraged by the cheer which had greeted his first offside decision) flagged for a penalty, though the referee sensibly ignored him and so it remained 1-0 to Birmingham at the break.
The second half began in a similar manner to the first with City finding the net in the opening few minutes. Potter’s free-kick from the left was spilled by Earps and in the resulting scramble Shelley Cox turned it into her own net. That was to be the unfortunate Cox’s last contribution too as John Buckle threw on Precious Hamilton in an effort try to take the game to Birmingham, her introduction narrated by the most unenthusiastic tannoy operator outside of your local department store. The man on the PA also began each and every annoucement with “Ok”, as if he was being bullied into operating the system by a nagging relative. Hamilton’s introduction may not have brought life to the staff, but it did to the Belles as she got down the right and delivered an excellent cross, sadly just beyond Aine O’Gorman arriving from the other flank.
On the hour mark, the Belles first well-structured attack of the game brought another opportunity as O’Gorman fed the ball inside to Katie Holtham who picked out Hamilton on the right but her shot flew wide. At the other end City remained a threat and came close to a third goal on a couple of occasions; firstly as Susi’s diagonal ball in picked out Carney in behind the Belles’ backline but her header flew wide, and then as Jade Moore rattled the bar with a fine effort from twenty-five yards.
The Belles though were looking more dangerous and retaining possession better in the City half particularly on the wings; O’Gorman shrugged off the challenge of Weston like a pub drunk getting shot of their jacket for a car-park brawl, but her cross which followed sadly missed all in the area. Then via a cross from the other side the ball fell for Hamilton, but her well-struck volley was deflected over the bar. The tireless Sigsworth, who had toiled up front alone all game, was next to threaten for the Belles as she broke into the area, only to be denied by a great blocking challenge from Laura Bassett.
As the game entered the final ten minutes it looked as though the Belles challenge had faded as City began to threaten once again, with two opportunities falling their way from corners; Kerys Harrop volleying wide from one, with Susi shooting over following the latter. However, the game’s pattern would swing drastically the home side’s way in the final two minutes, starting as Abbie Prosser was felled just outside the City area. With main free-kick taker Exley off the field Sjoman took over and her left foot strike, flicked off the edge of the home wall to deceive City sub-keeper Laura Watts and find the back of the net.
The Belles were back within a goal with just two minutes left on the clock, and as the game moved into injury time it would get even better for Doncaster. Sigsworth, the James Hayter of the Belles side, was felled just outside the area by Jess Wright to present another free-kick opportunity, and another which they gleefully took. Becky Hall stepping up to curl a great right foot strike over the wall and into the corner of the net to get the home crowd on the feet and ringing their bell. As the match restarted the bloke along from me bellowed “Blow your whistle then ref” to which the fella in front replied “Give over, we want a winner from this”, an unlikely exchange just minutes before, though full-time did arrive just seconds later to give the Belles a point which hadn’t seemed at all likely in the 87th minute.
A positive end then to what has been a bit of a disappointing first FA Women’s Super League season for the Belles, as they end the campaign in seventh place out of eight. The action isn’t over though and they’ll be hoping to spring another surprise on Birmingham City when the two sides meet again next weekend in the opening round of the end of season Continental Cup. Though it’s yet to be confirmed the Belles should be the home side, and as ever we encourage you to get down and support the town’s highest ranked football team.
Doncaster Rovers Belles line-up (4-1-4-1); Mary Earps; Maria Karlsson, Rhonda Jones, Kylla Sjoman, Shelley Cox (Precious Hamilton); Katie Holtham; Aine O’Gorman (Julia Ralph-Scott), Vickey Exley (Becky Hall), Abbie Prosser, Naomi Chadwick; Jessica Sigsworth
sub not used: Bethany England
Birmingham City Ladies line-up (4-4-2); Marie Houlihan (Laura Watts); Chelsea Weston, Lacey (Jess Wright), Laura Bassett, Kerys Harrop; Karen Carney, Dunia Susi, Jade Moore, Jo Potter; Rachel Williams, Emily Westwood (Eartha Pond)
subs not used: Marie Ballard, Isobel Christiansen