leeds ladies switch on to face toughest test yetBack
Leeds Ladies returned to league action with a trip to Mossley Hill in Liverpool on Sunday, for a game that had the potential to make or break their season.
A win against the second placed side in the league would take Leeds to third, level on points with Mossley with a game in hand; defeat would leave them in sixth with a mountain to climb to get back to the top of the league.
“I said last week that the end of the season was in our hands right now, and I think Sunday has to have been our biggest game of the season so far,” says Leeds captain Emma Bentley.
"All season it seems like we have been looking at the results of Mossley and Chorley, seeing them picking up good wins, claiming points and climbing up the table, while we had no idea what they were like or what to expect.
“After a good month of games, with some cup fixtures thrown in, there was a bit of worry that we were going to run into a brick wall and the champagne from the last few weeks’ worth of big wins would go flat very quickly.”
Pre-match injury worries added to the tension for Leeds, with striker Carey Huegett starting from the bench and goalkeeper Lauryn Colman having to come through a fitness test. Emma Bentley had been nursing her ankle through the week after a knock against Keighley, and midfielder Erin White turned her own ankle during the warm-up and had to play through the pain.
“I was worried in the warm-up,” says Emma. "We seemed quiet, a bit of on-the-bus syndrome. After an early start and a long journey there’s a danger that people won’t be up for it. We had a nice trip down but just didn’t seem switched on – and then Ez went down with her ankle and that disrupted everything. There was a moment’s doubt with Lauryn as well and I started to think it could be a long journey home.
“I said that to the girls in the huddle – it was a case of right, heads on now, there are battles to be won and we need to make sure we win them. And from the moment that whistle went I was in no doubt that the girls were just as up for this as I was, and that we would be okay.”
Leeds were into Mossley Hill from the very first whistle, and quickly took a confident hold on the game. They might not have known what to expect from Mossley Hill, but they also didn’t waste time trying to find out. Leeds’ attacking line up took the game to their opponents on their own ground and created enough chances to be three goals clear by half-time.
“From that first whistle, I didn’t doubt that we were going to play well,” says Emma. "The girls just seemed to suddenly switch on. I felt like I was shouting at them all the way through, giving out orders and making sure people were doing their jobs – not because they weren’t doing them, but because they were doing it so well that I didn’t want that to slip! I think we smelt blood early on and we just went for the kill.
"We are very good at opening teams up and in the first half Mossley were struggling with that. They were getting frustrated because, as their defenders put it, we were ‘pulling them all over’ and they just didn’t know how to handle our front four.
“We have clever players in our side, and we know each other well as a team now and can read each other. The movement off the ball on Sunday was brilliant and it was only the final ball that sometimes let us down.”
The way Leeds were taking the game to Mossley helped settle pre-match nerves, but the tension was set to remain unless that advantage was turned into goals before half-time could give Mossley a chance to reorganise. With four minutes to go until the break, and after seeing a clutch of close range chances fail to find the net, central defender Bridie Hannon spotted Mossley’s keeper off her line and took charge from the centre circle.
“People will hear about Bridie scoring from halfway, but you really had to have seen it,” says Emma. “That was a damn good goal from Bridie – she meant that. I saw her coming forward and was looking for the ball into the box, but as she shaped up I thought, she’s going to hit this, and she did. It just sailed into the net. She has been waiting a few weeks to get a goal but I don’t think she expected it to be like that – that’s the goal of the season award ticked off, they might as well engrave it now!”
Bridie Hannon’s goal wasn’t only a brilliant piece of skill, but gave Leeds the opportunity to seize the initiative and pre-empt Mossley’s attempts to get back in the game. Manager Jak Oldroyd shuffled the defence at half-time to bring Fiona Berry in at centre half for her first league appearance after shoulder surgery in the summer, and she soon showed Mossley exactly what they were up against if they wanted anything from the game, with three thundering tackles and a booking for dissent within ten minutes of coming on.
“I absolutely loved the battle all through this game,” says Emma. "I don’t know what it was about it. Mossley were tough and challenges were going in – they were strong and weren’t scared of a tackle. We were evenly matched and they were giving us a damn good game, but I always felt like we had the edge.
“The ref said before the game that he remembered me from earlier in the season – well, he’ll certainly remember Fiona! Catherine Hamill was unreal yet again, and Bridie Hannon was deservedly player of the match not just for her goal but for her performance throughout. During the second half when we suffered a bit of an onslaught the defenders were like the rocks that held us together. Nothing was passing them, and if it did, Fiona was kicking it.”
Despite having to withstand intense Mossley pressure for the first twenty minutes of the second half Leeds never ignored opportunities to attack, and doubled their lead with another quality goal that started in the centre circle. This time Emma Bentley opened up the Mossley defence with a through ball to Hannah Campbell on the right wing; Mossley couldn’t deal with her pace or her cross and with the ball live in the box, Kez Huegett pounced to hammer the ball home.
“That was very clever play by Hannah Campbell,” says Emma. “It must have been tempting to shoot from there, but she was selfless in crossing it instead.”
The 2–0 lead looked unassailable, but Leeds couldn’t afford to relax. An unwelcome feature of Leeds’ start to the season was a tendency to let winning advantages slip in the closing stages of games that should have been put away.
“Sod that,” says Emma. “I’m not ever having that happen anymore. It’ll be over my dead body. We have grown in maturity now and we are much more capable of seeing games out.”
A close penalty shout after a ball-and-player challenge from Berry on the edge of the box was as close as Mossley got, and the full-time whistle came with Leeds camped in Mossley’s half, determined to put themselves right in among the promotion contenders.
Leeds could travel home satisfied that they had gone to one of the best teams in the league, to face one of their biggest challenges of the season, and risen to it by winning a game they dictated with their best performance of the season so far.
“I was buzzing at full-time,” says Emma. "But not the kind of buzzing where I wanted to jump around and be super-proud of us. I expect this kind of performance from us now. I expect that we do the job right and win our battles and see out the game. I expect any team that is put in front of us to be professionally dispatched. So yes, I felt happy, I loved the win. But I also felt like it was another Sunday’s business taken care of, another cup final boxed off. How many to go now?
"Nobody would look at the scoreline and think 2–0 must have been a cracking game, but anybody who has looked at this league and seen Mossley’s season should know that a win, two goals and a clean sheet away from home – that’s a damn good result.
"I love games like that because it really feels like we have earned those points. I loved how much of a battle it was. I loved throwing myself into the tackles and getting covered in mud, and I loved really feeling like I was in a fight.
“I laid on the sofa on Sunday night and my legs were aching, and I felt like I had done something. I had earned those aching legs, and that felt good.”
Liverpool Marshalls Feds currently occupy the top spot in the table, and the only promotion place, six points ahead of Mossley and Leeds who are now level in second place – although Leeds have a vital game in hand over them both. The next match at Knaresborough is a big FA Cup clash with local rivals Guiseley Vixens on December 7th, but Emma Bentley is already looking ahead to the next league game one week later, when Mossley Hill make the return trip and Leeds have a chance to end the year right in the promotion fight.
“I look at the way the table is at the moment, and there is no doubt that we still have an uphill battle,” says Emma. "To win this league would be nothing short of sensational. Because of our early results, we really need to hope that things go our way, and we can not stop.
“Every single game we play from this point forward is going to be a cup final for us. Only one team will go up from this league and I so badly want it to be us. Imagine that? How good would that be to give back to the fans? But it isn’t going to fall into hands. We have to go out and we have to work bloody hard for it. And we will.”
Leeds next game is in the FA Cup first round at home to Guiseley Vixens on Sunday December 7th, at Manse Lane, Knaresborough. Visit LeedsLadiesFC.org.uk, or follow Leeds Ladies FC and the LLFC Supporters Club on Twitter for updates.