Leeds Ladies Ready For The Next Challenge After Coventry Test
Leeds Ladies faced the toughest start available to 2015 at Coventry City Ladies, and although the game ended Leeds’ seven game winning run, it sharpened the club’s focus on what it wants to achieve this season.
An FA Cup run was never a target for Leeds, but after beating local rivals Guiseley in the first round proper, a trip to the top Women’s Premier League side in the country offered a chance to test Leeds’ progress against the very best around.
On the day, Leeds fought back from two goals down at half-time to force Coventry into an old-fashioned cup tie in the second half, eventually losing out 3–1 to a side that have only given away two league goals at home this season. Since an opening day defeat to Sheffield FC, Coventry have won 17 games and drawn one, and are top of the WPL Northern Division, a division above Leeds.
“We were all looking forward to the test,” says Leeds captain Emma Bentley. “We were looking forward to pitching ourselves against tough opposition, just to see what stage we’re at. Realistically we were the underdogs and we knew that, and we didn’t expect to win, but we never ruled out the magic of the FA Cup – and as long as we did ourselves proud then that was going to be enough.”
Leeds’ preparations were disrupted, and a chance to take their own winning run to eight in a row denied, when last weekend’s scheduled league game against Middlesbrough was called off due to a frozen pitch.
“I was so disappointed. I was desperate to get going again after the Christmas break,” says Emma. "I got to Christmas Day and I was already thinking, ‘right, I’m done now, when are we playing again?’ I had all my bags packed the night before the Boro game and I was raring to go.
“We got the text to say the game was off about half an hour before my alarm was due to get me up and ready for game day. I think I went back under the quilt for a while to sulk. A few of us girls did decide not to waste the day and so we met up for a bit of lunch. That was nice, I think we had missed each other.”
That rescheduled league game, when it’s played, will be vital in achieving Leeds’ aim of promotion this season; the postponement meant 2015 had to start the way Leeds hope it will end if that aim is achieved: facing top WPL opposition.
“Our manager had done his homework and we knew they had some talented players,” says Emma. “We had worked in training on shutting down their danger players and trying to stop them from playing forward. I knew there was one player in particular that I would be seeing a lot of during the game! We expected a tough game, and we got one.”
Just how tough became clear in the opening few minutes. Coventry didn’t take long to demonstrate just why they’re top of the WPL, immediately going on the attack and, after exposing the Leeds defence, taking the lead inside five minutes through Amber Hughes. After that Leeds struggled to get any time on the ball, forced onto the back foot trying to cope with the pace of Coventry’s forwards, who were repeatedly fed by an incisive midfield.
“That first half was very difficult,” says Emma. "We had the wind against us – and it was a strong wind! We were still rusty from the Christmas break, and I think we had a bit of ‘on the bus’ syndrome.
"Most of all, we looked scared. I don’t like to admit it, but we looked scared of them, and of the occasion. It took us a while to find our feet and our belief. It was a rude awakening to be fair – welcome to 2015!
“We could only keep going after that early goal, but we kept going because we had to. It’s as simple as that. There was no other option. I think we all realised in the first five minutes what a tough afternoon we were in for, and maybe we could say that their first goal was a bit soft. But we needed to pick ourselves up quickly and get over it. If we hadn’t done that there was a danger that the final score could be embarrassing. But at the same time, there was plenty of time left in the game for us to make something of it.”
For the first half an hour Leeds had to concentrate on keeping Coventry at bay, and were unable to show the attacking, passing football that has taken them to the top of Division One.
“Playing in this game was long, and it was tiring, and it was tough,” says Emma. "I had specifically been given the job by the manager of containing their defensive midfielder – if she got on the ball with too much space she would be dangerous. It was hard work to keep track of her rather than myself and what I could do.
“As an attacking player I’m used to making sure that the other team worry about me – this was a lot different. I certainly wasn’t looking forward beforehand to a graveyard shift, especially after the Christmas break, but sometimes as a player you have to make those kinds of sacrifices for the team. It’s side before self.”
No Leeds player better demonstrated that ethic than centre-half Bridie Hannon who, far from being phased by the opposition, seemed to revel in having so much pressure placed upon the Leeds defence, and played as if it was her personal mission to deny every single Coventry attack with blocks, tackles and clearing headers.
“Bridie was just brilliant,” says Emma. “She relished the chance at Coventry to get back on the pitch after a back injury that hampered her before Christmas. I have known she was quality since she signed and she’s a great person to have on our team.”
Inspired by Bridie, Leeds withstood Coventry long enough in the first half to begin to show some belief in themselves going forward, but there was no reward for Leeds when they created their first chance of the game on forty minutes; instead Coventry broke quickly and took the opportunity to double their lead, again through Hughes.
The first half had been a reality check, but Leeds worked hard in the second to move the game into the unreality of the FA Cup. Lauryn Colman pulled off a stunning save to tip a long range Coventry drive over the bar, then on 65 minutes Leeds, who were beginning to bring their wide players into the game, won a free kick near the Coventry corner flag and Bianca Ross’s pinpoint cross was headed in by Carey Huegett from just outside the six yard box.
It was a classic cup goal from a set-piece, and gave Leeds vital belief and Coventry a reality check of their own: the second half would not be a stroll. Another well-placed corner this time found Ross’s head, but she couldn’t get above the ball to direct her header on target; and while Coventry continued to attack, they were now faced with a Leeds team that was determined to give a proper account of themselves.
An equaliser remained a very real target for Leeds until deep into stoppage time, when Hughes finished off her hat-trick with a shot that caught out Lauryn Colman and ended Leeds’ hopes of causing an upset.
Dreams of FA Cup glory, though, have always had their place firmly as dreams for Leeds this season; while league glory, rather than being a dream, is a firm target.
“This was always going to be a learning experience, and the idea was to test Leeds against the best team around,” says Emma. “What did we learn? I think most of all we learned that the WPL is a genuine target for us. If we can play Coventry, who are dominating that league at the minute – and we didn’t disgrace ourselves by any means – then the WPL isn’t anything to be scared of. We could hold our own up there.”
Leeds’ next game is in the County Cup against Ossett Town, followed by a crucial trip at the end of January to the team at the top of Leeds’ division, Liverpool Marshalls Feds. Despite the end of the winning run and FA Cup involvement, Emma is confident that Leeds are well prepared to meet their next challenges.
“Having seven wins was starting to become quite precious, and losing that winning streak probably means more to me than being out of the FA Cup,” she says. “But it’s gone now, and the next target is to build our way back up to seven wins. If we achieve that then we’ll be looking pretty healthy by the end of March.”
Leeds Ladies next game is in the County Cup against Ossett Albion LFC, at 1pm on Sunday January 18th; the game is being played at Ossett Town. Visit LeedsLadiesFC.org.uk, or follow Leeds Ladies FC and the LLFC Supporters Club on Twitter for updates.