emma bentley on leeds ladies sixth win: “no team i’ve had compares to this”Back
Leeds Ladies captain Emma Bentley promised that her team would keep going right to the final whistle of this season.
In the end – right at the end – it was players’ player of the year Hannah Campbell who kept that promise by scoring with almost the last kick of the season at Tranmere Rovers to seal a sixth consecutive win for Leeds.
The 1–0 win meant Leeds were just one win short of the club record winning streak set earlier in the season, and that they’ll end the season just six points off title winners Guiseley and four from second placed Liverpool.
The game itself was far from a classic, with Leeds showing the effects both a long and draining season – physically and emotionally – and a physically and emotionally draining awards night on the Friday before the game, which had been arranged before this postponed match was scheduled.
Leeds have played Tranmere four times this season, but after one cup win each, the two league fixtures came right at the end after Leeds’ third place status had been secured, and getting them played has perhaps been the biggest challenge. After the home game was hastily moved to a new venue last weekend, two bus breakdowns – first for the players’ coach, then for the supporters’ – meant a new plan; the players returned to Leeds, transferred to new transport, then travelled up the M62 again to rescue the fans from the hard shoulder.
“Away days in general have been a bit of a disaster this season!” says Emma Bentley. “We’ve had loads of broken down buses, blown out tyres, boot doors jammed shut with our kit inside. But the icing on the cake has got to be turning up to Tranmere on a bright yellow school bus! I always joke that we turn up looking like a laughing stock, and Tranmere were probably laughing their heads off – until we grabbed that last minute winner.
“We actually owe a big debt of thanks to the South Leeds Independent, who have leant us their bus for free all season, and it was great to see them at the awards on Friday night – we’re so grateful for their support.
“That was a brilliant night, and a perfect way to end the season and say thank you to some people who really deserved it. It was great to see how proud our chairman Gary Cooper was of everything he’s achieved, and for him and Jim and Nicola Bright to look back at everything they’ve done for us all and see what it’s meant to us – although Nicola still refused to have a night off, tidying up the buffet and collecting glasses.”
After the excitement of Friday night, and with the league issues all effectively settled, it was obvious that Leeds weren’t at their best at Tranmere; but the team suffered an early blow when Sophie Scargill had to be taken to hospital with a serious ankle injury after an innocuous challenge on the left wing.
“The injury to Sophie knocked the team massively,” says Emma. “It was so early on and it stopped us from properly settling in to the game. Playing on while she was in so much pain at the side of the pitch wasn’t nice for any of us. She has done some serious ligament damage to her ankle and it looks like it’s going to be a long pre-season for Soph.
“She has done so well this year to battle back from an identical injury to her other ankle, but she’s so determined, I know it won’t be long before she’s back in training again.
“It was a difficult game to be up for, especially after losing Sophie, and after such a long season. I’ve loved playing this season and part of me wants it to go on forever, but after all the ups and downs we’ve been through we really could do with a break.
“I’m happy that we signed off with another win. Once our chance of the league title was gone, our new targets were to win as many games as we could and finish as high up the league as possible. We’ve won six games in a row and finished third. So I won’t worry for too long about the performance in this game.
“We’ve played some outstanding football this season which has helped towards our third place finish, but along the way there has been some that hasn’t been as pretty but that has got the job done; and in the end, it doesn’t matter how the points are gained, as long as we get them.”
Some of the best football of the season has been played by the last day’s match winner, Hannah Campbell, who got on to a ball over the top and drove at the Tranmere goal with her trademark pace and direct style, scoring with a nerveless finish; it was her 14th of the season, putting her third in the goalscoring chart behind Emma Bentley and Kez Huegett on 17 and one ahead of Shelbey Morris’ 13, and underlined why the players voted her their player of the year.
“For me, players’ player is the most prestigious award to get,” says Emma. “For your team mates to vote you as their best player is an absolute honour. And Hannah deserves that award completely. She has been outstanding since the very first game. She’s fast, strong and direct – Hannah is a real asset to this team and I am glad that has been acknowledged.”
The other three main awards announced on Friday night were for supporters’ player Bridie Hannon, managers’ player Erin White, and young player of the year Catherine Hamill.
“The awards were all thoroughly deserved,” says Emma. “I’m so glad Bridie signed for us this season. She’s absolutely solid in defence, but so good going forward when she wins the ball. And more than gaining a team mate, in Bridie I’ve gained a really good friend.
“Erin White – what a legend Erin White is. I don’t think this team would have gained half as many points this season without Ezza in the heart of midfield. She breaks up play, smashes into tackles and wins the ball back for us, and she never stops until the final whistle. She’s the heartbeat of our team.
“Cath Hamill has been phenomenal. I remember training with Cath once last year when she was still in the under–17s, and she was excellent then. She has grown so much throughout this season. Despite her age, she doesn’t allow anybody to get the better of her, and she’s growing in confidence and talking to the players around her. She’ll be an absolute star next season.
“Really, I could mention everybody. There are no words that will mean enough to describe this team. When I think about teams I’ve played in before and team mates that I’ve had, simply none of them compare to this lot. When you play football, you spend a lot of time with your team mates. Two nights of your week are taken up by training, and then all of Sunday too. On top of work, most of your spare time is with the team. In the past, I’ve turned up to training, played and then gone home again, and that’s it. I haven’t really felt anything else.
“With this team, as soon as I’m home there are messages in our Whatsapp group, we meet up on free days, we talk every single day; and I honestly believe that it’s that bond that has helped us to do so well this season. I didn’t ever imagine that we would become this close, this tightly knit. They are mental, dysfunctional and downright weird, but they really are my best friends.”
Those bonds have been formed over a season that began almost before anybody knew what was happening; following the dissolution of the old Leeds United Ladies, the new Leeds Ladies began pre-season with half a team and a target of just making it to the end of 2014/15 with, to quote chairman Gary Cooper, smiles still on faces. Where they have got to, with smiles still in place, is a point where they can look back at how a season that will never be forgotten could have been even better.
“There are eight points that might have been,” says Emma. “I don’t think we deserved anything when we lost at Stockport, but against Liverpool, Chester-le-Street and Morecambe early in the season we lost eight points that could have made the difference. But then I think – look at how much we’ve matured along the way, and learned from those games We would never lose a lead again like we did to Chester-le-Street. Or look at us against Middlesbrough – they got lucky to beat us one week, then got a lesson in football the next!
“I’ve enjoyed it all, and I want to say thank you to all the fans who have turned up every week, who have stuck by our side on the good days and the bad days, and on the bloody freezing cold, miserably wet days; and thank you to everyone who has believed in us.
“Thank you most of all to Gary Cooper. All I want to say to Gary is thank you for keeping your promise. But this is just the beginning.”
The beginning might have been better than anybody expected, but that means that expectations for next season are even higher. Leeds Ladies will be returning to play in Leeds at Garforth Town, and after finding their feet this season, next season Leeds will be setting out for glory.
“Gary has already warned us that next season he will be much more demanding! Not of us were sure what to expect this season, and Gary stuck by his word – there was no pressure, he just wanted us to enjoy playing. But now he has seen the true potential of this bunch of players, and now I reckon he can smell silverware.
“The ambition is there, and the potential is there. We just need to work hard over the summer to deliver. I’m sure the management have got that covered, and we’re worried about the running already!
“There is expectation on our shoulders now. Playing at Garforth is going to mean bigger crowds on match day, and we need to deliver performances and results that will merit our growing reputation. And ultimately, as the captain, I will be the one accountable for this team. But I know that I have the right bunch of girls behind me to make sure that any questions asked of us are answered the right way: the Leeds way.”