So, just days after the final whistles were blown in the final round of games in the Women’s Championship, the dust is settling and enabling us to fully take in what has been achieved this season. While Liverpool prepares for the unenviable task of trying to avoid a season of heavy drubbings in the unbalanced WSL next season, Coventry are finally allowing the celebrations to cool down enough for the hangovers to kick in. For others, it will be a few weeks of reflection on why things didn’t go to plan this season, and how they can put it right in the next one. For Palace, however, right now is the time to rejoice at what has been the greatest season since our promotion to the Championship. To enable us all to do just that, let me take you back to the beginning, to the summer of 2021, and the start of what would unfold into something very special.
The 2020/21 season had been one of progress for Palace. It had seen us achieve our highest ever natural finish in the Championship of 7th, alongside obtaining our highest ever points total of 20. On top of that, we scored 27 goals, our highest return by some distance since promotion in 2018. On an individual level, Bianca Baptiste set two new records, becoming the clubs highest scorer in one league season(at Championship level) with eight goals, as well as the clubs highest scorer in all competitions in an individual season(since promotion), with fourteen. On top of all that, we had also made it to the Quarter-Final of the Conti Cup for the first time. It was the first season that we had started to look more settled, and like we had closed the gap caused by our last-minute promotion in 2018. Typically, it came in the season when no fans were allowed due to Covid, and so when we could have been there creating a raucous Quarter-Final atmosphere, we were all at home, forced to wait on updates.
With the season of progress behind us, it was time for us to take the next step and prepare to progress again. While the core of last season’s team remained, there were several departures from the squad, as is the case every season. Some of those were expected, but among the departures were some key names in the eyes of fans, such as Amber Stobbs(Watford), Andria Georgiou(Coventry & Watford), Leeta Rutherford(Southampton) and Cherelle Khassal(Portsmouth). Cherelle was the biggest loss, after her five goals and constant threat had played such a key part in supporting Bee the previous season. Despite the departures, our recruitment showed how we had taken another step forward in quality, as well as precision on what was required. Gracie Pearse returned to us on loan, having signed for Spurs, while 18 year old ‘keeper Emily Orman signed on loan from Chelsea, having just inked her first professional contract with them. We also brought in experience at Championship level. Sophie McLean joined from London Bees, Aimee Everett and Mille Farrow came from Leicester, Leanne Cowan and Charley Clifford made the short moves from London City & Charlton respectively, and Molly Sharpe made the move south from Durham. Meanwhile, Kirsty Barton made her loan move from Brighton permanent. The squad was set.
It wasn’t just at Palace that change was happening. Leicester City had gone up to the WSL as champions, and Bristol City had taken the reverse journey, dropping down into the Championship. Meanwhile London Bees had dropped out of the Championship into the National League, and had been replaced by not one, but two teams. One of those was Watford, and the other was Sunderland, who were on the next step of their journey to right the wrong they had suffered a few years previous, when they were forced out of the WSL. At long, long last, the Championship would line up with an even number of teams, twelve in total, and that on its own was a huge plus. In some other changes, both Charlton and Coventry United had turned full time, taking the full-time tally in the league to seven teams. Coventry had a very active summer, announcing many new deals, including the huge acquisition of Katie Wilkinson from Sheffield United, who had been top scorer in the league the past few seasons.
I must admit, the change of status for both Coventry and Charlton had been a cause of concern for us fans. Both had finished below us in the previous season, and now with their change of status, the natural expectation was that they would push up the league. However, what we didn’t know at first, was that while Palace were still part time, we had switched to four training sessions a week, and the training had moved to the brand new CPFC Academy. Both of these changes would certainly help play a part in the success that was to come. So, with everything in place, let’s get to the action!
There was only one game in August, the opening game of the season. The date, 29th August, my birthday! The venue, Hayes Lane. The opponents, newly relegated Bristol City. It was a hell of a tough opening opponent, and certainly a major test of the newly shaped team. The same could be said for Bristol, who had gone through a huge transition during the summer and fielded a team that was still fairly new to each other. While the return of football was naturally the big event of the day, for me, the one thing to eclipse it, was the return of us, the fans. After a year and a half almost, of having to stay away and not be part of the live action, at long last we were back on the terraces, and boy oh boy did it feel great to be back!
Given our home form in recent years, and given we were facing a team freshly relegated from the WSL, it would have been natural to feel a little apprehensive. But as we stood in front of our flags basking in the glow of live football, we only had to wait two minutes before we were celebrating a goal! Coral Haines, who had finished joint second highest scorer last season with five, had found the back of the net to open her account for the new season! Charley Clifford would make it two on her debut after 16 minutes and we were buzzing. Our play was fluid, it flowed incredibly well, we looked crisp and dominant and were playing at a different level to what we had previously experienced. When City halved the deficit on 42 minutes, it was against the run of play, and very quickly the 2 goal advantage was restored via the best goal of the game, with sublime control and finish from Kirsty Barton. We were certainly good value for our 3-1 half time lead, and when Coral bagged her second on 53 minutes to make it 4-1, no one could have any argument over the score line. City however would be given a gift on 57 minutes with a poor clearance from Chloe Morgan to make it 4-2, and in the 91st minute they were given another replica goal to make it 4-3. That is how it finished, and while the errors had made it closer than it really was, as fans we had the delight of an opening day win on our long-awaited return! It was our first ever opening day win in the Championship, setting the tone for a host of firsts to come throughout the season. With the game over, there was one final moment to be had, as I was able to award Bee with her Eagle Eye View Player of the Season trophy for 2020/21.
Football was back…we were back…and for ten minutes we had been top of the table, before ending the day in second!
The month of September bought with it three games, including two of the toughest away games that the season would offer. The first of those was a visit to Dartford to take on London City. Since the Lionesses had changed from Millwall to London City, three of our four matches against them had ended in low scoring draws, while the other was a narrow 2-1 loss. It would have been easy to expect a similar affair this time around, and that is certainly what was delivered. For the second game running, Palace would take an early lead, this time through defender Lizzie Waldie on 4 minutes. But after 11 minutes London City were level, and just before half time a Leanne Cowan own goal had given the hosts the lead. That was how it stayed, despite a last-minute opportunity for Millie Farrow to equalise that just didn’t quite make it in. One of the key points from this game, was that 18 year old loanee Emily Orman would make her debut, in the first of a series of performances that earned her the role as No.1 keeper.
With no time to wallow on it, Palace moved onto the next game, which would see us make a rare appearance at Selhurst Park, as Sunderland came to town. The Lasses over the years had been flush with top talent who formed the core of the England National team, and now in their first season in the Championship, they had built a side on young home-grown talent and had won their opening two games. It was always going to be a tough game and was a tightly contested affair. In fact, despite some good chances, it took until the 67th minute for Millie Farrow to net her first goal for Palace to give us the lead, but within five minutes Sunderland were level, and that would be how it would finish.
On the pitch, we would see out the month with a trip to Prenton Park to face Liverpool. Their class was there for all to see, as Matt Beard’s side were starting to find their feet in what would be a charge to title glory. This time it would be Palace who would fall behind early, and while Shiv Wilson netted a shot come cross from long range to pull us level, parity would last barely minutes before Liverpool were back in front. Despite having chances, the Reds would not net again, and the game would end 2-1. Four games in, we had four points on the board, were unbeaten at home, but suffered two narrow defeats on the road.
During this month, the draw for the Conti Cup groups was made. Having reached the Quarter Finals last season, the hope was that we could perhaps do it again, this time for us fans to see. For the third year running, we were drawn against Lewes(away), something that seems to be a guarantee. The other two group ties would be at home, against WSL side Reading, and another visit from Bristol City.
With autumn set in and Halloween on its way, the month started with Sheffield United visiting Hayes Lane. It was a tie that had never been one to look forward to, given it had always ended in defeat. This fixture would end that awful run, and while the 0-0 draw wasn’t quite the win we had hoped for, it was a first point and clean sheet against the Blades in this league, and it maintained our unbeaten start at home, which had extended to three.
Next up was a trip to Coventry United. We made the journey having not won since the opening day, while Coventry’s revolution was not going to plan, and they were stuck at the bottom of the table without a win at all. Just like our previous away game, we fell behind quite early, and it wasn’t until the stroke of half time that Kirsty Barton’s second of the season pulled us level. The two teams would exchange goals early in the second half, as Gracie Pearse put us 2-1 up, only for Coventry to pull level within three minutes. But not long after the hour mark, Shiv Wilson, who had tormented the Cov defence all game, scored her second of the season to put us back in front, and we would see out the 3-2 win to get our first victory on the road.
On the road is where we would spend the rest of the month, as the team would embark on a mid-week journey to the Dripping Pan to face Lewes in the first game of the Conti Cup. It was a tie that we had won in the previous two seasons, but it looked like that would not be the case this time, as Lewes took a 20th minute lead, a lead that they would hold onto into the dying embers of the game. But just when it looked like the Rooks were starting with a win, Molly Sharpe popped up in the 89th minute to equalise with her first goal for the club. That is how it would finish, and Palace would then win the penalty shoot out to pick up two points(yes, this year the competition borrowed some Ice Hockey ideas).
Our travels would see us end the month with a short trip to just outside of London, as we took on strugglers Watford, who had moved the game to Vicarage Road. Like with Coventry, Watford were finding points very hard to come by, and were languishing down at the bottom of the table. We were looking to take advantage of that and looked certain to take all three points after goals from Kirsty Barton and Sophie McLean had us 2-0 up in just under an hour. But Watford dug deep to fight back, and two goals in the last 14 minutes saw them grab a 2-2 draw and a share of the spoils. It had been an unbeaten month, with five points gained and a win in the cup. A positive step forward, one that could have yielded more.
With the colder weather creeping in, November’s schedule looked to be a very difficult one. With Durham and Charlton in back to back league home games, followed by a home tie with WSL side Reading. Looking at it on paper, it would have been easy to have looked at the Blackburn away game at the end of the month, as the only likelihood of points. Oh, how wrong we were to think that!
The draw for the FA Cup third round had thrown up an intriguing tie, as we were drawn away to third tier side Bridgwater in a proper cup tie! That game though would not be until December, and first on the agenda for November was the visit of Durham to Hayes Lane. Durham were one of those teams who we had never enjoyed playing against. We had never beaten them, never taken a point and barely scored. They had been one of the best teams in the league the last two seasons and came to Bromley as league leaders. They started the game on the front foot, as expected, but their defence was not prepared for the pace of Shiv and Bee up front for us. So much so, that within the first twenty minutes, both have breached the Durham defence and found the back of the net to give us a 2-0 lead. The game would see us put in one of our best defensive performances, constantly stifling and frustrating Durham’s efforts, while always worrying them with pace on the counter. However, on 81 minutes Durham found a breakthrough, and on the terraces the nerves certainly began to jangle in fear of another late goal. In fact, one did indeed come, but it was Mille Farrow who grabbed it in injury time, sealing a huge win for the team over a Durham side who had spent much of the game complaining and screaming for everything.
Roll on a week, and yet another bogey team came to town, in the form of South London rivals Charlton. While our record against them wasn’t as heavily littered with defeats as our record against Durham, it did match theirs in the fact we did not have any victories. Yet, buoyant from our Durham success, on the terraces, the belief was there that we would end this barren run too! That belief was also evident on the pitch, as we outplayed the visitors for 90 minutes. Millie Farrow gave us the lead after ten minutes, and Kirsty Barton found the net just before half time to send us in 2-0 up at the break for a second week running. We were looking comfortable, but yet Charlton found a route back into the game on 68 minutes to make it 2-1. The worry was that the goal would enable Charlton’s confidence to grow, only they were never given the chance. We got back on the front foot, and within five minutes, Millie Farrow was cutting round the keeper and slotting past four defenders on the line to make it 3-1, before running over to our corner for THAT celebration! There was still time for a late scare, as Charlton grabbed a 90th minute 2nd, but we deservedly picked up the win and 3 valuable points, while ending a second successive winless run against a Championship side.
With the confidence high, Reading came to town for the Conti Cup and took on a changed team that still held belief we could pull off an upset. The Royals took the lead on the 36th minute, but when Molly Sharpe pulled us level on 51 minutes, the belief of an upset was on the cards. Two goals in three minutes would eventually put pay to that, giving Reading the win, but even so, the players could hold their heads up high having competed well against a WSL team.
That result confirmed that we would not be advancing to the knockout stages, but there was no time to dwell on it, as a trip to Blackburn Rovers was ahead of us to round off the month. It was another good performance, started perfectly when Bee gave us the lead on 4 minutes. It would stay that way for a long time, until Sophie McLean made it 2-0 on 81 minutes. Blackburn would net one late on, but it proved to be nothing more than a consolation, as the points came back south.
For me, November was the biggest month in this season, it was the month in which this team truly came of age. It was the month where the benefits of a carefully constructed squad, having four training sessions a week in a top facility, with detailed coaching, were truly coming to fruition. We had beaten two top teams for the first time and taken a maximum 9 points from the 9 on offer, pushing us up the table.
The Christmas season was upon us, full of festive cheer, but for Palace, it was not a December to remember. A Covid outbreak would see our one and only league game against Lewes at home postponed, meaning we would play just twice, both games coming in the cups.
The first of those was an away trip in the FA Cup to face Bridgwater. Our hosts had been going strong in the National League Premier South, with success built on a mean defence that had so far not conceded a single goal in the FA Cup. In the heart of their defence was an ex-Palace player in the form of Amy Goddard. It was always going to be a tough game, and their tough defence proved too much for us to break down, while at the back, we gave away a soft goal to deservedly lose the game 1-0.
With our FA Cup adventure over at the first step, we had to pick ourselves up and play out our final Conti Cup group game at home to Bristol City, who had all but qualified from the group already. Palace would draw another blank, as the game would finish 0-0, but see City win on penalties, as we then went into the winter break.
On the pitch, December had not gone the way as hoped, with both Cup adventures ending at the earliest opportunity, but the break in football enabled us to look back on how the first half of the season had gone. At this point we had amassed 18 points, just 2 short of last seasons record total, and we were sitting in the top four of the league. In previous seasons, Hayes Lane had been anything but a fortress, having gone almost two years without a home win, until last season. Yet at this midway point of 21/22, we were unbeaten at home with 3 wins and 2 draws. On top of that, as we headed into the winter break, Palace were on a run of 6 games unbeaten, and 3 consecutive wins. At this point, the season was going far better than any of its predecessors.
While there wasn’t much action on the pitch in December, there was a huge story away from it. Hycolin, the company who had turned Coventry United full time in the summer, had suddenly applied to liquidate the club, doing so on the 23rd December. It meant that all the players and staff were left without a job just two days before Christmas, and the future of the club, and the impact it would have on the league, were all very much up in the air. A fund was started for the players and staff, which saw many of us fans from all reaches and clubs come together to donate in support of the red and greens. It also generated something that I had been trying to do for a while but had always been met with silence. It started the Women’s Fan’s Football Collective, a group of fans wanting to improve the women’s game. To begin with, it started out as just fans of most of the Championship clubs but has since grown to incorporate as many women’s clubs as possible. The group finally opened a forbidden door, as it were, and enabled the sharing of ideas and information.
It was the inspiration of others in this group that saw Phil and I create what is now the Crystal Palace Women’s Show, a weekly podcast on all things Palace Women, as well as women’s football. We would go live with our first show on December 29th.
With the new year upon us, all focus was on the plight of Coventry United. Their first match of the new year against Bristol City was postponed, as rumours swirled of a possible takeover to rescue the team. For Palace, 2022 was to start with back to back trips to the far reaches of the North, the first of those being at Eppleton, to take on Sunderland, who had started to find Championship life a little more difficult. It was a chance to start the year where we left off and push into the top three, but the weather had other ideas, and 40 minutes before kick-off, the game was called off, leaving the team to make the long journey back without a ball being kicked.
A week later, amid news that Coventry Untied were saved and would fulfil the fixture list, albeit with a ten point deduction, Palace made the long journey back up North, this time to Durham University just a few miles from Eppleton. It was a game that had not served us well in the past, and this time had the added element that Durham would be seeking revenge for their loss at Hayes Lane. When the hosts took the lead on 8 minutes, it would have been easy to feel that revenge was exactly what they would get, only Palace had other ideas. First, Molly Sharpe hit a long range thunderbolt into the bottom corner just 6 minutes later, and then on 31 minutes, Lizzie Waldie would pop up to give us the lead. This time though, it was our turn to have a short-lived lead, as Durham were level within 4 minutes, and could have gone ahead before half time but spurned the chance. Dean Davenport made two midfield changes at half time, and they turned the tide of the game. Palace came out second half and controlled the game, and on 61 minutes found a breakthrough as Shiv Wilson netted to make it 3-2. Durham tried but could not get a grip on the game at all, and Palace ran out worthy winners. It was a huge result that pushed us into the top three, and extended our unbeaten run to 7, and our winning streak to 4. It also meant that we had done the double over Durham, who have been one of the strongest teams in the league for several seasons. For me, this was the game that broke Durham, and would see them stumble and stutter to an eventual 5th placed finish. The result also moved us onto 21 points, a new record for the club at this level.
Riding high, the confidence was there as we made the return to Hayes Lane for the visit of dominant league leaders Liverpool. They rarely dropped points, rarely conceded a goal, yet the belief was that the way Palace were playing, we could pull off an upset and close the gap on their lead at the top. Any thoughts of a shock win, however, were quickly squashed. The reds, who had strengthened in January with the addition of Katie Stengel, put us under intense pressure from the very first minute, with the longest and most impressive throw in I have ever seen. We were hanging on, and after 15 minutes, despite a suspicion of offside, our defence was breached. Struggling to deal with the league leaders flowing play, we fell further behind and were 3-0 down by half time. The second half would see less action, but still anther goal as Liverpool scored for a 4th time, to seal a dominant 4-0 victory. The result brought us back down to earth, ending our unbeaten and winning runs, and reminding us of just how tough this league is.
The final weekend of January was FA Cup weekend, but our loss to Bridgwater had meant that we would not be taking part. The only Palace involvement as such, came from those of us fans who were part of the Fan’s Collective, as the group launched a campaign for equal prize money in the FA Cup, based on the slogan ‘No If’s, No Buts, We Want An Equal FA Cup’. The campaign would garner media attention, and in the coming months would lead to a positive step of change, as the FA agreed to raise the total prize money from next season.
For Palace, the free date on the calendar enabled the postponed game against Lewes from December, to be slotted in. Looking to get back on track after the Liverpool loss, things didn’t quite start as hoped. Lewes outplayed us for 45 minutes and went into the break 1-0 up, but it could and perhaps should have been more. Changes were made at half time and in the second half, Palace came out a completely different side. Our fast play put Lewes under all sorts of pressure, and eventually on 62 minutes, Bee made the breakthrough to pull us level. Then, 9 minutes later, Bee turned provider with a ball into the box that was connected with by a deft touch from Shiv Wilson, sending the ball into the bottom corner to put Palace 2-1 up. It looked as though it was going to finish that way, until the Lewes goalie caught the ball, and then decided to hit Coral Haines in the face! The action saw the keeper sent off, and Palace awarded a penalty, which Coral dispatched to win the game 3-1. Palace were back to winning ways, and ignoring the first 45 minutes, it was hoped that the Liverpool result was merely a blip against the league leaders.
This month had also seen the arrival of two new players in the transfer window. Wide player Issy Sibley had joined us from America on an 18 month deal, while 17 year old striker Alex Hennessy joined on loan from WSL side Arsenal.
While the month of Valentines love would see Cupid fire his arrow into the hearts of many, on the pitch there was no love for the Eagles to be found, in what would prove to be the hardest month of our season. It started with a trip to Bristol. City had settled down from their opening day defeat at Hayes Lane, had started to find form, and in Abi Harrison, had a lethal finisher up top. It was the windy day from hell, and a game that would see both teams struggle with possession. What Bristol did have though, was the lethal touch, while Palace never posed a threat. It didn’t help that City were 1-0 up within the first minute, scuppering all laid out plans. When they made it 2-0 after 15 minutes, Palace were in trouble. More goals were likely, and they came in the second half, as two strikes saw City come away as 4-0 winners in a game to forget for the red and blue. As City were moving up the table, looking to close in on Liverpool, we were starting to drop down it.
Another team looking to close in on Liverpool were inform London City, and they were next up for Palace at Hayes Lane. The away game had been a tight affair, as all ties between the two teams generally were, and it was expected this would be no different. Looking to put the Bristol performance behind us, Palace started brightly and were causing the Lionesses problems, yet it was the visitors who took the lead after 18 minutes, somewhat against the run of play. The goal seemed to knock Palace off our stride, and two quick goals on 22 and 24 minutes, suddenly saw us 3-0 down, despite how well we had started. Coming out for the second half 3-0 down, it was a tough challenge to come back, yet we again started on the front foot, only for the challenge to be made even harder on 51 minutes when Lionesses scored a 4th. This time, Palace found an immediate response, as a minute later Millie Farrow was put through to finish well and make it 4-1. The team kept on trying, working hard to reduce the gap, but at the back we were vulnerable, and on 61 minutes the Lionesses scored a fifth to kill the game. Our players never stopped going, but were condemned to a 3rd defeat in 4.
For a lot of this season, Palace had been playing in a 4-3-3, and our pacey wing play up front had caused so many problems for other teams. However, defensively we had only kept one clean sheet, and in recent weeks, our defensive frailties in this formation had been massively exposed, as teams were starting to learn how to deal with us. We had come into the new year with a positive goal difference for the first ever time at this level, but the heavy defeats to Liverpool, Bristol and Lionesses and had completely destroyed it, aiding in our slide down the table. Something needed to change, and we had two weeks to figure it out before we played our rearranged fixture away to Sunderland.
As we travelled up North to Eppleton to round off the month, changes were made. Some through illness/injury, some tactical. We switched to a 5-3-2 formation, playing a flat back three and wing backs, with two strikers(a rare sight in modern football, but a good one). It was clear the formation was designed to make us more defensively solid, and it certainly did just that. Although with Bee and Shiv on the bench, as well as Coral out with Covid, it meant we were missing that pace and creativity up front that had served us so well. The game was a tight affair, one that did not have many chances for either side. Chloe Morgan returned in goal for the first time since the opening day(in the league), and in a solid performance at the back, she would pick up her first league clean sheet of the season, and Palace’s second. At the other end, we lost Millie Farrow to injury, but a good pass and then great bit of forward play from Molly Sharpe saw her cooly slot home on the hour mark. It was the only goal of the game, as Palace ran out 1-0 winners. It was not the most exciting game, but yet a vital one for Palace. The three points, a rare clean sheet and a new formation that showed it could make us more solid, would be huge as we moved into the final three months of the season.
With spring on its way, we moved into March with renewed belief, and a new formation to build upon as we aimed to move back up the table. It started with the visit of relegation threatened Coventry United to Hayes Lane. They were battling to overturn the points deduction and catch Watford, and had started to grind out results, spearheaded by Katie Wilkinson. With points essential, I expected them to come on the front foot, yet they set up defensively against a Palace side almost unchanged, that welcomed Kirsty Barton and Coral Haines back to the bench after illness and saw Hennessy start in the absence of the injured Millie Farrow. While defensively Palace were solid and untroubled in the first half, offensively we were finding life difficult. I was clear we were trying to play the ball in behind the Coventry defence and the idea was working, but we lacked the end product. Two great chances went begging, and Coventry were able to go into half time all square. The most notable moment from the half had been a collision between Katie Wilcox of Coventry and Chloe Morgan of Palace. It would see both players leave the pitch by half time, and cause injuries that would end their seasons. In the second half, Palace started brightly, but the first bit of offensive play from Coventry saw them break through the back line and were stopped illegally by Grace Coombs, who rightly saw a red card for her actions. Despite being down to ten, Palace were the first to have a great scoring chance, but Alex Hennessy was unable to find the bottom corner. Coventry were providing very little going forward, until some poor positional defending enabled a cross from the wing, and left Katie Wilkinson free in the box to head home. Now in front, Coventry shut up shop and saw out the game against our ten to win 1-0. It was a frustrating game, one that led some fans to highlight how 22 of our 28 goals this season had been sitting on the bench as we drew a blank. For me, it was a case of bedding in a formation that had delivered the week previous, and we were undone by the red card. We needed to put it behind us.
Lewes away was our next game, as we tried to do just that. It was an even contest in the first half, with both teams playing well. Palace could have possibly had a penalty after a foul on Millie Farrow before half time, but nothing was given, and it was even at the break. The second half started in similar vain, although Lewes had upped their tempo, and they found the breakthrough on 49 minutes. As we tried to get back level, we fell further behind on 57 minutes. Our task then became impossible when Shiv received her marching orders. Already booked and clearly frustrated, Shiv had been warned about a foul, when 50 seconds later she committed another. It brought with it a second yellow card and ended any hopes of a result.
The final game of what had been a frustrating red card month, saw us travel the short distance to rivals Charlton. Like Coventry, their full time revolution had not been going quite as hoped, and while they weren’t embroiled in a relegation battle, they had never been in contention for promotion either, and went into this game sat in 6th. For us, what had promised and deserved to be a high table finish, was now threatening to fade out and see us finish 7th again, the very position we were in before kick-off. However, as had been the case with this fantastic group of players all season, they very much had other ideas. The first half of this game was played out in the middle of the pitch. Charlton were playing the possession game, we were more on the counterattack, but our quick high press was stifling them. There was little to separate the two teams by half time, well, except for one major thing, that being a sublime, top bins finish by Coral Haines from outside the box to give us a 1-0 lead. It was a lead that we would hold onto, despite heavy pressure and a slew of corners from Charlton in the last fifteen minutes. Emily Orman would pull off a fantastic save at the death to help earn the points, and her second clean sheet of the season(Palace’s 3rd in the league). We had finished the month with a huge win, that saw us do the double over Charlton for the very first time, and leapfrog them in the table n the process. It also generated a ground-breaking moment, as Coral Haines strike would beat out Jairo Riedewald and several youth players to win the overall Palace Goal of the Month, the first time one of the women’s players had won the award. The result also set us up with the chance of a grand finish to our season.
As the Easter Bunny delivered chocolate eggs up and down the country, the football fairy provided us with two games, both of them at home, both against fellow part time teams. It was our chance to have one final push and finish the season the way we deserved to.
First up was Blackburn Rovers. For Blackburn, it was a season they were likely to eagerly see end. They had found it difficult all year, and while they were safe from relegation, they were the team directly above the bottom scrap, and had the season continued, would have been more likely to drop into it then move further away from it. Yet, their safety, and inability to climb any higher, meant they had nothing to play for, and that can make teams dangerous. We were continuing with our 5-3-2 formation, although injury meant that Kirsty Barton was playing at RWB, as she had the previous week. Coral Haines was also starting to pull the strings as the creative pivot between midfield and attack. Blackburn though started the brighter and were having some success until their goalie misjudged the bounce of the ball in her box, and Molly Sharpe showed her strikers instinct to steal in and put us 1-0 up on 8 minutes. We then took control of the game and dominated for most of the half, but we didn’t add a second and that seemed to help Blackburn regain their confidence, coming back into the game by half time, although still losing. The second half started in a similar way, until substitutions changed us from the 5-3-2, to 4-3-3. We immediately became a much more attacking threat, causing Blackburn all sorts of problems, but at the same time, we became more vulnerable at the back. That vulnerability was exposed when Blackburn grabbed an equaliser on 69 minutes. Parity did not last long though, as great play saw Bee carve through the Rovers defence and set up Coral, who finished into the corner. Five minutes after being pegged back, Palace were ahead once again, and it would stay that way at the final whistle. We had now moved into 4th place and looking upwards once again.
The second game saw relegation threatened Watford come to town, for our final home game of the season. For the Golden Girls, they knew a win would see them safe and relegate Coventry, but any other result and a Coventry win would send it to a final day shootout at Vicarage Road. It would have been understandable if Watford were nervous, but a starting XI that boasted four ex-Palace players, showed no signs of that. What they did show however, was why they were down the bottom all season. They had the ball a fair amount, and were busy around the box, but had no final finish to them. For us, it was the chance to see Millie and Molly up front for the first time since February, and the two showed they could build a strong partnership together. While Watford lacked that killer instinct, in Molly Sharpe, we had it. A sublime ball down the left from Aimee Everett saw Molly get the ball out wide, before she then lobbed the keeper from distance, rattling the post before the ball went in on 19 minutes. Then on 39 minutes, it was the turn of Coral Haines to play Molly through, this time into the box, where she calmly chipped the oncoming keeper to bag her second and put us 2-0 up. It was 2-0 at half time but could have been more as Molly would have been wondering how she didn’t get her hattrick. The second half threatened more, but only the Gods can say how we never added to our tally. Molly had chances, while Bee and Millie both hit the post. While we didn’t get anymore goals, it looked as though we would get a clean sheet, only for a scrappy Watford goal on 81 minutes to deny Emily that outcome. It would finish 2-1, as Watford would go into their final day relegation battle. For us, this win and other results meant that Charlton and Sheffield United could no longer catch us. We sat in 4th, the lowest we could finish was 5th and the highest we could finish was an incredible 2nd, depending on results! What a turn around the last three games had been.
On an extra note, Phil and I were able to award Lizzie Waldie, Annabel Johnson and Bianca Baptiste with trophies in recognition of completing over 50 appearances for the club, a big achievement in the current set up of the women’s game.
Just one game remained, a trip to Sheffield United, another team we had never beaten, and an away tie that always ended in defeat previously. For us, we knew that a new highest finish was guaranteed, the question was, just how high would it be? The match was an entertaining, evenly matched open and flowing contest. So often these last day games can be played out in a drab ‘on the beach’ type performance, but not this one. The game was evenly poised, when a remarkable strike from United outside the box gave them the lead on 12 minutes. Palace did not waiver, instead we took the initiative and control of the game. We started to look the likely team to score, and it happened on 31 minutes when Charley Clifford hit an absolute screamer in the top bins to make it 1-1. After two blistering strikes, the third was less impressive. Just four minutes after our leveller, hesitation from Emily saw her not come for a cross to our far post, where the ball was met and headed home to restore United’s lead. That lead would last some way into the second half, until the 79h minute, when Sophie McLean reacted quickest to a rebound to fire home and make it 2-2, which was how the game had finished. Results elsewhere meant that we finished in 4th on 37 points, behind 3rd place Bristol City on goal difference.
There is no denying, it has been an absolutely incredible season for Dean Davenport and his Palace team. A carefully built squad, with more training, better techniques and facilities to aid them, had thrived in the Championship and shown they truly belonged for the very first time. In a league where the full-time teams now outnumbered the part time teams seven to five, it was a part time team in Palace that had spoiled the party all season long, both in victories earned over the likes of Charlton, Durham and others, as well our final position, where only three teams finished above us, all full time, and only two of those teams had achieved more points. 37 points is a new record total for us. A 4th placed finish is a new record high for us. A total of 35 goals scored is a new record high for us, while 39 goals conceded…well…I will come back to that. There have been times of individual brilliance, and throughout the season the standout performer has changed multiple times. Molly Sharpe finished overall top scorer for the club with seven, but we had four players all finish on five league goals, those four being Molly, Millie, Coral and Shiv. Hardly any other team could boast that many scorers of that amount. In Emily Orman, we have quite possibly set the new Championship record for youngest goalkeeper, as she was 18 when she debuted for us. We aren’t just talking a one-off appearance either, Emily was number one keeper for most of the season, making 20 appearances, 19 of which were starts.
This team has no quit in it, these players have never accepted that it is over until that final whistle blows. How many other teams would be 5-1 down in the 90th minute and still playing like it was only 1-0 and there was a point to be grabbed? This team does that. Time and time again they have come up against full time squads and not just held their own, but out played them…beaten them. This time last year, at least half the league consisted of teams we had never beaten, but this season we smashed down those walls too. Now, of the ten teams still in the league(after removing the promotion and relegation teams), only London City and Sheffield United can boast that we haven’t beaten them, and even then it is questionable for the Lionesses, because in our first season up when they were still Millwall, we beat them 3-1. This team, these players, the staff, everyone at this football club has been remarkable, and we are all so proud of them and what they have achieved.
So, what next? The aim of every season has been to progress and improve on the one before it. This season we have raised the bar so high, that next season it will be incredibly tough to go one better, but we know that everyone at the club will give it everything to do just that. There will be squad changes, that is inevitable, as it is every season. For a start, we already know that Hannah Churchill won’t be here next season, after her decision to retire. Emily Orman, Gracie Pearse and Alex Hennessy will all return to their parent clubs, leaving more gaps, although it is feasible that we could see at least two of them back here next year. It is important we try and keep the core of this team together, something we have managed generally in the last two seasons. It will be harder this summer though no doubt, as our performances will have certainly garnered some suitors for our key players, who will have the offer of full time. Only time will tell what changes will take place, but there is one aspect I do know will be key this summer, and that is our defensive recruitment. Defence has always been difficult for us ever since promotion. We leak goals, we don’t get many clean sheets. We conceded 39 goals this campaign, our second worst since promotion, beaten only by that first season when we let in 44. The quality of the league improves every year, the strikers are getting better, and we need our defence to do the same. As we discovered this season, highlighted perfectly in the second half of the home game versus Blackburn, we find it difficult getting the balance of a strong attack and solid defence. The 5-3-2 formation makes us more solid, but the 4-3-3 makes us more of a threat. We need to find that balance, and for me, a big part would be a strong, dominant, commanding centre back(or two if I can be greedy). Someone who will martial that back line, who will bully attackers, and will be first to clearing set pieces. Of course, such a thing is not easy to achieve, but it must be a priority for our recruitment drive.
So, as I wrap this up, firstly I thank any of you who has made it this far, as I know it has been a long read. If you have been a part of the journey this season, then I look forward to sharing it with you again next season. If you haven’t yet been to a game, then next season needs to be when you start, oh, and bring a friend or two, because this club deserve the support. With that said, I want to end this by saying THANK YOU to everyone involved at CPFCW. You have all given us a season to remember, a season of so many great highs, a season where we have been able to rejoice at the great football, the warrior performances and incredible team spirit. This ground-breaking season will live long in my memory, and you all made that possible. So, from me, from all of us Palace fans…
See you all next season! COYP!
*All Photos Courtesy Of Stephen Flynn Photography*