Today was an important day for Crystal Palace Women FC for two reasons. The first of those reasons equated to our league form. After a positive start to the season, recent weeks had seen us lose three games in a row. A 4-1 loss at home to Leicester City was sandwiched between away defeats against Durham(2-0) and Sheffield United(3-0). These results had seen us drop down the table, as those around us had started to pick up points. With the visit of Coventry United, it was very much a game that both teams would have looked at as a possible point getter, and for Dean Davenport and the ladies, it would have been seen as our chance to move back up the table. It would have also been seen as a chance to put an end to a very much unwanted run, which is the second reason why it was an important day. As covered in my recent interview with the gaffer, our last win at Hayes Lane had been back in January 2019, when we beat Millwall 3-1. Failure to win today would leave us with just two more opportunities (London Bees in the Conti Cup and Charlton in the league) to avoid the unbeaten run reaching the 2-year mark.
So, knowing what was at stake, it was all about getting it done out on the pitch. Now, in a non-covid world, I would have been watching this game from the terrace with my fellow Loyal members, cheering and singing in support of the team. Sadly, that was not possible and so instead I was watching it on a YouTube stream on my phone, hosted by Coventry United. So, if this review is not the best, I apologise now! I would also like to take this opportunity to thank Coventry for providing the stream and provide some praise for Liam who hosted it. I thought that given the limited resources he would have likely had, he presented decent coverage, and I really enjoyed his commentary, bar one or two slightly one sided comments(which we would all be guilty of). So, thanks to Liam, and everyone else who puts in the work to provide as much support and coverage for the women’s game as possible.
Now, due to studying for a promotional exam I am set to fail on Tuesday(I can’t stand revising), I actually missed the opening 4 minutes of the game, including our first goal. When it popped up on the loyal chat, it was reported as a goal by the returning Amber Stobbs, but Liam on his commentary repeatedly told me that it was in fact an own goal but Coventry’s Marie Gauntlett. I have seen it post-match, and it was coral Haines free kick that caused chaos in the box and was bundled home. I had also missed the initial line up, but from what I could see on the pitch, we had Chloe Morgan in goal, a back line of Ffion Morgan, Annabel Johnson(c), Aoife Hurley and Lizzie Waldie. The midfield comprised of Leeta Rutherford, Hannah Churchill and Coral Haines, while up front we had the in-form Bianca Baptiste and returning Amber Stobbs playing either side of Cherelle Khassal. The first half was pretty much all Palace. From the moment I had started watching, the majority of the play was Palace pushing forward, with Cherelle, Bianca and Amber causing the Coventry backline all sorts of problems.
Coventry were giving away a lot of fouls, partially because of the problems we were causing when pushing forward. Throughout the half we had several opportunities to get the ball into the box via a set piece, but sadly they either went over the bar or safely to the keeper. While our set piece game may not have been thriving however, we very much were in open play. Conceding goals has been an issue this season, but today our play was incredibly energetic and positive, from the front line all the way back. We were closing down the Coventry players quickly, forcing errors, getting in tackles and being first to the loose balls. After about twenty minutes or so, Coventry were starting to settle on the ball, but we were quick into the tackle, and instead of holding on for too long, we were getting the ball clear swiftly. On several occasions, Cherelle would make sure she was first to the clearance, and turn defence to attack, running at the Coventry defenders from the halfway line and pushing them back to their box. This play was vital, because not only was Cherelle alleviating the pressure from our defence by preventing the ball from quickly coming back at them, but she was also making it hard for Coventry to press forward. Our constant positivity made it hard for Coventry to find any rhythm.
About half an hour in, it looked as though Bianca had put us 2-0 up when she ran onto a knock on and pulled off an audacious lob to beat the keeper and ripple the net, only for the offside flag to rule it out. It didn’t take long though for Bianca to put that right. With Coventry seeing more of the ball but so far doing little with it, down the other end the red-hot Bianca timed her run perfectly to get onto the end of a flick on by the edge of the box. Then with the Coventry keeper approaching, Bianca slotted it past her with calm accuracy to double our lead. It was the finish of a player in lethal form, and took Bianca’s goal tally to eight(4 league, 4 Conti Cup). The timing was perfect, because it stopped Coventry in their tracks when they were trying to build up some steam and gave us the cushion we were craving. That deficit though would be halved against the run of play seven minutes later. Coventry won a freekick midway inside our half and proceeded to put in a very good ball to the back post. Georgia Popple rose highest among the melee of players to nod the ball home, making it 2-1 with six minutes to play until half time.
It would have been easy for our players to buckle for the last 6 minutes. Having been in such control, only to concede out of nothing, and with our home record, you do sometimes see teams suffer psychologically for a short while. That was very much not the case with our players today. Right from the kickoff, we got back to how we had been playing with the high press, the quick energetic closing down and positive forward play. Those six minutes would not pass without incident either. With a minute or two left, Cherelle once again went on the charge towards the Coventry box, when a poorly timed tackle from Popple took her out from behind. Cherelle in a moment of red mist then got up and shoved Popple over. While Liam (and quite possibly the Coventry manager) were calling for a red card for Cherelle, the referee took a more sensible approach and simply booked both players. For me, it was the right decision. While Liam was stating that Cherelle’s actions were ‘violent conduct’, for me they were the reactions of a player who had been on the receiving end of several kicks throughout the half, and then a from behind tackle that could have easily caused a serious injury(unintentionally by Popple). The ref judged both the foul and the reaction in the context that they were and got it right.
So that was half time, and a well deserved lead for Palace, a lead that deserved to be bigger than the 2-1 score line. I took a pause from football for some more revision, while Liam set off for a well-earned pie!
The second half saw Coventry come out with more purpose and intent. They would have been buoyed by getting the first half goal against the run of play, and the way they started the second half to me showed that they sensed they could get something from the game. This was highlighted by the fact they created an opportunity within a few minutes, only for it to end in a tame shot directly at Chloe Morgan who saved comfortably. For a spell, the game became back and forth. Our front three continued to tease and torment, with Coral Haines backing them up, while down the other end, Coventry were showing some nice interplay that was starting to find a few gaps in our defence. One moment that really highlighted the energy and way we were playing, was when we had a succession of corners. The last of them was cleared towards the halfway line, with a Coventry player charging towards the ball. Had she got it, the likelihood was that she would have a clear run through our half, and a one on one with Chloe. It didn’t happen, because Ffion Morgan swept across at speed. Not only did she reach the ball first, but she then beat the attacker and two other players as she charged down the wing and into the box, only for Coventry to get in a tackle. This though was how we had been approaching the whole game, with such high energy and always on a positive front foot.
As we breached the hour mark, this for me is where the next key stage of the game took place. Two things were starting to happen that could change the game. Coventry had started to really nail their offside trap, which was cutting off our attacks. On top of that, in our front three, Amber Stobbs who is recently back from a long injury, looked as though she was understandably tiring and Cherelle had the yellow card hanging over her. This could have spelt trouble, because until now, the high intensity and positive pressing from our frontline had been key to our game. The gaffer though was on top of it, and after 68 minutes, Amber Stobbs was replaced by Kate Natkiel, who had also made her return from injury on Thursday night. Minutes later, a ball into the Coventry box was only half cleared and fell to Natkiel who was just outside the box. She hit a perfect volley that lofted the ball over the keeper and nestled in the back of the net to make it 3-1! The substitution had come at the right time, and so had the goal, as it knocked the wind out of Coventry’s sails.
From there, Dean Davenport continued to use his subs to perfection. Cherelle was replaced by Siobhan Wilson, which meant two of our front three were fresh and full of energy, which in turn enabled us to keep pressure on Coventry high up the pitch. Meanwhile, in midfield Andria Georgiou came on for Hannah Churchill and provided not just fresh legs, but a new spark and touch of quality that also kept pushing us forward, when the Coventry midfield was tiring and struggling to get a grip on the game. During this spell, Natkiel would go close again, this time seeing a lob go just wide of the post. The final change of Amber Gaylor coming on for Coral Haines was another step in keeping our high energy and tempo. It was summed up by the fact that in injury time, Gaylor chased down a loose ball and stole ahead of the Coventry defender, only to eventually be blocked. But Siobhan seized on the ball and twisted and turned defenders until it was scrambled clear. When the full-time whistle was finally blown, it was music to our ears. Not because we were hanging on(as we weren’t), but because we had the home win that we all so desperately wanted.
For me, Palace were the better team from start to finish and thoroughly deserved the three points. The gaffer set us up perfectly with the right approach, and the players executed it to perfection. We never let them settle, never let them have a dominant spell and never let them rest at the back. In the first half, while everyone played well and Bianca scored with a beautiful finish, for me I felt that the performance of Cherelle was key, as she constantly relieved the pressure from our backline and pushed us forward. It’s the kind of hard-working performance that we would often praise Jordan Ayew for in the men’s game. In the second half, I think it was the gaffer and his choice and timing of substitutions was key, as it enabled to continue the successful formula for the whole 90 minutes. Coventry did play better second half, but while they improved their numbers on the shot count, none of them ever looked like threatening Chloe in our goal.
Our last win at Hayes Lane was in an excellent and dominating performance against Millwall which finished 3-1. Our next win may have been 22 months in coming, but it was another 3-1 win in another excellent and dominating performance. If we could win our next two home games, then we could climb further up the table, and perhaps even book our place in the knockout stage of the Conti Cup! It’s time to start a new streak, an undefeated one! For now though, the women should just enjoy the result today and be proud of their performance, just as we are proud of them!
Player Of The Match: Cherelle Khassal
Teams: Crystal Palace –
Chloe Morgan, Ffion Morgan, Annabel Johnson(c), Aoife Hurley, Lizzie Waldie, Hannah Churchill(Andria Georgiou), Leeta Rutherford, Coral Haines(Amber Gaylor), Amber Stobbs(Kate Natkiel), Cherelle Khassal(Siobhan Wilson), Bianca Baptiste
Subs Not Used –
Emma Gibbon, Amy Godard, Georgia Clifford
Coventry United –
Liv Clarke, Chelsea Weston, Georgia Popple(Hayley Crackle), Anna Wilcox, Nikki Miles, Marie Gauntlett(Alice Hassall), Amber Hughes(Anna Colville), Katy Morris(Pheobe Warner), Bethan Merrick, Helen Dermody(c), Shannon O’Brien
Subs Not Used –
Amy Wathan, Becky Anderson, Jenna Roberts, Jodie Whiteman
*All Photos Credited to Tara Hook Photography*