Portsmouth 0-1 Coventry City
Coventry City went top of the FAW Premier League for the first time this season – on the day that really mattered.
Having played catch-up for most of the campaign after bad weather and cup runs caused a fixture pile-up, today was the West Midlands side’s hour-and-a-half in the spotlight.
And in holding on to take the win that they needed to snatch the title from erstwhile leaders Gillingham, they ensured that, come four o’clock, they were basking in it.
Their win was tough on Portsmouth and even tougher on Gillingham, whose once-firm grip on the trophy had become more tentative after losing to their title rivals at home last week.
But all James Marrs and his players, some enjoying a post-season break in Spain, could do was sit and wait. And hope. It was out of their hands.
But they can rest assured that Pompey’s failure to score the single goal that would have handed the Kent club the championship was not for the want of trying.
After a tentative start, during which you would have thought they were the ones with the big prize at stake, so nervous did they appear, Pompey were rocked by the killer goal that ultimately decided the game – and the league.
But they hit back in impressive fashion, carving out chance after chance, but failing to apply the crucial finish as Coventry defended for their lives.
For Coventry, it was pretty much their season in one game: all the reasons that the progressive club are Premier League champions were encapsulated in 90-odd minutes in the South Coast sunshine on the University of Portsmouth’s artificial pitch.
There was the effervescent start that tends to come from a team in such impressive form – undefeated in the league since last October.
There was the momentum that has carried them so far as they steadily mounted the table to come within touching distance of the title.
There was the skill to create that ninth-minute chance and the opportunistic finish from defender Natasha Lynch, who toe-poked it past Sadie Blakely after by no means the first instance of panic in the new-look Pompey defence.
And then there was the piece de resistance – the resolute defending that kept Pompey at bay for the remaining 80 minutes.
Coventry’s success this season has been built on that solid defensive foundation: they’ve conceded only 14 league goals all season.
And they proceeded to demonstrate why as they tackled, intercepted, blocked and deflected everything the home side could throw at them.
Not that it was all one-way traffic. Lynch’s goal imbued in her team-mates yet more confidence, and for most of the next 10 or 15 minutes, they carried the chief threat, denying Pompey any time on the ball and defending from the front – in numbers.
But as Pompey – once again tentative starters – finally settled, the tide turned, and it was the turn of Coventry’s defence to endure long spells of pressure.
Lucy Quinn, who was one of the few Blues beacons of light in that torrid opening, delivered a fine free-kick from near the right-hand touchline on 19 minutes. The Midlanders could not get the ball away, and as it ran to Nadine Bazan, some 25 yards out, the full-back met it first time, and her controlled shot was heading just under the bar before Sue Wood tipped it over.
Under the cosh
That proved the catalyst for a period of sustained pressure from the home side, and as the midway point of the first half passed, Pompey forced a series of corners, most of which troubled the Coventry defence, but none of which came close to levelling the scores – until another defender, Kaylee Edwards, hit a fine low drive that was cleared off the line.
Coventry were under the cosh, but they have the personnel not only to withstand the pressure but to break with purpose, their clinical passing testament to the confidence their players exude.
And in Destiney Toussaint they had just the forward to provide the get-out that their hard-pressed midfield and defence required.
But mostly she had to stand and watch as her team-mates were forced deeper and deeper to quell the rising Pompey tide.
Quinn and Gemma Hillier combined well down the right, but the Portsmouth captain’s shot was blocked for a corner. The home side ratcheted up the pressure, but still – somehow – the Midlanders survived, usually at the expense of a corner.
Such was the extent of the pressure, Bazan was able to operate as an auxiliary winger.
But every now and again Coventry reminded Pompey of the dangers of chasing the game. In what had become a rare raid, Toussaint found herself with space inside the box, only to be denied by an inch-perfect, perfectly timed tackle from Zoe Saunders.
The teenager, playing only her second full game for Pompey, had an up and down day. While she made some crucial tackles and blocks, her distribution frequently played her team back into trouble as Coventry’s athletes proved their abilities to press in their opponents’ half as well as shield effectively in their own.
Coventry’s influential Helen Dermody was their key link between defence and attack, and she combined well, firstly with Hayley Ladd in the centre and then Toussaint down the left.
As half-time approached, Pompey lost a little momentum, with Quinn largely subdued by Nikki Miles after her ebullient start.
Still Pompey could have levelled before the break, though.
Hillier, who showed smart close control throughout the game, did well to trick her way down the left flank, but Quinn missed her kick as the captain sent the ball dangerously across the goal.
Then Liz O’Callaghan, who had received little change out of the Coventry centre-backs, hit a fine drive just inches over, and from the last action of the half, Quinn curled a decent effort into the side-netting.
Pompey – and Gillingham fans and officials following the game on Twitter or via the internet – were handed a boost at half-time as Toussaint failed to appear for the second half after suffering a knock.
Not that they could afford to relax – her replacement, Maz Gauntlett, had scored as a substitute against the Gills last weekend.
And she immediately left her calling card with an outstanding, perceptive through-ball with the outside of her right foot into the path of Dermody, but the alert Blakely just reached it ahead of her.
The goalkeeper then did well to hold a high cross under pressure before making a terrific save from Ashleigh Neville as the winger bore down on her after another superb through-ball from Gauntlett.
From the resulting corner, Blakely flapped at the ball and was fortunate that it ricocheted back to her. But her work in those previous few minutes probably earned her that slice of luck.
As in the first half, it took Pompey a while to get going again, but when they did, Hillier and Quinn – Pompey’s principle threat – combined well more than once without being able to apply the finishing touch.
They were enjoying the bulk of the possession, but Coventry were again looking dangerous on their occasional forays into the Portsmouth half.
On one such occasion another poor ball by Saunders presented Natalie Brace with a chance to run at the keeper, but her left-foot shot struck the base of Blakely’s right-hand post and rebounded to safety.
Then Becky Anderson took advantage of another careless defensive pass but fired narrowly wide with Blakely rooted to the spot.
The game was far more open now as Pompey fought the clock, as well as Coventry, to try to grab that all-important equaliser that would hand the championship to Gillingham.
A superb passing move involving Saunders, Sarah Kempson, and Hillier teed up Gemma Simmonds, but her shot curled disappointingly wide.
Then another brilliant turn by Hillier created a little space inside the Coventry box, but her left-foot shot sailed over.
With just over 10 minutes to go, Naomi Greene came on for O’Callaghan, but she made little more impression on the Coventry defenders than the player she replaced.
Edwards set up a couple of attacks with well-judged balls from defence to Quinn, but there were always tackles or blocks to halt the winger’s progress.
The final few minutes were a tense affair, Coventry, aware that they were so close to their prize, unsure whether to stick with their sometimes improvised, yet effective, defending, or go for a second that would kill off their opponents.
Gauntlett hit a snapshot just wide; then Pompey had an even bigger escape when Blakely rashly raced out of her area to try to head the ball clear of the on-rushing Neville, but she misjudged it and handled just outside the box.
Neville would have been through on goal, albeit slightly wide, but with two Pompey players racing back to cover, referee Jim Stokes chose to show the goalkeeper yellow rather than red.
Portsmouth thought they had won a penalty in the 90th minute when Hillier went down under a challenge, but the official was having nothing to do with her appeals, and his dismissive wave effectively bade farewell to Gillingham’s title chances.
Triumphant Coventry manager Craig Nicholls, drenched in a champagne cocktail by his jubilant players, paid tribute to his team’s hard work and resilience that saw them end the season unbeaten in their last 15 league games.
He told Sent Her Forward that the turning point came back on October 6 when his new side crashed 4-0 at home to Gillingham.
“Since then we have stepped up and looked at it and said we don’t want to feel like that again. Over the last two months we have been fantastic, winning not just by playing good football but by grafting and working hard.”
He paid particular tribute to his defence, who conceded an average of less than a goal a game, and just six in 10 away fixtures in which they remained unbeaten.
“If you work hard and don’t give away things cheaply, that confidence comes through,” he said. “We have been really consistent, and if you look at the league table, OK, we don’t score as many goals as some of the others, but we make it difficult for teams to beat us.”
Pompey’s joint-managers, Perry Northeast and Katie Poore, seemed shellshocked after watching their charges throw the kitchen sink at Coventry but still emerge the losers.
“It wasn’t for the lack of trying,” said Poore. “[Coventry] have defended for their lives. The girls are very disappointed not to have scored.”
Northeast, too, paid tribute to that Coventry defence. “They haven’t conceded many goals and today showed why,” he said. “We deserved something out of the game, but if they have defended like that every game, you can say (the league title) was deserved.”
So as I commiserate with Portsmouth, who finished a creditable fourth, and Gillingham in what has been an outstanding season for James Marrs’ side, let’s take a final look at that league table which, of course, never lies.
Congratulations Coventry City, Premier League champions.
Sent Her Forward player of the match: Kaylee Edwards (Portsmouth)
All the defence made mistakes under the immense pressure Coventry applied, but Edwards emerged with credit, and her thoughtful passing turned many a defensive situation into attack.