Portsmouth’s reward for an amazing 5-4 FAW Cup victory over Blackburn Rovers is a home tie – and the prospect of another memorable encounter with a Super League club in the fourth round.
Pompey beat WSL2 side Durham at the same stage of last season’s competition before bowing out to Notts County – then leaders of WSL1 – in the quarter-finals.
And this season’s draw has pitted them against Millwall, providing the London club can overcome Lowestoft Town in their rearranged third-round tie.
It’s a great opportunity for Perry Northeast and his squad to test their Super League credentials, with Pompey very much in contention for the Premier League Southern title, which would bring a play-off against the Northern division winners for the chance of promotion to the promised land.
But it’s also a chance for Pompey defender Leeta Rutherford to renew acquaintances with former team-mates, with whom she spent a Super League season before returning to the South Coast.
Rutherford was a regular in Millwall’s midfield during the inaugural season of WSL2 last year but returned to her home-city club because of family commitments.
She is relishing the prospect of facing her old club if they overcome Lowestoft, current high-flyers in the Eastern Regional Premier Division.
As a team, we would hold our own in the Super League. I’m really confident of that – Leeta Rutherford
Rutherford told Sent Her Forward: “I’m looking forward to it. When I left Millwall, there were no hard feelings. It was just something I had to do, with the travelling, and with my daughter. It wasn’t something I could fully commit to.”
The 27-year-old remains firm friends with many of the Millwall players, including their captain, former Lewes player Naomi Cole, who joined the Lionesses at the same time as her.
Rutherford said: “I’ve had a couple of text messages, saying we’ll be seeing you again shortly – a little bit of a joke and banter. I still keep in touch with a couple of the girls from Millwall, so that’s quite nice.
“Nay’s one of my good friends outside of football, as well, so that’s going to be interesting. A couple of the girls are.”
Having rejoined Pompey at the start of this season, Rutherford is well equipped to assess the team’s chances against Millwall – and her judgment is about as positive as it could be.
“If Millwall get through, I think they will be fearing us more than we will be fearing them,” she declared.
With Pompey on an unbeaten run of 18 games in all competitions since their opening-day defeat to Cardiff City, confidence is high.
“It might sound big-headed, but at the moment, if we were to play a top team, we would be confident of holding our own against even the likes of Chelsea,” she said. “We’re really thriving at the moment. Everybody’s buzzing.”
Rutherford herself is enjoying life in central defence after being asked by Northeast whether she would be prepared to play there.
She said: “I wouldn’t look back now. I love it. Being at the back, I can see a lot more, and where I’ve played in the middle, I can help out the midfield a lot more with their positioning.”
Rutherford says the Pompey she returned to little more than nine months after leaving was totally transformed. “Not just the team, but the whole set-up at Portsmouth had progressed. Even down to the training and fitness side of things, it has progressed, and it’s helped us massively.
“As a team we’re together more now. Everybody has gelled and we’re all on the same wavelength. Myself and the girls have so much faith in the management’s decisions.”
And having tasted life among the élite, Rutherford declared: “I honestly think, if you were to put us in the Super League now, we would be more than capable of holding our own in Super League 2.
“As a club, you need the set-up to be able to cope in the Super League, as well, and we’ve got the whole set-up – bar our own playing pitch. That is the only thing letting us down at the moment, but as a team, we would hold our own in the Super League. I’m really confident of that.”
And that is something her manager hopes the club will get the chance to prove.
Perry Northeast has always talked positively of his side’s capabilities, but when he spoke to me today, after the club’s “crazy” 5-4 cup victory at Blackburn, there was a steely certainty in his voice, an absolute conviction that the present Pompey side can make that big step up.
He said: “The girls are really mentally tough at the moment. That was a problem that we needed to, perhaps, eradicate from last year, where we’d lose games by the odd goal or we’d draw a game which we felt perhaps we could have won.
“But I’m telling you, at the moment they are mentally quite tough, and they proved it yesterday because they had to stay strong and believe in themselves – they were put under a bit of pressure. I like that. All 14 players yesterday were really mentally strong.”
Ini Umotong, another early-season signing, scored another hat-trick, taking her total since joining to 17 in 12 appearances – five as substitute. Charley Wilson and Molly Clark also got on the scoresheet as Pompey survived late Blackburn pressure after leading 1-0, 2-0, 4-2 and 5-3.
Northeast said: “They really are a pack of wolves at the moment. We can argue with each other, no problem. But anyone external, anyone from another club, if they pick on a player, they are picking on 20 players.”
He is delighted that the club have another chance to test their progress against another Super League club – one who finished the season below the Durham side that Pompey knocked out in last season’s fourth round.
“I don’t know who you’d call the underdogs in it,” he said of the prospect of playing Milllwall. “The players know each other. I know a couple of the Millwall players as well. It’s going to be a great tie.
“Millwall are the ones that have got everything to lose because in theoretical terms, we would be regarded as the underdogs.”
Played eight, won eight
But of course, it’s no foregone conclusion that it’s Millwall that Pompey will be hosting on March 8. The Lionesses, who have just embarked upon their pre-season preparation, still have to overcome Lowestoft Town after their tie was postponed.
Northeast told Sent Her Forward: “I’ve kept a bit of an eye on Lowestoft even before that tie came out. They’re played-eight-won-eight in their own league.
“Regardless of if you’re Super League 1 or Hampshire League Division Six, if you’ve played eight, won eight at any level of the game, you’ve got strikers in that team who are confident that if they’re given a chance, they think they’ll score.
“[If] you’ve got a ‘keeper at the other end who’s played eight, won eight, they’ll be thinking, you know what, throw anything at me and I’ll save it. So we talk about Millwall, but Lowestoft… you don’t know.”
His caution is echoed by Darren Gilham, who follows women’s football closely in East Anglia. He told Sent Her Forward: “They do have a chance. [They’re] undefeated this season, going strong in three cups. It’s a tough test but one they will relish.”
Whichever side earns the right to face Portsmouth, they will encounter a team galvanised by the incentive of Super League football.
Northeast believes the competitiveness of the Premier League has been transformed by the FA’s decision to allow promotion from the Premier League both this season and next.
“Teams are either going to get tougher or they are going to fall,” he said. “When you can win a league and not get promoted, everything remained a bit ‘nice’. If we didn’t win the league, we could go again next year, whereas now there are [Super League] places at stake, and you really get to see which teams fancy it.
“I’ve got players who have been at the club since they were nine or 10 years old, who were denied a Super League opportunity a few years ago (when they and others were overlooked in favour of teams below them in the league pyramid).
“They want to get up there the right way and earn a place, and I think that’s what it is. There’s a desire there.”
Pompey’s fourth-round tie is scheduled for March 8 at a venue to be decided.