Focus on the weekend’s big FAW Cup fourth-round tie: Portsmouth v Millwall Lionesses
Super League opposition again stand between Portsmouth and the further reaches of the FAW Cup – and Perry Northeast and co have found nothing to suggest they cannot enjoy another enthralling cup adventure.
A year ago Pompey were midway through a record-breaking run in the competition – a journey finally halted by Notts County – then top of FAWSL1 – in the sixth round.
In round five they had encountered Super League opponents for the first time in their history – and duly disposed of Durham 2-1.
But as the only non-WSL side to reach the quarter-finals, they made their mark and forced a rethink on the perceived gulf between the two pyramids of women’s football.
Their cup exploits eventually caught up with them and Portsmouth faded in the league, finishing fourth when at one stage the title had looked within their grasp.
There is a certain similarity with the current campaign – but as they prepare to welcome Millwall, twice winners of the FAW Cup, to Cams Alders, manager Northeast says there are one or two key differences.
Portsmouth’s record 2014/15
* Sunday’s 0-2 defeat at home to Sheffield in the FAW Premier League Cup semi-final was the first of their 22 games this season in which they had failed to score.
Older and wiser
For one thing, Pompey’s form is actually better than it was last season – their defeat to Sheffield on Sunday in the semi-finals of the FAW Premier League Cup was their first in any competition since the opening day of the season – a run of 20 matches.
For another, their injury nightmare that had such an impact on the second half of last season appears to have eased – and while there are still a couple of long-term casualties, the club have been delighted to welcome striker Gemma Hillier back from a knee injury that forced her to miss the middle third of this campaign after a scintillating start.
More importantly, according to Northeast, is that the players are a year older and wiser for their experiences last season. And he believes they are ready for almost anything.
“We had a testing year last year and we were put in a few pressurised situations,” he told Sent Her Forward. “Players know how better to deal with it now. I as a manager perhaps know a little bit more and the coaching staff know a little bit more about how to deal with it.”
Northeast said he believed his players were ready for their latest Super League test. “It’s a game that you can’t not look forward to,” he said. “It’s the sort of game that the players want every week.
“But we’re not looking forward to it because we think it’s a giant-killing. We’re not playing Millwall thinking we’re the underdogs. We’re looking forward to it because that’s who the girls want to be playing every week.”
He played down thoughts that Pompey’s 3-1 pre-season victory over Millwall might give them an advantage. “That was a very different Millwall side to what they are going to be having out now,” he said.
“It might give the girls confidence, knowing that they have beaten them. But I know it will be a very different team. They’ve got a new coaching structure in place with a good young manager in there who will be looking to impress in his first, or second, competitive game.”
Among the few bonuses of Portsmouth’s injury crisis last season, which still sees the likes of Lauren Murphy and Fi McMillan out of action, is the necessary fast-tracking of some of the youngsters who began last season as fringe players or even in the reserves.
Having covered for all those injury casualties in what was a demanding end to the season, many are now established in the first-team squad, effectively expanding considerably the pool of players with big-game experience at Northeast’s disposal.
And then there’s Leeta Rutherford.
Portsmouth goalscorers 2014/15
|League||League Cup||Hampshire Cup||FAW Cup||Total|
* Ini Umotong scored in 12 successive games, between Oct 8 and Feb 15, during which she scored 21 goals (five in the league, 16 in cup competitions) – including four hat-tricks.
The Pompey girl who just can’t seem to stay away had not long joined this weekend’s opponents this time last year and went on to enjoy a successful first season in the Super League.
However, the 27-year-old is back with Portsmouth now, having cut short her time with Millwall because of family commitments.
And she has proved a revelation since returning, establishing herself in the new role of centre-back in a defence that has conceded only 22 goals in 22 matches this season – and just 10 in Portsmouth’s 12 league matches.
The team have benefited not only from her return but also from her improved game, honed by a season at a higher level in a Millwall team that endured a tough time, eventually finishing eighth in the 10-club league.
And Rutherford herself believes that while she returned to Hampshire a better player than when she left, the club she came back to had also moved on significantly.
She told Sent Her Forward: “I was only away eight months, but not only the team but the whole set-up at Portsmouth had really progressed, even just down to the training and fitness side of things. And it’s helped us massively.”
She said there was a new togetherness among the players, and she added: “I honestly think that 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.”
Having played for both clubs in the last six months, Rutherford is well placed to assess the clubs’ respective chances on Sunday.
And she declared: “I think [Millwall] will be fearing us more than we will be fearing them.”
FAW Cup records
|Best||6th Round (lost to Notts County 1-2) 2013/14||Winners 1991, 1997|
|2nd Round||Gillingham (a) 5-0 (Umotong 3, Wilson, Kempson)||–|
|3rd Round||Blackburn Rovers (a) 5-4 (Umotong 3, Wilson, Clark)||Lowestoft Town (h) 3-0 (Billson, Babajide, Albert)|
|Ini Umotong 6 (2 games)||Lillie Billson 1 (1 game)|
|Charley Wilson 2 (2 games)||Rinsola Babajide 1 (1 game)|
|Sarah Kempson 1 (2 games)||Cherelle Albert 1 (1 game)|
|Molly Clark 1 (2 games)|
Friends and rivals
In the opposition ranks, of course, will be a number of Rutherford’s former team-mates, although there have been a lot of changes at the club over the winter since Dan Mlinar was appointed manager.
The former assistant has signed – or promoted – a number of new players, including exciting 16-year-old Rinsola Babajide, a member of the club’s academy, who only a few months ago was playing – and scoring – for Crystal Palace’s reserves against Chichester City’s Development side.
More familiar to Rutherford will be Naomi Cole, who joined Millwall at the same time as her and, like the Pompey player, has switched to centre-back from a different role.
Cole, who played Premier League football for Lewes, and Rutherford are good friends and have been exchanging banter ever since the fourth-round draw pitted them together.
Cole, the team’s penalty taker and joint-top scorer last season with four goals, told Sent Her Forward: “I’m really good friends with Leeta. We have a really good relationship and we talk all the time, so I know a lot about Portsmouth.”
But her knowledge of Sunday’s opponents is not restricted to what her former team-mate tells her. Millwall played Pompey at the end of their first Super League season, in what was a pre-season friendly for Portsmouth.
And the 22-year-old from Sussex also takes in Premier League games when she has the opportunity.
She said: “Watching them play and playing against them, they’re a great side. They’re physically fit; they’re physically strong; they pass the ball about; they’ve got the right style of football. So yes, why wouldn’t they be good enough to come into WSL2?”
But more than that, Cole, an England under-23 international, who has previously played for Arsenal and Chelsea, believes the principal driver behind their astonishing form this season is their team ethic.
‘Played us off the park’
She said: “If they’re all gelling together and on the same tactical path, they all understand each other and understand what the manager wants from them, they’re going to buy into it.
“That, in essence, is better than having a team of 11 quality players who don’t know how to play with each other, because you’re not going to get the results.”
But while Cole has seen enough of Pompey to know they will be a real threat on Sunday, she believes the new Millwall, being moulded and formed by new manager Mlinar, will provide the Hampshire side with plenty to worry about – and will not make the mistake of under-estimating them.
“We’ve got to take the right mentality into that game and not think, ‘Yeah, they’re a league below us. We can take this game lightly’.
“We know Portsmouth well enough to not under-estimate them. We’ve played them before and they played us off the park. I think it’s going to be a great game for both sides.”
Cole believes the coming season will signal an upturn in Millwall’s fortunes after their difficult first season in WSL2. And she believes the young side – at 22, she is the fourth-oldest in the first-team squad – have some stars in the making among their ranks.
“[Winger] Megan Goss has come from another WSL2 side, London Bees. She’s going to flourish with us this season. I think she’s a great player.
“We’ve signed Rinsola [Babajide] from Crystal Palace, who’s a young prospect who hasn’t played at the top level. So for her, this is a massive step up, but she’s been great so far, especially for her age. But she’s come in and she’s proved something to us.
“The important thing for us is to keep players like her grounded.”
Cole also pointed to three other team-mates who she believes will have a big impact on the coming WSL2 season.
“Our left-back, Frankie Strugnell, had a phenomenal season last season. She stepped in at left-back when she wasn’t even on the bench for the development squad. She came into the first team… and she absolutely wiped the floor with her performance. She cleaned up everything and proved the point that she’s good enough to play in that position.
“And Ciara Sherwood, one of our central midfielders, has come back a different player. She’s got great quality on the ball.
“And there’s Grace Fisk, as well, an England under-17 player who [is still eligible to] play centre-of-excellence football, who stepped into the first team against Arsenal the other week, and she wasn’t fazed by the fact that she had [England internationals] Lianne Sanderson and Jordan Nobbs marking her.”
Cole’s new manager says he is looking forward to the encounter and believes that how his defence copes with Portsmouth’s free-scoring strikers could be key to the outcome.
Mlinar told his club’s website: “Ini Umotong and Charley Wilson alone have scored 33 goals between them, so they are a real threat. One of our main focuses throughout pre-season has been on defending as a team, so Sunday’s game will be another chance to see how far we’ve progressed in that department.”
He added: “They are genuine contenders for promotion from the Premier League to the WSL at the end of this season, so this could be a league fixture for us next year.”
Some of the interview with Leeta Rutherford appeared on Sent Her Forward previously on February 2.