Hampshire Women’s Challenge Cup final: Portsmouth v Southampton Saints, Privett Park, Gosport, April 8 (7.45pm)
The fiercest football rivalry in Hampshire gets a chance for a rare resurrection this week when Portsmouth play Southampton Saints in the Hampshire County Cup final.
But whereas the men’s fixtures sometimes bring out the worst in the clubs’ fans, Wednesday offers the opportunity for the women’s sides to showcase all that is good about the female game in the county.
Not that spectators should expect anything less than feisty competition between two sets of players determined to secure the most prestigious trophy in Hampshire women’s football.
And neither should anyone expect a one-sided final.
For the second season in a row, Portsmouth, third in the Premier League and trying their best not to think of the Super League place that could await its champions, face opposition from the next tier down.
But after dismissing the University of Portsmouth comfortably in last season’s final, manager Perry Northeast will surely be warning his players of a much harder challenge this time round.
Saints, their Hampshire neighbours with a more illustrious past, had an excellent second half to their campaign, finishing fourth in the FAW Premier League Division One South West and winning four of their final five league games.
Unfortunately for them, their last victory – a 6-4 thriller at Cheltenham Town – came in mid-February, nearly six weeks ago.
Feb 22 – The last time Southampton Saints played a league match
Feb 15 – The last time – before yesterday – top scorer Ini Umotong had scored for Portsmouth
The curiosities of women’s football administration, the hierachy of cup competitions and the vagaries of the weather meant Southampton ended their league campaign when Portsmouth were little more than halfway through theirs.
And while their players are bound to be a bit ring-rusty, they have to hope that Pompey’s success in league and cups again this season will backfire on them and become the distraction they could do without.
However, that’s what it’s likely to be – a hope rather than an expectation. Pompey are so well drilled and respectful of the competition that if they do succumb to a shock defeat on Wednesday it will not be because Northeast has piled his team full of reserves or that his players did not take it seriously.
In fact, after yesterday’s defeat in the league at the hands of Charlton Athletic, Pompey’s players will surely be more determined than ever to put that setback behind them.
Road to the final
|Round 1||AFC Boscombe (a) 13-0||University of Portsmouth (h) W/O|
|Round 2||Shanklin (h) 6-0||Fleet Town (h) 3-0|
|Semi-final||Poole Town (h) 7-0||Andover New Street (a) 9-0|
Twelve months ago Portsmouth won the county cup for a sixth successive season. This time they have the chance to equal their opponents’ record of seven in a row.
A year ago they faced the team bottom of the old South West Combination – Division One South West’s predecessor – and won comfortably.
This year they play a side who were in such fine form until they ran out of fixtures. Southampton’s 6-4 win in their final game put them top – briefly – of the league. But even now, as other teams have caught up, Adam Lee’s Saints will still enjoy a top-half finish.
One of the reasons for that is his astute acquisition of former Portsmouth player Jemma Tewkesbury, from Super League Yeovil Town, in the final weeks of their season.
— Yeovil Town Ladies (@YeovilLadiesFC) February 6, 2015
The striker scored six goals in two-and-a-bit league and cup games. Who knows what their season would have been like had she signed earlier?
She will certainly be one of those that Northeast and his assistant, Katie Poore, will be drawing to his players’ attention – as if they need to.
But Saints’ successful season was created long before Tewkesbury’s arrival, with top scorer Krystal Whyte knocking in 18 goals in 20 games so far, and Catherine Browning eight.
Behind them has been highly regarded goalkeeper Hannah Haughton, who has managed seven clean sheets and two penalty saves.
Full of goals
She is likely to be a busy woman on Wednesday night, with Pompey full of goals in all areas of the field.
They’ve rattled in 26 in three county cup matches alone, Lucy Quinn and Ini Umotong each netting five. They can boast a full 11 of players who have scored in the competition this season.
And in all competitions, they have five players who have reached double figures: Umotong (23), Charley Wilson (14), Sarah Kempson and Quinn (both 13) and Gemma Hillier (12).
But their game is not just about scoring goals. Before yesterday’s 6-3 defeat, they had conceded just 13 league goals this season – the fewest in the Premier League. Even after that hammering, only leaders Brighton have conceded fewer.
And in the Hampshire Cup, their 26 goals in three games have come without reply.
Goalkeeper Sadie Blakely has earned praise for her performances this season, and on the arrival of goalkeeping rival Michelle Beazley last week, was described by Northeast as “one of the best in the country”.
And Leeta Rutherford’s switch to the defence has shored up a back line that last season featured so many players out of position after a series of serious injuries to key players.
Recent Hampshire Cup finals
|2013/14||Portsmouth 6-0 University of Portsmouth||2009/10||Portsmouth 3-0 Havant & Waterlooville|
|2012/13||Portsmouth 13-0 Aldershot Town||2008/9||Portsmouth 5-0 Havant & Waterlooville|
|2011/12||Portsmouth 2-1 Havant & Waterlooville||2007/8||AFC Bournemouth 5-0 Southampton Univ|
|2010/11||Portsmouth 2-0 Havant & Waterlooville||Total wins:||Portsmouth 10
Southampton Saints 7
It sounds a daunting task for Southampton, even after Portsmouth’s setback yesterday and a question mark over Umotong’s fitness after breaking a finger in the Charlton game.
Maybe they can look to their history for inspiration.
While Portsmouth have made much progress over the past decade, winning the Hampshire Cup 10 times in the past 11 years, reaching the quarter-finals of the FAW Cup last season, and tasting life in the FAW Premier League National Division after winning the Southern Division in 2011/12, it will be some time before they can match their opponents’ record.
Southampton won the last of their County Cups in 2003 – their seventh in a row – and they have also won the FAW Cup eight times, appearing in the final on nine consecutive occasions during a golden period for their pioneering women’s side, who were among the best in the land during the game’s steady development in England in the 1970s.
They were Premier League National Division runners-up in 1991/92 at the dawn of a period that was to be their “second coming”, reaching the FAW Cup final on a further two occasions and winning the Premier League Southern Division twice.
It’s a long time since the club tasted anything like that sort of success. They will be hoping that Wednesday night could perhaps be the dawning of a third fine era in the history of Southampton Saints G&LFC.
It’s a familiar situation for Portsmouth manager Perry Northeast. In a similar scenario to this time last year, he has to juggle the club’s bid for the league title with their county cup commitments, but while the incentive for winning the league is greater this season, his available squad is stronger.
He told Sent Her Forward: “It’s desperately difficult to pick a starting eleven at the moment. They’re all working hard in training. They all want that starting place.
“We’ve got 17 players eligible [to play in the Hampshire Cup final], so that’s quite a good basis to pick from. Whoever I pick definitely won’t be a risk at all.”
However, the Pompey boss knows he has to balance his selection against the demands of the tough league run-in. Speaking before yesterday’s game at Charlton, Northeast said: “The starting eleven at the moment is going to be picked around who is physically the fittest for each game.”
He believes the traditional rivalry with Southampton makes this year’s final all the more compelling. “I’m not sure when the clubs last played each other, which makes it even more special, to be honest.
“There will be a large crowd there of Portsmouth and Southampton fans, with Gosport stuck in the middle. It’s one where you can’t ignore it. It will catch everyone’s eye.”
Saints boss Adam Lee has steered the team to their first Hampshire Cup final for 12 years – but he won’t be there to lead his them out on their proud night.
As exclusively revealed by Sent Her Forward, Lee, who works for a cleaning supplies company, had already booked a family holiday when the Hampshire FA announced the date of the final, and he was unable to persuade officials to change it.
“I didn’t think for one moment they’d arrange the final for Easter week,” he said.
“I’ll try to stay in contact on the night, but the signal is not very good from Cornwall. I’ll be a quivering wreck.”
Lee is confident of fielding a near-full-strength side after an injury-hit campaign and says: “Hopefully, it will be enough to give Portsmouth a good game.”
He has had Pompey watched and says his coaching team have plans to combat them, but he acknowledges they will be formidable opposition and is aware that their results in this competition confirm they do not take it lightly.
“That’s the one thing that frightens me – if something like [a heavy defeat] happens and we have to take a big step backwards.”
But he says his players’ team spirit should help them, and despite the long gap without a competitive game, he says the majority have still been reporting for training twice a week.
“Training is fine, but it’s not the same as having that match sharpness.”
Head coach Mark Eldridge will take the team in Lee’s absence.
Look out for Sent Her Forward’s cup final report on Thursday