Portsmouth 4-1 Southampton Saints – the story behind the glory
Few people, even among the most diehard Southampton supporters, would have expected anything other than a Portsmouth win.
Defeat for the Premier League Southern title-chasers against opposition from the tier below was unthinkable.
But after Sunday’s painful 6-3 defeat to title rivals Charlton Athletic, last night was not so much whether they won – or even by what score – but how they won it; how they responded to the hammer blow of twice surrendering leads to emerge pointless from their visit to south-east London on Sunday.
Manager Perry Northeast made a few changes from Sunday’s line-up, but how many of those were down to the performance – and individuals’ reactions in training – and how much was part of his selection policy for the cup competition is hard to gauge.
Certainly, it was a young team that took on their Hampshire rivals at Privett Park last night, with three 17-year-olds in the starting line-up and another teenager on the bench.
Northeast told Sent Her Forward: “We put out a slightly different side tonight. We put out a very young side. Going through the spine of the team, our three centre-midfielders are all teenagers. I was excited to see them on the pitch. They have been craving for football because they’ve all spent some time on the sidelines.
“And I said I just wanted to see them be brave today. One thing that epitomised the game for me was not actually Chloe [Dark, one of the 17-year-olds]’s strike, but when she actually took a bit of a tough tackle and got up. That, for me, means she is now a Portsmouth player.”
Northeast acknowledged a reaction was needed after Sunday. “I just wanted the girls to enjoy themselves today, and show me and the staff, and each other, courage. And they did,” he said.
“I won’t forget this one. I was proud of them tonight. I’m really happy because we played in a different manner, different shape, different personnel… It’s now food for thought going back into league action.”
Southampton, whose last competitive game was on February 22, were given a taste of things to come in the first five minutes, which were played almost exclusively in the underdogs’ half.
Jess Frampton enjoyed the first of countless sorties down the right straight from the kick-off. She managed to get in a cross but it drifted harmlessly behind for a goal-kick.Hannah Haughton made the first of her many saves in the second minute, but she watched helplessly as Tiff Taylor’s strike from the edge of the area came back off her bar, Frampton hitting the rebound wide, and only five minutes on the clock.
Saints did respond with a few neat moves but their reliance on finding lone striker Jemma Tewkesbury played into the hands of Pompey’s accomplished back line, in which Eilidh Currie – another of Northeast’s 17-year-olds – was outstanding.
Another of the Pompey team changes was one that the manager had not anticipated – goalkeeper Sadie Blakely reporting ill on the morning of the match, sparking a frantic chain of events to alert new signing Michelle Beazley, who joined only last week as cover, and get her registered for the game.
Beazley, who had not expected to play any part in the final, had to quickly change her plans and head to Gosport, where she was to enjoy a relatively quiet night, fielding more back passes than shots, and dealing comfortably with all – bar one, when she misjudged her pass, which was collected by the predatory Tewkesbury and slotted back past her with the aplomb of the Super League striker she once was and in many ways still is.
Northeast said: “She’s come in and been confident. Unfortunately, the goal that went in… but that was also predatory instincts from a striker.
“Michelle got the call this morning, because the other ‘keepers were unavailable as well. Michelle was in London at the time and then had to drive to Reading to get her kit and then drive here. That shows class. It shows how much she wants to play football.
“She hasn’t played for months. I think if I said do you want to come and have a game down the rec, she would have been, ‘Yeah, I’ll be there in an hour’.”
Northeast was disappointed to see Blakely miss out after performing so well for most of the season. “I was gutted for her because… she would have loved to play Southampton. And she would have loved to play tonight to make things right for what happened on Sunday.
“But she’ll be overjoyed with what happened tonight, overjoyed that people have been given a chance. It’s a shame for her. But Michelle… not a bad understudy at all.”
The experienced Beazley was never going to be fazed by the occasion, even in such circumstances, and her first taste of pressure in the game elicited the sort of response from the former Lewes ‘keeper that the Rookettes fans would have been all too familiar with.
She was given a questionable back,-pass, with the pacy Krystal Whyte bearing down on her. Beazley took one touch to control the bouncing ball and then lobbed it over the on-rushing number nine to set Portsmouth on their way with a counter-attack.
Southampton, who finished their season in the Premier League’s South West Division One in fourth place, enjoyed brief passages of possession and positive play, but most of their best work came in defence, where Haughton produced an array of vital – and spectacular – saves and Becki Bath enjoyed an outstanding game.
Her two tackles within 30 seconds just before half-time ensured Portsmouth, who had scored twice in six minutes, through Shannon Sievwright and Dark, were not out of sight by half-time.
Their value was to be highlighted six minutes into the second half when Tewkesbury, who had only occasionally broken free of the close attentions of Currie and Leeta Rutherford, capitalised on Beazley’s sole error to bring the score back to 2-1.
But in all honesty, the Premier League title hopefuls looked comfortable without ever threatening to run away with the game against their well-organised opponents.
And then came Ini Umotong.
Northeast had left the Nigerian international striker on the bench after she dislocated and fractured a finger in the defeat at Charlton.
But when he unleashed her on Saints in the 64th minute, she transformed the game, shaking up the Southampton defence before putting the match beyond them with a 78th-minute goal.
As if conceding a third were not enough, Southampton, who had lost Kat Littleboy in the first half to injury, were forced to make another change before play could resume, Kerri Why suffering a serious knee injury in the melee that led to Umotong’s goal and being replaced by Emma Whitlock.
A few minutes later, Tewkesbury went down, clutching her calf after pulling up suddenly, and while she was being substituted, Bath needed treatment for cramp.
Northeast, in contrast, was able to bring on another teenager, 19-year-old Katie James, to replace Nadine Bazan at left-back, and Lucy Quinn, who already has 13 goals to her name this season.
With the game deep into the time added on for the various stoppages, Umotong scored her second – prompting a quick rethink among those selecting the official player of the match – and Pompey had the 4-1 scoreline so beloved of their fans in derbies against Southampton.
Mark Eldridge, Saints’ stand-in manager in the absence of Adam Lee, who was on holiday, had no complaints about the defeat, paying tribute to their opponents’ efficiency.
He told Sent Her Forward: “They’re a very decent side, and we knew that we were going to be up against it. Four-one? They’re a very good side and they deserved to win.
“My hopes were that we would play as well as we could. First half I didn’t think we did; second half we played a little bit more together, a bit more aggressive… I knew they’d tire a little bit. But I’ve got no complaints. They’re a very good team. Congratulations to Portsmouth.”
He reflected on a decent season for Southampton, which he hopes can provide the springboard to an even better one next time.
“We finished fourth. We won the Southampton Cup. So this was a bonus, really, and we’ve had a pretty good season, really.
“The girls have worked hard. Their next challenge now is, can they get to the next level that Portsmouth are at? Some of them hopefully will.”
He said of Portsmouth – who paid their opponents the respect of fielding a strong side and showing total commitment: “They were on it from the word go. Some of our girls were a little bit in awe, but they settled down a bit and at 2-1…”
He added: “Portsmouth had dominated the game. They had most of the possession. At half-time we tried to tighten it up a little bit in midfield because we were getting a little bit overrun. Then we were just trying to counter-attack.
“We said at half-time we were quite prepared to let them have the ball along the back, but we wanted it to be tighter along the back and in midfield. But you’ve got to trade something off if you tighten something up.”
Eldridge had no complaints about the six-week gap since Southampton’s last competitive game. “We weren’t as fresh as possibly we could have been, but that’s the way it is.”
The Southampton assistant coach relayed news of his team’s defeat to manager Lee by phone after the game.
But what Lee would not have heard were the tributes for their performance. Lee Roberts, Portsmouth’s media officer, described it as one of the best he’d seen against Pompey this season.
And Umotong admitted: “I would say they were better than a lot of the teams that we’ve played in our league this season. We couldn’t under-estimate them today.”
Northeast said the atmosphere created by the two sides and their partisan fans raised the competition to a new level.
“Credit to the Hampshire FA. Credit to the competition. If we can get to the final of the competition and play a side like Southampton, amazing, because they played their part, the fans played their part.
“This is a success for ladies’ football because you don’t get many nights in ladies’ football like this, where you’ve got the home fans, you’ve got the away fans… it was just loud. People won’t forget that for a while.”
He added: “We don’t get to play Southampton too often, and especially a Southampton side who are as good and pose as much of a threat and as much of a game as they did tonight.”
Northeast also believes the performances of the likes of Dark and Currie have given him extra options as the club enters the final weeks of the nerve-wracking Premier League season, with a Super League play-off place on offer for the champions.
He said: “We’re taking it one game at a time. I have now got a set of bullet points that I want us to work on. If that means we finish first, we finish first. If we finish second or third, perhaps even fourth, but the girls have marked off what I would like us to improve on, we’ve had a good season.
“No pressure on them. Let’s just tick off what I think we need to work on, and if we don’t do it this year, then next year.”
Sent Her Forward player of the match: Jess Frampton (Portsmouth)
Southampton had no answer to the ever-willing Frampton’s constant forays down the right flank, particularly in the first half. She beat Kerri Why – and anyone else who attempted to thwart her – virtually every time she received the ball, using her pace, strength and ability to get the better of her markers.
Her crossing was inconsistent, but she provided several goalscoring opportunities, and the attention she attracted from Southampton defenders freed up invaluable space for team-mates.
So close to Frampton for my award was Eilidh Currie, who belied her age with a performance of composure and great maturity alongside the experienced Leeta Rutherford in the centre of defence. It was not without mistakes, but generally she redeemed her own errors with quick recovery and immaculate tackling. She was also comfortable carrying the ball out of defence and spraying accurate passes to the flanks.
Northeast said: “After what happened on Sunday (their 6-3 defeat), a 17-year-old centre-back could go one way or the other. She was psychologically strong… and by the end of the game her maturity definitely defied her age because she was doing the things we ask of her in training, whereas previously she would forget those in a game situation, in a hostile environment.”
At the other end of the experience scale, Gemma Hillier once again led by example. She may not have got on the scoresheet, taking up a wide-left position for much of the game, but her calmness under pressure – in fact the absence of any signs of pressure when she received the ball, at any height, at any speed – and her clever touches and astute passing must surely have lifted those around her.
Chloe Dark also impressed in midfield, with an assured performance, capped off with a fine goal, while Shannon Sievwright, who also got on the scoresheet, delivered dangerous dead-ball kicks all night.
Ini Umotong won the official player of the match award for her 30-minute cameo, and it was indeed a devastating half-hour. Had she played from the start, Southampton might well have been out of the game entirely by half-time.
The fact that they weren’t was due in no small part to top-class performances by three players in particular. Krystal Whyte allied skill with her lightning pace to cause Pompey’s defence problems they do not face every week in the Premier League.
Hannah Haughton pulled off a series of superb saves to prevent a much heavier defeat, while in front of her, Becki Bath – facing one of the finest strikers in the Premier League in Charley Wilson – was outstanding.
Sent Her Forward match rating: 8/10 For a cup final between teams at different levels, this was an attractive, entertaining encounter, and while Portsmouth thoroughly deserved their victory, their opponents emerged with their respect – and that of the massive crowd lucky enough to see a game that was a credit to women’s football.