Portsmouth (Kempson pen, Frampton, Hillier) 3-1 West Ham United (Little)
Portsmouth are the Premier League champions.
Twelve months after watching Coventry City’s jubilant players and officials celebrate their last-day league triumph on Pompey territory, it was the turn of Perry Northeast’s team to sing, to dance, and to pronounce: “We are the champions.”
They did it with a 3-1 victory over West Ham, which was thoroughly deserved, though perhaps not always as comfortable as the scoreline suggests.
It meant that Brighton, the only side who could have taken the prize from them, could no longer catch them, rendering their postponed fixture against relegated Keynsham Town irrelevant.
Needing only a point for the title, Portsmouth began a little anxiously, but still with an effervescence and sense of purpose that threatened to overwhelm their visitors, forcing their defence into a series of errors.
And then, after taking the lead, courtesy of a slightly questionable penalty, they began to settle, and by the time their third in the space of 20 minutes went in, Pompey were brimming with confidence and playing some irresistible football.
But the nerves returned when West Ham pulled a goal back just before half-time, and for much of the second half, it was more a question of not conceding after Hammers manager Julian Dicks shuffled his side, implored them to play with the heart that is the minimum requirement of any of his sides, and shook Pompey for a while.
Eventually, West Ham’s bubbliness subsided and Portsmouth were able to play their way back into the game.
But while there was the odd chance for both sides – both goalkeepers pulling off some notable saves – it was more a question of hanging on to what they already had.
And what they had was the Premier League title.
Portsmouth now travel to Stratford-on-Avon for a Premier League championship play-off on May 24 against the winners of the Northern Division for a place in the second tier of the Women’s Super League next year.
Quite who they will be playing is not yet totally certain. Sheffield clinched the Northern Division title today, but second-placed Coventry City have indicated they plan to challenge the deduction of six points for fielding an ineligible player, leaving Sheffield’s championship success still to be rubber-stamped.
Not that Northeast and co will worry too much about that as they prepare for one final crunch match in an enthralling Premier League season full of them.
And today’s was no different.
Dicks brought his West Ham side to Privett Park with little but pride to play for – although, with the former West Ham men’s captain, that’s still an enormous prize.
But their form in the past couple of months against each of Pompey’s title rivals ensured they would be treated with the utmost respect in the preparation of Northeast and his assistant, Katie Poore.
Portsmouth, without top scorer Ini Umotong, who was on international duty with Nigeria, made straight for the West Ham box, almost from the kick-off, and Charley Wilson, Nadine Bazan and Jess Frampton combined well to put the visitors under immediate pressure.
In the fourth minute, Molly Clark, converted from midfield to a central defender, played a precise long ball over the West Ham defence for Wilson to run on to, but her shot was blocked.
Within seconds, the Pompey captain again eluded the attentions of her marker, Ruby Baxter, to get away down the right, but her cross drifted out of play.
And with the Hammers under the cosh, it took a terrific interception by April Bowers to deny Pompey an opening after a wonderful cross from the left by Sarah Kempson.
It was one-way traffic, but Pompey had yet to carve out a clear-cut chance, and on eight minutes they wasted a golden opportunity to calm those nerves when Lucy Quinn sent over a pinpoint cross which, Gemma Hillier, unmarked in the West Ham area, headed wide.
Two minutes later, it was again Bowers who came to the rescue with a brilliant tackle on Quinn as she threatened to break free again.
Still Pompey kept up the pressure. Kempson delivered another tantalising ball, which Hillier – always so aware of those around her – flicked into the path of Bazan on the left wing without even looking in her direction. But the full-back squandered the opportunity with a mis-hit cross.
The relentless pressure suddenly eased for a few minutes as both sides caught their breath, but on 16 minutes it resumed, with Pompey so very nearly taking the lead.
Wilson spotted Hillier’s run and found her inside the West Ham area with another perceptive ball. Goalkeeper Nikki Duncan was out quickly to narrow the angle, and Hillier’s precise shot went inches wide of the far post.
Two minutes later Portsmouth got the goal they had been threatening – but it took a penalty to finally break through the Hammers defence.
Quinn’s clever flick found – inevitably – Wilson inside the West Ham box. The striker’s fierce shot was brilliantly saved by Duncan but fell to Hillier, just wide of the goal.
She made space for herself before firing it back towards Wilson, but it struck Vicki King on the hand and referee Chris White pointed straight to the spot.
While the ball clearly struck King’s hand, she was only a couple of yards away from Hillier, and the award seemed a little harsh, although there were no fierce protests from the West Ham players.
Kempson, adopting a technique she has used previously, stood with her back to the goal before turning on the referee’s whistle and placing a superb penalty into the bottom left corner to put Portsmouth 1-0 ahead.
Northeast had commented last weekend about how vulnerable teams can be immediately after scoring, and he must have been peeking through the gaps in his fingers as Pompey showed their first lapse in concentration within a few seconds of taking the lead.
Shannon Sievwright was caught in possession by Vicky Kinsman, who fed Emma Sherwood, but Frampton saved the day for Pompey with a vital block.
It signalled the start of a mini-revival for West Ham, with Kinsman winning a free-kick in the Portsmouth half, which came to nothing, and then, on 23 minutes, Jade Smith getting in a half-hearted shot, which Sadie Blakely easily held – the visitors’ first attempt on goal.
Next it was Bazan’s turn to err. Her back-pass sold Blakely short, but the ‘keeper was out quickly to foil West Ham’s unexpected opportunity.
Despite enduring their first spell of pressure, Pompey always had an outlet in the willing Wilson, who had the beating of both West Ham centre-backs, but neither she nor any of her team-mates had much of a role in their second goal, on 27 minutes – which owed everything to Frampton‘s opportunism and technique.
The full-back, who has had such an impressive second half to the season, chased a loose ball that she had no right to reach, won it through commitment and heart and then unleashed an angled rocket from 30 yards that left Duncan grasping at air.
Once again, Pompey temporarily lost the plot and were indebted to Blakely – who will miss the play-off after being sent off last week – who saved Kelley Blanchflower’s shot at point-blank range.
The nature of Frampton’s goal seemed to captivate the crowd – which was estimated at more than 600 – and they raised the noise levels as Pompey looked to kill off their opponents before half-time.
And with half an hour gone, they very nearly did just that, following another brilliant piece of play by Frampton.
She carried the ball out of defence after a West Ham attack broke down, but with no-one to pass to, she accelerated forward before delivering a superb cross on to the head of Wilson, who steered the ball just over the bar.
Pompey were on fire, the confidence created by that second goal suffusing each player in turn. Kempson combined tenacity with skill to make progress down the left, while on the other wing, Quinn made space to fire in a shot from the edge of the area, which was comfortably held by Duncan.
With 36 minutes played, Portsmouth pieced together another thrilling move, Wilson and Hillier playing a neat one-two before the latter somehow managed to deliver another perfect cross for Quinn, whose overhead kick was plucked out from under the bar by Duncan.
Amazingly, considering all their pressure, it wasn’t until the 37th minute that Portsmouth won their first corner.
Yet a minute later they were 3-0 ahead, courtesy of their experienced front two. Wilson again used her skill and strength to fire in a shot, which Hillier flicked home from a yard.
Would Pompey lose their focus for a third time? The answer was no. At least, not immediately.
In fact, they very nearly made it four when Kempson got in a shot she had no right to, and when Duncan parried her effort, Wilson knocked in the rebound – but from an offside position.
However, with 42 minutes gone, they did allow West Ham a route back into the game when Frampton fouled Smith on the edge of the Portsmouth penalty area, and although Sherwood’s brilliant free-kick struck the bar, Stacey Little was on hand to smuggle the rebound over the line.
Pompey ended the half much as they had begun it – in the ascendancy. Hillier played the pass of the match – a 50-yard exocet into the path of Wilson, who was denied by an impeccable interception from Kayleigh Xidhas for the first of two corners in quick succession.
And the half came to a close with Quinn sending a snapshot just wide.
Half-time: Portsmouth 3-1 West Ham United
It’s unlikely that Dicks was over-happy with what he had seen in the first half, particularly the way that Wilson had tormented his central defenders, and it was no great surprise when midfielder Lily Mellors replaced Baxter for the second half.
Little, who had been West Ham’s stand-out player in the first half, switched to centre-back to try to keep a close watch on Pompey’s danger-woman, Wilson.
And the West Ham captain won the first physical battle with the Portsmouth striker – not, so it was to prove, for the last time.
Pompey could not immediately settle into the attacking rhythm that had worn down the Hammers in the first half, and it was their opponents who posed the first threat of the second half, with a fast break from defence.
Kinsman sent Danica Revell away, and the central defender made good progress before sending over a wayward cross.
The visitors were enjoying the better of the opening exchanges after half-time and were certainly looking considerably sharper than throughout the first half.
It wasn’t until the 54th minute that Portsmouth made serious inroads into a West Ham defence that had looked so shaky in the first half.
Frampton broke forward and found Hillier, whose cross was met with an overhead kick by Wilson, but she was penalised for a high foot.
More good play by Wilson earned Pompey their first corner of the half a minute later, and then Molly Clark fired in a free-kick that Duncan initially dropped before gathering ahead of the alert Wilson.
Just before the hour, Kinsman found Sherwood, whose shot was just reached above her head by Blakely, who then cut out a neat cross from the impressive Bowers as West Ham exerted more pressure.
The Londoners were proving the more dominant in the second half, with Portsmouth failing to rediscover the crisp passing that had served them so well in the first.
But equally crucial was the performance of Little, who was dealing with Wilson in a way that her team-mates had failed to in the first half.
Tellingly, too, Hillier – whose running and perceptive flicks and touches had been a key part of Pompey’s armoury in the first half – was left isolated on the left flank for much of the second.
Nevertheless, Portsmouth continued to ratchet up the corner count, Kempson getting her head to Clark’s latest effort in the 65th minute but failing to find the target.
Two minutes later, Duncan came to the rescue again, denying Frampton after she had been set up by Wilson’s header.
The tide was beginning to turn again as Pompey enjoyed not only more possession but in more advanced areas.
On 68 minutes another corner found Leeta Rutherford, but she failed to connect properly.
Then two minutes later, Pompey had another goal disallowed when Wilson headed in Quinn’s cross, only for the referee to rule it out for an infringement that remained a mystery to most of us – although the sight of Duncan receiving treatment immediately afterwards may have offered a clue.
After 71 minutes, West Ham made their second change, Adele Sale replacing Blanchflower, and Portsmouth their first, Katie James coming on for Quinn on the right wing.
Seconds later, Hillier fired in yet another inviting cross, which Wilson met but could not get on target.
Rutherford challenged Hillier for the pass of the game when she sent Wilson away yet again, but again she was thwarted by the commanding Little.
Pompey seemed to sense that time was running out for West Ham to get the three goals they needed to deny them the title, and a little composure returned to their play.
And in the 86th minute, they had another chance to score a fourth. Bowers failed to cut out a cross from the right, enabling Hillier to get her effort on target, only for Duncan to pull off another outstanding diving save.
With three minutes of normal time remaining, Chloe Dark replaced Kempson, who had had a fine game, and almost immediately, the midfielder shot just wide following probably Portsmouth’s best move of the half, involving Frampton, Sievwright and Hillier.
There was time for one last West Ham free-kick, which came to nothing, before referee White blew his whistle and the raucous celebrations began.
And this year, it was Pompey doing the celebrating.
Sent Her Forward player of the match: Charley Wilson (Portsmouth) She did not get to receive the championship trophy after the game, so for the moment she’ll have to make do with my accolade. But that was no mean feat in a game where there were plenty of high-class performances – not least from her fellow captain Stacey Little, who followed an impressive first-half showing in West Ham’s otherwise overawed midfield with a superb display at the back after the break, when she nullified Wilson’s threat for long periods.
However, the Pompey number 10 could not be totally shackled and still enjoyed an excellent half to follow an outstanding first, in which she inflicted the crucial damage with her power, pace and non-stop aggression.
Gemma Hillier also starred, particularly in the first half, when she saw more of the ball, and Lucy Quinn was a constant threat down the right.
Sarah Kempson provided an irresistible blend of skill and aggression to prove a constant thorn in West Ham’s side, while Jess Frampton continued her superb late-season form, and topped it with one of the goals of the season. And Sadie Blakely made more vital saves to cap what has been a fine season for the goalkeeper.
Other than Little, West Ham provided only glimpses of their talent. Emma Sherwood and Vicky Kinsman posed more of a threat to the Pompey defence after the break, while April Bowers made some crucial interventions.
And although she was beaten three times, goalkeeper Nikki Duncan stopped twice as many and more than made up for what she considered a disappointing personal performance in West Ham’s Capital Cup final defeat in midweek.
Sent Her Forward match rating: 7/10 The skilful bits came in fits and starts, but with a lot at stake and a red-hot atmosphere at Privett Park, the game provided plenty of entertainment for an enormous – and appreciative – crowd.
Sent Her Forward will publish a separate article featuring reaction to today’s game and Portsmouth’s Premier League title success tomorrow.