Sent Her Forward analysis: anatomy of a league title
When Perry Northeast and his then joint-manager, Katie Poore, led Portsmouth to the brink of a Premier League title success in their debut season at the helm before falling just short, they analysed the reasons for their eventual shortcoming.
Yes, they had been beset by injuries, losing centre-backs almost by the week, but the managerial duo looked beyond that and found the answer in their results – and even in the margins of individual games.
Surveying the impressive Privett Park pitch that served them so well this season, and which will host their home fixtures – whether in the Premier League or Super League – next, Northeast, who no longer has the word “joint” in his job title, spoke of the crucial findings that have made such a difference.
“When I came to this club, when this new coaching staff came to this club, I won’t say they were a nervous team, but I found we were losing games by the odd goal.
“We were trying to work out why they were losing games by the odd goal. Sometimes they would lose the plot, sometimes we would concede at times when we shouldn’t.
“But [this season] they’ve worked desperately hard on making sure that we see out games and win games.”
He believes it is that new steeliness – allied to the loyalty and togetherness already embedded in the squad – that helped his team steer a steady course through those final tricky fixtures when the stakes grew higher by the game.
“I think nerves [before yesterday’s title-clinching victory over West Ham United] were as limited as they were in any game of the season,” he said.
“We had a game plan. They stuck to the game plan. The game plan worked, and that’s why they didn’t have nerves – because they didn’t have time to think about nerves; they [only] had time to think about what we had to execute to win the game.
“Nerves? I don’t think they have them any more.”
Twists and turns
In a division where the leadership chopped and changed regularly throughout the season, Portsmouth entered the final two months behind the likes of Cardiff City and Brighton, but with a crucial game in hand.
With the league regularly throwing up shock results – such as Brighton’s astonishing 5-0 home success over Cardiff and Charlton’s 6-3 victory over Pompey – the eventual outcome remained unpredictable, with Brighton head coach James Marrs regularly warning that there were more twists and turns to come.
He was right – with West Ham at the heart of them.
Julian Dicks’ side were never serious title contenders in a season of transition following their poor showing last term, when they finished second to bottom. But they were to have a massive say in the eventual outcome of the title race, beating Cardiff twice in a week and taking points off Charlton Athletic and Brighton.
None the less, Brighton ended the season strongly, winning six of their seven fixtures since losing to Portsmouth in March – and drawing the other – while Charlton’s defeat at home to Cardiff yesterday was their first in 10 league matches.
So there was little margin for error for Northeast’s team as they endeavoured to learn the lessons of last year and keep the momentum going right to the very end.
Yesterday’s 3-1 championship-clinching victory over West Ham was their sixth in succession since that bizarre defeat at Charlton – suggesting that those fine margins that Northeast and Poore – now his assistant – focused on had paid dividends.
Indeed, in a season of superlatives in an admirably strong Premier League campaign, Portsmouth’s record stands out above all for its consistency.
Over 22 matches of a gruelling season, they won 18 and lost only two, embarking on two phenomenal unbeaten runs either side of their mini-blip in March, when they lost at home in the Premier League Cup to the Northern Division champions, Sheffield, and in the FAW Cup to Super League Millwall on successive Sundays before drawing with lowly Copsewood Coventry and then losing to Charlton in their first game in April.
Marrs acknowledged to his club’s website only last week, Portsmouth have been the most consistent team.
Northeast said: “Blips is the right word, and you could perhaps say the blips came at the right time. The cup competitions were around, so that was our time to blip. And if a blip is when you’ve lost to a Super League side and Sheffield in the semi-final of the League Cup, that’s not a bad blip.”
He added: “The girls deserve this. They work off a shoestring budget. For the past three or four months, we’ve trained with five or six training balls. This is a good stand for all those sides that really work on just work ethic, and nothing more.
“We have had some deperately hard times. But every single player at this club is still here. Not one single player has left throughout the season, and not one player left last season because of falling-outs. So I think that speaks volumes as well.
“Every single coaching member from this season is the same as last season, so the turnover of people is very low, and that’s because everybody just gets along.
“We have our moments, of course, but everybody’s still here.”
Northeast’s comments were echoed by his captain, Charley Wilson, who has been with the club through thick and thin – including their single season in the National Division, which had been the women’s game’s top tier before the advent of the Super League.
Wilson told Sent Her Forward: “I think the club and the girls deserve it because we’ve been working so hard, on and off the pitch, this season. And it’s paid off.”
The 15-goal striker described the league title success as a dream. “I’ve always dreamt of this, especially in my home team. It’s just absolutely amazing. I can’t believe we’ve done it. I don’t think it’s actually sunk in yet.”
Wilson insisted the Super League – which is now potentially just one game away – had been a realistic aim right from the start of the season.
“That’s where the girls want to be. We look up at those leagues and think there are teams there who have got the facilities, they’ve got all the gear and the money. But we’ve actually got a great team, and there’s no doubt about it – we should be in there.
“We’re champions, and in my opinion we should automatically be promoted. But we’ve just got to go on and focus on this next game. We’re still champions.”
Northeast, too, feels Pompey – and by inference Sheffield, their Northern Division-winning counterparts – should have gained automatic promotion.
But every club knew the situation before the season began, and it’s not that long ago that there was no immediate prospect at all of promotion from the winter pyramid to the summer one.
As his players continued to celebrate on the pitch after their victory over West Ham, Northeast reflected on the Premier League championship play-off, scheduled for Stratford FC on May 24, and said: “I think that’s why it’s not ultimate jubilation.
“It’s a cruel, cruel way of getting into the Super League, horribly cruel for it to come down to one game. So that’s why I think [although] we’re so happy and ecstatic, it’s not the ultimate jubilation just yet, because there’s still that one more hurdle.”
He was pleased with the way his players went about the West Ham game, knowing they needed just one point to be sure of pipping Brighton to the title, yet aware that their south-coast rivals were unlikely to make it easy for them by succumbing to already-relegated Keynsham Town.
He referred again to the game plan.
“I’m going to pull no punches: we did go a bit more direct today, but that was the plan. We can play football. I’m sure teams will say, ‘They’re a good footballing side’. And at times we’ve played some lovely, fluent football.
“But today we wanted to punish the opposition in a different way, and it was a bit more direct, not necessarily the prettiest football we’ve played this season. But it got results.”
Wilson admitted there were some pre-match nerve, but nothing the players could not cope with.
She said: “Last night [the game] was always in the back of my head, but I was buzzing for it, really. There was a little bit of nerves because I knew it was a game that I had to get something out of, but once I turned up at the ground, put the Pompey shirt on and stepped out on that pitch, it was just, relax and continue playing like we have been all season.”
And she admitted: “It wasn’t the best game today, but we got the job done. Champions.”
Top of the Premier League
Wilson’s opposite number in that landmark match, West Ham captain Stacey Little, found herself in a tricky position, apparently playing for nothing more than pride against a team withe the champagne already on ice.
Little, an eloquent ambassador for the club she loves, on and off the field, told Sent Her Forward: “You know what’s going to happen,” she said. “Portsmouth only needed a point but obviously they wanted to finish on a win. You know they’re going to come out at you, and you know you’re going to be under the cosh for most of the game.
“And we were. They came out fast, and it is difficult because we weren’t playing for anything and they were… It’s always good if you can finish on a high.”
Little said Dicks was looking for a positive response from his side after their 5-0 Capital Cup final defeat to Charlton in the week, which left many West Ham players despondent.
“We wanted a reaction,” she said. “We just wanted to get a good performance. We wanted to try and get a result as a reaction from Wednesday night. We didn’t want another loss the way we lost on Wednesday night.
“We didn’t hold back. We wanted to win as much as they did.”
And while it did not go to plan in the first half, when Pompey took a 3-0 lead before conceding one on the stroke of half-time, Dicks’ half-time changes, when Little was switched from central midfield to defence, and introducing the attack-minded Lily Mellors into the middle, had a big impact.
“It worked because we didn’t concede any goals in the second half, and we tried to match Portsmouth as much as we could.”
The West Ham captain is still not sure whether Dicks was satisfied with the impact his crucial change made. “He didn’t really speak to us too much,” she said. “Portsmouth were celebrating and we stayed out to show our respect.
“He didn’t say too much after the game, to be honest. I know at half-time he wasn’t best pleased with us. But we went out [in the] second half and we gave a better account of ourselves.”
While Portsmouth enjoyed a season of consistency, West Ham suffered the reverse, winning 10 and losing seven of those fixtures – even during their purple patch, when they took points off Cardiff, Brighton and Charlton, they still lost to Lewes, adding to defeats earlier in the season to relegated Gillingham, and Copsewood, who survived by the skin of their teeth.
“We had people chopping and changing, people were getting restless that they weren’t playing, people were leaving,” she said. “And we picked up injuries – people were shuffling about. But I’m not sure. I don’t know why we were so inconsistent.”
And she suspects that it’s only natural that clubs raise their games against the better sides.
“It’s frustrating,” she admitted. “When you’re grinding out results against the bigger teams… Portsmouth are the only team who did the double over us in the league. We’ve picked up points against every single one of those teams above us barring Portsmouth.”
She believes the club needs to strengthen if they are to build on their impressive finish to their first season under Dicks.
Having had a chance to watch all the title contenders at close hand, Little is not sure who she feels most deserved to win the league.
Echoing the words of Queens Park Rangers boss Martino Chevannes last week, she said: “Brighton are a very good side.
“They probably play better football than Portsmouth. But no disrespect to Portsmouth – they obviously haven’t won the league by fluke. It’s a long, hard season for teams.
“When we played Brighton, they way they passed the ball around… and obviously, what they’re doing over there is working wonders.
“But I think they just lack at the back. You put a bit of pressure on them and they crumble. That is where we got our result.
“But I’m not taking anything away from Portsmouth. You’ve got to beat teams above you, around you, below you.
“If they won the league, they probably deserve it.”