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Always the bridesmaid…

 

Blues Ladies completed the unwanted hat trick of Continental Cup Final defeats on Sunday, going down 1-0 to Man City, after taking the league Champions to extra time. A Lucy Bronze header on the stroke of half time in the extra half hour was enough to condemn David Parker’s side to their third final heartbreak since the conception of the tournament back in 2011, and dashed their hopes of a first trophy since the FA Womens Cup success in 2012.

Much had been made in the build up to the final about the match being held at the Academy Stadium, Man City’s home ground, and the obvious issue of neutrality, however it was clear Blues had a good following, and the away contingent certainly made themselves heard throughout the affair. Boss Parker made a couple of tactical changes to the side for the final; Ann Katrin-Berger was given the nod to start in goal ahead of Sophie Baggaley, behind a back three of Aoife Mannion, skipper Emily Westwood and Meaghan Sargeant, with Kerys Harrop and Marisa Ewers playing as left and right wing backs respectively. Jess Carter was deployed in a midfield role alongside Andrine Hegerberg, with Mel Lawley playing behind the front two of Freda Ayisi and Kirsty Linnett. The City side contained no fewer than seven England internationals, along with Scottish stars Jane Ross and Jennifer Beattie, as well as ex Blues star Marie Hourihan, who was chosen to play in goal over England stopper Karen Bardsley.

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Travelling to the Champions’ back yard was the toughest possible test for Blues, and a first half of frantic defending and constant home pressure signalled the task that was ahead if the Midlanders were to win the trophy that Arsenal denied them in successive years back in 2011 and 2012, but half time came and the score remained goalless, which was testament to the hard work and defensive resilience that Blues have shown all season long. There were a number of vital blocks and tackles made by the visitors’ back line, and Berger was looking a dominant force in goal, dealing with every cross that the Champions threw at her, as well as making a number of good saves from the likes of Nikita Parris and Jennifer Beattie, before

Blues arguably made the better start to the second half, being a lot better in possession and attempting to get the attacking influences of Hegerberg and Lawley into the game more, and Ayisi and Lawley both failed to hit the target following good build up play. City were first to blink in terms of changes, with the largely ineffective Parris hauled off to be replaced by Sweden international Kosovare Asllani on 65 minutes, before Blues made their first change ten minutes later, Charlie Wellings making a straight swap with the hardworking Linnett, who had Blues’ best chance of the second half, firing a free kick over the bar. As the second half wore on, the game became more stretched, and both sides found themselves creating more chances. Dutch midfielder Tessel Middag replaced Scottish striker Ross for the hosts 5 minutes from time, as they looked to prevent the game going the distance, but Blues stood firm, and in truth looked the better side in injury time, forcing a couple of dangerous positions that City dealt with well, and it became clear an extra thirty minutes would be required.

Extra time began with Chloe Peplow replacing Hegerberg and slotting in alongside Carter in midfield. The first fifteen minutes went by largely unnoticed, until the final minute when the hosts won a corner. Duggan swung it in and, for the first time in the game, Berger made a meal of the cross, missing the cross, and England right back Bronze found space to loop a header into the unguarded net. The largely home crowd found their voices as the referee blew for half time, as Parker used the last throw of the dice, bringing Ayisi off for German Bella Linden, while City looked to shut up shop, bringing the defensively minded Daphne Corboz on to replace Duggan, and as much as Blues huffed and puffed in the final fifteen minutes, they could not break down the stronger and fitter Mancunian outfit, as they saw the game out to win their second trophy in a week.

Credit must go to City, with the exception of twenty minutes or so in the second half, they looked the side most in control, and it is a signal of how much they should now go on to dominate the women’s game, with the quality and resources they have available to them, but this young yet vibrant and promising Blues Ladies side took them all the way, on their own patch, in a major domestic cup final, and despite the clear devastation showed by the likes of Harrop and Westwood at the final whistle, the overriding emotion should be of pride. The vast majority of the side is under the age of 25, and there have been plenty of high profile departures from the club over the last year or so that has seen the side written off by all and sundry, but in a season where, with two league games remaining, it appears a top half finish is on the cards, as well as reaching another final, it shows there is so much more to the team than what followers of the game previously thought.

Whilst every one of the fourteen players involved on the day deserve credit for the performance against the double winners, a couple of standout efforts deserve recognition: Firstly, Meaghan Sargeant, who was thrown in at the deep end after missing a lot of games this season, was brave, solid and excellent in the air, up against a stellar list of attacking options City had available. But not for the first time this season, and possibly cementing her place as Blues’ Player of the Season, for Jess Carter, who doesn’t turn 19 until later this month, to perform as she did in a midfield role, up against the likes of Jill Scott and Izzy Christiansen, was awe inspiring, and her reputation grows in every game she plays. Strong, yet skilful, and absolutely every bit as committed as her high profile opponents.  The fact that Carter and Peplow, 18 in December, ended the game as the midfield pair up against such a strong side, bodes incredibly well for Blues, and if the club continues to develop players in the ilk of these two, they are in good hands.

It is arguably the worst way to lose a cup final, I honestly think I would rather see my side lose 6-0 than put in such a brave performance against the odds, and lose after an error from a goalkeeper who had performed so magnificently throughout the game, but there is the scant consolation that the girls can hold their heads high, and hopefully end the season on a high with two league games to come. If the levels of performance can continue as they did on Sunday, with adding a touch more quality going forward, then this certainly won’t be the last cup final Blues take part in, and we have to believe that our luck will change at some point!

Chris Pugh

Tilton Talk for SRB Radio

 







 

This Thursday 6.45pm 28/07/16

Tune in this Thursday at 6.45pm on www.srbradio.com, where we will be interviewing live not one but 2 England internationals, your chance to interact with 2 rising stars, Chloe Peplow and Aoife Mannion.

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So join us on our chat page on this page or on our live feed on facebook this Thursday 6.45pm https://www.facebook.com/groups/tiltontalk/

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Farewell to two Blues’ stalwarts

 

Last week saw the news break that many Blues Ladies fans had feared for some time, the news that midfield duo Jo Potter and Jade Moore had left the club after buying out the remainder of their contract. While the club has described the money received as “a benefit to the team’s development”, the fans will be extremely sad to see two of their favourite players leave for pastures new, and while it is exciting to see the influx of international stars arrive in the Midlands, Jo and Jade will be an incredibly tough act to follow.

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Jo Potter first joined Blues Ladies in 2002, and following spells at Arsenal, Charlton and Everton, she came back in 2009 and has been a major part of the team for the duration of the WSL era. A central midfielder who could also play on the left, Jo has always been a hit with the Blues fans, her technical ability being second to none. She has a wand of a left foot, and her free kicks and corners have been a huge asset to us over the years. Now 31, she was a member of the England World Cup squad that won a Bronze medal at last year’s tournament in Canada, and she was deployed in a third centre back role in the Third-Place Play-Off match against Germany, which displayed her versatility and willingness to perform for the team. I remember a quite extraordinary goal she scored in a win over Doncaster Belles in an FA Cup match, an exquisite lob from near the half way line, but her overall control and calm she brought to the midfield will be missed by the team. This season she has played alongside a very young side, and as one of the elder players has no doubt aided their development, none more so than Chloe Peplow, who has blossomed alongside the influence of Potter.

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Jade, only 25, joined Blues upon the inception of the FAWSL back in 2011, and it has been a joy to watch her develop into the player she is today, a regular England International, and one of the strongest midfielders in the league. When she was 16, she was found to have two holes in her heart, which thankfully was rectified and she was able to have the career she has enjoyed to date. Playing alongside Potter for the majority of the WSL era in a Blues shirt, they have enjoyed being part of, in my opinion, the finest midfield partnership of the WSL era, and when Remi Allen joined and became part of a midfield three, they became even stronger and harder to break through. Jade has suffered from injuries this season, but whenever called upon her attitude on the pitch was exemplary, despite the issues that were surrounding their futures. I honestly believe Jade could play for any club in the league, and I have no doubt she will continue to be a star wherever she plays.

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There is no doubt that there is a feeling of the “changing of the guard” at the Autotech Stadium, David Parker and his backroom staff seem intent on challenging at the right end of the table, and it is an exciting time with the additions to the squad that have been made, but the last five years have been, for the most part, a successful and thrilling ride for Blues Ladies supporters, and for this we have so much to thank Jo and Jade for. Their hard work, dedication and commitment to Blues has been inspiring, and they will be sorely missed. Good luck to both of them in the future, and thanks for the memories girls. Keep right on!

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Chris Pugh

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NEW SIGNING!

Blues Ladies have today announced the signing of 23 year old Norwegian international Andrine Hegerberg from Gothenberg.

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Hegerberg is the older sister of striker Ada Hegerberg, who is also a Norway international, but Andrine is a midfielder who has played two of Norway’s six Euro 2017 qualification games.


 

Hegerberg is the fourth European acquisition of the season, following a trio of German internationals earlier in the year, and it signals serious intent for a push on the higher reaches of the FAWSL in the second half of the campaign. With whispers of another signing to come before the end of the summer transfer window, Blues Ladies fans have every right to be excited about an expanding young squad, and the possibility of them taking on the might of Chelsea and Man City for a Champions League place

 

Chris Pugh

 



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Relegation certs to Story of the Season?

Karen Carney and Becky Spencer to Chelsea. Chelsea Weston released, subsequently joining Notts County. Speculation rife surrounding other key members of the squad. Only signing (Corina Schroeder) injured and missing the first period of the season. Quite simply, the perfect ammunition for pundits and experts of women’s football to dismiss Blues Ladies as the red hot favourites to fill the one relegation spot in this years WSL1. However, upon reaching the mid season interval in the top tier of women’s football, having played seven of their sixteen league games, David Parker’s young troops find themselves sitting very pretty indeed in third place, three points clear of big spending Liverpool, and a comfortable eleven points clear of Doncaster who, despite only playing three games, remain pointless on their return to the top flight. So how have Blues defied all the odds yet again to find themselves challenging at the top end of the table?

Despite the changes over the course of Blues’ WSL era, the main strength of whoever has been part of the team remains the incredible determination and fight shown in every minute of every game. Though the funds may not be there to splash out on superstar names in attempts to succeed, Blues seem to thrive on the fact that there is a footballing purity behind their pushes for trophies, and once again this season they have shown they are among the toughest group of players in the game. Defensively, behind Manchester City, Blues have the best record in the league, only conceding four goals from their seven games played, two of those coming in the early season defeat to the title favourites. Sophie Baggaley has replaced Spencer in goal, and the young England stopper has produced a number of eye-catching performances to keep an impressive four clean sheets in a row, including the double wins over Notts and away to Arsenal. In front of her, the coaching staff must take a lot of credit for the switch to the 5-3-2 system that has been adopted for this season. 
 
 

With Aoife Mannion, Jess Carter and captain Emily Westwood being the mainstays in a predominant back three, and Kerys Harrop and Abbey Stringer adopting wide wing back roles, teams have found it difficult to create too many clear cut chances and break through that solid back line, especially given the shield that the likes of Jo Potter, Jade Moore and Remi Allen have provided them with, not to mention the breakthrough spell of Chloe Peplow, who has looked every bit the starlet that has won her recognition from international selectors at under age level, and for me has been one of the brightest points from the season so far. The alteration in system has not just made Blues stronger at the back, but it has also allowed the team to be more of a threat going forward, especially on the counter attack.

Although they have only scored four league goals, this certainly hasn’t been through want of trying. In the 2-1 home win over Doncaster Belles, they racked up double figures’ worth of attempts in the first half alone, and in soaking up opponents’ pressure, they have become a very dangerous side on the counter attack, with Mel Lawley, Freda Ayisi and Charlie Wellings working hard and running defenders ragged to allow the team to break directly and quickly. When you consider the club have had their bad luck with injuries this season, with Moore and Allen only having just returned to full fitness, and the likes of Kirsty Linnett, Coral Haines and Schroeder having missed the vast majority of the first half of the season, the performances of the team are even more impressive than the numbers suggest. 
 
German international striker Isabella Linden has joined from Frauen-Bundesliga giants Frankfurt to attempt to boost the goals tally, and her international compatriot Marisa Evers has also moved to Solihull from Bayer Leverkusen to bolster the back line, in what the club will hope brings an added steel and international experience to a talented group of young players. These signings have highlighted the intent within the club to push Blues on further, and from a fans perspective, not only is it exciting that quality European players want to come and play for Blues, there is the hope that these sorts of signings can persuade star players that the future is bright at Solihull. There is plenty to be positive about as we enter the mid season interval, compared to last year where the fans’ only aspiration was to avoid relegation. Blues face an away trip to WSL2 side Oxford in the Continental Cup, which has been reinvented into a straight knockout tournament this year, a change from the group stages in previous seasons, and it is traditionally a competition Blues have done well in over the years. Realistically, the squads and facilities Manchester City and Chelsea have available to them, along with the starts both sides have made in the league this season, means it would be incredible tough going for any other club to break into the top two and achieve a Champions League place, but if Blues were to finish in the top half of the WSL, it would leave egg on an awful lot of faces in the world of women’s football, and establish them once again as a side to be reckoned with. It will no doubt be a long month of June for Blues fans, as the summer transfer window opens, but for now the optimism around the Midlands is at a scale not felt since the final day of the 2014 season. 


Chris Pugh