The party on Tyne is on time

Written by: Flora Snelson
Photographs by: Lee Brown
A graphic featuring photos of Leeds United Women players, including Olivia Smart and Carrie Simpson

Leeds United manager Rick Passmoor interrupted his post-mortem after the Whites’ 2-0 league defeat to Newcastle United for a moment of reflection. “It’s quite a big game today, isn’t it? Two big Premier League clubs,” he observed. Then he picked up his match analysis again. “Our mistakes were generated by ourselves, personally.”

Leeds and Newcastle have both been held back by the neglect of former owners. To put all thought of ‘doing the right thing’ to one side, the future commercial potential of a thriving women’s side escaped Ken Bates, and Mike Ashley, and Massimo Cellino, and now that the sport is booming there’s catching up to do. They’re not the only ones late to the party. The women’s contingents of seven Premier League clubs compete outside of the top two tiers. But Leeds and Newcastle are fighting for the same air, competing in the fiercely competitive Division One North for the league’s sole promotion spot — and only one of them has been blessed by a fresh start.

Since their takeover in 2021, Newcastle have started fixing Ashley’s mess and are beating Leeds in the race to climb the pyramid on every metric. Last season, Becky Langley’s Magpies narrowly missed the title, losing two games to champions Liverpool Feds’ one, and recorded the highest attendance at any women’s football game of the season. In May, kick off for a fourth-tier face-off had to be delayed at St James’ Park as the turnstiles span for over 22,000 fans, 10 per cent more than the record Women’s Super League gate set at Old Trafford in March.

With the end of the 2022/23 season in sight, Newcastle have two games in hand and are seven points behind league leaders Durham Cestria, who they’ll battle for a crucial promotion leg-up next weekend. Their escape to the third tier is in their own hands and, against Leeds, they looked hell-bent on keeping it that way. At Druid Park, the visitors were undone by two second-half moments when the so-called Lady Magpies attacked with enough momentum to carry them through Carrie Simpson’s goal and straight down the A1, to next week’s title showdown in County Durham.

With three stylish passes Newcastle cut through the final third before Catherine Hamill seemed to have stopped the attack dead, dispossessing a would-be poacher in front of goal. But Kacie Elson reacted first to the loose ball, tucking it between Simpson’s legs.

Leeds failed to respond before Newcastle hounded down a second, emphatic goal in the game’s final minutes. Harried by Newcastle, Hamill inadvertently pushed the ball into the path of Elson, advancing on goal. Simpson’s foot salvaged the error, but again Newcastle were fastest to the ball. Elson only had to put a touch on Anna Soulsby’s brilliant cross to steer the ball past Simpson. At the final whistle the nearly 600 strong crowd were on their feet to show appreciation for a tenacious performance by the home side. Leeds, meanwhile, were showing their own appreciation to captain Olivia Smart, making her 300th appearance for the club, rightly proud despite the result.

It’s no secret that Newcastle are now loaded, but at the start of this season manager Langley acknowledged the ‘emotional support’ offered by the club’s new owners. The history of women’s rights in Saudi Arabia seems at odds with Toon sporting director Dan Ashworth’s promise that the Kingdom’s Public Investment Fund see Langley’s team as “absolutely a priority”. But whether this is sportswashing or an earnest bid for progressive values won’t matter to the players, who are shedding Ashley’s shameful legacy as they take their first steps to becoming a fully professional team this season.

Soon Leeds may have their own new backing, from San Francisco. In the USA, female footballers have been celebrated for decades, not months. But Leeds’ wobbly fortunes in the Premier League mean the timescale for change is as uncertain as ever. In the Women’s National League, the Whites’ hopes of winning promotion this season are over, but the season isn’t. Though it won’t inch them up the pyramid, winning a national cup final at the end of this month would lay down a strong marker in the still young Passmoor era. Polishing the FAWNL Plate is all that awaits United on the final day of the season, when Newcastle could make their escape as Leeds’ wait for salvation goes on. ⬢


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