Out fighting

A cup is worth a comeback

Written by: Flora Snelson
Photograph by: Lee Brown
Ellie Dobson, Kathryn Smith and Katie Astle standing in a row during Leeds United Women's recent floodlit win over FCUM

At 4-0 down, I might be tempted to just stop trying, but you’ll rarely see a team more up for giving the unlikely comeback a go than Leeds United were in their FAWNL Cup tie against Halifax on Sunday.

It’s easy to see why. For Leeds United last season, a cup game was about as much fun as you could get. Fun in the cup got them to an FAWNL Plate final, some silverware, a proud-as-punch post-match from cherished former manager Rick Passmoor and a handshake from Leeds United and Lioness royalty Sue Smith. Last season, cup competitions meant penalty shootout drama, underdog victories, an FA Cup tie away at Women’s Super League giants Arsenal. Given that for Danielle Whitham, fun in the cup meant taking a ball to the face courtesy of England captain Leah Williamson’s right boot, it makes sense that Whitham was leading United’s resistance to a cup exit on Sunday.

Halifax means more, too – or Brighouse Town, as they were known until May. The two sides were well-acquainted before Town left the division, their application for upward movement accepted, while United’s was left in a drawer. Last season, Carrie Simpson’s shootout heroics made the point as the Whites’ trampled their West Yorkshire rivals on the way to that treasured encounter with the Gunners. The season before, Kathryn Smith levelled the County Cup final from a late penalty won by bright young thing Katie Ramsden, but it was the turn of Town’s keeper to be the hero by saving from the would-be comeback duo in the shootout.

On Sunday, Ramsden was in a blue shirt. The England youth winger left Leeds for Manchester City and they have loaned her out to the third tier, from which Halifax are trying to advance. German investor Daniel Thomas Loitz, who bought a stake in Halifax earlier this year, stated their long term ambition is to reach the Championship and build a small stadium in the historic West Riding market town. The name of his investment company, Hokulani, is inspired by the Hawaiian word for heavenly star because it aims to ‘enlighten’ regions and companies around the world.

Neither of Halifax’s first two goals set the Bannister Prentice Stadium alight. They were first to the rebound for the opener, then beneficiaries of butterfingers for the second. Two-nil felt harsh to Leeds, who couldn’t keep the ball, but weren’t letting the Fax do much with it either. United’s newest brightest youngest thing Katie Astle wanted to do something with the ball, bending it into the path of Laura Bartup, but the Whites’ best chance of the half left Bartup in a heap and ref saying ‘no penalty’. By 45 minutes, United didn’t have the one back their impassioned response deserved, but there was still time enough for Halifax to extend the misery with a third goal that had Whitham booting the ball away in frustration.

It is at this point where I would feel like it had all got away from me, and I’d be counting down the minutes til I could soak off the October mud in a nice hot bath. But if I’d once been the recipient of a ball in my face from Leah Williamson, I might feel differently. Leeds weren’t just going to roll over and let Halifax have all the fun in their place.

The cup tales swapped in the dressing room must have been good, because summer signing Harriet Jakeman hadn’t even been there and she was still tackling with everything she’d got. Her wipe-out challenge on Georgie Stevens was so cool that a child in the crowd told her friend, ‘yeah, number 12 is a firefighter’. In the 54th minute, though, she couldn’t smother Stevens, who set up Boydell to smack in a fourth Halifax goal that seemed to put United beyond rescue.

The late first-half momentum which gave United no material reward had dissipated, so when the referee’s failure to play advantage denied Bartup a first goal of the season and the Whites a kick up the arse, the mission began to feel doubly impossible. But in the 73rd minute, Jakeman gave Leeds the spark they needed, igniting United’s front three with a quick throw to Jess Rousseau. Her cross was perfect, Bartup’s header almost so, but the post gave Astle a gaping goal mouth and she squashed the deficit to three.

After scoring her second of the season, young Astle handed on the baton to reserves teammate and senior debutant Sian Gibrill-Keating. Within four minutes of stepping off the bench, the youngster had assisted a Rousseau goal that had the Bannister Prentice crowd whispering, ‘could they?’ With the wind at your back, two behind with five minutes left is more than enough time.

Before the ninety was up, Rousseau had smashed in a third for Leeds and Halifax were feeling the peril. Fax defender Issy Dean grabbed the ball like it was the last TV at the Boxing Day sales, but Smith wanted a quick restart. Dean, ragdolled, gave up the ball but needed treatment. Players were dissenting, managers were protesting, the ref was brandishing cards and all the while, the home players were waiting, itching for their last shot at a leveller. The crowd were rooting for Leeds but the stoppage took out the sting. United remained one goal short at the whistle, although the sight of Whitham, in the 98th minute, sliding in to slice the ball upfield and launch one final attack was fun, qualification or no qualification.

Get Flora Snelson’s women’s football newsletter by email every week. It’s an ongoing celebration of 31st July 2022, when the Lionesses won the Euros and Flora’s head fell off for sheer joy. Get the latest on the Lionesses, WSL and the world beyond.

Speaking to LUTV after the game, Sarah Danby and Rousseau were as chipper as you could be after a defeat, still pumped with adrenaline after an exhilarating second-half performance.

“At 4-0 you can either go lay down and die or you can actually go out fighting,” Danby said. “And to be fair we’ve done the latter.”

The Whites are out of the FAWNL Cup but they won’t wait long for another taste of cup fun, fighting West Didsbury and Chorlton for a place in the next round of the oldest national football competition in the world. First, though, Leeds have league business to sort, travelling to top-of-the-table Barnsley for the chance to close the gap on Sunday. ⬢


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