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Breakfast of Champions

Written by: Flora Snelson
Photograph by: Lee Brown
Sarah Danby of Leeds United Women pictured during the recent win over Southampton

Last Monday morning, Bridie Hannon woke up with a medal round her neck, feeling like a champion for the first time in a long Leeds United career. “It’s good to share the same emotion with twenty other girls, players, managers, staff,” teammate Catherine Hamill told the Leeds United podcast, days after the Whites lifted the FAWNL Plate trophy.

Tails were up, spirits were high, a strong end to the league season in sight. Out of the running for relegation or promotion, Leeds’ run-in will decide no more than the tone with which they begin their next assault on Division One North in August.

On Sunday, their Champions tour started at Chorley, who also showed up with a spring in their step. Last weekend, they survived a relegation six-pointer away at York City, coming from behind to win 4-1 and go four points clear of the drop zone. If they can help it, Chorley would like to prevent relegation doubt from dragging on until the final day, when they’ll host league leaders Durham Cestria, whose title race with Newcastle United is likely to go down to the wire. But nobody would want to play Leeds United the week after they were crowned national champions

Chorley’s home pitch, Blainscough Park, bore none of the glitz and glamour of the Armco Arena, the site of United’s Plate success. But, overlooked by residential back gardens to one side and a dense thicket to the other, there were still plenty of eyes on the match, though even in spring the birds were making less noise than the travelling Stourbridge fans had the previous Sunday. If the Whites missed the jeopardy of the final, the adjacent car park offered the threat of bonking Whites boss Rick Passmoor’s bonnet with an overhit shot.

The low stakes told in Leeds’ reaction when they took the lead in the 16th minute. After scoring eight in their last three outings, goals were feeling routine, and this one meant a lot less than the three United banged in last weekend.

It was no less skillful. With elegant ball control to rival her assist for Macy Ellis’ opener in the Plate final, Amy Woodruff set herself up to knock it in. It looked like champions v relegation candidates, then. Scrappy Chorley defending opened the door, but Leeds had to walk through it — Woodruff did, with a touch of class.

A champion’s finish didn’t get a champion’s celebration. A few raised arms marked the moment before all twenty outfield players strolled back to reset for kick-off. For anyone on the estate behind who heard the cheer and rushed to their bedroom window, it would have been hard to know from the postures who’d scored and who’d conceded.

But Chorley were up for a comeback. With half an hour gone, Whites ‘keeper Carrie Simpson leapt to protect the lead, pushing clear a well-struck volley by Emma Hickson. Her save gave the home side a corner that Kerry Nickson, for one, would not let go to waste. With a burst of pace she escaped Hamill to touch the ball home with her forehead at the near post.

Leeds struggled to pick their heads up. The air was full of the noise of aeroplanes and Chorley’s excited screams. Manager Rick Passmoor was quieter than usual. Perhaps he was saving it all for half time.

His side needed the interval, since Chorley were remembering York, finding rhythm and belief. Jess Gillin had scored three in their relegation contest and was the hero again on Sunday, flicking in Grace Foy’s cross to put Chorley ahead eight minutes after the equaliser.

In rushing back trying to prevent her, Olivia Smart had clipped the goalscorer. The 45 minutes were up, but Gillin’s treatment extended the Whites’ wait for a regroup, while the stoppage failed to take the sting out of Chorley’s attack. Paige Williams, star performer of the Plate final, was robbed in Leeds’ half, leaving marauding Foy to scare off the United defence and lob Simpson, still before half-time.

In sixteen minutes of play, United’s 1-0 lead became a 3-1 deficit. The game was far from over but the champions were feeling deflated, and feeling it as a group. After the break, Hamill lightened the mood by heading in the first goal she’s scored in a long time, but the reprieve was short-lived. The linesman flagged for offside, and the score stayed 3-1.

Nothing had changed by the final whistle. Leeds’ shoulders remained slouched; their tails were down, their spirits low. Seven days earlier it had been good for Cath Hamill to share the same emotions with all the players and staff. But these post-match emotions hit different.

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.

“Emotions are frustration, disappointment,” said Passmoor, in his post-match interview, finding just enough time to cite “erratic, poor decisions, lack of knowledge throughout the eleven” before two minutes of a blank, silent screen replaced whatever he might have gone on to say about fixing things ahead of a midweek game against Norton and Stockton Ancients. That’s another tough fixture against a team with plenty to play for — Norton could secure their survival with a win at Tadcaster.

Luckily, Paige Williams filled in the gaps. “It’s going to be a long trip home,” she said. “I don’t think any of us are happy with our performance today. I don’t think any of us fought like we usually do, none of us played up to our usual standard. Hopefully on Wednesday we’re more prepared and we take responsibility for what badge we’re wearing.” ⬢

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