Obstacle to the onslaught

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Written by: Flora Snelson
Photograph by: Lee Brown
Leeds United Women walking off the pitch at Garforth celebrating beating FC United of Manchester

I couldn’t show up or tune in to Leeds United’s County Cup thumping of mid-table eleventh-tier side Brighouse Town Juniors on Sunday because I was playing my own 2pm kick-off down in Wakefield. Facing a bottom-of-the-league side who let in nine on the reverse, I imagine our pre-match team talk didn’t differ wildly from the one happening in the dressing room at the Whites’ home at Garforth Town. “I think we’ve got this one in the bag,” Leeds Hyde Park vice captain Elle ‘Fergo’ Ferguson suggested, “but let’s play humble.”

Alright. I love scoring and creating goals more than just about anything in life, so the instruction to try and ‘play humble’ was challenging as I geared up for a fun ninety minutes of trying to do my favourite thing as much as humanly possible.

It was humbling, in the end. The game was up long before it turned into the kind of free-scoring rout I hoped for. It’s hard to be at your best against lower-level opposition because your play lacks its normal urgency and the other side’s mess is often infectious.

So that was it. A 3-0 win against a team that have conceded 53 goals in ten games this season. Hardly worth the £2 petrol money I paid my teammate-turned-chauffeur, the Monday morning mud-stain battle, or the “silly bastard” insult thrown my way by a centre-half ruffled by the imposition of playing a contact sport.

Later that day, I found out about the outcome of United’s County Cup quarter-final against Brighouse Town Juniors via a Facebook comment: ‘A Leeds win. Not posting score out of respect for Brighouse.’

Cripes. An afternoon so embarrassing it’s not fit for public consumption. A giant, secret scoreline. How delicious. This was the afternoon I had craved — a domination so complete that none of your opponents dare mention it to their colleagues on Monday morning. The kind of occasion in which you’re almost apologetic to add your name to the scoresheet yet again.

Leeds United are having no such trouble, lately. Last week, super-scorer Jess Rousseau was showing no signs of slowing down when she capped off her hat-trick as United took apart Harrogate Town with a 7-0 win in the County Cup third round. If that’s how they fared against opponents from the division below, how would they get on against Brighouse Town Juniors?

Not to be confused with County Cup holders Brighouse Town, who have since split and now play as ‘Halifax’, the Juniors are a brand new side in their inaugural season. Town play in the 11th tier, the fourth division of the West Riding County ladder. Only Hampshire has more divisions, making Brighouse about as far down the pyramid as you can get.

This is what happens when you start up a football team. You get shoved at the bottom of the pile regardless of your level. It makes that end of the pyramid a strange place, where any genuinely developing teams get slapped down on a weekly basis by gangs of experienced players who have only just found each other.

Two years ago, my team Leeds Hyde Park were in Brighouse Town Juniors’ shoes. It’s why when my teammates travelled to Brighouse for a third round County Cup tie, it was quite an even match — since they are us, just one promotion and one league rejig behind.

I didn’t play that day, but I don’t imagine there was any chat of it being ‘in the bag’ in the dressing room. We’d made a strong start to the season, but the vibes were absolutely honking since our coach was serving a month’s notice after deciding to pack it all in. The motive to win a cup tie that set up more games to be played coachless and lacking in confidence was small.

What’s more, the mud in the corner of the penalty box on our home pitch was almost ankle deep; it’s hard enough to get through the league fixtures every winter without throwing in extra County Cup ties.

So when I heard that we’d been knocked out of the County Cup with a 5-3 defeat, part of me thought ‘thank fuck for that’. Neither we nor Town knew, then, that a quarter-final against Leeds United was at stake. Now, I’m thinking, heck, it might have been me and my pals facing a tonking on a live YouTube broadcast, in front of an in-person audience of several hundred, instead.

I remember playing Fulbourn Institute when I was still at primary school. We kept the net on rotation and that week I had drawn the short straw, and had to keep picking the ball out of the net as they put eleven past us. It feels shit.

At university, I was on the sidelines when the opposition coach asked if we could “avoid a cricket score” because we just kept bagging. Um, no mate. Back in 2019, the US Women’s National Team drew criticism when they celebrated each of their thirteen World Cup goals against Thailand as though it were a Championship-sealing winner. You can be dominant, but you can do it with class.

Leeds had it on Sunday. As manager Simon Wood said after the game, United don’t get many chances at goal in their league matches, so the cup tie was an opportunity to practise putting them away. Ten minutes in, United were five goals to the good and might have been happy there and then to pack up this training exercise, which looked painful for the visitors, were it not for the need to fulfil the other eighty minutes of cup tie needed to ratify their qualification.

In her post-match comments, Whites skipper Olivia Smart revealed that at half-time they’d agreed they needed to do a better job of keeping hold of the ball. It didn’t matter much in the first half, since they got it back not long after losing it, but maintaining high standards has always been and continues to be a priority for this United side.

With this change, the goals kept coming after the break, and while Town didn’t ‘win the second half’, as is often the vain objective for lost causes, they did stem the flow of the goals. I won’t share the scoreline. Out of respect, of course.

Let’s just say, with adults charged £5 to get in at Garforth Town, the ticket price works out at 25p per Leeds United goal. Among a host of tap-ins and blunder clean-ups, Sarah Danby and Kathryn Smith were the best value. Danby’s chip from the edge of the box earned her a spin in the air courtesy of captain Olivia Smart, while Smith’s pea-roller backheel offered a surprising moment of joy.

But it was Town forward Hannah Burgess’ buy-twenty-goals-get-one-free consolation that made me wish I had been in my Leeds Hyde Park jersey for that third round tie. A stunning solo goal might have made all the demoralisation, the aching breathlessness, the handful of trolls’ warped opinions apparently validated by your relative skilllessness worth it.

In the fifteenth minute, Town had the ball in the hosts’ half for only the second time that afternoon as Lilly Barclay-Andrews intercepted a pass. It made sense to give it to Burgess, on 34 goals in all competitions after just ten appearances, and the decision soon checked out as Burgess left Sarah Danby for dust and yeeted herself upfield, skipping clear from Ellie Dobson to get a shot at goal.

This might be the only sniff you get all game. To Burgess, making it count meant wellying it into the back of the net.

With a four-goal deficit still to overcome, there was no running to collect the ball from the net for the restart. If I were Burgess, or any of her teammates, I’d feel content that our business had been done. A worldie of a goal against a semi-pro team with a name recognised the world over? You can keep your County Cup.

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.

It was an afternoon from which Town couldn’t expect to take much more than the plaudit offered to defender Lucy Webb by commentator Tom Hill, who remarked that she was “the main obstacle to the onslaught”, but that didn’t stop the Brighouse Town Juniors admin tweeting at the final whistle, ‘What an experience for the girls today,’ followed by an orange heart and a star-struck emoji.

Meanwhile, Leeds United could do with some good PR at the moment. No one was put up for interview with LUTV after the Whites’ promotion hopes were as good as buried by a defeat to Middlesbrough earlier this month, and exiting the FA Cup and the FAWNL Cup left them with little to play for. A trophy, any trophy, would be a great springboard for United’s next league campaign, a final at the county FA headquarters a good chance to recruit a few more fans. Seventh-tier Leeds Modernians stand between them and the County Cup final, with third-tier Halifax the likely opponents for the last hurdle. ⬢

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