Golden boots

Let’s hear it for the regroup

Written by: Flora Snelson
Photograph by: Lee Brown
Leeds United Women players and staff form a huddle before their game against FCUM

Leeds United have nothing left to play for this season, but they’re as united as they’ve ever been. Suffering bonds teams, so it isn’t surprising that one of the season’s most together performances came ten days after the Whites let go of a lead twice to take no points from FC United of Manchester. If the mud didn’t stick Leeds together, then the defeated late-night coach ride before work the next morning might have done the trick.

Sunday’s win over Chorley had fewer twists and turns but was no less entertaining, as the crowd at Garforth Town were treated to a glut of chances at both ends of the pitch. The first chance taken was scored by Jess Rousseau, who has needed her teammates more than most lately. Against York City in March, Rousseau announced her return from injury in the best way possible – by bagging a hat-trick. “Being clinical – it’s what I like to do,” she said, before a string of games which made her dazzling return from the sidelines look like a false dawn, letting chances slip through her fingers as her dry streak ran to a season-high three matches.

Scoring goals is a confidence game. With goals a distant memory, a striker’s flame is smallest when they return from injury, and must be nurtured to return to its former roar. Chuck the number 9 shirt at anyone else meantime, and you risk snuffing it out altogether – which would be a costly misstep in the case of the prolific Rousseau. Former big-bagger Laura Bartup’s return at the start of the season threatened to upset the order, but in her second stint at the club she has been goal-shy. It is a testament to Rousseau’s desire and endeavour, therefore, that she has scored 23 goals this season without a senior out-and-out striker challenging for her place.

Her teammates, meanwhile, have shown that they can do it without her; few of the outfield players in United’s squad have failed to score a goal this season. Alice Hughes was preparing to try for her fourth when Rousseau told her to stand down in the seventh minute of the Whites’ win over Chorley. From eight yards out, Hughes trusted herself to hit the target but, as Rousseau pinched the ball from her feet, Hughes trusted her more, stepping back to let her teammate do what she likes to do best, clinically rifling the ball into the roof of the net. The delight was palpable.

Leeds are better-staffed in midfield, meaning the Whites’ control over the middle of the park didn’t suffer too badly from the exit of mainstay Danielle Whitham before Christmas. The wealth of options available to manager Simon Wood also meant that Kath Smith did not walk straight back into the first eleven after she was unavailable for Leeds’ midweek trip to FC United. For an hour, regular starter Smith had an unfamiliar view of the Chorley game, but the vibes in the dugout were only positive. “All of the girls have got a good attitude, we’ve got a nice team morale and we all support each other,” she said. “While there’s rivalry for your position, you’re always supporting the people on the pitch.”

The mentality served her well, because as soon as she found her way to the pitch, subbed on by Wood, she put the ball in the back of the net, finishing off a superb free-kick routine with a near-post header. Another team effort, more delight. Goals always feel good but, after the disappointments away at FC United, it was especially gratifying that Leeds’ response to taking the lead was making it bigger.

Captain Olivia Smart was the architect of United’s third goal, charging to steal the ball from the visitors’ defence then hustling it into their box. She’s not often found herself so close to goal this season, and she has scored plenty from further afar; yet she handed the chance to shoot to the person who does it best, having made Rousseau’s life easier by drawing a defender. Chorley didn’t complicate things for Rousseau, but the attacker brimmed with confidence as she dropped a shoulder and fired into the bottom corner.

The goal put Leeds 3-0 up and drew Rousseau level with the best of the best. She’s got three games left to outscore Doncaster Rovers Belles’ Jasmine Saxton and Hull City’s Helen Lynskey to grab the Division One North goalscoring crown, but she showed against Chorley she’s about more than just scoring. Hitting her post-injury mojo, Rousseau was making chances for others, taking a yellow to stop Chorley on the break and handing the ball to Smith after winning a penalty on a hat-trick. Smith put the ball in the corner to make it 4-1.

Rousseau, like all of her teammates, couldn’t stop Chorley getting a consolation or Leeds throwing away yet another clean sheet. But the problem of United’s rotating defence is a question for off-season. If Leeds’ task for the end of the season is regrouping for another run at promotion, then their showing against Chorley was as much as you could ask for. ⬢


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