Nine goal night

Making friends in Division One North

Written by: Flora Snelson
Photograph by: Lee Brown
Lots of handshakes among Leeds United Women's players on a floodlit night when they beat FCUM earlier in the season

Leeds United fans with a taste for drama were spoiled on Thursday evening. While the Under-18s came from behind twice to win 4-3 and beat Millwall to a place in the FA Youth Cup final, the women’s side were fighting through a nine-goal spectacle over in Manchester.

Last week, manager Simon Wood said that this team’s goal for the final games of the season is to finish as high up in the Division One North table as they possibly can. Ahead of their visit to Broadhurst Park on Thursday, their games in hand over Durham Cestria and Barnsley made closing the gap look achievable, with 3rd place in their sights.

The chance to win points is never as valuable as points on the board, but of their five remaining games, United would be forgiven for viewing a trip to FC United of Manchester as something as close to three points as you could get.

The newly-promoted side had just one win to show from their ventures in the fourth tier, and 71 goals conceded in the progress. The previous week, FC manager Jennie Swarbrick praised her side’s 2-1 defeat to title-chasing Middlesbrough, who had put six of those goals past them in the reverse back in November. It might not have lifted FCUM off the bottom of the table, but it was progress – especially since Boro are but one of three teams to say they’ve inflicted a 6-0 scoreline this season.

“FC United Women have come a long way this season on this crazy journey, and we won’t give up until it’s over!” Swarbrick tweeted. For now, 10th place and survival remain very much within reaching distance. It is not over yet.

Leeds are not members of the 6-0 club, but they did make FC United look like a team that ought to be relegated in October, when the Whites laughed their way to a 4-1 win on an entertaining night at Garforth Town. United were home and dry long before a wound-up Abbie Carrington lashed out, leaving her side to try to recover a two-goal deficit with ten players.

I don’t know why Carrington wasn’t included in FC’s squad to face Leeds on Thursday. Perhaps the prospect of another night going head-to-head with Olivia Smart was too great a threat to their club mantra, displayed on a large banner at their home ground – “makin’ friends not millionaires”.

The nation’s largest fan-owned football club, FC United of Manchester was founded in 2005 by fans sickened by the Glazers’ takeover at Old Trafford. For those disillusioned revolutionaries, Thursday night proved vindicating.

The wimmin’ and the yout’ of Leeds United weren’t the only ones putting on a show. Down in London, the Glazers’ toys were hoping to chase down a chance to compete in Europe, with only a Chelsea side who failed to beat as-good-as relegated Sheffield United standing in their way. They led after trailing 2-0, but then the Glazers learned that millions and millions of pounds will only buy you a teenage brat who sits down before the job is done and a defence who, at a corner, won’t pay any attention to a player who has already scored two goals.

Boyhood Manchester United fan Cole Palmer might have given up keeping certain friends as soon as the City academy came knocking, but down in the fourth tier of the women’s pyramid there are no comparable stakes. With next to nothing to materially lose by sinking back into the fifth tier, maybe FC United of Manchester could keep making friends as they fought relegation.

If the teams couldn’t unite over a shared goal, they could at least bond over their common enemy. With the brown sloppy pitch deemed playable, you wonder how it looked last month when the game was postponed. Nine minutes into the game, the slop made FC ‘keeper Sophie Donald look silly. She wasn’t going to reach Ellie Dobson’s bottom-corner strike, and no one would have minded had it bounded in apace, but the slop made it trickle, tempting, out of her reach.

Still, Donald fared better than her opposite number Carrie Simpson, who ended face down in a puddle of mud as she tried to prevent FC United equalising the first time, then with egg on her face the second time the hosts levelled as a soggy ball wriggled clear of her grasp.

Sarah Danby’s efforts to make friends with FC players left them sprawled on the floor, with the referee no more enamoured, twice giving promising free kicks against her, with the home side taking full advantage to claim a surprising 4-3 lead.

Beating her once is enough to piss off Olivia Smart, so Sacha Lewis shattered all hope of friendship by doing it a few times. FC’s third equaliser was the most technically impressive goal of the game, as Lewis outpaced Smart before neatly chipping Simpson from a tight angle; but their fifth was surely the most fun, sealing FC’s unlikely comeback and giving hope amid a challenging survival battle. A sweaty goal straight off the playground, Lewis bossed the right wing again, playing it square from the byline for Naomi Lawrence to tap into an empty net.

Four minutes later, Alice Hughes pulled one back for Leeds in injury time, but it wasn’t enough to change the result or wipe the smiles off FC United’s faces at the final whistle. FCUM have just two games to avoid falling into the North West Regional league, while United’s bid to climb places continues at Garforth on Sunday, when they’ll host Chorley. ⬢

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