Astle free

Out of the Devs, into the goals

Written by: Flora Snelson
A graphic featuring photos of Leeds United Women players, including Olivia Smart and Carrie Simpson

Leeds United Women are in a bit of a pickle with injuries at the moment. Eight months after her ACL went askew in January, the appearance of Rebekah Bass’s name on the bench against Middlesbrough was a mere tease. She is still yet to cross the white line, and as one ACL nears readiness, another is in trouble — specifically, Paige Williams’, and her MCL isn’t in a much better state, either. Macy Ellis’ remains intact, but her knee isn’t well enough to play football. And after Abbie Brown went down injured against Durham last week, Jess Rousseau must have been wondering how long she can stay standing as the final pillar of United’s attack.

Enter Katie Astle, the 2019 Development Player of the Year, with years spent thriving with the Whites’ youth side behind her, primed to make her first senior start. In the last two seasons with United’s reserves, the York lass has bagged 54 goals, at a rate of more than one per game.

For the seniors, just one goal was enough to decide some of their Division One North games so far this season. Could Astle be the hero amid a flurry of irritating injuries threatening to stall the Whites’ strong start to the season?

There were plenty of people rooting for her. The teammates who have watched her progress have welcomed her into the dressing room for a handful of substitute senior appearances. Her family, both as proud relatives and as long term Elland Road season ticket holders. And her former school, who already have a one-time Leeds United hero among their alumni, in Jack Clarke.

The pair lapped the pitch at Elland Road together on the final day of the 2017/18 season, Astle celebrating her team’s league title, Clarke after his first few appearances in Paul Heckingbottom’s side. Months later, young Clarke — also a boyhood United supporter — was getting the finest accolade a fan could imagine, a nod of trust from the newly-installed Marcelo Bielsa. One legendary goal against Aston Villa and a health scare at the Riverside later, Clarke was shipped out to Tottenham Hotspur for £10m, a promising Leeds United youth rubber-stamped by a big six side in the blink of an eye.

You couldn’t imagine the slight figure of Clarke bullying someone off the ball with as much vigour as Astle did to set up her goal against Chorley this weekend. It’s enough for strikers simply to be in the right place at the right time, but Astle did more; racing Kerry Nickson to a stray ball, using her strength to take the ball and sending the Chorley player flying.

Astle looked frustrated by not getting an immediate return pass from Rousseau, who went backwards not forwards, putting the ball at the feet of Sarah Danby, the side’s most experienced football player. But now Danby was looking for the kid, and finessed a looping ball into the six yard box, where young Astle’s one-touch left-footed finish on the volley carried all the experience of those 54 reserve-level goals.

She celebrated like someone who had done it a thousand times before. Having collided with Chorley defender Ellie Cook in pursuit of the goal, Astle rose gingerly to her feet, not giving the goal a second glance, only inferring from the cheers around her that she’d bagged for the team she grew up rooting for, modestly accepting plaudits from teammates and limping back to the halfway line for the restart. Judging by this, and her record in the devs, there will be more goals from Astle.

Leeds tried to get more on the day. Astle invited a fellow newbie to make it two before the break, but Ellie Dobson sent the ball wide. Danby hit the bar. Chorley players, the outfield and the green-shirted, were throwing their bodies behind every United shot. The lead stayed at one, and it wasn’t enough.

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.

Midway through the second half, Chorley cancelled Astle’s goal with a quick counter and shut down the close-quarters contact by which she made her first success. The game ended in a tie and loud cheers from the home supporters, while United’s unbeaten away record lived to tell the tale. So did the fitness of all thirteen featured players, to the relief of United’s medical staff.

Perhaps these injuries will be cleared up by the time Leeds, currently under interim management, appoint a fresh coach. Whoever comes in will find a system showing signs of working as it should, with players like Astle pushing from the fringes ready to take their chance. ⬢

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