Campeones

Over the line: how Leeds lifted the FAWNL Plate

Written by: Flora Snelson
Photograph by: Lee Brown
Leeds United Women players shown celebrating their Plate semi-final win over Southampton

Eight months ago, Rick Passmoor was appointed manager of Leeds United Women in the same week that England’s Leah Williamson lifted the European Championship trophy. Going into the FAWNL Plate final against Stourbridge on Sunday, Passmoor said his team remained “a work in progress”. But they looked more than that at the Armco Arena. After several seasons of almosts and falling short, Leeds looked a side ready to grasp glory, starting with the game — and the trophy — in front of them. The FA brought the Euros trophy along too, to inspire the players and the crowd. But Leeds United were playing for the Plate.

Enjoying the upper hand in the early stages, the Whites forced Stourbridge ‘keeper Amie Preston into two saves in the first eleven minutes. Just as her side were finding their stride, though, Preston’s third save invited Macy Ellis to knock them down as United took the lead with a cohesive, front-to-back goal. Under pressure from Catherine Hamill, Niamh Deasy spilled the ball toward Kathryn Smith, who carried the ball upfield before dropping a long pass into the path of Amy Woodruff. With thigh control and a touch into her stride, the striker deftly manipulated the ball into a shooting chance that she took with the outside of her foot. When Preston parried, Ellis followed up, biffing it top bins with her laces from two yards out.

But the travelling Whites fans had hardly caught their breath when teenage Stourbridge midfielder Hannah Fishwick spotted Carrie Simpson off her line and lofted it over her head from twenty yards. Within four minutes, Leeds’ hard-won lead had vanished.

Still, you could read the balance of the game in the urgency with which Deasy scurried to collect the ball from the net, as though this were the 85th minute, as though Stourbridge were still trailing. With a cunning moment of opportunism, Fishwick had earned her side a well-needed swing of momentum. Yet to create any threatening chances, a long range half-hope felt like one of few ways Stourbridge were going to find a way into the game.

Their equaliser was no fluke, but it wasn’t the coming together of a finely-tuned plan, either — in other words, precisely the kind of goal that unjustly undoes dominant sides in the dying moments of cup ties.

But this was the 34th minute and, with Fishwick’s deus ex machina came a wave of Stourbridge energy. In front of a whipped-up crowd, Deasy bulldozed Smith from the restart, there were tackles from all angles and the ball was quickly changing hands. Nothing was under control. The quick comeback suited many in the large, local crowd. Stourbridge’s league season of seven, eleven, fifteen-goal wins had warmed their fans up for an all-or-nothing tie.

Fortunately, all-or-nothing has been Leeds’ speciality this term. And after Fishwick’s leveller, it was clear that fighting five FA Cup rounds, alongside the Plate and County Cup, had given Leeds experience to navigate the treacherous landscape of a winner-takes-all encounter.

United rode the wave, and acting captain Olivia Smart was leading the way. She had no right to beat Fishwick to a loose ball as Stourbridge went looking for the lead, and no right to try, even — with Alex Nicklin clear if she committed and missed the challenge. She was damned if she did, and damned if she didn’t. But Smart judged the shit-or-bust perfectly and cleared the danger. With the heightened jeopardy of a final, it’s too easy to get carried away. But Passmoor’s squad have developed level heads and a knack for not breaking legs this season.

Abbie Brown had every right to get carried away, though, when she put Leeds back in front on the hour. She’d answered grief from behind the Stourbridge goal with a quick point and laugh when Ellis scored, getting some back at the end of the first half when a section of passionate Stourbridge fans were bucked enough by the equaliser to sarcastically celebrate her two failed efforts on goal. She’d since taken a couple of shoves and a yellow card. But when Brown scored, there was no thought for her antagonists. With pure instinct, she clutched the badge on her chest, looking fit to rip it off as she fist-pumped her way over to the travelling fans. They responded: ‘We are Leeds’.

It rang out again just ten minutes later as Passmoor’s team, beginning to emerge in full colour, got a third. With her second pre-assist of the game, Smith put Ellis in her favourite place, tucked up on the touchline with a player to beat. Her cross was perfect for Woodruff, who met the ball with a burst of pace and sent a proper glancing header into the bottom corner.

Before the match, United could have been frightened by Stourbridge’s season record. The Glassgirls had lost two games in all competitions. After Woodruff’s goal, they looked less frightening, and their dropped heads cast Leeds’ season of ups and downs in a new light.

United didn’t let the need for game management stop them from having some fun. The whistle-happy ref had put four Whites players on a yellow — they all ended the game on the pitch, while everyone else continued getting stuck in regardless.

Each on the tops of their game, Ellis and Woodruff attempted an eye-catching back-heel link-up with ten minutes left to play. It didn’t work out, but it was beautifully unnecessary and told of relaxed players in total command. This was a winning mentality, this was getting it over the line, staying composed but doing it in style.

There were no calls for composure when the referee called time on United’s 3-1 Plate-winning victory. Forced to watch injured from the sidelines, the whistle set captain Rebekah Bass loose on the pitch like an uncaged animal. The club doctor would have flinched at her top speed as she hobble-sprinted to her team-mates, swinging a scarf around her head in glee.

For club veterans like Rebekah Bass, Catherine Hamill, Olivia Smart and Bridie Hannon, the moment of getting their hands on a trophy in a Leeds shirt was too long coming, the culmination of many years’ service. This wasn’t lost on the player of the match, Amy Woodruff, whose Leeds United career is beginning on a strong note.

“It’s quality, it’s a good first season at Leeds to win this type of trophy,” she said. “And I know for the girls who have been here years how much it means to them, so to have been a part of it and to help get that win is mint.”

It was fitting that Sue Smith was involved in the presentation of Leeds’ first piece of silverware in thirteen years. Smith was there the last time, lifting the 2010 Premier League Cup wearing the crest of ‘Leeds Carnegie’ that even the most diehard United fans would struggle to pick out from a line up.

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.

Rick Passmoor was there that day, too. But ahead of the final, he had been looking forward. “This football club really wants to embrace women’s football, empower, engage and inspire,” he told LUTV in the build-up. “And what we want to do is come away with a result so we inspire the next generation for Leeds United Women.”

Legacy is the word of the moment in women’s football. The FA’s all-in support for the Lionesses came too late for 93-cap international Smith, but last summer she watched as teammates from Leeds’ 2010 cup-winners, Rachel Daly and Ellen White, were crowned European champions. On Sunday at the Armco, the Euros trophy stood pitchside, a monument to the way sporting success can bring about lasting change.

“Over the last few years, it’s been hard times for the ladies,” Passmoor said after the game. “So I want to thank everybody that’s helped us on this road. Not just this season, not just this group, but all the volunteers who have ensured sustainability.

“But now we’re looking for growth for Leeds United Women.” ⬢

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