Gale force

Won with the wind

Written by: Flora Snelson
Artwork by: Lee Brown
Leeds United Women's player Ellie Dobson dribbling with the ball at her feet

“It’s not always easy to come to the north east and play football,” Leeds United Women captain Olivia Smart said after the Whites’ blustery Division One North win over Chester-le-Street Town.

I guess she was talking about the region’s strong football heritage, but on Sunday her biggest concern was not the wealth of talent that springs from Lucy Bronze’s homeland, but the grim, disruptive weather. Ponytails flapping like flags, goalkeepers’ knees knocking at deadballs. It was the kind of afternoon on which the wind could be your twelfth man or your worst nightmare, depending on whether you could figure out how to get it on your side.

Eight minutes into the match, Kath Smith and Jess Rousseau performed an exemplary give and go. As Rousseau pelted upfield for the return ball, even the bobbly pitch couldn’t take the sting out as the wind gave the football far more go than Rousseau’s little legs could muster.

This wasn’t a north east exclusive, though. Winds of 27mph were recorded on Sunday afternoon when my Leeds Hyde Park teammates were playing at the same time. I wasn’t there, but the reports go that they couldn’t get a shot on target for love nor money. Little surprise given that a dearth of good football facilities condemns us to train through the winter on a five-a-side pitch with goals a quarter of the size of our Sunday League nets.

It was telling that the two goals which turned our defeat into a victory weren’t intended as shots. When footage of them was shared on our team WhatsApp group, I thought it was the same video, sent twice. Both followed a simple formula — from a corner, swing the ball into a dangerous area, and let the wind nod the ball into the back of the net for you.

If it’s rough to concede an Olimpico, imagine letting in two, each assisted by the same insuppressible wind.

This was a concern of Chester-le-Street Town manager Phil Hubbard who, after his side had survived their first corner of the game, anxiously urged his players to “attack” the ball as they prepared to defend their second, fighting the noise of the wind to warn his players about its power.

The gust and Sarah Danby combined beautifully to give Town ‘keeper Natalie Parker something to do, and when the ball slipped through Parker’s flapping grasp, Ellie Dobson was there to scorpion kick it into the bottom corner. 1-0 to Leeds with fourteen minutes played.

Whites manager Simon Wood enjoyed their monster County Cup win over Brighouse Town Juniors because it showed that his side could put away chances, which was crucial because they don’t come around often on their adventures in Division 1 North. In the first half at Chester-le-Street, Leeds were determined to prove him wrong. Here you are Town, here’s a chance, now here’s another, why not have one more, actually, as Nichole Havery and Lucy Jamieson passed up successive buriable one-on-ones.

But as Town were missing opportunities to score, Parker was defying Wood by making them on Leeds’ behalf at the other end. She had both the bobble and the wind to point a finger at as her clearance bounced before it had left Town’s box, but Leonie Price had heeded Wood’s warning and wasn’t in the mood to make allowances for the elements. With a rare chance, Price did the sensible thing, controlling the ball before hitting it well over the ‘keeper’s head into the back of the net.

Soon, Leeds United were making Parker’s job of distributing even harder. The wind was the least of her worries as United worked out how to stop the hosts playing out from the back. This time, the bobble saved the blushes of the Chester-le-Street left-back who was hassled off the ball by Kathryn Smith. Shimmied across to top scorer Rousseau, the ball was unpredictable, escaping her predictable finish, a big chance missed before United headed into half-time with a two-goal cushion they hoped would be enough when switching ends brought with it a renegotiation of gale force winds.

The pressure only increased after the break. As the referee told players to “calm it down” after a series of crunching tackles, the corner flags were almost on the ground, truly a GCSE English teacher’s wet dream.

Chances were scarce as Leeds got stuck in their half again, pinned back by the wind and cheap concessions of possession. Town manager Hubbard was rabid with enthusiasm on the touchline, insisting that his side match the elements with their energy. Spurred on by his shouts and remembering Leeds’ second goal, a blue shirt robbed Charlyann Pizzarello of the ball at a goal kick, paving the way for Jenny Ashton to smack in a first-time half-volley to halve the hosts’ deficit.

With the comeback kicked off by pure grit and desire, it was cruel that the pinball turf at Moor Park should have a hand in putting the hope of salvaging a point out of Town’s reach. If this had been St James’ Park, then Parker would not have thought twice about rushing out to sweep up Smith’s long ball. It was well-weighted, but Parker might have made it had the ball not randomly held up on its first bounce, causing her to think twice. She went hell for leather, in the end, but the moment’s hesitation gave Rousseau the edge in the foot race and, once committed, coming second spelled disaster.

In January, I scored a similar goal. As we prepared to kick off after half-time, the ref was in my ear about it. They do this sometimes. It can’t be much fun being a lower-tier Sunday League referee, getting stick from whiny players and their entourage of always-right men in the technical area while huffing and puffing up and down a pitch considerably less stable underfoot than Moor Park. You have to get your fun when you can and sometimes that means gassing up the players.

“You did well to get it in from that angle,” he said. “People imagine all the work is finished once you’ve rounded the ‘keeper.”

I don’t usually take wisdoms from referees but this one stuck with me. An empty net is only profitable if you can hit it, and the target must have looked about 3cm wide from the byline, where Rousseau collected the ball after pushing it out of Parker’s reach. But the striker wasn’t phased by the glamour of the self-made opportunity, the excitable voices on the touchline or Wood’s warning that chances are nowhere to be seen round these parts.

Instead of hitting it at the first chance she got, a composed Rousseau wound her way to a better position, seating Town captain Brogan Prudhoe, who had raced back to prevent her, en route. The momentum of her run brought her to her knees after the ball went in, but the ground wouldn’t accommodate a celebratory slide.

United’s 3-1 win over Chester Le Street Town puts Leeds nine points off the top spot, with ten games left to play. The game showed they can finish chances, harness the elements, and find a win even when things are messy. It left manager Wood “full of pride” as the Whites aim to make the end of their league season count. “Teams will drop results,” he said. “We’ve got to make sure we’re picking up results to put pressure on those teams.” ⬢


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