Crystal Palace Ladies continued their adjustment to the top tier of The FA Women's Premier League, on Sunday, with a determined display away at Queens Park Rangers Ladies. Played on a good pitch at Uxbridge FC, made slicker by the regular rain showers, the match was fast-moving and at times, in the early stages, to the detriment of final elements of quality.
The hosts started with high levels of energy and looked to prevent Palace from gaining a grip on proceedings. The Eagles, backed by the travelling faithful, took a little while to settle, in what was a frantic opening ten minutes. Slowly, Palace (this week without Roschelle Shakes and Gemma Bryan) started to use their possession to their advantage, moving the ball and opposition around the pitch as they looked to generate meaningful opportunities in the final third.
Despite a flurry of corners that resulted from the pressure, Palace were made to wait until the 25th minute for a clear cut opportunity. Created by Abi Igbavboa, who put in a positive run down the right flank, beating the full back and covering centre back before delivering an inch perfect cross for the on-rushing Alma Donohoe who headed just wide from close range.
Palace continued to apply the pressure, with little in the way of work for the back four or Chanell Yardley. With five minutes to go before the break, following a speculative shot by Leanne Bell, Palace again went close through the industrious Ciara Sherwood who fired a free-kick from twenty-yards, that was destined for the top corner; had it not been for a stunning, athletic save from The Rangers' number one.
The general feeling at half time was one of frustration, in respect of the lack for reward for the efforts made; knowing that at the new level, missed opportunities are often punished by one chance at the other end.
The Eagles came out in positive mood for the second half and immediately set about adding the missing ingredient. A goal.
With Leesa Haydock continuing to run things from midfield, Palace set about the task well. It seemed as if they had their reward on 57 minutes when Nicha Dyett was set through, one on one with the keeper. As the travelling fans prepared to celebrate, the ball, somehow, found itself running wide of the right hand post.
The Palace pressure continued, with Yardley remaining almost unemployed in the Palace goal.
Palace fans started to fear the worst when two penalty claims in a minute were waved away by the referee, despite some credible claims. These fears were accentuated when summer signing Ellie Bailes hit a pearl of shot from outside the area on 64 minutes . Again, the goal-bound shot was superbly saved by the keeper.
On 67 minutes, Palace replaced Dyett with Ellie Stenning as they looked for the illusive and warranted goal. The next substitution was for the referee who was unable to continue (back injury). With no fourth official, an agreement was reached for a QPR official to take to the line.
With Palace looking the stronger, as the hosts tired during second period, Palace added fresh legs in the 75th minute with Fran Ali and Tia Foreman replacing Abi Igbavboa and Ellie Bailes. The changes worked well and allowed greater exploitation of the flanks, notably the left with Donohoe and Bell working well together.
And it was the eighteen year-old Bell who eased the Palace fears in the 82nd minute when her energy and pace allowed her to latch onto a ball over the right back. Collecting the ball, in the left channel, around thirty-five metres from goal, Bell made a powerful run, deftly dribbling the ball whilst positioning herself in front of the recovering defender. As she approached the area, she positioned herself well, drew the keeper, opened up and exquisitely placed the ball into the corner of the net. Cue serious scenes of celebration and relief amongst the Palace ranks.
Palace saw out the remaining ten minutes with some more incisive football and tactical awareness to secure a thoroughly deserved and hard fought first three points in the new league.
Speaking after the match, Palace Coach, Clinton Lancaster was full of praise for the squad, "It was great to get our first three points at the new level, and consolidate a fine performance last weekend. Despite changes this week, the girls showed that we have good depth and the ability to adapt to what is needed. Whilst it was starting to look like we may not get what we deserved today, the players did what they do best; kept to the plan, believed in themselves and delivered."
Speaking of the goal that finally split the two teams, Lancaster added, "It was great for Leanne to score today. She applied some advice given recently and the rest was down to her natural ability. It was a lovely finish, and just what the whole team performance deserved today."
Asked as to how he felt the new season was looking and what lay ahead, Lancaster added, "We always knew that if we played to our best, we would not be out of place at the higher level, Taking four points from the first two games of a number of difficult early fixtures, is great, but we are only as good as our next game. It is a solid start, but that is all. A start."
Lancaster was also very keen, on behalf of all involved at Palace Ladies, to highlight a fond farewell to a stalwart of the team over the last three seasons. "Today was the last game for Katy Morris, who has been a huge part of our recent successes and captained The Invincibles of last season. She has helped us to two promotions in three years, but now leaves the UK for Canada as part of her work commitments. We are all sad to see Katy go and are immensely grateful for her commitment and dedication to our efforts over the past few years. She has fully embodied the Palace spirit and just what this team and club are about. We wish her all the very best."
Palace Ladies travel to Keynsham Town in the FA Cup next Sunday, in a short break from FAWPL league action. All the latest news on The Ladies can be found at crystalpalaceladiesfc.co.uk and @PalaceLadiesFC