Palace Ladies took another step towards their aim of achieving the sole promotion spot in The League this season, with a hard earned draw at fellow title contenders, Gillingham, on Sunday.
The Gills, who lost to unbeaten Palace earlier in the season but have since remained unbeaten themselves, remain the main title threat alongside The Eagles, were looking to reverse the three points lost in October, in a bid to keep tabs on the South Londoners.
The game, played at Chatham FC was always going to be a tight, tense affair and so it proved to be. A bright Palace start was halted by a Gillingham injury delay in the fifth minute. The delay allowed the hosts to draw breath and slowly settle into passages of play that not only disrupted Palace but threatened them too.
With the stakes high, and any indiscretion or mistake being pulled up by the officials, a period of frustration ensued as Palace faltered in their efforts to find rhythm. This was capitalised upon when a free kick was awarded to the hosts on the edge of the box, in the 28th minute. This set piece was well dispatched by Emma Tune into the left hand corner to send Gillingham one up. Palace immediately sought to bring themselves back into the game, but continued to look susceptible to the Gillingham front line pace.
The Palace regrouping did produce some sights of goal, but these were comfortably dealt with by Gillingham ‘keeper, Shanly. On the whole, The Eagles were somewhat out of sorts against a positive and determined home team, whose tactics frustrated the league leaders.
With the half time break being a welcome opportunity for The Eagles to regroup, manager Dean Davenport ensured that the Palace Ladies knew what was needed of them for a crucial forty-five minutes ahead. Not for the first time, this season, Palace put an under par first half behind them and hit the ground running for the second period.
With The Eagles midfield becoming instantly more effective, chances were soon created, notably in the early stages by Abi Igbavboa who cut in from the left on a number of occasions and let loose some testing shots on the home goal. This acted as a catalyst for the Eagles, who sensed a drop in energy levels and defensive lines by the home team. The in-form Gemma Bryan also started to find a little more space and efforts on goal, that on other occasions may have resulted in a more positive outcome.
With Palace almost exclusively camped in the Gillingham half, Davenport looked to turn the screw and brought on Rochelle Shakes in the sixty-fifth minute, for Nicha Dyett. The strength of Shakes was immediately a benefit as Palace looked to move the ball inside, through the industrious Leanne Bell and Igbavboa, to Shakes who created an effective link up with Bryan.
The impact of Shakes was clear for all to see and she was involved in everything that Palace were throwing at the home side. And, it was in the seventy-seventh minute that following a perfect through ball, Shakes broke into the area and was set for a chance on goal before being tripped by a pursuing Gills defender. Penalty awarded to Palace.
In what was to be a truly significant strike of the ball, a kick that could have a determining effect on the hopes of both teams for the season, Gemma Bryan placed the ball and calmly settled ahead of the referee’s whistle. With the vocal Palace fans, collectively holding their breath, Bryan coolly strode up and placed the spot kick into the bottom right hand corner.
The sense of relief was palpable amongst the Palace team and fans as The Eagles maintained their positive approach for the following ten minutes, again testing the determined but fading home defence. With the ninety minutes and injury time approaching, Gillingham, needing the three points made one last rally and went for broke with some late attacks, one resulting in a free kick from similar range as that in the first half. On this occasion, Sam Saint in the Palace goal was able to see the ball clear the bar. The Eagles ended the match in the Gillingham half, using possession well to reduce any further threat.
On the final whistle, the emotions of this drawn game were clear for all to see. The relief of Palace and disappointment of Gillingham summed up who the result favoured most, in what had been a frenetic match where the lack in usual levels of quality were made up for through drama and passion.
Speaking after the game, Palace captain, Katy Morris, who had marshalled the Palace defence throughout the game commented: “We are rightly pleased with the result today, particularly after the first half. Taking a point from a trip to a title rival is no bad thing. We were not quite ourselves in the part of the game and Gillingham took advantage.
"In the second half, however, we showed our credentials and the spirit we have across the squad. The girls dug deep and relied on their experience, belief and what it means to be representing Crystal Palace Football Club”
Manager Dean Davenport was also, happy, if not relieved with the result, saying: “We knew that this would be a tough test today, against a team that doesn’t leak too many goals. We had a game plan that didn’t quite pan out as we hoped in the first half and to their credit, Gillingham made us pay.
"At half time, whilst disappointed that we had come in a goal down, I knew that we still had plenty to give and that our girls had the mental strength to see it through. To be honest, there was only one team in that last forty-five and we could and perhaps should have had a couple of goals.”
Dean was keen to keep his feet on the ground in terms of the impact of the result: “People have been talking about how this was some form of title decider. Yes, it was a big game, that would have an impact on the season run-in, but decided, this league is not.
"That would be disrespectful to the teams we have yet to play and those battling around us. We still have nine games left and need to treat each of those with the respect they deserve. You don’t win leagues like this in February. So, it is back to the hard work in training and making sure that we treat the next game we play as importantly as we did todays match”.
Palace Ladies make the long trip to Lowestoft Town on Sunday 06th March in the first of two consecutive league away games before returning to Bromley FC for home games on 20th and 27th March.