Crystal Palace Ladies returned to long awaited FA Women’s Premier League action after a prolonged New Year break, extended by Cup duties and the recent poor weather. Arriving at the ground with a strong squad, Head Coach, Dean Davenport was in confident mood, looking forwards to a close game against league long termers, Luton Town Ladies.
“It feels like we have been waiting a long time for this game. With such a strong first half to the season and some significant contenders at the top of the table, we could have done with maintaining the momentum of 2015. We arrive today in good form having won well last time out and trained well in the week”.
Asked whether the absence of key player Leesa Haydock would affect the team, Dean was upbeat. “We have a good strength squad and whilst Leesa will be missed, we have cover, and look in good shape.”
Palace started in lively fashion with a degree of early possession, in blustery conditions at Hayes Lane. For all that they won the early battles, and a number of early corners, they rarely threatened the Luton goal. The visitors ensured that they always made life difficult for Palace with tight marking and hard work in closing The Eagles down. This unsettled Palace who lost much of their usual rhythm and intent. This change in momentum was a crucial part of the game and saw Luton gain in stature and press Palace, higher up the field. On twenty-five minutes, the inability for Palace to regain any form of control of the game was punished when a through ball from the Luton left side was not cleared and was placed home with ease past the stranded Yardley in the Palace goal.
Following what should have been, and usually is, a wake-up call, Palace continued to look out of sorts. Effort was present but the usual quality absent.
Palace were again exposed following a wayward pass from the back, which was intercepted and punished with a Luton second on forty minutes. In reality, half time could not come soon enough for Palace, who needed to regroup and put in a performance that any title contender should be capable of.
With Davenport having to deliver the most crucial team talk of the season so far, there was little left unsaid and much asked of a team that has rarely been in such a position in the past few seasons. The following forty-five minutes would not break the Palace title campaign, but could significantly affect it.
The second half resumed with a little more cohesion from the home team, but the same levels of resilience from the visitors. During the first twenty minutes, Davenport began to ring the changes with Leanne Bell, Jade Davenport and Alex Elson replacing Nicha Dyett, Lexie Spokes and Alma Donohoe. This resulted in Palace moving the hard-working Rochelle Shakes further up the pitch, Abi Igbavboa working wide left and allowing Bell to adopt a creative and proactive role in midfield. With the renewed pace and width, Palace pressed forward with added control and poise, creating a number of reasonable shots on goal. This preceded a complete transformation of the game over the following fifteen minutes, during which Palace looked like their usual self and played some scintillating football. The catalyst for the comeback was a quite incredible four minutes, that almost defied belief and, all but destroyed the Luton resolve.
The first breakthrough came in the seventy-third minute following good pressure in the Luton box, when Pammy McRoberts fired into the top corner from twelve yards. Reinvigorated, Palace sought to turn the screw and immediately mounted a fresh assault on the Luton goal. Within a minute of the McRoberts goal, Gemma Bryan was on the score sheet, pulling Palace level with a good finish from fifteen yards.
Before Luton could gather themselves, Palace were at it again. This time, it was the young Bell who teased the Luton defence with skilful dribbling, before setting herself and crashing the ball home from eighteen yards.
Whilst the relief was palpable, with ten minutes still to play and the way that the game had gone, few of the Palace fans present were confident that the job was done. The suspension of celebrations was proved correct when Luton’s star performer, Fenton made the most of too much space in the Palace box and made up for earlier misses with a quality strike to bring the visitors level, on eighty minutes the game had a 3-3 scoreline.
Palace, with continuation of their new belief, retaliated with a further bout of good possession, notably through the continued quality of Shakes, who was dominating the Luton defence. On eighty-two minutes, she cut in from the left, skilfully outwitting two defenders before drawing the keeper and selflessly sliding the ball across the open goal to the on-rushing Bryan who slotted home from two yards. Despite the inevitable efforts from Luton to retrieve a draw, Palace concluded their forty-five minute transformation, dug in and stole an essential three points, that may yet prove crucial in the forthcoming season run-in.
Speaking after the game, a hugely relieved Dean Davenport summed up the game in honest fashion.
“For forty-five minutes we were possibly as poor as I have seen from these girls. We did ourselves no favours and added to our problems by gifting a determined Luton two goals. I know these girls and I knew that this was something that they could reverse, if they believed in their abilities and our tactics. Yes, the half time talk was strong, but not one of the players looked to divert any form of responsibility for the first half.
"We set about the second period well and looked to gain in strength as Luton tired. The benefit of a quality, deep squad, able to adapt, aided this and we got into our rhythm. To be honest, whilst it was somewhat manic and more like a cup tie, the way we attacked in that last fifteen minutes was the real Palace Ladies. Playing with pace, precision, passion and some fabulous goals.”
Asked how he saw the forthcoming Norwich game, Davenport was measured but honest,
“We will treat it like any other game, work hard in training and look to play the way we should for the whole game. Today, at times, we looked anything like league leaders, but when it mattered our Ladies showed they had what it takes to push for the title. What I do know, is that we all hope next week will be less stressful for all concerned!”
Palace Ladies:- Yardley, Morris (C), Jones, Spokes, McRoberts, Holdaway, Igbavboa, Donohoe, Shakes, Dyett, Bryan
Subs used:- Bell, Davenport, Elson
Palace Ladies continue their FAWPL campaign at home to Norwich City Ladies next Sunday, at Bromley FC, Hayes Lane, Bromley, BR2 9EF. Doors open at 12.30pm, the match starts at 1400. Entry is £3 and under 16s enter for free.
If you have a young supporter who would like to be a match mascot, contact the club via @PalaceLadiesFC or www.crystalpalaceladiesfc.co.uk