For Palace Ladies, this was a weekend of two halves. First up, ahead of the last game of the season was a special trip to Selhurst Park, where the FA Women’s Premier League winners trophy was to be presented at half time in the game against Stoke City.
In what is always a party occasion at the last home game of the season, the players were greeted with an overwhelming level of support, and that was outside the ground when soaking up the atmosphere.
Then, came the moment that all the hard work had been leading to. At half time, centre stage in from of over 20,000 Palace fans, The Ladies stepped up, through a guard of honour onto the hallowed turf, receiving their individual medals before assembling for the presentation of the very fine silverware, from the FAWPL Chairman, Carol West.
The following ten minutes were scenes that none of the players will forget. Parading the cup around the pitch and being recognised by all fans present; a sign of exactly how far women’s football is progressing and quite how much the Palace faithful have taken Palace Ladies to heart. It was a truly memorable and very emotional experience, that was brought to a halt when everyone realised that the match had kicked off again! Before the players could leave pitch side, Palace had equalised and then went on to win. Surely not a coincidence!
Following the end of the game and numerous photo calls, including with Alan Pardew and Wilf Zaha, The Ladies headed away, knowing that there was one more task in hand. The final league game of the season and a chance to make it an unbeaten league campaign. No time to extend the celebrations.
Speaking as he left Selhurst Park, Head Coach, Dean Davenport was already thinking of the next day: “The girls know that we are not finished, and whilst they have had a wonderful day today, and thoroughly deserve it, we have one final task to complete. Effectively, one more cup final. Tomorrow, we have the chance to turn a historic season, into one that will go down in history.”
Sunday morning saw an early start for the long trip to Norwich. Arriving at lunchtime on the hottest day of the year, to a pitch that very much needed some water, the task was never going to be easy, against a determined, resolute and ever-improving Norwich City team. The Eagles had travelled light due to a number of late season absentees, but Davenport remained in confident mood.
“We know the strengths of Norwich, who dug deep against us earlier in the season, but I am happy that the players here today can deliver," he had said. "We have shown, all season that we are a talented squad and have a depth that others have not been able to match. It will be a case of the players getting into the game and us all assessing the best way forwards”
The first half was not an overly free-flowing affair, with the pitch conditions and surprisingly stiff breeze accounting for a multitude of misplaced passes from both teams. Played at a high rate by the hosts, Palace needed to find a way of managing the game. Whilst the easiest answer to this was to score, they were, at times guilty of trying too hard.
However, on forty-three minutes one of the all too few, rare moments of quality was seen, when Alma Donohoe received the ball on the left corner of the box and unleashed a phenomenal left footed strike into the top corner, to send Palace one up and start to settle any nerves that they had. Even within the final minutes of the half, The Eagles started to look more like their usual selves and started to pin the hosts back. In fairness to Norwich, they did not give up and continued to threaten on the counter-attack.
One such occasion saw Pammy McRoberts clear from the line with the courage and determination that has been synonymous with this team all season. Knowing that impact was a certainty, McRoberts managed to get her head to the ball, a split second before the on-rushing opponent and the inevitable clash of heads occurred. Typically, McRoberts, dusted herself down and resumed duties, with the half time break arriving with one goal separating the teams.
The second half started with the team putting into effect what had been asked of them by Davenport at half time. Press harder on Norwich and higher up the pitch. Palace were soon playing the passing game that has become their trademark this season, stretching a tiring Norwich, notably through the width created by Jade Davenport and Donohoe.
It was this increase in tempo and pressure that gained a very quick reward, when a sustained period of Palace possession, initiated by one of many long range and testing throw- ins from Lexie Spokes, found leading goal scorer Gemma Bryan in the box. With her usual deft touch and control, she created the slightest scoring opportunity and clinically dispatched, to put Palace two up. With any pressure that may, understandably, have been felt, The Eagles eased into a free-flowing spell of football.
With the width being exploited by Donohoe and Leanne Bell, and the central areas controlled by the imperious Roschelle Shakes and Fran Ali, Palace were actively seeking a third. This occasionally led to a break from the hosts although these were dealt with confidently and professionally by the partnership of Lexie Spokes, Sarah Jones and substitute Liz Berkeley.
Bryan, alongside the ever-threatening Nicha Dyett remained a constant problem for the Norwich defence and the partnership continued to work many opportunities. However, it was from the wide areas that Palace scored their third; a team goal typical of their season. With the ball worked well through the team, with Shakes, the conductor of proceedings, Donohoe found herself one on one with the full-back. A feign to the right and quick shift to the left, allowed her to beat the defender on the outside and place the most inviting cross, into the six yard area. With Dyett and Bryan taking the attention of the defence, it was Bell, who had come in from the right flank, who rose and hung in the air to meet the ball and find the power to head home into the top corner. This was a goal that was the ideal illustration of Palace Ladies this season. Scored with panache, precision and through total team work.
The remainder of the game was played out with Palace domination and the score line kept down through the never-say-die attitude of Norwich and a noteworthy fingertip save from the Canaries’ keeper from a McRoberts rocket.
The match also saw a moment to savour when Sam Saint, Palace keeper for 21 consecutive seasons, pulled on an outfield shirt and played the last ten minutes up front; even finding time to unleash a shot that saw a fairy tale ending denied by a fine defensive block.
Upon the full-time whistle, the emotions were clear to see, from players, staff and the diligent and dedicated Palace Ladies fans. A season that was now over, but one that would never be forgotten. Palace Ladies were FAWPL (Division One) Champions, with statistics that read; Played 22. Won 20. Drawn 2. Lost 0. Goals for 90. Goal against 17. Palace Ladies were League Invincibles.
Speaking after the match, a proud Dean Davenport could not praise the team enough, saying: “What these girls achieved today is a true reflection of their season. No matter what is thrown in their way, opponents, conditions or squad changes, they deal with it, with class and professionalism. I am over the moon and could not be prouder. We asked them all to buy into a plan, one that started a few years ago now. Many had to adjust their style of play and thinking, but they bought into it. They can now all look back and know that they were a part of something very special.”
Asked what he was most pleased about from the game at Norwich, Dean added: “Today was difficult for a number of reasons. Not least due to the pressure that the girls put on themselves. The games since we secured the title at MK Dons have been tough, as everyone wants to be beat the champions and our girls had to maintain their levels. But they have done everything needed, on every occasion. They have earned the right to be champions and today we have been able to go one stage further. The league history books will show that we won the title. Crystal Palace FC folklore will rightfully show that we did it as invincibles.”
Also at the game was Palace Ladies Chairman, Richard Spokes who spoke proudly of the season: “I cannot find words to explain the respect that I have for this group of people and what they have achieved; not just for this season but for our club in terms of aspiration, for years to come.
"They deserve all the respect that they are getting from across our game. Thanks to them, will now play in the top tier of the FA Women’s Premier League, as we move closer to the reality of becoming a Women’s Super League set up. We would all like to thank everyone who is making this possible, from within Crystal Palace FC, sponsors and media alike. We look forwards to the hard work of next season and bringing even more enjoyment to an incredible fan base that we are developing. As ever, Palace Ladies are South London And Proud.”