Spotlight on AFC Wimbledon Ladies – Episode II

All smiles before the campaign starts…

Attack of the front four…

We’re back with the AFC Wimbledon Ladies. In the previous episode we met the manager and some of the players, looked forward to the campaign and got a bit of historical context. Now it’s battle stations with the Womble Alliance beginning their season at Ipswich, plus my first visit ever to an FA Women’s National League game, with Cambridge United the visitors to Colston Avenue…

Match 1: – Ipswich (A) League, D 1-1

FAWNL, Division One SE (D1SE) Goldstar Ground Felixstowe

The campaign opened at Ipswich Town with the Dons needing just 10 minutes to score their first goal of the season. Liz O’Callaghan swung a ball in from the right and Helen Ogle arrived at the back post to head home. In front of the South East Division’s biggest crowd of the day (150) the Dons fought hard to protect their lead, but Abbie Lafayette equalised just before the interval.

The Tractor Girls upped the pressure in the second half but were either profligate in front of goal or found Charlotte Ferguson in excellent form between the posts. Defender Kelly Highman was ‘sin- binned’ for dissent which left the Dons a player short for 10 minutes, but they South West Londoners dug in and held on to take a valuable point from one of the promotion favourites.

Sin-binning, it’s real and it’s in the FA Women’s National League.

“A very good point, we defended very well and as a group managed to see it through, just! Charlotte in goal, Levi in central midfield and goal scorer Helen Ogle all stood out. We moved Sarge [Rebecca Sargent] into to defence for the sin bin period, which meant one less in midfield, however we looked comfortable for that 10 minutes.”

Kevin Foster, AFC Wimbledon Ladies Manager

Two League Cup fixtures sandwiched the first game that the kids and I would attend. The Dons were drawing 1-1 with Actonians in the first match, only for it to be abandoned in stoppage time for a head injury to one of the Actionians players.  When the teams replayed the tie nine days later, AFC Wimbledon just couldn’t find their groove and were beaten 0-2.

Match 2: – Cambridge United (H) League, W 2-0

FAWNL, Division One SE (D1SE) Colston Avenue, Carshalton

POTM, Levi Chambers-Cook versus Cambridge United… (image: Chris Bushe)

Sunday 1st September: My first AFC Wimbledon Ladies’ game would be the Dons’ opening home match of the campaign.  With 7-year old daughter (Emily) and 10-year old son (George) in tow, I thought it best to explain to them that the stadium would have a very different vibe to it than a regular Saturday at Kingsmeadow. I needn’t have worried they loved it. It was a very pleasant afternoon and a very decent performance from the team to boot.

Prior to the match I get to meet briefly with Ladies Team Social Media Guru, Karen Hardy, who provides excellent Twitter updates throughout every Dons game home and away and say ‘hi’ to a few fans that I see at Kingsmeadow on a Saturday. The kids and I settle into the main stand at Colston Avenue which has a handy metal post in the way of our view. So, after shuffling along and spilling a can of coke we’re good to go. Emily will keep score; George will take photos and I’ll record the game.

The teams emerge on to the smart, all-weather pitch – a far cry from the bog that Dave Anderson and Terry Brown’s teams would have played on back in the Ryman days. It’s soon apparent that Dons Manager, Kevin Foster, has gone more attacking than Ipswich, bringing central midfielder Becky Sargent back into the line-up to support also-returning striker Sophie Manzi. The team sets up 4-2-3-1 and make a confident start.

Playing from left to right, Dons captain Katie ‘Stanners’ Stanley has an early sighter from a free kick which fizzes over the bar and ‘Sarge’ heads two opportunities wide; one from a corner, and the other after a good interchange between right back Rosie Russell and the increasingly influential Stanley.

The skipper, playing wide right, then sets up Manzi but she blasts over; not a mistake she will replicate when a second chance arrives later in the half.

Another Stanley free kick has the U’s keeper scrambling, pushing the ball around the post for a corner and, moments later, the match grind to a halt for one of those moments you can only have at a grass roots football match – a dog gets loose and runs on to the pitch. ‘Stanners’, ever aware,  assesses the situation and wastes little time in getting hold of the offending canine, promptly sticking it under her arm and marching it back to its owner.

Yes, that is a dog under the Captain’s arm…

The resumption favours the hosts who take the lead immediately. Working a short corner from the right, Stanley cuts inside on to her left foot and unleashes a shot that’s too hot for the keeper to handle. Helen Ogle is on hand to convert the rebound via a desperate attempted clearance by the Cambridge defender. It is the Dons left winger’s third strike in three games.  Only it’s not. The half time committee marks it down as an own goal, even though the smattering of fans behind the goal swear Helen’s effort was on target.

Cambridge kick off and Charlotte Ferguson’s goal is threatened for the first time, but she takes a high shot comfortably. ‘Fergs’ hasn’t had much to do, but she’s had plenty to say as the most vocal member of the group on the field – keeping the defence switched on, ensuring the midfield know she expects them to be sharp to the second ball and encouraging the attackers when moves break down.

On 36 minutes the Dons get their second. Stanley wins a scruffy challenge midway in the U’s half and plays Manzi into space. The striker has enough pace to ease away from three chasing defenders and strokes a confident, low finish into the keeper’s bottom left-hand corner.

Just before the break, Stanners cuts in from the right again and brings the best out of the Cambridge stopper, who paws the ball away at full stretch.

At the break I head for the bar and upset a lady with my ignorance of bar/queue etiquette. After apologising several times, I slink away with a coffee and two mars bars and head for the end the Dons will be attacking, free from sightline issues. The kids join me and now George can get some action shots. Fellow fan Bert Dale joins me. Some other fans have moved ends, ‘old-skool’, non-league style.

The second half lacks some of the tempo of the first, but the Dons still create chances. Steph Mann drives wide from the edge of the box, Stanners hits the post with another left-footed attempt and, somewhere amidst a raft of substitutions, Helen Ogle’s 20-yard effort cannons off the same upright following a super through ball from composed centre back Sarah Wentworth.

Liz Berkeley, Jade Davenport and Georgia ‘Cheesey’ Heasman join the fray, replacing eventual player-of-the-match Levi Chambers-Cook, Sophie Manzi and Katie Stanley respectively. It’s left to keep Ferguson to have the last word – literally and metaphorically – making a superb, diving save low to her right and protecting the clean sheet.  All in all, a very good day’s work…

Match 3: – Stevenage (H), W 4-2

FAWNL, Division One SE (D1SE) Colston Avenue, Carshalton

Captain, Katie Stanley, on the ball versus Stevenage… (image: Chris Bushe)

Week three of the Dons’ FAWNL season would follow the disappointing League Cup defeat but it was worth noting how manager Kevin Foster had rotate some players into the side to give them match time, including teenage debutant Charlotte Flood who came on upfront against Actonians and caused them some problems.

“Never nice to lose however lots of positives to take, players coming back and getting minutes and young Charlotte showing she has a promising future. Looking forward to getting back to the league on Sunday.”

Kevin Foster, via Twitter

Sunday’s team was less surprising. The only switch from the previous league game was Liz O’Callaghan replacing Levi Chambers-Cook in midfield.

The Dons took a one-goal lead into the break with a 38th minute strike from Katie Stanley. The captain would double that advantage ten minutes into the second half, and it looked like Helen Ogle had made the game safe just past the hour, thumping her effort in off the bar.

Stevenage rallied late on and the teams traded goals in the final ten minutes. Louise Godden scored for the visitors before Sophie Manzi reinstated the Dons’ three-goal cushion. Amy Makewell’s consolation effort pretty much from the restart clawed back some respectability and reduced the damage to their goal difference but the Dons never looked in serious trouble of throwing the result away.

By four o’clock the Dons were sat fifth in the table, three points behind pacesetters Billericay Town.

“We weren’t at our best for the Stevenage game. However, it’s a good sign if the team is not playing at the level you expect and still winning. Their young goalkeeper had a game to remember, making five or six excellent saves.  However, Katie Stanley showed great pressure for her two goals, Helen Ogle’s goal typifies how good a player she is, and Sophie Manzi is getting better each game.”

Kevin Foster, AFC Wimbledon Ladies Manager

Match 4: AFC Basildon (A), D 2-2

FAWNL, Division One SE (D1SE) Park Lane, Canvey Island FC, SS8 7P

Leading scorer, Helen Ogle, versus AFC Basildon… (image: Jason Clogg)

Fifth played sixth next. Most of us would have been pleasantly surprised by the Indian Summer that hit halfway through September. For the AFC Wimbledon Ladies, though, it arrived directly ahead of their fixture at AFC Basildon. To call this one a physical encounter in baking hot weather would not be an understatement, but it was also memorable for a thrilling second half comeback by Kevin Foster’s side.   

Following a couple of smart, early saves by Ferguson, Basildon went ahead on 22 minutes through young striker Holly Turner, who won an aerial ball and then drove low inside the right-hand post from 18 yards.

The Dons weathered some bruising challenges and got into their rhythm. Looking the stronger of the two teams towards the end of the first period, they then imploded allowing Kelly Wealthall to make it 0-2 with three minutes of the half remaining.

I can’t tell you exactly what Kevin Foster said at half time (he’s been tight lipped on this one!). What I do know is that he made a double substitution, bringing Levi Chambers-Cook and Liz Berkeley into the game giving them plenty of time to make an impact.

And it was looking good pretty much straight from the restart. The referee awarded a penalty to the Dons early in the second half for handball. Captain Katie Stanley stepped up, but would be disappointed not to even make keeper work, shanking her effort wide.

Undeterred, they pressed on and finally got some reward for their efforts when birthday girl, Helen Ogle, scored just shy of the hour.

‘Fergs’ had to be on her game shortly afterwards, saving from Turner with the match moving rapidly from end to end in the searing heat. And it was an important stop. Ten minutes later, in the midst of some penalty box pinball, substitute Liz Berkeley kept her head to steer the ball home for 2-2.

Fergs still had time to make one more terrific stop before the end, and Chambers-Cook nearly won it at the death for Wimbledon. The Dons remained fifth, still unbeaten in league along with the other four sides above them.

“A great game to endorse women’s #FAWNL football, lots of lessons to learn for the girls. Many thanks to @AFC_Basildon for their hospitality. A fun afternoon all in good spirits on the touchline.”

Kevin Foster, via Twitter

Match 5: Cambridge City (H), D 1-1

FAWNL, Division One SE (D1SE) Colston Avenue, Carshalton

George, prepared for the worst of the weather…

The weather would be entirely more autumnal the following weekend when the kids and I returned to active match-watching duty at Colston Avenue. The Dons were taking on Cambridge City, who’d laboured to pick up just a single point in their opening four matches and conceded 14 goals on the way.

I’d been warned by some fellow supporters not to take this as a sign that we should expect a comfortable home victory. But I’ve been watching the men’s team for years and their matches have never been a done deal against opponents down the bottom of the table… Believe me, I’m still smarting from a 2-1 Kingsmeadow defeat to Ryman basement boys Harrow Borough from 2007!

Centre back Hannah Billingham came in for her first league start, replacing Sarah Wentworth, while Liz Berkeley would swap in for Jordanne Hoesli-Atkins at left back. Liz O’Callaghan wasn’t fit enough to make the eleven, so combative midfielder Levi Chambers-Cook returned to duties alongside Steph Mann.

And the Dons began the match well, knocking the ball around confidently and playing through the lines. However, with the City keeper well positioned to sweep up many of the final passes, chances were frustratingly limited. Katie ‘Stanners’ Stanley drew a good parry midway through the first half and the hosts raised their tempo again sensing that they could nudge themselves in front before the break.   

‘Stanners’ had another effort saved and Sophie Manzi was denied twice before Steph Mann tried her luck from 30-odd-yards.

With the Dons backline generally looking comfortable, goalkeeper Charlotte Ferguson had rarely look troubled, punching one cross clear and saving cleanly from the Cambridge 10. But the visitors were now at least starting show they had some teeth.

Then a moment that would have had Wimbledon supporters absolutely frothing in a League One scenario: Katie Stanley drove the ball goalward from the right touchline but, just as it squirmed through the keeper’s grasp, the referee blew for half time. Cue confused looks between spectators, a frustrated home bench and some sheepish smiles between the Cambridge players.

The Dons dusted themselves down and began the second half in the same attacking vein. Within five minutes they had the lead. Rebecca Sargent found Stanley on the right and the captain’s cross was powered high into the net by Steph Mann arriving in the box. The keeper probably should have done better, but there was no ref’s whistle to spare her blushes this time.

Looking to press home their advantage, ‘Sarge’ was then denied on the goal line and Helen Ogle had a free kick saved. But City’s attack again forged their way into the game, creating a couple of dangerous overloads down the Dons’ right, and working a cross from a short corner routine that ‘Fergs’ had to snuff out at her near post.

Rebecca Sargent is denied on the goal line versus Cambridge City

Having been restricted to half chances at best, a mix up in the home defence on 71 minutes allowed Megan Tonks time in the box to pick her spot and she made no mistake.  The belief in the visitors was palpable, while the Dons suddenly looked tired. Charlotte Flood came on to add pep to the Dons forward line, but Cambridge didn’t allow the teenager a clean touch of the ball.

The match starting moving end to end with City looking to exploit space in behind the full backs, who were gamely continuing to push on to create overlaps. The Cambridge 12 fired over from distance before ‘Fergs’ gathered a fairly tame header from close range. Now the kids and I were just hoping to hold on to the unbeaten league record. It was all so much closer than the first half suggested it should have been.

To be fair, the Wombles did find a second wind to rally in the closing minutes, with Stanners and Mann having chances. But it was not to be. It felt like two points dropped and, although the Dons remained fifth, they lost ground on the top three (Leyton Orient, Billericay and Ipswich) who all won.   

“A tough day at the office and everyone knows we need to be better, unfortunate to have a goal disallowed in first half as whistle for half time is blown, as the goalkeeper misses it…”

Kevin Foster, via Twitter
Dons, unbeaten in fifth spot.

AFC Wimbledon Ladies now have their own website, which you should check out: https://www.afcwimbledonladies.co.uk/ The most excellent Karen Hardy keeps the Dons’ social media churning at @afcw_ladies and she provides match reports, photos, updates, profiles, match details and loads of other info that keeps people like me in the loop, particularly when we can’t be at games. Live reporting on Twitter is pretty fast moving but she makes it look easy. There are plenty of Karen’s observations squirreled away in here, so thank you Karen, great job…

Many thanks also to Jason Clogg (@dbcloggy) and Chris Bushe Photography (@justacunningfox) for permission to use their photos in this blogpost…

2 thoughts on “Spotlight on AFC Wimbledon Ladies – Episode II

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