Spotlight on AFC Wimbledon Ladies – The Class of 2020…

Life is not without a sense of humour for an occasional blog site like D2B. Last season’s women’s football was cut off in its prime by the Coronavirus and here we are in season 2020/21 preparing to take our first look at AFC Wimbledon Ladies and the entire National League has just been shut down by a second (albeit hopefully shorter) England-wide lockdown. Well, we weren’t deterred last season and we’re absolutely going to plough on again, giving you a breakdown of all that ‘Wombelles’ action to date…

The Class of 2020 – Hopes are high for supporters of the Dons Ladies this season after a strong 2019 campaign.

For those of you that may not know much about AFC Wimbledon Ladies and don’t want to trawl back through old blogs here’s a quick recap. They play in Division One South East (D1SE) of the FA Women’s National League, which is tier four of the football pyramid (1. WSL; 2. Championship; 3. National League North and South; 4. Division One Level – four regional divisions).

There are 12 teams in the division – effectively unchanged from last season although AFC Basildon merged with Hashtag United and took their name. So, along with the Dons the league contains: Actonians, Billericay Town, Cambridge City, Cambridge United, Enfield Town, Hashtag United, Ipswich Town, Kent Football United, Leyton Orient, Norwich City and Stevenage.

Summer 2020

Getting snazzy with the new signing announcements on Social Media…

“After a long time out due to COVID-19, and the 2019/20 season finishing early, the girls were excited to get back to pre-season training. Throughout the summer, it’s been really, really positive, and we’ve been able to make a number of additions to the squad – from higher leagues, girls from lower leagues who have stood out, experienced pros – as well as younger girls. We’re really happy now with the blend of talent that we’ve brought in, along with our key players from last year.”

Kevin Foster, Manager AFC Wimbledon Ladies (18 Sept 2020)

Training was permitted to start again towards the end of June and the management team, led by Kevin Foster got busy working with the players and looking to secure some talented new plato supplement a squad that finished 2nd behind Ipswich Town when the FAWNL was abandoned in March.

Abdullah Kheir became head coach supported by Kevin Finnerty and Blaine Walsh. Matt Abbott joined the team to look after the players’ off-field welfare on match days and from his clinic. 

Goalkeeping Coach John Parker began his fifteenth consecutive year with the club but would soon be working with new potential first team custodians following Charlotte Ferguson’s announcement that she was leaving the club and moving to Scotland for working opportunities.

Ferguson wasn’t the only departure from the ranks. Striker Sophie Manzi transferred to Dulwich Hamlet and midfielder Lily Stephens headed to Oxford United.

The Dons signed six players to bolster the ranks. London and South East Women’s Football League top scorer Jess Lewry was the first to join. A forward also capable of playing an attacking midfield role, Lewry has had spells with Chichester City and Whyteleafe.

Rebecca ‘Chewy’ Carter arrived just after Lewry from Southern Premier title challengers Crawley Wasps having scored four times in seven appearances last season. Previously Carter had played at Women’s Championship level for Lewes.

“Had a bit of time out from football for 6 months which was needed. I’m ready for my next challenge at this ambitious club!”

Rebecca Carter, via Twitter 25 Jun

Two goalkeepers came in next. Megan Drew made the move from WSL Tottenham Hotspur with first team opportunities limited, while ‘All-American’ stopper Lauren Clem returned to the Dons having enjoyed a player of the match performance in her 2019 debut.

Chloe Sampson, a veteran attacking midfielder with 10-years at Queens Park Rangers would add experience, depth and opportunities for Kevin Foster to tactically rotate individuals, while younger midfielder Alice Curr offered pace and directness coming over to the Dons after a spell at Fulham.

Pre-season opportunities were limited with social distancing a key concern, but the Dons were able to play out a 0-0 draw with National League South Side Portsmouth. And into the new campaign they headed…

Sunday 20th September – Enfield (H) W 3-2

The Dons began their 2020/21 fixture programme against Enfield Town, a team that had always provided tough opposition in previous meetings.

On arrival supporters would discover that the free entry on offer last season was no more. The club now charge £3 entry at Colston Avenue – which (in my view) has to be the way forward for all women’s teams now and in the future. For that each entrant gets a football match and a modest match day programme, including squad lists that they can peruse with their cup of tea. 

It’s beginning to look a lot more like football and didn’t seem to upset any of the 150 spectators that showed up to cheer for their respective team.

For opening day Lauren Clem had secured the number one jersey with the Dons. New signings Chloe Sampson and Rebecca Carter made their debuts in the attack.

Kevin Foster had adjusted the shape from last season’s back four, going with three central defenders, playing Steph Mann deeper as a midfield spoiler and asking Rosie Russell and Liz Berkeley to take on wingback roles. This would presumably allow Sampson, Sargent and Carter to focus more on attacking.

Enfield looked the brightest in a shocking pink kit but it was the Dons that started the brightest with early sights of goal for Katie Stanley and Chloe Sampson.

The visitors soon grew into the contest, though, and Liz Berkeley had to be on her toes to block a rebound on the goal line after Clem had parried the first attempt.

Rebecca Sargent headed just over the bar on 25 minutes before the Dons talismanic forward Katie Stanley was denied twice by the Towners stopper Sophy Stonehouse in the same one-on-one situation.

But just as Wimbledon were building a head of steam, winger (and women’s football TV presenter) Mollie Kmita put the visitors in front on 36 minutes.

Never a side to drop their heads the Wombelles went straight back on to the offensive. Centre back Kelly Highman played Stanley in behind the defence but her clever chip cleared not only Stonehouse but the cross bar as well.

Three minutes before the break the Dons were rewarded for their efforts. Carter got on to a ball into the right hand channel and crossed for Stanley to convert at close range.

Katie “Stanners” Stanley. Picking up where she left off last season, scoring goals…

And they would take a lead into that break. Stanley may not always look the quickest but she was on to Sampson’s through ball like lightning, nutmegging the onrushing keeper to give the Dons a 2-1 half time lead.

The Dons would need more adversity to get them rolling again in the second period, though.  Enfield were sharper and got back on level terms just nine minutes after the restart; Sheryce Slater with a composed finish.

The Dons reacted positively as they had in the first half. Hannah Billingham’s effort made the keeper work; Sampson fired wide after good work by Carter. Then ‘Chewy’ found space in the box but also couldn’t hit the target.

Maybe this profligacy was the prompt for Kevin Foster to make his first substitution of the season, although Katie Stanley may have had a case for feeling aggrieved being pulled with a hat-trick beckoning. She was replaced on 67 minutes by Jess Lewry who rattled a post with what may well have been her first touch of the ball.

Helen Ogle and Georgia Heasman were also brought on to freshen up the attack. The Dons ramped up the pressure on Enfield, forcing a series of corners but only one good opportunity that Lewry drove straight at Stonehouse.

With the full time whistle looming – and way past the point where home supporters had accepted it ‘just wasn’t going to happen’ for the Dons, Highman drove another long ball through the right wing channel. Lewry anticipated its destination a fraction earlier than Stonehouse and showed terrific speed and determination to slide in and clip the ball over the keeper into the far corner of the net for a debut goal and a 96th minute winner.

While the Dons had looked the better side overall it was perhaps merciful for them that they got their third so late, as great credit must go to the Towners for equalising twice and always having a foothold in the game.

Sunday 27th September – Stevenage (A) W 5-0

Liz O’Callaghan (left) and Katie Stanley celebrate another successful link up…

Rosie Russell and Sarah Wentworth dropped to the bench for the trip to Stevenage with Foster bringing Liz O’Callaghan and Helen Ogle into a very attacking line up. It would prove to be just what was needed early in the campaign as the Dons ran Stevenage ragged.

Hannah Billingham and Rebecca Carter had the best of the Dons’ early attempts but couldn’t open the scoring.

The Dons would get a fairly early lead, though. Carter played Chloe Sampson into the box on 15 minutes and, while the former QPR player couldn’t beat keeper Tea Oldroyd’s outstretched leg, Liz Berkeley knocked in the rebound with a composed low finish.

Helen Ogle combined with Berkeley before having her shot well saved and then Berkeley almost got her second goal, clearly enjoying the freedom to get forward that the new system was allowing her.

Rebecca Sargent brought another good save from Oldroyd with a free-kick attempt from 25-yards out and the keeper did very well to recover the loose ball before Carter could pounce.

The Dons doubled their lead in the 38th minute. Helen Ogle won the ball in midfield and played Stanley in behind the Stevenage back line. The striker didn’t need a touch and hit it first time under the keeper who wasn’t quite set.

Three minutes were key to taking the game away from the hosts in the second half. Lauren Clem made a fine point blank stop in the 56th minute and the Dons went straight down the other end of the pitch and made it 3-0.

O’Callaghan got on to a ball down the right wing, drew the keeper to her near post then crossed for Stanley to tap in from two yards out.

Wimbledon get the crucial third goal to take the game away from Stevenage – Katie Stanley converting. (Video: Paul Lapraik)

Stanley was then subbed off for Georgia Heasman, but the game was made completely safe on 57 minutes when Carter headed in a cross from the left for her first Dons goal.

Carter would get the well-earned rest that her performance deserved shortly afterwards, but her replacement Jess Lewry along with the other subs, were in no mood to allow the Stevenage defenders to rest.

Ogle and Heasman both tested Oldroyd, but the keeper won each battle. Then Ogle hit a 30-yarder that appeared to have her beat, only to see the ball whisk past the right hand post.

But Lewry added some 5-star gloss to the score line getting her second goal in as many games. Sampson and Ogle combined down the left to play in the striker and she would make no mistake at point blank range.

Early days but it’s nice to be top anyway…

Wednesday 30th September – Kent Football United (H) D 2-2

Kent Football United would be the visitors to Colston Avenue for my first live home game of the season.

Their squad arrived in better shape than they had been in the 2019 campaign. By the time COVID-19 cut short the fixtures list, KFU had accrued just three points from fourteen matches. The Dons had enjoyed a comfortable 3-0 away win when the teams had last met.

So was there a touch of complacency in the Dons ranks on a rain soaked evening in Carshalton?  Certainly their night was not helped when Rebecca Carter picked up an injury during the pre-match warm up.

Kevin Foster needed to adjust his starting line and goal scoring super-sub Jess Lewry got the nod for her first start. Rosie Russell and Sarah Wentworth returned to the starting line up to ostensibly give the Dons a bit more defensive resilience.

With Chelsea’s Welsh international midfielder Sophie Ingle in attendance it was Kent who started better, showing that they had added pace to their attack and getting plenty of joy down both flanks. Wimbledon again had set up with a back three and the visitors looked to get joy in the space behind the wingbacks when counter-attacking.

The Wombelles, meanwhile, seemed overloaded in midfield. Steph Mann was covering a lot of ground laterally but Chloe Sampson and Rebecca Sargent seemed more inclined to play nearer the strike pairing which was leaving big holes for KFU to play through.

And play through they did for 1-0. With the Dons defence stranded, hoping for an offside call on 12 minutes, Kent got in behind and Charlie Goad finished off a quick move in the right channel with a tap in.

Now the hosts knew they were in a game they began to play with more intensity and found their attacking groove. Katie Stanley’s free-kick was saved at the second attempt before the Dons striker fizzed a drive narrowly high and wide. Hannah Billingham brought out the very best in the Kent stopper who clawed away her free-kick at full stretch. Then Lewry played in Stanley but the Dons’ top markswoman couldn’t hit the target.

The teams traded goal chances early in the second half but the Dons levelled when Jess Lewry was played in behind the KFU defence and calmly slotted on 57 minutes. It was her third goal in as many appearances for the club.

Lewry’s strike was the spark the team needed and Dons looked an altogether different proposition. A second goal seemed inevitable and Stanley nearly provided it when her header crashed off the cross bar after good work on the left by Berkeley.

Helen Ogle came on to replace Sargent with 26 minutes left and scored 60 seconds later with just her second touch of the ball from the penalty spot. Lewry, by now on a one-woman mission to terrorise the Kent backline hared into the penalty box, nicked the ball away from a defender’s lunging challenge and drew the foul.

The Dons take the lead with a Helen Ogle penalty. (Video: Paul Lapraik)

The keeper showed Ogle more of the goal to her right tempting her to hit it that way. The former Chichester City attacker had other ideas, though, and blasted the ball down the middle with her adversary unable to adjust her feet in time to make the save.

But the Dons couldn’t press home their newly won advantage and started to back off their visitors, content to hold out on a surface becoming greasier by the moment. Seven minutes later Kent equalised. Dons’ keeper Lauren Clem had already made one smart save to deny Goad but there was nothing she could do when the former Palace striker lobbed her from a very tight angle after Billingham’s half clearance had appeared to send her too wide of the six yard box to convert. It was a terrific strike.

And although Billingham went close with a header before the end, Clem was the keeper that had one more pivotal stop to make to ensure the Dons held on for a point.

Striker Jess Lewry won the Dons’ player of the match, and rightly so, she was outstanding. Charlie Goad would surely have received the same honour for Kent United. She, too, was excellent.

Sunday 4th October – Leyton Orient (A) Postponed

A fantastic effort from AFC Wimbledon’s Club Secretary Karen Hardy.

The Dons match at Leyton Orient was called off due to heavy rain waterlogging the pitch. But there was one Wombelle required to put in a Sunday shift. Club Secretary and Social Media guru Karen Hardy (above) put in nearly six hours of hard graft to complete the COVID-revamped London Marathon route raising money for Crisis UK in the process.

Sunday 11th October – Actonians (H) L 1-2

New signing Jess Lewry. Five goals already for the Dons…

Whether an enforced break in the fixtures would be beneficial at such an early stage in the season would be put to the test the following weekend against Actonians. The Dons played them four times last season, losing two, drawing one and winning the final encounter before Coronavirus brought the season crashing to a halt. So, when the West London side arrived at Colston Avenue it was with a reputation approaching ‘arch nemesis’.

Again the Dons manager rotated players in and out of the starting line-up.  Liz O’Callaghan and Helen Ogle returned and Rebecca Carter had recovered from the injury that kept her out of the Kent Football United draw.

The Dons came out of the blocks quickly. Inside three minutes Hannah Billingham had hit the post.

But the visitors went through the gears and started to build some pressure around the Dons penalty box. Lauren Clem made a smart stop from a corner routine and was in action moments later when she parried a shot on to the bar and Actionians couldn’t convert the rebound.

The game moved from end to end without either side significantly troubling the goalkeepers, but the Actonians stopper Paige Horsnell had been struggling to shake off an early knock and had to be substituted on 36 minutes.

Just a minute later Sharon Odofin put the West Londoners ahead from a free kick routine. 

Looking for a positive reaction from the whistle going into the second period the Dons couldn’t have started worse. Minori Ono beat the offside trap and doubled the visitors lead on 47 minutes.

Dons Manager Kevin Foster looked to change up his attacking options bringing on Alice Curr and Jess Lewry for Liz O’Callaghan and Helen Ogle respectively.

Central defender Billingham went close again, this time from a direct free kick that replacement keeper Ashleigh Harte did very well to tip over the cross bar.

Then, on 70 minutes, the substitutions paid off. Lewry received the ball from a throw-in on the left, spun away from her marker and rifled into the keeper’s top left-hand corner from fully 25-yards out.

Jess Lewry finds the top corner against Actonians. (Video: Paul Lapraik)

But while the Dons would have hoped for attacking momentum to build in the closing 20 minutes, the goal seemed to strengthen Actonians resolve to hold on to what they had.

As the game got more and more stretched both sides forayed into each other’s territory with little midfield intervention, but neither could fashion another meaningful goal scoring opportunity.

It would be the Dons first defeat of the season and they dropped to fifth in the table.

Sunday 18th October – Ashford (H) W 6-0 (FA Cup)

Spoiler alert – Rebecca “Chewy” Carter receiving her Player of the Match Award

The second home game of the season that I was able to attend was against Ashford in the early stages of the FA Cup. The teams had played each other in the 2019 competition with the Dons running out 7-0 winners.

This time Wimbledon would play hosts and manager Kevin Foster rang the changes, looking to blood some new players and a couple of the U23 development squad.  Attackers Alice Curr and Georgia Heasman were given their first starts having made any previous impact from the bench. Central Midfielder Beth Lloyd came in along with promising left back Madi Parsonson, daughter of reserve team coach Mike.

The score line from a year earlier suggested an easy day for the hosts but Ashford looked well organised and had some pace in their ranks to trouble the Dons on the break.

It would take something special to break the deadlock and debutant Madi Parsonson found it on 31 minutes latching on to a loose ball inside the Ashford half and hammering a low, right-footed howitzer into the net from around 30-yards out.

With Ashford now forced to come out and play a bit more spaces started to open up for the Dons to move the ball better.

They got their second on the stroke of half time from a free kick on the edge of the box, awarded for hand ball. Beth Lloyd stepped up and virtually passed the ball into the keeper’s bottom right hand corner with the Ashford ‘wall’ clearly assuming that area was covered.

The second half became the ‘Chewy’ Carter show. Filling in for Katie Stanley as a central striker Carter’s first half movement had been excellent playing on the last defender’s shoulder without the commensurate service from her team mates. After the break that changed.

On 64 minutes Georgia Heasman split the defence with a pinpoint pass that Carter dinked over the onrushing keeper from a few yards out. 

Fifteen minutes later the striker had her second. Central defender Sarah Wentworth ran the ball out from the back and played an outstanding ground pass from her own half into the left channel which served as the perfect invitation for Carter to run in behind again and this time finish exactly the same style.

From the hour mark Foster had started the process of resting players and giving others a run out. Chloe Sampson had joined the fray just after Carter’s first goal, was on the pitch to celebrate her second and then, on 87 minutes, decided to chip in with one of her own, getting the ball out of her feet quickly in the penalty box and shooting before the keeper got a good look.

A very cool finish by Rebecca Carter for her hat-trick… (Video: Paul Lapraik)

But Carter would have the last word. As the clock ticked into stoppage time the striker once again ran in behind the Ashford defence, saw the keeper approaching and calmly lobbed the ball over her head.

The last ten minutes flattered the Dons’ performance overall but it was a good test of the squad’s depth and, with important players like Katie Stanley, Helen Ogle and Liz Berkeley not even warming the bench, it was a test that was passed with flying colours…

The club’s twitter feed was glowing about the development of their young players after the game:

“Today showed the strength of the @AFCWLadiesGirls to @afcw_ladies progression path. Rosie Russell in her 3rd season of 1st team football while starting Uni, and Georgia Heasman, last season’s Young POTY, were joined by goal scorer Madi Parsonson & Emily Oliver from the U23s.”

Club Twitter Feed 18th October 2020

Sunday 25th October – Norwich City (A) L 2-3

The Dons were back in league action the following Sunday with a long trip to Norwich City.  The weather in London wasn’t looking too clever with gales and heavy rain prior to match day, so there was always the chance of a few women’s matches being called off. However, in deepest Norfolk the following day there would be no such drama as a beautiful but crisp sunny day ensued on a pitch that was design for all weathers anyway. All the drama would be left on the pitch.

With midfield lynchpin Steph Mann unavailable Beth Lloyd retained her starting berth. Kelly Highman, Chloe Sampson and Katie Stanley all returned. And emerging U23 talent Emily Oliver had sufficiently impressed Kevin Foster to get a seat on the first team bench, although only being able to name three substitutes suggested pragmatism had played its fair share in the manager’s decision.

Norwich had been a bit underwhelming in their previous campaign racking up just eleven points in their sixteen fixtures.  The Dons had beaten them 3-1 at Colston Avenue but, like Kent FC United, the Canaries had worked hard to improve their squad.

One thing was the same though. Norwich striker Kathryn Stanley. She had scored the one goal in that previous defeat and was clearly developing a taste for converting against the Wombelles. It took her just two minutes to get on the score sheet after a goalmouth scramble.

Once again the Dons had to raise themselves from a losing position. And once again they did just that. Lloyd tested keeper Elli Rai before Jess Lewry put her low drive wide.

It only took until the 11th minute for the Dons to level. Captain for the day Hannah Billingham headed in a corner from the right.

The goal would be the first of a double blow for the hosts as injured midfielder Jodie Drake had to be substituted off for defender Lauren Callum straight after the equaliser.

But the alteration didn’t seem to have a huge impact on their rhythm. On 29 minutes the Canaries retook the lead and it was that woman Kathryn Stanley again scuffing a low shot past Lauren Clem who may have seen it late.

Wimbledon tried to wrestle back control of the game but Norwich remained a danger on the break.

On 38 minutes Jess Lewry equalised with a thumping header from Rosie Russell’s cross after good build up on the right.  It was Lewry’s fifth goal of the campaign.

The Dons pressed forward looking to take a lead into the break. Rebecca Carter went close and then Norwich keeper Elli Rai made an important double stop, first getting a foot to the ball and then saving with her knees. It doesn’t matter how you keep them out.

At the other end, heading into stoppage time, Lauren Clem had to be on her toes (literally) to fingertip Aimee Durrant’s distance strike over the bar.

Into the second period and the temperature started to rise. On 54 minutes there was a melee in the Norwich penalty area. First the Dons thought the ball was in the net, then there were shouts for a penalty while the hosts claimed a foul of their own. The referee and assistant saw nothing doing and the ball was finally cleared.

Down the other end Kathryn Stanley nearly sealed her hat-trick for Norwich but sliced her shot just past the post.

Dons boss Kevin Foster shuffled his pack to try and force a winner. Emily Oliver came on for Beth Lloyd and a few minutes later Georgia Heasman replaced Sampson.

Rebecca Carter and Katie Stanley put Rai to the test but the keeper stood firm. Then on 72 minutes Lewry heads a great corner delivery from the right over the bar.

Wimbledon had another penalty shout for a foul on Katie Stanley but the referee waved it away. Stanley then got free in the box but drove the ball across the six yard box. It was to prove a costly miss.

A minute later the ball was in the Wimbledon net and nobody could really explain how. A misunderstanding between Clem and one of the defenders and the Dons player put through her own net.

Stunned, the Dons couldn’t regain their rhythm and Norwich, marshalled by impressive defender Izzy Collins, held firm to record a 3-2 victory.

The waiting game begins…

And then, with the regional ‘tiering’ system failing to halt the growing numbers of Coronavirus cases across the UK, the government announced that England was heading back into lockdown. Just like that the FA Women’s National League was suspended.

The current state of play in FAWNL Division One South East.

At the time of writing the Dons are 5th in the D1SE table and winless in three divisional matches, but with grass roots football effectively shut down for (at least) the month of November, the squad has an opportunity to recover from any knocks, regroup and get back on track when the league resumes.

Earlier this year, we charted on the Feedspot Top 40 list of Women’s football blogs. No one was more surprised than us here at D2B Towers; there’s so much other good stuff out there. Anyhoo, check out the link above, there’s a heap of great blogs and websites written by people who really know their stuff and have an infectious passion for the women’s game…

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