Wombelles of the Ball: AFC Wimbledon Ladies, August 2021

After two seasons of almost total nullification the FA Women’s National League kicked off again on the 15th August. That meant the AFC Wimbledon Ladies were back in action, and with lofty ambitions: to win the single promotion spot up for grabs in Division One South East. Former rivals Ipswich Town had been elevated one level (through FA restructure and an excellent competitive record) to the Southern Premier. So, this season the D1SE league title genuinely feels up for grabs for a good half-dozen clubs…

It’s an exciting time at AFC Wimbledon. Not least because the men’s team played its first competitive game at the newly built Plough Lane stadium on August 14th. The last time Dons fans watched football at that ‘address’ was 1991. It’s been a very long road but now the facility is in place the club intends to fully integrate the Ladies set-up and move home games to the new ground from October.

Going for promotion: AFC Wimbledon Ladies 2021/22 (Photo: Glyn Roberts @rabidbarfly)

“During the summer we have agreed our strategy for women’s football with the DTB and we are now moving forward to implement it. We are integrating the women’s football operation into the club completely. It’s no secret that I have been working with the club to get us back to Plough Lane. We have already aligned our fixtures with both the men’s first team and the Broncos and we are currently costing the requirements of the Safety Advisory Group and how that will affect the budget.”

David Growns, Chair, AFC Wimbledon Ladies Board, via programme notes for Kent Football United game, 15/8/2021

We were surprised at D2B that it’s been nine months since our last post on the AFC Wimbledon Ladies, but the plan is to do fairly regular updates throughout the season so we’re keeping our fingers crossed that no more lockdowns will be required!

Summer 2021

There have been quite a few changes on and off the pitch at AFC Wimbledon Ladies since their last competitive league match; a defeat at Norwich City on the 25th October 2020.

Former Crystal Palace, Millwall and Chelsea striker Ashlee Hincks signed back in June bringing with her an impressive CV of goals scored and player of the year awards. A former England youth international, Ashlee has also plied her trade in Iceland.

Pacey attacker Lauren Pickett came in from the London Bees, joined by winger Kirsty Matthews – who was last at Nottingham Forest and came through the Reading Academy. Emily Donovan is another attacking midfielder with FA Women’s Championship experience having played at Lewes.

The club signed three goalkeepers. Sophia Garrido has arrived from University soccer in the United States, Lauren Allen developed at Crystal Palace before heading out to Iceland, and highly experienced stopper Faye Baker (below) had spells with Brighton & Hove Albion and Lewes before a serious injury curtailed her professional progress.

Back stronger: Goalkeeper Faye Baker is preparing to make up for lost time…

Forward Charlotte Flood and young wingback Emily Oliver have come up from the development squads to join already-established full back Rosie Russell. Team Captain Hannah Billingham and experienced midfielder Rebecca ‘Sarge’ Sargent were going into their sixth and eighth seasons with the club, respectively.

There have been eight first team departures. Georgia Heasman decided to leave the club after nine years, joining up with Helen Ogle at Fulham. Liz Berkeley and Liz O’Callaghan were the other regular-appearance-makers moving on. Goalkeeper Lauren Clem opted for football in Sweden (IK Uppsala) and talented youngster Alice Curr joined divisional rivals QPR. Goalkeeper Megan Drew and midfielder Beth Lloyd would also head out to fresh pastures.

Off the pitch there have been changes in the coaching team as well. Coach Kevin Finnerty and U23s Manager Mike Parsonson both decided to take on new challenges, while Abdullah Kheir swapped Head Coaching duties for an alternative role within the Wimbledon youth set-up.

Kevin Foster would be entering his third year as team manager with Head Coach Blaine Walsh still on board. Andy May joined over the summer from AFC Wimbledon’s Foundation and Education Team while Strength and Conditioning Coach Jacob Miller arrived from Oxford United Ladies.

Goalkeeping Coach John Parker was entering his 17th season with the club.

AFCW Ladies Coaching Team (left to right): Jacob, John, Kevin, Andy and Blaine. (Photo: Glyn Roberts @rabidbarfly)

The Under 23 side would remain in very good hands with Andrew Hatcher stepping up from his role as assistant and bringing his previous experience as first team boss of Hampton & Richmond.

The squad was put through its paces during pre-season, stitching together a couple of strong performances against the Kernow Football Alliance (7-1) and Oxford City (6-1) before squaring up to Portsmouth of the National League South, who play one level up from the Dons.

It is literally true to describe the game as a washout. With Pompey leading 2-0, and a storm to end all storms ensuing, the match officials decided enough was enough. Wimbledon’s last warm up game was against Ashford Town, in rather better weather. They won 4-0.

Good woman in a storm: “Sarge” on the ball against Pompey in pre-season. (Photo: Simon Roe @nonleaguesnappa)

“It was clear from the start that AFC Wimbledon were serious about the female game, this was apparent when I look at the size of the girls section and the enthusiasm from the coaches and managers. Under new management and backing from Mike Richardson and the Dons trust this club has progressed to a good level in the women’s pyramid. With our aim to reach southern premiership, we are in a good position. The league has become stronger with players filtering down from the WSL teams, but we feel we have the players to make a serious challenge this season.”

Rebecca Sargent, AFC Wimbledon, via afcwimbledonladies.co.uk 11/8/2021

And just like that, meaningful, competitive women’s football was back…

AFC Wimbledon 2-1 Kent Football United (15/8/2021)

Less than 24-hours after AFC Wimbledon kicked off their first EFL fixture at Plough Lane the Ladies were opening their campaign at Colston Avenue in front of 150 spectators.

There were three new starters on show for the Dons’ first match of the season against Kent Football United. Faye Baker took the goalkeeper’s jersey, while Angel Fowler came in as one of two defensive midfielders in a 3-5-2. Striker Ashlee Hincks was slotted in alongside Katie Stanley up front.

A beautiful afternoon, those of us on the side lines had to double check it wasn’t sun glare that was making us see midfielder Rebecca Sargent as the middle peg of three central defenders. It wasn’t, and there she would sit, providing a sweeping role along with tidy distribution from the back.

The other nice addition to the look of the squad was surnames on the back of the shirts – always useful when trying to get one’s head around all the new signings!

The Dons got rolling early. Hincks’ free kick from outside the box in the 5th minute was parried by keeper Charlotte Greenwood but Katie Stanley was on hand to put away the rebound.

Moments later Hincks fizzed in another shot that Greenwood gathered more comfortably, following a good run by Stanley.

The Dons were looking well drilled and aggressive, particularly in midfield where Angel Fowler and Steph Mann were taking no prisoners.

AFC Wimbledon extended their lead in the 25th minute. Hincks’ drove her corner from the right to the far post and Sargent powered her header into the net.

The hosts looked to press home their advantage. There was more catching practice for Greenwood on the half hour when Megan Stow threaded Hincks into a channel down the right and the former Palace striker hit it on the run. A few minutes later Hincks would hit another free kick narrowly wide from 20-yards.

Sam McNeil’s side were well organised but labouring to making attacking opportunities. Just before half time, however, they did get in behind the Dons backline. New keeper Faye Baker was called into action to make her first serious save of the season.

Moments before the interval Stanley combined with Rosie Russell down the right, but Greenwood again dealt with the threat.

Right wingback Rosie Russell in action versus Kent Football United. (Photo: Glyn Roberts @rabidbarfly)

Normal service looked to be resumed in the second period with Wimbledon making chances and Hincks continuing to provide excellent set piece delivery. She clipped a right wing corner into the front post and Fowler glanced it just wide of the far upright. Megan Stow was then denied by Greenwood, who made a sharp stop at her near post.

In the 58th minute with the Dons looking reasonably well set, manager Kevin Foster felt Katie Stanley’s race was run for the afternoon. He subbed on new signing Lauren Pickett – who would add pace to the forward line – but was almost immediately hit with some miserable luck when Pickett went over and appeared to have twisted her knee.  After some attention on the side lines she attempted to re-enter the fray but was swapped out for Chloe Sampson in the 67th minute.

Two minutes later (or two minutes earlier if you believe the FA Full-Time account) Kent Football United got a goal back.

A cross from the right to left in the 69th minute seemed to have been dealt with but Lucy Cockerill burst forward, picked up the loose ball and played Emma Squirrell into a crossing position. Squirrell went for the front post, it took a glance off Megan Burrows and substitute Lina Zarour finished it off at close range*.

Zarour’s arrival in the 53rd minute had made an immediate impact down Kent’s right. She was quick, busy and looking to exploit any space between wingback Emily Oliver and Hannah Billingham. McNeil’s tactical switch had been vindicated and his side were back in the game.

The Dons, meanwhile, had started to look a little jaded. Conceding a goal with 25 minutes left put them in a bit of a ‘stick-or-twist’ situation. Midfielder Stow clearly decided ‘twist’ was the way to go, and drove over the bar from just inside the penalty box.

That got the Dons driving forward again. Billingham’s lofted free-kick from halfway on 75 minutes was helped on by Sampson and Russell arrived, looping a half-volley against the cross bar. Hincks was denied a spot kick when she seemed to be shoved over after a smart turn in the penalty area. The Dons number 9 then engineered another effort that whisked narrowly over the bar.

Before the end Kent had to weather one more scramble from a corner but were able to hack away to safety. The visitors maintained their energy and application to the end, but the Dons stayed resolute and wouldn’t allow KFU that one big chance to grab an equaliser.

Ten out of Tenacious: Midfielder Steph Mann receives her POTM Award. (Photo: Karen Hardy @runningwomble)

Steph Mann was awarded sponsors Player of the Match, as well as opposition POTM for a typically combative display. Intelligent KFU midfielder Megan Burrows got the Dons’ vote as opposition POTM.

*Note: the FA Full time website credited Emma Squirrell with the goal, so have decided to go with my own eyes, confirmation with the KFU player herself and the Dons’ twitter feed for these details!

Billericay Town 2-1 AFC Wimbledon 22/8/2021

Megan Stow in action against Billericay Town. (Photo NickyHayes.com @NickyHayesPhoto)

The Dons’ first road trip would see them travel to the New Lodge for a difficult looking match with promotion rivals Billericay Town.

Manager Kevin Foster made no changes to the starting eleven that had beaten Kent Football United, but injury would prevent Lauren Pickett from making the bench. Forward Jess Lewry took her place.

Both teams looked to assert themselves early with some heavy challenges going in.

The Dons edged in front on 14 minutes. Rosie Russell’s throw-in from the right found Megan Stow, she rolled her marker and played wing-back Emily Oliver into the penalty area. Oliver didn’t hesitate and curled her shot around keeper Amy Mullett from 12-yards – her first senior goal with the Dons.

Wimbledon pushed on looking to extend their advantage. They hit the post in the 21st minute with some players claiming the ball had crossed the line – the assistant referee disagreed. Then Katie Stanley agonisingly crashed a shot off the cross bar.

Those misses proved costly and Billericay equalised in the 31st minute, working the ball down the left to Shannan Drewe. She shaped to cross from out on the touchline, got a good connection, and the ball sailed over Faye Baker into the far corner of the net.

With rain starting to fall steadily both teams traded opportunities before the end of the first period. Ashlee Hincks fired off target for the Dons. Billericay had a distance strike fly over the bar.

And then, in the fourth minute of stoppage time the hosts took the lead from a corner on the left. The ball was swung into the six-yard box and Mia Lockett headed in through a crowd of players to register a goal on her home debut.

Two minutes into the second half Billericay nearly extended their lead when Jay Blackie drove just off target.

Stanley responded for Wimbledon with two efforts that required Amy Mullett to be sharp between the posts.

Then, just before the hour mark, Dons’ keeper Baker had to be at her best to parry a well struck shot.

A raft of substitutions followed with both teams now labouring to make clear-cut openings. Megan Stow was denied by Mullett and, right at the death, Zoe Rushen crashed a shot of the Dons’ cross bar.

Wimbledon were unable to find an equaliser and Billericay Town finished the afternoon top of the D1SE table.

AFC Wimbledon 1-3 London Seaward (25/8/2021)

Dons Captain Hannah Billingham has just started her sixth season with the Dons.

“Our trip to Billericay was a tough one, we were disappointed not to get any points, and we will learn a lot from that game. Hugh congratulations must go to young Emily Oliver for her first senior goal, and what a beauty it was!”

Hannah Billingham, AFCWL Captain, via programme notes for London Seaward game, 25/8/2021

Fourth would play fifth in the table the following Wednesday, with the visit of London Seaward to Colston Avenue. Those of you who have not come across that club name before, well you’d likely be more familiar with Leyton Orient – which was exactly what the club had identified as a season earlier.

The Seaward players and staff had endured a miserable off-season where all Orient affiliation and backing had been rescinded for financial reasons. However, everyone involved wanted to carry on, and at a competitive level commensurate with their talent and ability, so they got themselves organised, rebranded the club and transferred their National League registration. “[T]hey should be commended for the way they have started again,” Kevin Foster pointed out in his programme notes, “something that sits close to AFC Wimbledon”.

On a very pleasant evening for playing (and watching) football, the clichéd ‘game of two halves’ would unfold.

London Seaward arrived on the back of a very convincing 3-0 victory over Norwich City. Their players were decked out in blue, so the Dons would be required to wear their change strip of all-yellow. This also meant surnames were missing off the shirts and some of the players numbers were different to those in the match day programme.  

Eventually yours’ truly figured out who was who. Kevin Foster had made two personnel changes to his 3-4-1-2 bringing in Emily Donovan for Angel Fowler in midfielder. Youngster Gloria Siber replaced Rosie Russell but took Emily Oliver’s left wingback role. Oliver was shifted over to the right flank.

The early exchanges were competitive but the Seaward players were keeping the ball better. After no discernible goal scoring chances in the opening quarter hour the Dons conceded a free-kick just outside their penalty area.

Katherine Long stepped up and curled a well-struck effort around the wall, keeper Faye Baker pushed it on to the underside of the cross bar but centre back Kate Bradley reacted the quickest to bundle in the rebound.

The home side took 19 minutes to get any sight of goal, when Katie Stanley was played in. Skye McNally got across well to snuff out the danger.

Just sixty seconds later London Seaward were two goals to the good. Baker received a back pass, took a composed touch, beat onrushing striker Abby Dell but unfortunately miscued her clearance to Long who finished left-footed from the edge of the 18-yard box.

Tails up, Seaward were working effectively to prevent the Dons getting out of their own half.  Finally, in the 29th minute, Ashlee Hincks mustered Wimbledon’s first shot, a 25-yarder which sailed past the upright.

Five minutes later winger Kayleigh Xidhas showed everyone in the ground how a distance strike should be executed, driving a 30-yarder into the top left-hand corner.

Before the interval Dons midfielder Emily Donovan fired an effort straight at keeper Michelle Beazley, and Stanley got in 1v1 but the Seaward keeper made a good block to protect her team’s three-goal advantage.

When a team is heading into the second period so far behind the old adage is: “go out and win the second half”.  Foster may have said something along these lines to his troops in the changing rooms, whatever he said it sparked a transformation in the Dons’ performance.

Gloria Siber, in particular, came alive as an attacking force. In the 52nd minute she burst forward with the ball and threaded Hincks in on goal, but Beazley made the stop.

A minute later the Dons appeared to be in again. A slick 1-2 between Donovan and Hincks put the midfielder through but the mysteriously unnamed number 18* made a fine recovery tackle. (* London Seaward got in touch via Twitter after this article was published. Jo Butler-Williams made that superb tackle. Many thanks!)

Hincks tested Beazley from a 30-yard free kick. The keeper spilled it but was able to drop on the ball at the second attempt.

Katie Stanley put Siber away down the left and the wingback fired her shot against the foot of the post. It was starting to look like it was going to be one of those nights.

But Hincks allayed that sense of foreboding when she did finally beat the Seaward keeper from another centrally located free-kick. There was some debate about how far out it was – 35-yards seemed a reasonable guess. Whatever the case it was now 1-3. Hincks had her first goal for the club and Wimbledon still had 26 minutes to claw out a result.

The hosts had another free-kick opportunity just a minute later. Beazley did well to get something on Hincks’ 20-yarder as it headed for the top right-hand corner. Hannah Billingham wasn’t able to convert the rebound as several Seaward defenders converged on the ball.

In the 74th minute Siber clipped in another superb ball from the left but Stanley couldn’t keep her half volley down. The Dons’ striker then arrived to meet Hincks’ delivery from the same wing but was stretching and, once again, the ball flew over the cross bar.

Before the end Megan Stow drove over from 30-yards, and substitute Angel Fowler tried her luck from just outside the penalty area. Her shot looped harmlessly into Beazley’s midriff.

London Seaward, to their credit, absorbed a lot of pressure, got their blocks in, and their defenders made a couple of important last ditch interventions. In the closing minutes they managed the game out with composure which frustrated a Dons team that had given everything to try and get something, but sadly ended up with nothing…

Cambridge City 1-4 AFC Wimbledon (29/8/2021)

Super Sub: Midfielder Chloe Sampson made an instant impact against Cambridge City. (Photo: Glyn Roberts @rabidbarfly)

AFC Wimbledon travelled to Ely on match day four to take on Cambridge City. The hosts were coming into the bank holiday weekend on the back of a convincing 4-0 win over Stevenage which had propelled them above the Dons in the D1SE standings.

Kevin Foster made two changes to his line-up from the previous Wednesday. Keeper Lauren Allen was brought in for Faye Baker and Angel Fowler replaced Steph Mann in midfield.

The early signs were good as the Dons looked to build some momentum from their second half against London Seaward. Emily Donovan and Megan Stow both had sights of goal in the opening 20 minutes but couldn’t test keeper Sarah Hudson.

Then, largely against the run of play, Cambridge took the lead. The referee awarded the hosts a penalty and Grace Stanley stepped up and put it away.

It was a blow and could have derailed a promising performance. But, undeterred, the Wombles continued to push forwards.

Left wingback Gloria Siber curled just past the post in the 28th minute and then she played Katie Stanley in on goal with six minutes of the half remaining. Stanley’s shot rattled off the underside of the cross bar and away to safety.

A minute later Ashlee Hincks tried her luck but Hudson made a fine stop.

The Dons picked up where they left off after the break. Stow teed up ‘Stanners’ but the shot went wide of the right-hand post.

When the equaliser came a minute later it was a scruffy affair – but they all count. Hincks’ corner caused chaos in the six-yard box and club captain Hannah Billingham was able to bundle the ball into the net.

Buoyed, the visitors looked for a second. And they got it in the 58th minute as Hincks scored her second free-kick in a week.

The keepers traded good saves in the middle of the second period. Hudson was able to divert Hincks’ shot around the post. Then Lauren Allen tipped over Zynia Delglyn’s effort from a Cambridge City corner.

BIG moment: Keeper Lauren Allen makes a massive save with the score at 2-1 to the Dons. (Photo: Glyn Roberts @rabidbarfly)

Foster only had three substitutes at his disposal on the day – and one of them was a goalkeeper. He brought Chloe Sampson into the fray in the 76th minute for Siber. The former QPR midfielder had scored the Dons third by the 80th minute.

Talk about an impact sub. As the clock ticked into stoppage time, Sampson provided an assist for Donovan to make it 4-1 to AFC Wimbledon.

It had been a mixed opening to the campaign for the Dons. Ending up in seventh spot at the end of the month would have felt a bit low given the overall performance levels game-to-game. Objectively, they’d only had one bad half of football in 360 minutes.

Goalkeepers and defenders like clean sheets. So far, despite some decent displays, the backline didn’t have one to show for their efforts.

At the other end of the pitch, though, the team was starting to find some attacking impetus, and that could only be a good thing as they headed into September…

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