Date: 12th September 2011 at 2:23pm
Written by:

With the Swansea home game barely expelled from my innards and a flight to Dusseldorf to contend with in the wee small hours of tomorrow morning, a sensible person might have taken their Sunday very easy and recharged the batteries with some quality sofa time. Not so for me. The Arsenal Ladies were playing a fixture against their Lincoln City counterparts on a pleasant, if breezy early autumn day. With admission at only £5 and nothing else in the way of concrete plans, I decided to go along. My rock n roll credentials sag by the day.

Nevertheless, as this summer`s Women`s World Cup showed, the standard of the women`s game- particularly at the level that the Arsenal Ladies operate- has risen astronomically. I`ve been watching the Ladies for about 15 years and the standard is unrecognisable now from my mid 90s introduction. Not just of Arsenal themselves- who have always dominated the women`s game- but notably of their opponents too. Lincoln boasted one of the more recognisable faces of Women`s football in Sue Smith, a popular women`s football pundit. She sports 90 England caps and is one of the more two footed players I`ve ever seen regardless of gender.

With the F.A. Cup and inaugural Women`s Superleague already in the bag, Arsenal Ladies were contesting for a spot in yet another Cup Final in the shape of the Continental Cup. But Lincoln established early on that they were in no mood to give Arsenal an easy ride. In a physical opening to the game Rachel Yankey limped away from a full blooded (but fair challenge), whilst captain Jayne Ludlow responded to a kick in the back of the calf by staying decidedly upright, before flashing a demonic grin at her assailant. The Ladies side set up similarly to the men`s, with Danielle Carter playing a lone striker role, supported by Ellen White and Rachel Yankey as attacking flankers. The difference is, every time Yankey or White find themselves at the by line, the diminutive Jordan Nobbs or Kim Little are scurrying into the box to support., with Ludlow anchoring the midfield.

It was the movement from midfield which caused Lincoln trouble, but the first gilt edged chance of the game actually fell to Lincoln against the run of play. Jess Clarke`s left wing cross was only partially headed clear by Gilly Flaherty. This left Stainforth with time and space to control the ball with a chest trap ten yards from goal with no defender in sight, but she screwed her volley wastefully wide. But from here, Arsenal imposed themselves onto the game and had Lincoln in something of a chokehold. Kim Little floated a free kick into Lincoln`s area; Ludlow won the header at the back post, nodding the ball back across goal for Steph Houghton, whose header was cleared off the line. The rebound fell straight to her, but did so too quickly for her to readjust her feet and she stabbed the follow up narrowly wide.

Next it was Jordan Nobbs` turn to sprint out of her midfield pigeon hole, popping up on the left channel. Fahey found her with a disguised pass and Nobbs found an angle for a cross which Ellen White prodded against the face of Lincoln`s crossbar. The Gunners really began to turn the screw and Lincoln were forced into some desperate challenges. One gave Arsenal a free kick, twenty five yards from goal, which Yankey drove towards the top corner, but Hobbs turned the shot wide. Less than a minute later, it was Kim Little who turned up in the left channel to find a low cross, but Nobbs turned just wide. Just reading the details of Arsenal`s goal scoring opportunities, you can get a sense of how fluid the movement is, with different players popping up in different positions.

The pressure was becoming overbearing for Lincoln and it finally told on 29 minutes. Jayne Ludlow advanced forward to the edge of Lincoln`s area. She might have been tempted by a shot, but Ludlow is an experienced campaigner and instead found onrushing right back Steph Houghton with a slide rule pass and Houghton raced onto the pass Garrincha style to slot the ball under Hobbs. Arsenal doubled their money within three minutes with a beautifully simple goal. Ellen White clipped a Beckham-esque cross from the right, from half way inside Lincoln`s half, picking out an inch perfect delivery for Danielle Carter. Carter met the cross with a first time, side foot volleyed finish. One of my favourite things about attending these games is that you often end up sitting with the families of the players. In the row behind me the Carters leapt to their feet in appreciation.

In a commanding two goal lead, Arsenal took their foot off the pedal and played out the half. Lincoln were lucky not to be reduced to ten when Remi Allen, already booked for an “industrial” challenge on Kim Little, clattered Rachel Yankey cynically as Yankey threatened to tear through on goal. Had the scores been at 0-0, I think the referee mightn`t have demonstrated such leniency. At half time Arsenal were in a deserved lead and well in command. At the risk of coming over all Keys and Gray, I have to admit I was disappointed that Emma Byrne wasn`t keeping goal for Arsenal for reasons that I won`t pretend are entirely football related. So when she came over to talk to some friends after her half time warm up, some five yards from where I was seated, my day was rather made.

Arsenal looked to reassume command instantly in the second half. Jayne Ludlow lined up a twenty five yard exoset which skimmed the cross bar. But Lincoln, powered on by Sue Smith and Remi Allen, found the gumption for a revival. Rebecca Spencer`s poor clearance found Allen in the centre circle. She strode forward for a yard or two before unleashing a fulminating 35 yard effort that flew past Spencer into the top corner. Having been very lucky to still be on the pitch, Allen had dragged her side back into the game. Lincoln were buoyed by the goal too and began to exert the pressure on Arsenal. For a five minute spell, 2-2 was looking a very likely scoreline.

But Arsenal did what most devastating sides do. Just as Lincoln`s tails were up, the Gunners swiped with a swift counter attack. Steph Houghton regained possession on Arsenal`s right and sent a long pass to the edge of Lincoln`s area, where Kim Little had again burst beyond Lincoln`s ragged midfield. Little received the pass, coolly took a touch before bending a Bergkamp-esque effort into the top corner of Hobbs` net. The goal sapped the wind from Lincoln`s sails and Arsenal rather toyed with their visitors for the remainder of the game. Jennifer Beattie came on for Danielle Carter to add an impressive physical presence upfront. Ellen White sent in a right wing cross, which Ciara Grant had travelled forward for from centre half, but her looping header was brilliantly turned aside by Hobbs. Hobbs was called on once more when she beat Jordan Nobbs` low strike away with her legs.

In the end it was a rather smooth progression through to the Continental Cup Final, in which the Ladies will play Birmingham City, at Burton Albion`s Pirelli Stadium on Sunday, 25th September. The match will be screened live by ESPN. So Arsenal go into a final with Birmingham City as hot favourites. What could possibly go wrong? The girls once again paraded their Superleague and F.A. Cup trophies- the 34th and 35th cups secured in their 24 year existence. Their consistency and hunger is remarkable. Even with the coaching set up having changed (though Vic Akers was in attendance) and the playing set up having transformed many times, the threat briefly posed by Fulham Ladies` decision to go professional, these girls keep winning games and keep winning trophies.

The standard of their football is very watchable and they play an attractive style. Based around the same one and two touch stuff the men`s team is, but with greater penetration in the penalty area. Speaking objectively, I`d pitch the standard at Lower League One/ Upper League Two level- though of course it`s hard to separate the physical improprieties between the men and women`s games. But there are meaty tackles a plenty, let me assure you. But games don`t tend to be broken up by the same histrionics and referee bating. Admittedly probably because the pressure isn`t as big as in the men`s game. But all in all, well, well worth £5 and I would strongly advise anyone to go along and watch if they can. It wasn`t my liberal PC conscious that was thoroughly enjoying the game yesterday. Believe me. LD.

13.SPENCER, 2.HOUGHTON, 7.GRANT, 5.FLAHERTY, 19.FAHEY, 4.LUDLOW(c), 16.LITTLE, 8.NOBBS (17.Chapman ’75), 9.WHITE (10.Ladd ’89), 11.YANKEY, 15.CARTER (14.Beattie ’58). Unused: 1.Byrne, 9.Fleeting.

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