Good things come to those who wait! It has been a long six months for everyone involved in the women’s game in England. With coronavirus shutting down the country, football understandably took a back seat. Leagues were curtailed, competitions cancelled or postponed, and everything was put on hold.
It’s required patience, a huge amount of organisation and the FA to hold their nerve, to re-enforce their commitment to women’s football and to ensure that it didn’t dip out of the limelight.
When it was announced that the Community Shield would return this year, it seemed like a brilliant promotional opportunity. And the hopes turned into reality on Saturday afternoon when we were treated to a spectacle of football to kick off the 2020/21 season.
Wembley Stadium felt a little lonely without fans filling the stands and singing their songs, but it played the perfect host on this historic return. It is exactly the setting where this calibre of game should always be played and Chelsea and Manchester City, currently the two best teams in the country, didn’t disappoint.
Yes, there was wayward finishing and a bit of rust evident across the 90 minutes – that was only to be expected from players lacking competitive match fitness – but there was also much to be enthusiastic about.
The first half in particular was a delight to watch. Chelsea’s forward players danced around the City back four. Fran Kirby was back on the grass where she belonged and for the 70-odd minutes she was on the pitch, it felt like she had never been away. Ji So Yun was displaying all of the reasons why she should be considered one of the greatest signings ever to play in the FAWSL, with her magical feet gliding across the turf, while Sophie Ingle orchestrated play from the middle of the park.
For City, the early pace of Lauren Hemp and Chloe Kelly caused multiple threats going forward. Kelly in particular was the outstanding performer in the first half, showing how far her game and strength have developed. In one instance, brimming with confidence, the City forward took on four Chelsea defenders, leaving all of them for dead.
If there was a negative throughout the game, it was the lack of goals. It was an open game that provided multiple chances for both sides. Sam Kerr inexplicably missed at least four clear-cut opportunities. She did all the hard work in terms of positioning, but it just wasn’t her day in front of goal. Stanway troubled Berger in between the sticks on several occasions but couldn’t make it stick while Kelly agonisingly hit the post.
The game’s parity disappeared after an hour played when Jill Scott received a second yellow for a clumsy challenge on Ji So Yun. With the extra player, Chelsea moved up a level and took the lead four minutes later through an absolute rocket. With Chelsea’s defence playing deep into the opposition’s half, Millie Bright found herself in space 30 yards from goal. She couldn’t have asked for a sweeter connection as she dipped a brilliant effort over Ellie Roebuck and into the back of the net. While the goalscorer may have been a surprise for many, it wasn’t for her manager. Emma Hayes had nothing but praise for her defender’s contribution throughout the afternoon: “I see that from Millie everyday so that’s not a surprise for me. It might be for others, but not for me. That’s what Millie Bright does. She is the ultimate professional. She works so hard at all the things in the game to take her to that level – it’s no coincidence or accident. That’s very well-rehearsed by her and I’m just over the moon because Millie is a top, top player.”
From then on, the Blues controlled the ball. They knocked on the door again and again through Ji So Yun and substitute Beth England. The second goal eventually came deep into injury time with Erin Cuthbert driving her shot into the roof of the net.
With that the whistle blew and exactly six months to the day since they played their last match, Chelsea got their hands on another trophy. A lot has happened since that cold February day in Nottingham, but some things stay the same. As Hayes said afterward: “We showed today why we are champions. The performance was important…To play for Chelsea you need to be better than you were in your last game, because you’re only as good as your next performance.”
The standards and expectations continue to rise; the momentum continues to roll. There is so much football to be played and things can change in an instant. But for now, at least, Chelsea remain the best footballing side in the country and they have not even hit top gear yet.