There have been many surprises in the Barclays FAWSL this season, but the development of Birmingham City has certainly been one of them. They may currently sit 11th in the table but have multiple games in hand over their rivals and have conceded the least number of goals (16) of anyone outside the top four. They produced another shock on Sunday afternoon, earning a valuable point away to Everton.
Carla Ward has been at the helm, making shrewd acquisitions to a skeleton squad, steering them through the season as one of the hardest teams to break down. They were the underdogs as they travelled up to the North West on Sunday as their manager alluded to pre-match: “The pressure is on them – they’re the ones that have spent money; they’re the ones with the big squad; they’re the ones with the ambitions to finish and creep into the top four. Our ambitions are to stay in the division. So, the reality is the pressure will be on them, not us.”
Ward made two changes to the side that had lost 2-0 to Manchester United a fortnight previously. With Georgia Brougham unable to face her parent club, 17-year-old Ruby Mace, signed on a dual contract from Arsenal in the winter window, partnered Harriet Scott in defence with Sarah Mayling moving to right back. Meanwhile, Gemma Lawley dropped to the bench with Northern Ireland’s Chloe McCarron coming into midfield.
On the other side, Everton’s high-flying start has stalled somewhat in recent weeks with only one win in the last five games. Willie Kirk changed up the side that were defeated by Manchester United last time out. Sandy MacIver was replaced by Finnish goalkeeper, Tinja-Riikka Korpela. Youngster Grace Clinton replaced Lucy Graham in the middle while Claire Emslie replaced Hayley Raso up front.
It was the hosts who began the game in control but for all of their possession, they were restricted to long-range crosses or shots by the solid Birmingham backline. Mace appeared to settle into her new situation immediately, showing good signs of a partnership with Harriet Scott from the off.
After an edgy first 15 minutes, the visitors came into the game and created as series of dangerous moves in the attacking phase. Emily Murphy became influential up front. She almost set up the opener with a low pinpoint cross that both Jamie-Lee Napier and Lucy Whipp failed to convert from eight yards out.
Just as they were beginning to settle, however, Rikke Sevecke was bundled over right on the edge of the box. Everton’s captain, Danielle Turner stepped up and sent her shot low into the bottom corner, the wall unsighting Hannah Hampton in the Birmingham goal.
With the visitors pushing for an equaliser, Everton almost made them pay on the break. Izzy Christiansen, influential in the middle, threaded it through to Gauvin. The French forward broke into the box at pace but Rebecca Holloway recovered brilliantly to block the shot.
Birmingham’s effort was rewarded, however, and they got their goal in the 34th minute when Claudia Walker’s fierce effort was handled in the box. Korpela guessed the right way to stop the subsequent spot kick but Napier reacted quickest to turn home the loose ball.
With the introduction of Raso for Emslie at the start of the second half, Willie Kirk injected some energy into his Everton side that had been below par in the first half. With the link up play between her, Jill Scott and Ingrid Moe Wold down the right-hand side beginning to click, there were worrying signs for the visitors. Moe Wold saw a long-range volley dip just over the bar before Turner fired another free kick into the wall.
But Birmingham stayed strong with some big performances across the park. In particular, Ruesha Littlejohn stood out, hassling and harrying the Everton midfield while creating some chances of her own.
As the spoils were shared, it was another impressive showing from Ward’s side, who now sit ninth in the table, with the manager feeling 13 points will be enough to ensure their safety this season. She was full of praise for her young team and in particular, Ruesha Littlejohn’s influence on the game: “She was outstanding. She was talking for 90 minutes, pulling people through and driving it. She’s the oldest one in the group but she’s so hungry to learn and improve people.”
There are more battles to fight but Birmingham are nothing if not resilient. They have gathered a seriously tough group of players to break down, defensively solid with everyone knowing their roles across the pitch and pitching in. There won’t be many betting against them retaining their FAWSL status this season.