Point by point, step by step, Birmingham City edge closer and closer to Barclays FAWSL survival. The team, who many thought were probably destined for the drop in August, have displayed character throughout the season and are almost there, but not quite.
Carla Ward has brought together a resilient side that work hard and fight for each other. As the Birmingham City head coach herself says: “Everyone knows you can only get in my team through work rate”. She made four changes to the squad that had started in the FA Cup win against Coventry United. Hannah Hampton, Harriet Scott, Georgia Brougham and Ruesha Littlejohn all returned to the starting line-up – Scott and Brougham became the centre-back pairing with Ruby Mace dropping into midfield.
Sunday’s opposition came in the form of Reading. The league’s seventh placed side are notoriously hard to break down but arrived at Solihull on a five-game winless streak, and probably still hurting from their 5-0 defeat at the hands of West Ham. With Jess Fishlock returned to America, Kelly Chambers needed to shift things around. Natasha Harding, their captain, led the line with Rachel Rowe, Fara Williams and Angharad James holding up the midfield. Molly Bartrip returned to central defence while Bethan Roberts came in at right back.
With a result vital, the hosts looked to absorb the pressure and hit Reading early. They did just that, winning a corner in the sixth minute. The delivery from Sarah Mayling caused havoc as it dipped under the bar, appearing to cross the line despite the best efforts of Grace Moloney. The assistant did not agree and while some Birmingham players were appealing, the ball dropped to Mace to bury in the back of the net. The youngster, on loan from Arsenal, has made quite an impact since her arrival, winning plenty of praise from her manager: “She can be a good player anywhere. She’s just a naturally gifted individual. And you can see why Arsenal are so excited about her. Not just Arsenal, I must admit I’m well aware that probably the top four are interested in her. There’s reason for that; she’s a quality individual with a good head on her shoulders.”
With the advantage in Birmingham’s court, the onus was on the visitors to break them down. But for all their possession, they just could not find clear-cut opportunity, often surrounded immediately by a crowd of blue shirts. Rowe looked the most likely to make an impact. Probably in the form of her career, the Welsh midfielder saw a fierce effort blocked by Christie Murray before forcing Hampton into a decent stop.
As the Reading players got more frustrated, with the standard of refereeing more than anything, the hosts gained a second wind and finished the half on a high. Mayling was having plenty of joy down the right and her pinpoint passing, an attribute that has caught the eye all season, deserved some more clinical finishing. They came very close when her over-the-top ball dropped perfectly for Claudia Walker to hit on the half-volley. She struck it sweetly enough and forced Moloney into a fine tipped save. Littlejohn also saw a big chance pass her by, as she powered an effort into a Reading body.
The second half went much the same as the first, with Reading pushing forward without creating much of significance. They did, however, find their equaliser in the 63rd minute when the referee awarded a perhaps debatable corner. The delivery caused all sorts of confusion amongst the Birmingham defence and the ball dropped perfectly for Rowe to score her fifth of the season.
Birmingham’s grit and defensive stability were notable and impressed Ward: “They’ve just been exceptional. I don’t know if you could hear me, but when she put the board up with three minutes on it, we were asking them to give us that little bit more and they did.”
Next up is a Second City Derby – Birmingham need a point; Aston Villa probably three. The stakes really couldn’t be any higher!