Barclays FAWSL football returned under the Leigh Sports Village lights as Manchester United proved too strong for a battling Reading side.
With the Sky Sports cameras rolling, we are entering a new era for women’s football in England. Eyes are on the game like never before, and the Red Devils did not disappoint in front of their raucous 2,000-strong crowd.
United are starting a fresh chapter themselves under the leadership of Marc Skinner. Arriving from Orlando Pride after the departure of Casey Stoney, Skinner brings with him bags of experience and energy as the club try to push for that elusive Champions League place. Post-match, Skinner said that her wanted to his side to be fluid and unpredictable and that showed in his starting XI with the lack of an out-and-out forward. Instead, Ella Toone began in the false nine with competitive debuts for new arrivals Aoife Mannion, Hannah Blundell, and Vilde Bøa Rise.
Reading themselves have gone through their own changes over the summer with Kelly Chambers freshening up her squad. However, they were not quite at full strength for this game with Tash Dowie nursing an Achilles issue and Deanne Rose only just returned from her Olympic exploits with the Canadian team.
The visitors did, however, start the stronger and for the first half an hour looked most likely to break the deadlock. Brooke Chaplen was pivotal in attack while the high intensity play from the midfield duo of Rachel Rowe and Chloe Peplow caused United some early problems. Chaplen fired over the bar before Blundell was required to make a hasty recovery challenge to block a goal-bound effort from Amalie Eikeland.
However, the United cogs started to whir, and the hosts began to dominate as the first half drew to a close. Ella Toone was the lynchpin, her movement around the spaces causing confusion for Reading’s centre-backs while Lucy Staniforth’s ball delivery was proving second-to-none. Both were integral in the build-up as United broke the deadlock in the 39th minute with a delightful team goal. Staniforth worked the space to Toone who then delivered a perfectly weighted pass into Kirsty Hanson who made no mistake. The crowd roared its approval, sending shivers down the spine; a noise that the women’s game has been without for so long.
Reading appeared to re-energise at the start of the second and trouble the hosts once more. Indeed, they should have had their equaliser when Chaplen crashed a shot off the underside of the crossbar. The referee and her assistant judged it not to have crossed the line, but Sky replays showed it had, renewing calls for goal-line technology to make an appearance in the game. However, Chambers after the game insisted officiating needed to improve as a whole, not just the inclusion of technology: “You’ve got the top level of the women’s game and the top level the men’s game is so much further advanced. And I’d say that that would be picked up in a Premier League game without goal line technology because, at the end of the day, the officials are well rehearsed in moments like that. And we’re just not quite at that level with our officials at the moment. Unfortunately, we lose out on that.”
Within minutes, United had doubled the score. Ona Batlle, so impressive in her first campaign last year, popped up on the edge of the box to curl a fantastic effort over Grace Moloney in the Reading goal. It was a strike that essentially sucked the life out of the visitors and from that point, the result was only heading one direction as United wrapped up the three points.
A content Marc Skinner greeted the media post-match, pleased with what he had seen from his side, especially the goals they scored – “The two goals gave me goosebumps for different reasons. We had the interchange and what we’re trying to work on with the connected lines for the first one, and wonderful timing and wonderful quality. And then we had the outstanding ability to finish like that. You just stand and clap.”
Both he and his side will know there is a long season ahead and many more challenges to come but will feel they are headed in the right direction.