Six months removed from a golden summer on the Cote d’Azur, the Lionesses of Steph Houghton and Ellen White took centre stage on a bitterly cold January evening in Chesterfield.
England captain Houghton and last summer’s World Cup scoring sensation White were part of the Manchester City Women’s team that negotiated a tricky Continental League Cup quarter-final tie against Sheffield United Women.
Tricky, because City, like their male counterparts, are among the dominant forces in English women’s football. This competition was one of two trophies they won last year, making it five the club as a whole won at senior level when you consider Pep Guardiola’s men won the domestic treble.
United, also like their respective men’s team, are Yorkshire’s highest representatives in the pyramid, and just as Chris Wilder’s Blades are showing little regard to history and reputation in the Premier League, so Carla Ward’s women are punching above their weight.
Second place in the FA Women’s Championship, Ward’s part-timers are exceeding expectation in the second tier, and only dropped six points adrift of the one promotion spot when the team they are chasing, Aston Villa, left the Proact Stadium on Sunday with a crucial victory.
City are second in the FA Women’s Super League, the one professional tier in the English women’s game.
If the gulf between the two divisions gradually became evident as the match wore on, then a look at the teamsheet beforehand further illustrated the gap.
Houghton and White became household names in the summer, while young Lioness Georgia Stanway carried plenty of menace up front as seasoned England schemer Jill Scott looked on from the bench.
Experienced internationals all, their games have developed immeasurably amid the professional environment of the Etihad campus.
By contrast, Jade Pennock, the Sheffield United midfielder, epitomises the women on the Blades team. The 27-year-old worked in Leeds all day in her job as community sports coach before heading through rush hour to Chesterfield to make kick-off.
Still, for more than an hour Ward’s women were organised and well-drilled defensively.
They made life difficult for their vaunted opponents, restricting them to a raking Stanway shot from the right until Pauline Bremer, City’s German international striker, broke the deadlock by drilling the ball home from 16 yards on 37 minutes.
Bremer’s second, sliding in Janine Becker’s cross was a killer for United, coming a minute before the break.
Goalkeeper Becky Flaherty made a fine save from Laura Coombs before the latter was then presented with too much space on the left edge of the area to guide home a third, after Ward had given the instruction to her team to throw a little caution to the wind. Flaherty denied Bremer her hat-trick with a late save only for the German to then glance home a close-range header deep into stoppage time to claim the match ball.
So United’s adventure in the Continental Cup is over, and attention turns back to trying to win promotion and building towards professionalism and the Super League.
Credit to the club for making last night’s game accessible to all. Tickets were priced at just £5.
They, and the visiting Lionesses, deserved better than one half-full main stand, which suggests a true barometer of the growth of the women’s game lies somewhere between a glorious summer’s day in the South of France and a baltic evening in North Derbyshire.
Sheffield United: Flaherty; Barker, Little, Hartley, Paul; Dixon, Cusack; Pennock (Johnson 85), Palmer, Wilkinson; Fergusson. Unused substitutes: Batty, Ford, Sarri.
Manchester City: Roebuck; Beckie (Park 57), Houghton, Bonner, Stokes, Walsh, Weir, Stanway, Coombs (Hemp 73), White, Bremer. Unused substitutes: Benameur, Scott, Toland, Geum-Min, Fidalgo.