SOME 800 people braved miserable weather to turn up at Home Park on Sunday to see Plymouth Argyle and Watford play out a thrilling top-of-the-table clash in the National Women’s League Southern Premier.
A cracking game of football ended with Watford snatching a 5-4 victory.
In the end it was a shame there had to be a winner as both teams deserved to get something out of the match.
The game was used as a test event for the opening of the re-furbished Mayflower Grandstand. Argyle chairman Simon Hallett and his wife Jane were in attendance, as was the TV cameras – and the game did not disappoint.
Both sides went into the fixture with long unbeaten records so it was no surprise the game started at a breathtaking pace.
Both teams looked nervous in the early exchanges with Watford looking dangerous on the break.
Stand-in goalkeeper Katie Middleton pulled off a terrific one-handed save to deny Watford from taking the lead before making another save low down not long later.
Argyle, who were on an 11-game league and cup winning run, had their own chances and a great cross from Helen Bleazard eventually went to Zoe Cunningham, who fired narrowly over the crossbar.
The opening goal came in the 21st minute when after Bleazard had been fouled she picked herself up and fired in an absolute rocket from a 25-yard free-kick which flew like a bullet into the roof of the net.
It got better three minutes later when the ball came to Bow Jackson, who fired in a 20-yard daisy cutter into the corner of the net.
The Pilgrims knew they needed to see out the next five minutes, but within a minute a defensive error let in Ocean Rolandsen, who beat Middleton with a fierce shot.
And four minutes later Argyle conceded a corner which was met by the head of Wales’ leading scorer Helen Ward to level the scores.
The Greens picked themselves up with Kat Huggins blocking Natasha Knapman’s effort on the goal line before Argyle regained the lead six minutes before half-time. A Becky Dandridge cross found Kayley Lane, who slipped the ball to Zoe Cunningham and she scored with a low shot.
The goals kept coming as three minutes later Argyle failed to deal with a ball into the penalty area and Emma Beckett found the back of the net to make it 3-3.
The action was not finished as once again Middleton excelled by tipping an effort over the crossbar to end a thrilling first half.
Argyle started the second period determined to get on the front foot and Knapman had a shot blocked with the follow up effort by Cunningham also saved.
Once again Argyle got caught out by a set-piece when Rolandsen, wide out on the left, fired a superb free-kick into the far corner of the net.
Argyle, who brought on Jessica Jones, started taking control and their hard work was rewarded when just after the hour mark, Dandridge received the ball on the edge of the penalty area to fire an unstoppable drive into the roof of the net.
Argyle were given a boost when Ryah Vyse was sin binned but once again the defence was caught out when an Adekite Fatuga-Dada cross was met by the head of the diving Spain futsall international Andrea Carid which flew into the net.
Argyle pushed hard for the equaliser but were met by an equally determined Watford defence.
Afterwards manager Dave Leonard said: “When we were leading 2-1 if we held on until half-time there might have been a different result.
“Every time we took the lead I didn’t feel confident we were going to keep it.
“We looked nervous and naïve when we didn’t have the ball. But we have to put it into perspective, Beckett was with Spurs last year, Ward is a quality Welsh international and that is the pull they have.
“Are we punching above our weight? No I don’t think so, but when you are competing against the likes of that then you are.
“But if that had stayed at 4-4 I would have taken a point. But it doesn’t matter what level you play at it is what you do off the ball that will win you games and we didn’t do that as proficiently as we normally do and we got caught out.
“The league isn’t going to be won by Christmas because if we win our two games in hand we will only be a point behind.”
He added: “The girls put on a great show – the crowd saw nine goals they saw an entertaining football match. The biggest thing I wanted to get out of the game was, yes I wanted three points, but I wanted them to put on a performance to get people to back us. Women’s football is here to stay so support it. If spectators make it grow we can re-invest in the club and make it better.”
Argyle: Katie Middleton, Bow Jackson, Lydia Huntley, Mollie Taylor, Leah Burridge, (Bethany Everson 88), Ebony Dover, (Jessie Jones 56), Kayley Lane, Zoe Cunningham (Amber Pollock 77), Helen Bleazard, Natasha Knapman, Rebecca Dandridge. Substitutes (not used): Faye Ivall, Steph Beck.
Meanwhile there was better news for Argyle’s development team as they beat Exeter & Tedburn Rangers 8-0 away in the South West League Western Division.
The game was a personal triumph for striker Nicola Champion as she took her season’s tally to 13 with a four-goal haul to keep Argyle at the top of the table.
It is the start of a new era at Argyle with a new women’s chairman in place and the development team re-organising their coaching staff. Into the spotlight comes Gary Bottomley and Ryan Lawton from the under-18 set up to work alongside manager Rob Bonney and goalkeeping coach Dan Tecza.
Once more the young Pilgrims got off to a quick start with Dani Wyatt the first to shoot at goal.
It was Wyatt again who took a Nicola Champion pass in her stride but her resulting shot was straight at Ayres in the Exeter goal.
Argyle continued to probe and a Maisie Williams through ball found Champion cutting in at an angle, her resulting shot beating the keeper at the near post to give them the lead.
The visitors continued to press forward and soon added a second goal when a Williams corner was headed home by Hannah Brock.
It was Champion who then turned provider as her cross was put in by Brock.
The Argyle back line had to deal with a few sporadic attacks but in the main it was one-way traffic.
It was Williams who once more turned provider as her brilliant through ball was smashed home by Beth Cowd.
Next came the goal of the game when a move that started in their own half, involved 23 passes and ended up in the Exeter net by Champion to make the half-time scoreline 5-0.
The home side proved a tougher nut to crack in the second half. It took 15 minutes before they added their next goal and it was Williams, who did everything but score, who was again the provider. Her hard low cross was tucked home by 16-year-old Dee Newman for her first goal for the club.
Minutes later the referee took both teams off the field as a torrential hailstorm interrupted play.
After the restart it was business as usual another penetrating run from Williams and pass found Champion, who made no mistake for her hat-trick.
With time running out Champion added her fourth after cutting out an attempted clearance and hitting an unstoppable drive into the bottom corner to make it 8-0.
Manager Rob Bonney was full of praise not only for the team but his coaching staff. He said: “Everyone was on it from the time we arrived at the ground. We played some really good football in very difficult conditions.
“The pick of the goals had to be our fifth – patience in possession, moving the ball around just waiting for the right opportunity and then the execution. It is something we work on week-in, week-out at training, it was really satisfying for the coaching staff.
“We have a break now and it has come at the right time. We have a growing injury list and we lost Jav (Rachel Javan) with a hamstring and Dani (Wyatt) with a re-occurrence of her foot injury, so the break from games will suit us.”
Argyle development: Maddie Walsh (Massie Frickleton), Isla Brumhead, Rachel Javan (Chardonnay James), Giota Papaioannou, Maddy Leppard, Beth Cowd, Hannah Brock, Dani Wyatt (Dee Newman), Hannah Brock (Milan Barros), Nicola Champion, Maisie Williams.