From Walsall To Wembley
Aston Villa 0-1 Chelsea (Women’s FA Cup Semi Final)
I didn’t win anything on the Grand National. The highlight of my weekend was a lovely meal at the Griffin in Plumtree on Friday night where our taxi pulling into the car park annoyed Nottingham Forest Manager Steve Cooper, sat frustrated in his lightly coloured Range Rover waiting for us to move.
I’m up early on Sunday morning as It’s double dog weekend. Accompanying Bruce for a sleep-over we’ve got Molly, a five-month laparazo and absolute headcase, she’s the mother-in-law’s who’s not been feeling well with pneumonia but is much better and coming out of hospital today, the wife has been rightly worried all week, but a bit of positive mood ensures she’s promised me Five Guys tonight, so I’m hoping this game doesn’t go to extra time.
Aston Villa are going well in the WSL, sat fifth they’re the next best below the super four that is both Manchester clubs, Arsenal and today’s visitors Chelsea, who are also going well in Europe having recently beat holders Lyon in the Champions League, they’ve got Barcelona next.
Saturday saw Manchester United beat Brighton in the ‘other’ semi-final so today’s winner will face the Red Devils at Wembley in May, a tasty encounter which will no doubt sell out underneath the Arch. Women’s football has taken upwards trajectory since the summer, but only 5,000 crammed into Walsall’s Bescot Stadium today… I’m surprised that they couldn’t make Villa Park a fortress for such prestigious event.
I’ve been to Beagle meet, I’ve made bacon sandwiches for the family, I’m waving bye to Bruce & Molly whilst Kyle takes the reigns before mum gets back from shopping and I’m out the door shortly before midday, pulling up at Clifton Petrol Station for a quick fill up before heading down the A453, briefly onto the M1 and M42 before joining the M6.
It’s grey and miserable as the sky rise city centre buildings of Birmingham appear in the distance, slightly hazed over you can spot the huge BT tower from the motorway before passing Villa Park and Spaghetti Junction where a couple of kestrels are lurking above the canals.
I’ve never been to Walsall, spotted a thousand times from the motorway it’s probably the one venue I’ve seen most but never set foot inside, I’m off at junction 7 onto the Birmingham Road past Handsworth Rugby Club before driving past a number of adjacent parks pitches on Walstead Road, cars parked everywhere as kids are packing up fully kitted, it’s the home of Silverdale FC.
I’m past the last of the houses heading into an industrial area as the M6 elevated appears on my left. There’s cars queuing to go right as the stadium appears beneath a huge advertising boarding, I’m spinning it around as I spotted a few spaces on the road less than three minutes’ walk away, I’m up for a quick get away later so can’t be doing with the queues.
I pull up outside a block of flats opposite Tyres 4U and walk the short journey back where I came from as cars wait patiently to get into the car park. I’m turning right after the Park Inn Hotel which has room views of the motorway bridge and ugly big billboard, I spot a sign which says ‘Walsall Sunday Market’ as Stewards rip off tickets to give drivers for their dashboards, one guy shouts programmes as the red and grey cladded steel back end appears of the University of Wolverhampton Stand.
The Bescot Stadium is octagonal bowl like, another one of those from my 1995 Aerofilms Guide that stood out as a boy, back then it was a new modern arena built five years earlier to replace the old Fellows Park, it’s looking a bit dated nowadays, not quite as bad as Scunthorpe (built at a similar time), but not nearly as decrepitly attractive either. Very bland.
There’s a good few fans outside as queues for burgers and Aston Villa Merchandise are lengthy behind the back of the St Francis Group Community Stand which I’m sat in today. The signposts aren’t the clearest as I enter a turnstile to scan my ticket, I’m through the concrete underpass to the pitch in seconds, no frills, no food, but plenty of flags I spot in seats.
The pitch looks in good nick, flat and firm, the internals of the arena propped up by posts are otherwise decorated in red seating. A huge double decker stand to my right has the words ‘Poundland’ written on its roof, the rest of the stadium low ceilings, enclosed, it certainly has more character inside, than out, I’m heading up for my seat on Row M where I’m about to get hit on the head by a flag.
There’s a family behind me with excited and slightly boisterous kids, they’re waving flags and singing songs, I’m cramped into my seat well ahead of the game as they’re flapping claret & blue cloth onto the back of my head… I’m getting up to walk down the steps where I ask a steward ‘nicely’ if there’s any chance of moving.. “Not today” he responds uninterested, “It’s a sell out” he says.
In fairness the error was on me as I booked the one ticket I could get with limited availability so without complaint I grin and bear it as I mumble to myself ‘this is the last woman’s match I do’…
There’s a little girl sat next to me with her dad, a family of three has just turned up to my left, a big Villa fan, he’s driven from Cheshire and has a moan to me about the traffic on the M6, in front another family, two parents, two kids, and plenty of packed lunches to go around, I’m about as toasty as you can get without being in a group hug, before the teams come out, the flag waving restarts, and we finally get to sit down and watch some action.
Villa don’t start too bad, the striking long blonde-haired Alisha Lehmann is set through on a couple of occasions and shows pace, but not much on ball finesse.
The home side are plucky, they work hard and show grit, you feel they really want it, but Chelsea are organised, solid, better, all be it without yet, breaking sweat.
Laura James comes closest to giving the away side the lead, striking from distance inches wide before Lucy Staniforth tries her luck for Villa on the volley, Zecira Musovic in the Chelsea goal diving acrobatically to her left to hold on to the ball.
Nil Nil at the break is good for Aston Villa who look an even match despite Chelsea being one of Europe’s best. The girls in gold however crack a post just seconds into the second half and take the lead after a lovely left footed cross by Guro Reiten is headed home beautifully by Sam Kerr, downwards into the back of the net, a good old fashioned strikers goal.
That encourages Villa to push more as Chelsea defend on to their lead, Lehmann flashes wide and low before Mayling cracks a post herself, the little girl to my right has her head in her hands before joining the rest of the crowd in singing “Villa Villa” as she looks to pick her team up from those near misses.
In fairness, the crowd are great, the away end in numbers even make some noise, Aston Villa are good value for taking the game to extra time but for me, I’m ready to go home and eat burgers whilst catching the back end of Forest v Man Utd on telly… Late on Chelsea should have wrapped things up, Sam Kerr denied by Hannah Hampton who impresses in net aged just 22, she hears chants of ‘England’s number one’ having played twice for the National team already last year.
Villa were brilliant and had a lot of the ball, pivotal to their approach play were midfielders Lucy Staniforth and in particular Kenza Dali who sprays forward passes from wing to wing.
I was excited to see Alisha Lehmann (yep, you got me) and she was direct and fast down the right, but down the left Kirsty Hanson was even better, really pacey over short distances and running at her full back she caused Eve Perisset a lot of problems.
Causing problems for Villa was Sam Kerr, who’s all round centre forward play was very good, capped with a goal she was the difference on the day, whilst Laura James in spells looked so much bigger and more powerful than those she was up against, left back Jess Carter having a decent game too.
To walk away from a match more impressed with the losers than the winners, you have to feel for the Aston Villa girls who put everything into the game, whilst you can’t help feeling, if Chelsea wanted to, they could have stepped up a few more gears if needed, to send them through.
The Blues are one point behind Manchester United with a game in hand in the title race, they face Barcelona in the semi finals of the Champions League next, and have booked their slot in the final of the FA Cup, a good season for them so far, it could be a great season for Emma Hayes and co should they remain unbeaten over the next five or six weeks.
Aston Villa: Hannah Hampton, Sarah Mayling, Danielle Turner, Anna Patten, Mayumi Pacheco, Kenza Dali, Lucy Staniforth, Jordan Nobbs, Alisha Lehmann, Rachael Daly, Kirsty Hanson.
Chelsea: Zecira Musovic, Eve Perisset, Maren Mjede, Magdalena Eriksson, Jessica Carter, Jelena Cankovic, Melanie Leupolz (Sophie Ingle 64), Lauren James (Niamh Charles 64), Erin Cuthbert (Jess Fleming 70), Guro Reiten (Johanna Rytting Kaneryd 88), Sam Kerr.
2:15pm Kick Off. Sunday 16th April 2023, Bescot Stadium, Walsall (att 5,292)