Leicester City 0-8 Chelsea (Women’s Super League)
I’m at Derby Costco near Pride Park Stadium doing some bulk buy Christmas shopping on my mother-in-law’s membership card. It’s packed, the queue for the petrol alone is ridiculous, six-foot Christmas trees selling for £30. I want one but thought we could pay on the way out, only to be told I have to go back in store and queue up to make purchase. I can’t go through that again, its hell, and I’ve got to be in Leicester for 2pm.
It's my first ever experience of WSL action today, champions Chelsea are up against struggling Leicester City at the King Power Stadium, it’s top v bottom, last time out Chelsea beat Real Madrid 2-0 in the Champions League whilst Leicester lost 1-0 at West Ham, they are yet to register a point from eight games played.
Despite the poor run it’s been a remarkable rise for the Foxes who were pretty much playing parks football less than five years ago. After gaining promotion to the Women’s Championship in 2018 they won the second-tier title in 2021 and last season survived their first campaign in the WSL finishing two points ahead of relegated Birmingham in eleventh.
In comparison, Chelsea have won six of the last eight WSL seasons (including the last three) with four FA Cups, two League Cups and a Champions League final appearance thrown into the mix. Manager Emma Hayes is set to make her 300th match in charge this afternoon, Leicester’s boss Willie Kirk recently appointed to help save their side from the drop.
I’m back home with the clock ticking towards 1pm, a quick offload of the shopping and I’m out the door heading down the A46 to Leicester before circling the New Parks Way where I notice a rather nice mural remembering the ‘men’s’ Premier League winning side of 2016 on the wall of Western Leicester Fire Station.
Down the Glenfield Road I’m told by my sat nav to drive parallel with the River Soar along the quaint looking Western Boulevard as it takes me towards car park C opposite the impressive stadium on the Raw Dykes Road.
Appearing underneath the huge pylons which are dotted around outside, the modern blue cantilevered stadium impresses from first view, bowl-like and grand, stood alone in a quiet industrial part of town, there’s a merry-go-round giving a Christmas feel as the rain comes down the minute I step out my car.
Skies are grey, a cold chill with persistent drizzle I walk over towards Filbert Way where the two buses of Chelsea Ladies, hosting players and staff, arrive through the car park.
There’s a fan zone, plenty of stalls and a stage set up, an ex-player being interviewed in front of a crowd of around six or seven people, I can’t make out who it is, as he’s asked about England’s chances against Senegal in the World Cup tomorrow, I hang around until he’s thanked for his time, when I’m told it’s Steve Walsh, ex-City centre half and a real solid defender from their successful side of the 90’s.
I take a walk towards the turnstile as it’s cold and wet as the players of Leicester City pull up in their hatchbacks and second-hand cars. Emile Heskey walks over towards main entrance, he’s Technical Director these days, one of the players stops off to chat to a young fan, a handful of children and parents watching the teams walk in as I ask the steward what time the turnstile opens.
“Should be any time now” he says, I can’t handle the cold so head into the club’s superstore for some warmth, where I see again Steve Walsh now purchasing a bobble hat, before casting my eye on some rather splendid retro shirts, Bukta and Admiral made emblazoned with the logos of Ind Coope Brewery and Walkers Crisps.
I’m inside the stadium concourse before anybody else, so grab a coffee and a steak and kidney pie which has an edible Leicester City logo on it. Whilst eating, I ask a man in a yellow high vis jacket if they’re expecting a big crowd today? Turns out he was one of the Managers during their rise and he shows me pictures on his phone of the 2016 Midlands championship winning side, him sat at front of the team photo with two of his daughters also in the squad. He talks to me like I know the who’s who of Leicester City Ladies but despite nodding I haven’t a clue. An old fan doesn’t help, dressed in hat and scarf he goes home and away, is the sort of bloke who can reel off every previous player to play for the club, I don’t even know the names of the current bunch? I chat with a smile and blag my way through with some limited women’s football knowledge before wishing both well and heading upstairs to my seat.
Inside the arena draped in blue, you can hear the rain pouring down on the metal roof, miserable skies above, pleasant green surface in good nick below, the fans slowly start to build to around 2,000 which is scarcely 10% of this iconic football amphitheatre.
During the warmups there’s a mini game going on from Chelsea, defence v attack as they play half the pitch and pepper the goal, playing out from their centre halves to the wingers who cross in without luck. I quite like to see different pre-game techniques and have been a long admirer of Emma Hayes who I wouldn’t be surprised could be the first female manager to make the historical step into the men’s game, always coming across well when asked to pundit for various TV channels.
As the match kicks off I can’t help feeling Leicester will do well to contain Chelsea as best they can for as long as possible, keep the score down to a minimum, I’m told they’ll be closer fought tests to come, nobody is expecting anything from this one, the gulf of class, is frankly, ridiculous.
Peppered with international stars, Chelsea are ahead within four minutes, 75 cap Norwegian International Guro Reiten opening the scoring before a defensive error allows the same player to pull back for Jesse Fleming on 13 for a second.
The Leicester players huddle after conceding that goal, already in damage limitation mode they come out and play the next twenty minutes or so quite well, but another one six minutes before half time opens the floodgates, Reiten finding Fran Kirby who volleys home a third.
Neve Charles then heads home from a Reiten corner before the goal of the game, the Norwegian winger curling a stunning low left footed defence splitting pass to Sam Kerr who can’t miss, four assists and a goal for Reiten with Chelsea five up at the break.
A home supporter offers me a chocolate out of his tub of celebrations as he walks around dishing them out to the masses of children in attendance, a couple of kids are twatting about behind me, trying to get into the media section and climbing on the seats, a full fifteen minutes of naughtiness and not a parent in sight.
I’m relieved when the second half starts just so the kids can go sit back down and sod off, I’m isolated on the back row of the stand, comfy padded seat but it’s cold, woolly hat with body warmer over hoody, I’m a tad underdressed for the unexpected chill.
It takes Chelsea all of five minutes after the break to register a sixth, a half-cleared attempt falling to the feet of Jess Fleming, the Canadian Olympic Gold Medallist with over a hundred caps for her country, scoring a second of the match to put more misery on Leicester.
Again the home side dig in and at least register their best effort of the game, Natasha Flint shooting from range to be denied by Chelsea goalkeeper Berger who flies to her left to tip over the bar. But further goals from substitute Beth England, and another for Fran Kirby, ensures a comfortable afternoon’s work, signifying the huge gap in quality, and keeping Chelsea at the top as they aim for a fourth title in a row.
Whilst Reiten would rightly take the plaudits for statistically doing better than anyone else, she has a lovely left foot, always a threat on the wing and a real menace for the Leicester defenders to deal with, I wanted to point out a couple of unsung heroines, who really keep the Cheslea side ticking along. Millie Bright with her significant stature and blonde hair, bossing proceedings from centre half, and in front of her, mini me, Sophie Ingle, carefully caressing the ball left to right in the midfield holding position, never giving it away, always on the show, keeping things simple as those around her look to burst forward.
The Welsh international with 105 caps came up against her Cymru team-mate Carrie Jones who was one of the few Leicester City girls on the day, who I was impressed with. On loan from Tottenham she looked to get on the ball and make things happen whilst Molly Pike was positive down the left hand side, often showing a good skillset which sometimes troubled her opponent.
No question debating whether Chelsea are world class or not, they have the best of the best in players and staff and are a million miles away from Leicester, who remember were playing grass roots regional football just five years ago.
The question is deeper, how can the WSL evolve as a competitive competition with the disparity of quality in the elite (Chelsea, Man City, United & Arsenal) and the rest? But as the women’s game grows, that particular bridge will probably take much more time, and funds, to improve, Leicester have spent millions from the days of playing at Aylestone Park, to the Pirelli Stadium in Burton, now playing at the King Power Stadium they’ll do very well to survive this season, pointless from nine games played having conceded 25 goals and just two scored, but word is they’ll still have the funds to bounce back up, whilst Chelsea have the ability to not just win the league this year (again) but win a first Champions League final which still annoyingly alludes them, one thing that will cap their dominance on the English domestic game even further, should they achieve goal as the nations first women's side to become Queens of Europe.
Leicester City: Demi Lambourne, Erin Simon (Catherine Bott 46), Sophie Howard, Georgia Brougham, Jemma Purfield (Demi Vance 78), Aileen Whelan, Samantha Tierney (Mackenzie Smith 83), Molly Pike, Carrie Jones, Deearna Goodwin (Hannah Cain 76), Ava Baker (Natasha Flint 46).
Chelsea: Ann-Katrin Berger, Eve Perisset (Jess Carter 74), Millie Bright, Magdalena Eriksson (Aniek Nouwen 74), Johanna Rytting Kaneryd, Fran Kirby, Sophie Ingle, Niamh Charles, Jessie Fleming (Jelena Cankovic 63), Sam Kerr (Beth England 63), Guro Reiten (Alsu Abdullina 75).
3pm Kick Off. Saturday 3rd December 2022, Leicester City Stadium, Leicester (att 2,022).