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Royal Delight

Leicester City 2-2 Reading (Women’s FA Cup Round Four) *2-3 pens aet

I stopped off at George’s on my way back from Boston to treat the wife to fish and chips last night, that earned brownie points but today she’s not happy as I’m out again, but not until I’ve done the weekly dog meet and updated my blog of course, 2pm I leave for Burton, the venue for Sundays game between Leicester City and Reading Women in the fourth round of the FA Cup.

I originally okayed the trip on the belief that the Foxes were hosting the match at the King Power Stadium, which is 24 miles and 45 minutes away from my home, no bother though as Burton’s Pirelli Stadium is 28 miles but 38 minutes away, that’s seven minutes I’m thinking I’ll get back later, to please the wife.

I’m on the A453 heading out of Nottingham where there’s a new town being built, Fairham will be the counties answer to Milton Keynes with rows of residential and ‘huge’ industrial units going in, the size of Clifton it will grow the city further but more importantly add new jobs.

Passing the Ratcliffe-on-Soar Power Station I’m over the M1 onto the A50 where I come off at the A38 and finally into the back end of Burton-upon-Trent where I spot a stunning looking football ground on my left, which I’ve never previously seen before. It’s a single parks pitch hidden behind the bushes with the backdrop of an old Victorian Pumping Station which I Google is called Claymills, “what a place”, I think, to play and enjoy the beautiful game of football.

Driving down the Derby Road A5121, I pass an Arnold Clark showroom and McDonalds and the Beech Pub which I’ve frequented a couple of times with Nottingham Forest, a friendly boozer which always welcomes away fans.

You can see the HQ of Pirelli as you pass a number of factories and industrial units before the Brewers Stadium catches the eye on the right, I pull in at the main entrance where I’m asked to pay £5 to park ‘anywhere’ I like.

The Venue

I’ve been here a few times now and ironically, it’s one of the few stadiums where I’ve been in ‘every’ stand. I head around the side of the ground to the main entrance where I’m told my ticket is waiting in the club shop, a small box room littered with kit, calendars and cuddly toys.

From the outside the stadium is modern, simplistic, but elegant looking, spacious with plenty of car parking, I always feel like it’s a friendly place, a brilliantly ran club who’s staff go out their way to make you feel welcome.

My seat for the day is in the Main Stand which is the only seated section of the four sides usually on offer. Not many in today, it’s the only stand available, I’m third in the queue for a cup of coffee, a Douwe Egberts of average standard, I’m heading out from under the stand though as someone in the kitchen is burning the chips, the place stinks of fat as I head through the haze and into the open up to row H, which is only four off the back, although the last two look reserved for corporate box hospitality, not that they’ll be needed today.

It's pleasant outlooking onto the arena, the pitch itself raised in the middle, dropping down wing to wing for drainage purposes, the four stands similar height, all terraced bar the one I’m sitting in, the one to the left and opposite decorated with Burton Albion flags, the one on the right behind the goal is used to house away fans.

The Game

Both teams lost 1-0 against Manchester Galactico’s last time out, Reading beaten by United who head the WSL table, whilst Leicester were beaten by City in the League Cup, the Foxes have been busy in the transfer market this week, bottom of the league but improving under Willie Kirk, Reading just two places above them in tenth, although form should go out of the window today, I see this as a tightly contested match with anyone who’s more ‘up for the cup’ going through.

It's a frantic start but whilst Leicester press, they’re unstuck at the other end as a gap opens up in their own box where Danish attacker Sanne Troelsgaard is standing, waiting to place home. The Foxes picked off on the counter-attack with just five minutes played.

The Royals are the better of the two teams early on but a cheap free kick ahead of the half hour is conceded and Jemma Purfield puts one into the box where Sam Tierney heads home to level, a lovely flick from a player who’s engine seems to run on E10, getting around the pitch with little wastage, she’s always in the thick, economical with her runs, often timing things just right to make her stance on the game.

The half bows out with a barrage of throw-ins, the ball seems to be out of the pitch more than in it, the ball thrice clearing the stand to the joy of two male supporters in particular, who each time sing “are you playing Rugby League”.

At the interval I start to feel the January chill and ponder the thought that this could go to extra time, there’s not much between the two sides and neither look too hot up top, I’m sitting watching the second half freezing my knackers off but have a couple of rechargeable handwarmers my wife brought me for Christmas which offer some saving grace.

During the second half, Reading goalkeeper Grace Maloney is forced into two fantastic saves to keep the game level, both down to her right the first is an exceptional stop as she palms a low drive from Baker away from creeping into her far corner, a second again diving to her right this time like Gordon Banks in 1970 as Goodwin plays Pele with her header down towards goal.

The Score

It’s level at ninety and there’s children in front of me asking their parents to take them home, it’s a cold one with the sun long gone dropped beneath the horizon, now the sky lit up only by the Pirelli Floodlights in otherwise middle England darkness.

I’m checking my watch at the thought of penalties, and that seven minutes I’d hoped to save to surprise the wife, she’s not going to be happy, I’m stood up stretching my legs as the two sets of players huddle on the pitch to ‘go again’ after drinks and instructions are taken on board.

Leicester are progressive, they have been most of the match, in fact they dominated the second half which for the final twenty minutes was a cracking advertisement of women’s football, no nonsense, just get it forward and go for it, fast paced attack from both teams, end to end, and it’s the Foxes who’ve started the better in extra time.

They’re inside the box and Hannah Cain is lurking, the Welsh International a second half sub is fresh and smashes home left footed what looks to be a massive goal for Leicester, could it be the winner? I’m still thinking there’s a twist yet to tell.

And that twist comes just ten minutes later, neither side look like they have the ability to ‘close out games’ and Reading level as Emma Mukundi, the captain, who’s been left back, right back, now she’s up front, she’s ran through to place past Leitzig, the Royals best player capping her game off with a goal.

The second half of extra time see’s more nervy action from front to back but now the girls are tiring and everytime a fan stands in the search of something happening they sit back down as the defence comes out on top, the Referee who started the game a woman, and ended, as a man (I’m not sure how it happened either?), blows for full time and takes the game to a shootout, which favourably, are decided take place, nearer, to the end which I’m sitting.

By now I’m stood up, back row level with the eighteen yard box as the first two penalties are scored with ease, Leicester first, Reading second, but Hannah Cain misses her spot kick for the Foxes and when Natasha Dowie, a 119th minute sub, dispatches hers, the advantage is with the away side, furthered when Ashleigh Plumptre’s effort is saved.

Reading score through the reliable Mukandi, never in doubt, before Leicester’s new signing Georgia Eaton-Collins nets her attempt, it’s shoot to win as Deanna Cooper steps up, but her spot kick is saved as I turn to a Burton official and state “this game is never going to end”.

Carrie Jones however has a final kick to save Leicester from exit, she’s nervous and can’t beat the goalkeeper who’s probably now earned herself a worthy player of the match award, the celebrations see a number of travelling fans at the side of the pitch applauding the players in front of them, which cues me to make a sharp exit and get quickly in the warmth of my car.

The Stars

I’m disappointed with Leicester’s Missy Goodwin who was my ‘favourite fox’ from the recent win over Brighton. Really impressive though was Ava Baker in attack, pacey and physical a nuisance, she’s diminutive, only seventeen but really puts a shift in and gives defenders that panic when rushing onto balls over, or around, the top. Sam Tierney is a real warrior, a defender who’s found a new lease in Leicester’s midfield, she’s combative and intelligent, her timely runs have seen her score three goals in her last four matches.

For Reading I’m instantly fixed towards giant midfielder Justine Vanhaevermaet who looks like a netball goal-attack, tall, solid, long blonde hair, striking, the Belgian international is a colossus in midfield but the longer the game goes the more I want to see her get the ball, dictate and impose herself with strength, which if I were that size, I would certainly use it more to my advantage.

Opposites in size and stature is wee little Emma Mukandi a Scottish international of 67 caps who starts the game at right back, but what she lacks in height, her football brain is smart, her footwork neat, she never misses a pass, she has a calming assurance and is a player with quality, her goal in extra time key to Reading going through.

Another key to the Royals progression is goalkeeper Grace Maloney, the Republic of Ireland shot stopper is magnificent on the day and it’s her reflexes that play pivotal in Reading reaching round five, where next up the last sixteen of the FA Cup awaits.

The Verdict

Both teams were very even which made for an enthralling spectacle, I’ll be interested to see how Leicester do over the coming weeks as they could go one way, and fight for WSL survival or the other, and down tools off the back of a couple of bad results, but I see enough in their make-up to show progression and promise, the differences on the day between success and failure, very minimal, the intrinsic of football frustrating, because they probably edged the tie on points, but paid the penalty, when it really mattered.

The Teams

Leicester City: Janina Leitzig, Sam Tierney, CJ Bott, Molly Pike (Carrie Jones 46), Aileen Whelan, Sophie Howard, Missy Goodwin (Hannah Cain 71), Ashleigh Plumptre, Jemma Purfield (Courtney Nevin 82), Ruby Mace (Georgia Eaton-Collins 90), Ava Baker (Erin Simon 105).

Reading: Grace Moloney, Emma Mukandi, Gemma Evans (Natasha Dowie 120), Charlie Wellings (Tia Primmer 81), Amalie Eikeland, Emma Harries (Lauren Wade 59), Deanna Cooper, Rachel Rowe, Justine Vanhaevermaet, Lily Woodham (Faye Bryson 59), Sanne Troelsgaard (Jade Moore 59).

4pm Kick Off. Sunday 29th January 2023, Pirelli Stadium, Burton (att 207).

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