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Sheffield Steel The Show In Scunthorpe

Sheffield United 3-0 Nottingham Forest (Women’s FA Cup Round Three)

I’ve seen some iconic matches between Nottingham Forest and Sheffield United in the past. No Forest fan (old enough) will ever forget Brian Clough’s last home game at the City Ground, a 2-0 loss at the end of the opening season of the Premier League which meant relegation for the Reds as the legendary Old Big Ed retired with a minor blot on his copybook.

In 2003 the two teams did battle in the First Division Playoffs which was decided in a classic match at Bramall Lane by a Des Walker own goal. I remember a 3-0 FA Cup thumping at the City Ground a year after when walking over the Lady Bridge on the way back a United fan stated “that’s the worst I’ve ever seen Nottingham Forest play”.

Another cup encounter came in 2014 when the Blades, then in League One, managed by Nigel Clough, knocked Championship Forest out at the fifth round stage, then in May 2022, some good news at last, although I missed the first leg as I was enjoying hospitality at the cup final between Liverpool & Chelsea, I watched the second leg of the playoffs in the stands as Forest lost again, but went through on penalties to spark scenes I’ve not seen at the City Ground before.

In fact come to think of it, I’ve never seen Forest beat United, which bodes not so well as I’m heading up to see the women’s teams face each other in the FA Cup, in a game played at Glanford Park, Scunthorpe, a town and a stadium I’ve always wanted to visit.

It’s just gone 10am Sunday morning and I'm aiming to reach 'Scunny' by midday, so I set off down the A46 towards Newark & Lincoln, a chill in the air but it’s bright, and thankfully little on the roads as I set my speedometer to 65mph.

I stop off to get some cash at a petrol station near the A1, £1.95 they charge to take my money out, I would have gone to Greggs next door had it not been so expensive already, so I swerve my need for breakfast and carry along the old (all be it modernised) roman road Fosse Way before joining the equally straight A15 which remarkably only seems to curve for the runway at RAF Scampton.

It’s under an hour and a half journey from Nottingham as I hit the M180 and M181 taking me directly to the ground on the outskirts of town.

The Venue

I had an Aerofilms Football Grounds guide written by Dave Twydell in the early 1990s. It featured all 92 league clubs’ venues (as well as Wembley) and amongst the magnificent stadium pics taken by the sky I was always marvelled by two smaller homes in the Bescot at Walsall and Glanford Park, home of Scunthorpe United, both recently built in a small square bowl like shape on the edge of town.

Everything looked new, white roofs and large car park spaces, nothing for miles, it felt like the future of football, and I think part of me was expecting it still to look the same today.

Spotting the floodlights in the distance I reach the A18 roundabout where there’s a Tesco, Pizza Hut, McDonalds, B&Q, Next, TK Maxx, you name it, they have it, a modern retail centre that has been built entirely since the stadium first opened its doors 30 years ago.

But as I aim straight for the gates in between Kwik Fit & Burger King, I’m met by a miserable grey monstrosity that is covered in banners, everything about it looks dejected and decrepit, uncared for and left alone, Scunthorpe United are currently bottom of the National League and could be heading down to the sixth tier of English football next season, the venue won’t even be the best in the National League North.

I pay my £3 to park my car as I’m navigated to pretty much ‘anywhere’ I like, pulling up I notice the Red logo emblazoned Forest bus is already here.

I’m out my car and heading for an entrance where a steward tells me gates open at 12pm, I’ve got fifteen minutes to wait so head back to the warmth and listen to the radio, Max Rushden and Barry Glendenning are on TalkSport, their light heartedness always soft listening on a Sunday morning.

It’s 12pm so I head for the turnstile, just one open today, right around the back of the ground in the away end where both teams’ fans are allowed to mingle. Sheffield United usually play at Bramall Lane but switched the tie after the original match was postponed in December.

There’s around ten or twenty of us queueing outside to get in as the players are on the pitch warming up, apparently the turnstile operator is not here yet, after ten minutes wait we are finally allowed in, £7 cash through the tight fitting entrance and straight to the single kiosk under the stand for a steak pie and cup of tea.

The pie is pukka, stale as anything but hot, pastry like cardboard, it has probably been standing there since yesterday where Scunny got a rare win against Maidenhead, the tea is PG tips and for a total cost of £6 (card only) I’m fully fuelled ahead of my football fest.

Out the entrance towards the seats I notice the fans are all behind the goal, preferring a side on view I ask the steward nicely if I can move and she points me to a fella who’s on the phone as I wait for him to finish talking for a good five minutes. He tells me ‘there’s only 200 or so in today so probably not’.

I park myself up in the corner out of trouble, and to be fair it’s not a bad spot, five or six rows up you get pretty much unrestricted viewing but for a single post in your right view mirror. The ground all be it warn and unloved has something about it, the rustic Rainham Steel made arena largely grey with a touch of claret and blue.

The Game

Although struggling third bottom in the Women’s Championship, Sheffield United are slight favourites against Forest, going well a league below, second behind Wolves in the National North.

United start and pass between their back four at ease, the women’s game always feels less hectic and more stretched than the men’s with both defences enjoying playing out from the back, it feels United are more competent on the ball, getting it wide to get crosses in, I’m impressed with the tiny left sider Alethea Paul who is neat on the ball and interchanges well, in contrast, Forest’s Charlotte Greengrass in centre midfield is huge, legs of Patrick Vieira, looks of Emmanuel Petit, she carries the ball forward with power and boy can she tackle with force.

The Reds are more direct whilst the Blades have most of the possession, the first half ends goalless and as I stand up to stretch my legs I ponder the thought of extra time and getting back home later than I had hoped.

The Score

No issues with that though, just two minutes into the second half and Mia Enderby has two chances of crossing before picking out Courtney Sweetman-Kirk who bundles home from close range. United are then two to the good with a former Forest player scoring a cracker against her old club. Bex Rayner letting go from the edge of the area, a stunning curling strike that finds the top corner of the net.

Rayner celebrates in front of the crowd as United prove worthy leaders, a Forest fightback almost instantly gives them the chance to pull one back but too frequently the Reds are picked off, and but for Emily Batty in the away team goal it could be more, it eventually is more, Mia Enderby getting a deserved goal slotting in at the back post to ensure any doubt of who plays Manchester City in round four is quashed.

The Stars

Enderby at seventeen looks a real prospect, a right winger who likes to run at defenders and get crosses into the box, uncomplicated. Bex Rayner puts a shift in and is rewarded with the goal of the game whilst Sweetman-Kirk strikes a lovely ball and certainly knows where the net is.

I like the look of the United left side where Alethea Paul and Georgia Walters link well together. Paul is an ex-Manchester City youth cup winner who did also appear in the first team before moving to the Blades, I wonder if she’ll step up to WSL level again in good time?

For Nottingham Forest, there’s not much gulf in quality of football on show, but a slight difference perhaps in fitness and physique, the Reds looked to be carrying a couple compared to the leaner looking United who’s bench also had more depth of quality, Forest did have their moments and looked capable on the break, Greengrass was a colossus in midfield whilst Hayley James looked to drive the ball out of defence, Lyndsey Harkin tirelessly talking to her team-mates a good captain and role model for her younger peers.

The Verdict

There’s something about Scunthorpe which I really like… The stadium is grim, really grim, but I like that. The paint is peeling off the walls, the lights in the corridors for the men’s toilets not even switched on, I imagine the away end full to the rafters and smelling of smoke, the queue for crap food at half time before getting to the counter to be told they’ve ran out.

No such problems in women’s football where due to the low attendance the stadium feels spacious and sufficient for such event. Sheffield United might survive relegation this season because having seen the two teams below them play, I can state they aren’t as bad as Coventry United at least, much better in fact, and so are Nottingham Forest, who I wonder, could they make the step up in the summer?

The Reds have two games in hand on Wolves and are three points below the top of the table team, with no FA cup distraction to worry about they may feel that concentration can thoroughly be focused on promotion to the next level, where they'll hope to see United, again, next season.

The Teams

Sheffield United: Bethan Davies, Charlotte Newsham (Ellie Wilson 86), Sophie Barker, Naomi Hartley, Grace Riglar (Molly Graham 86), Courtney Sweetman-Kirk, Rebecca Rayner (Rachel Brown 78), Alethea Paul, Georgia Walters (Tamara Wilcock 74), Rhema Lord-Mears, Mia Enderby (Chene Muir 86).

Nottingham Forest: Emily Batty, Lyndsey Harkin, Georgia Hewitt, Olivia Cook (Niamh Reynolds 73), Sophie Domingo (Gianna Mitchell 73), Yasmin Mosby (Rosetta Taylor 84), Amy West, Arryana Daniels (Charlotte Steggles 58), Becky Anderson, Hayley James, Charlotte Greengrass (Naomi Powell 73).

1:00pm Kick Off. Sunday 8th January 2023, Glanford Park, Scunthorpe (att 200).

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