With just five points separating 1st place Reading and sixth placed Surbiton the Investec Women’s Premier League is as tight as it’s ever been. After a week off due to the Futures Cup the teams have been given extra time to recover from knocks and niggles, to hone their penalty corner routines and to iron out any problems as they approach the last big push before the Christmas break.
In what is arguably the pick of the games this week, Sonning Lane plays host to a repeat of last year’s Championship Final as Reading welcome old foes Leicester. Reports of the Pukkas demise have been greatly exaggerated. Despite an exodus of some key players in the summer, David Mayer’s side have quietly gone about their business and moved into fifth place, level on points with Clifton and just a point behind third-placed Bowdon. They produced a good display last time out to beat Beeston 2-1, a win Mayer was very happy with:
“I was very pleased with the level of our performance, in particular the strong showing from the youngest members of our squad; it was very nice to get a win against a tough team.”
As one would expect, the Leicester coach knows they are up against it against Reading this week:
“Undoubtedly this is the sternest of tests. It will be interesting to see how all teams perform after the enforced break.”
Reading come into the game top on goal difference ahead of Canterbury. They took a point form their last game as Alex Danson’s 11th goal of the season cancelled out the opener from Clifton’s Els Mansell in a 1-1 draw. Steve Bayer’s side have scored 26 goals this season and will surely give Maggs Rees and the Leicester defence plenty to think about.
Clifton who are currently fourth, face Sutton Coldfield this coming weekend. Steve Rixon’s team have Els Mansell in fine form, with six goals this season taking her to second in the scorer’s charts behind Danson, as well as rising star Jo Leigh, who will travel to Germany on Sunday to make her international bow in Jason Lee’s new-look Great Britain side. Sutton lost 3-2 to Bowdon Hightown in their last game, leaving them second bottom, three points behind University of Birmingham.
Hightown, who are having an excellent season, moved into third place with that win over Sutton. Despite a spate of retirements and departures over the close season, Tina Cullen has managed to lead her young side into a playoff spot, scoring her usual share of goals (five so far) whilst being supported by an exciting counterattacking team. Cullen is thrilled with the progress Bowdon have made:
“Obviously we are made up with our victory on Saturday as it was a really tough battle with Sutton. We were especially pleased to get the win as they had a good second half. We stuck to our tasks really well despite being under a lot of pressure.” She added: “The squad is doing really well and we are thrilled with our league position. We are aware, however that we have two tough games coming up before the break.”
The first of those tough games comes this week against Surbiton. Brett Garrard’s team lost out 2-1 to Canterbury in the last round of games, yet despite the result, Garrard was philosophical:
“That’s the best we’ve defended as a team this season. I was happy with our discipline and the way we stuck to how we wanted to defend. Their chances and their goals came from mistakes by us but overall we’re a work in progress and I felt we made some improvements today from where we have been.” He continued: “If we combine how we defended today and how we used the ball last week against University of Birmingham, results will come.”
Although the Bowdon game is a big one on paper, the Surbiton coach refused to get caught up in any hype telling The Top of the D:
“There are tough games every week. We have to focus on our own team performance and keep improving and see where that leaves us at the end of the season.”
The two teams in seventh and eighth place meet this weekend as University of Birmingham welcome Beeston. The Bees have nine points in their debut season in the top flight and despite a loss last time out to Leicester; they are within striking distance of the top places. A win this weekend, with other results going their way could propel them into the playoff picture. Just three points further back are Birmingham, who will be keen to build on their 6-0 thumping of rock bottom Olton and West Warwicks in the last round of games. Phil Gooderham’s side have taken some time to gel but have been competitive in all their games and could easily have more than the six points they currently do. Gooderham was upbeat after his team’s win over the bottom team:
“It was very satisfying to get the three points. Olton made it hard for us, as we knew they would. Local derbies are always tough and this was no exception, however in the end we were pleased to get another win on the board.” He added: “Scoring six goals was great for us. Whether you are a top team or a team at the bottom, goal difference is crucial. It can be like having an extra point, so getting six was a nice bonus. It also gives the girls a boost in confidence, so hopefully that’ll help us to be more clinical in front of goal.”
The two sides could be locked on nine points if the game goes Birmingham’s way, but the UoB coach is taking nothing for granted:
“They have some very talented players and play good hockey, but are also hard to break down. We played them pre-season but neither side gave much away. I think if we stick to our processes and play to our strengths we can hopefully take the points. It should be a good game as both sides will go for it as we both need the points.”
That just leaves the final game between Olton and West Warwicks and Canterbury. The two teams are enjoying very different seasons, with Olton’s winless run continuing into another week with their 6-0 defeat by Birmingham. The Midlands outfit are still only three points behind Sutton Coldfield but must fear the worst as the goals against column continues to rack up.
By contrast, Canterbury are flying high at the top of the league, snapping at Reading’s heels after a good win against Surbiton. After the game, Canterbury Captain Grace Balsdon told TTOTD:
“It’s always great to get a win against a team you lost out to last year. I think regardless of that we’re a very different team this year. We played very well together today and although we’re not necessarily the best team on paper in the league, we showed today we can compete. We defended very well and we’re delighted with the result.”
One of the foundations for the Kent side’s success this season has been their defence. They have conceded just seven goals, only Reading have conceded fewer. Player-Coach Jen Wilson paid tribute to her defence, and in particular, her captain:
“I have to compliment my back four, they’ve been outstanding. Mel [Clewlow] and Grace [Balsdon] in the middle together give us so much talent and so much experience that the rest of the players feed off that. They have been superb for us and really given us a platform to build on.” She added: “Grace has been learning from Mel since she was very young as have other players who have come through the club. Grace is a smart player. She’s watched who she’s playing alongside, learnt from them and put those lessons into practice. For someone of her age, having taken on the captaincy as well, it’s a lot of pressure on her shoulders and she’s managing it very well. She’s an exciting and promising young player who has been fantastic for us.”
Having had a taste of playoffs last season, the Polo Farm outfit will doubtless be pushing hard for another bite of the cherry. Wilson however is keeping her feet firmly on the ground:
“Playoffs are a long way away so that’s not our focus right now. It’s a long term goal but we have four games to go this half of the season and they’re all tough matches. We have to make sure we are prepared each week and that we do a job against each team. They all bring something different so we have to make sure we match or better them every week.”
With so little to choose between the teams all the way through the league, every game is both intriguing and hugely important. As always, you can find out who beat who, by visiting the England Hockey Website.