A similar set of circumstances nearly curtailed my journey to see the Cityzens this time too. Wrexham were playing in the FA Cup the night before and I went along to support my team following the news our manager was ditching us for Shrewsbury Town. It was an entertaining 0-0 draw under The Racecourse lights but it left me wanting more. Plus, after much turmoil, I fancied a little break from Wrexham to see a new ground, a fresh set of faces and, hopefully, some goals.
The top-of-the-table clash between Man City and Arsenal in the FA Women’s Super League felt like the perfect tonic. The two sides had scored 72 goals between them going into a game that would feature the WSL’s all-time leading goal scorer, Nikita Parris, as well as Vivianne Miedema – who would become the joint-highest ever scorer in a single WSL season if she found the net.
I looked forward to the goal-fest.
This was my second time blogging on a Manchester City team having previously witnessed the men’s side thrash Crystal Palace 5-0 in my first ever Premier League match last year. Heading out of the Etihad that day, I noticed a smaller stadium over the bridge that allows supporters to cross Alan Turing Way – the main road outside the ground. Later I learnt this was the Academy Stadium, where the Man City youth and women’s teams play their home matches. I immediately wanted to return and see a game there.
Heading back to the Academy Stadium on this occasion, I realised I never fully appreciated the district that both stadiums were at the heart of: SportCity.
Built for the 2002 Commonwealth Games, SportCity covers a vast area of east Manchester and has a number of impressive facilities including the National Cycling Centre, the National Squash Centre and a 6,500-seat athletics arena. The site boasts the largest concentration of sporting facilities in Europe, with over four million visitors per year and has, no doubt, helped the development of several sportspeople from amateur to elite level.
Seeing the signs for all these fantastic sports venues nearby was exciting enough but seeing the Etihad and the impressive 7,000-seater Academy Stadium filling up really made me feel like the place was special.
Arsenal headed to the Academy Stadium with a 100% record at the WSL summit. City, meanwhile, stood in second place – six points behind the leaders – but were also unbeaten. If you factored in both sides’ excellent defensive stats and the fact the top five goalscorers in the competition were from both clubs, you could easily argue the two best women’s teams in the country were playing against each other.
And, thankfully for me, it looked that way during the match. There was so much quality on display that each side looked equally good in almost every position. Up front, Parris and Miedema showed their prowess with some outstanding centre-forward play, while in the middle of the park, Arsenal’s Danielle van de Donk and City’s Jill Scott won possession back so many times for their respective teams.
However, where the game was ultimately won and lost was in defence. City’s back four were simply phenomenal. Demi Stokes, Gemma Bonner, Jen Beattie and Steph Houghton frustrated the Arsenal attack with fantastic blocks, clearances and tackles. Whenever the Gunners looked to be in on goal, they were unable to find the killer pass or shot due to the girls in blue closing them down. It really was a magnificent display from them.
Although Arsenal were pretty well-organised themselves, they let City in too many times and it cost them their perfect record. Leah Williamson prevented Georgia Stanway from scoring early on but they couldn’t contain her for too much longer – Stanway eventually grabbing her eighth goal of the season when she hit Stokes’ cross through Arsenal’s in-coming defenders.
Parris should have doubled City’s lead soon after with just the keeper to beat but hit her shot wide. However, the game was sealed mid-way through the second half when Stanway found the bottom corner of the net following a mazy run off Keira Walsh’s exquisite long-range pass. The Arsenal defence could have possibly done better to block Stanway’s shot but it was a fine finish from the 19-year-old and her brace proved to be the difference.
Even though the entry fee was a ridiculously cheap £4.50, Manchester City provided superb hospitality with a number of free gifts and initiatives included in the price. There were teamsheets handed out on the way in, a photo of the squad available on the way out and all hot drinks during the game were on the house!
The day also marked the 30th anniversary of Manchester City’s women’s team coming into existence and a number of the original 1988 squad were in attendance – along with Neil Mather, the man who started it all.
I missed the pre-match speeches they gave as I was waiting for my friend outside the ground. But if you weigh up what City were offering – including a presentation for Houghton winning 100 caps for England and Beattie for making 100 City appearances, plus a chance to meet them afterwards – it’s really going to encourage people to get involved with women’s football.
At half-time, I fancied my chances in the raffle after getting two rows of tickets for purchasing two programmes. However, as the numbers rolled on the scoreboard they only seemed to go up to 400. My tickets were 870-880.
As you can imagine, when they eventually stopped, I didn’t win the signed City shirt.
Other than that, my only disappointment was learning about Arsenal’s injury list. Losing long-term absentees Kim Little and Danielle Carter earlier in the campaign hadn’t stopped their storm up the league but the recent loss of influential midfielder Jordan Nobbs might have been a factor in their defeat at City. Nobbs is now a doubt for England’s World Cup squad in France next summer – which is devastating for her and could possibly prove costly for Arsenal come the end of the season.
The game proved to be exactly what I’d hoped for: two teams with real quality playing attacking football. I did think there’d be more goals and the lead would swap hands at least once but it was an engrossing match nonetheless, capped off by a big shift in title race momentum.
Seeing BBC reporters Alex Scott and Reshmin Chowdhury walk past me was a fun highlight. It only emphasised further how big the game was. As did the 2,000+ crowd.
It’s very pleasing to see attendance figures for women’s football rising with each game I go to, and now they’re surpassing many crowds from teams in Wrexham’s league, I’m already looking forward to my next trip to the Academy Stadium.