The last time a football team travelled to Liverpool needing victory to snatch the league title from their hosts’ grasp, the ensuing drama ended up inspiring a couple of books and a film. That was the night of 26 May 1989 when an injury-time goal from Michael Thomas claimed the old First Division title for Arsenal against a Liverpool side who had only needed to avoid defeat by two goals to complete the double.
That climax, celebrated in Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch, is unmatched in the long history of the men’s game in this country yet the FA Women’s Super League, in just its third season, has contrived to give us its own last-day showdown between the top two – with Liverpool involved again tomorrow when they take on a Bristol Academy side two points worse off and needing victory.
Matt Beard, the Liverpool Ladies manager, gave a one-word answer – “no” – when asked if that Thomas goal had come up in conversation this week. He and his players are more interested in creating fresh history and they go into tomorrow’s decider at their Halton Stadium home in Widnes, eyeing a first-ever trophy. Liverpool have been top since late May, having progressed more quickly than envisaged in the initial “three-year plan” Beard put in place on arriving from Chelsea in summer 2012. “Our ambition this year was to finish in the top four,” says Beard, who won the FA Cup with Charlton. They already have a Champions League place booked for the first time but “now we are where we are, we want to win it”, he added.
For Beard it is “good for the game” that there will be a new name on the trophy with Arsenal, champions for the last nine seasons, out of the running after a three-point deduction for fielding an ineligible player and he predicts that the competition’s strength in depth will grow further “with Manchester City coming into the Super League [at Doncaster Rovers Belles’ expense] and Lincoln going to Notts County”, even if those moves offend many people’s sense of fairness.
Tomorrow’s contest is very much David versus Goliath with Liverpool’s playing budget roughly three times that of Academy, a club affiliated to South Gloucestershire and Stroud College. Bottom in each of the past two campaigns, Liverpool received a big investment from Anfield’s American owners during the past close season, which brought in 12 new players – six from abroad as well as Everton’s England pair Fara Williams and Natasha Dowie. “The investment from the club has given us a buzz and it enables us to compete,” says Beard. “I felt we recruited not only talented players but the right characters as well. Chelsea have brought in similar numbers to us and struggled.”
Liverpool’s squad train together five evenings a week at the club’s Kirkby Academy and Beard has been at Melwood to learn from Brendan Rodgers, who passed on his best wishes when the pair met there on Thursday. Beard also spent the evening hoping his eight players in international action would survive unscathed.
If Liverpool, comfortably the league’s top scorers, prevailed 4-3 when the teams met in Bristol in August, the visitors, who will bring 300 travelling fans with them, believe anything is possible after setting up tomorrow’s showdown by overturning a 3-0 deficit at Doncaster, Spanish forward Natalia netting the winner in the 89th minute to complete her hat-trick. “If we get a performance and get the attitude right we have a great chance to shock everyone by winning the league,” said coach Mark Sampson. His team lost the FA Cup final to Arsenal but the league, as Brian Moore said at Anfield all those years ago, is up for grabs now.
Liverpool Ladies v Bristol Academy is live on BT Sport 2, kick-off 2pm
Goal-den girls: The striking stars
Natasha Dowie, 25, Liverpool
The WSL’s top scorer with 13 goals from 13 games, including a hat-trick against old club Everton. Has improved fitness and finishing with Liverpool’s daily training regime and marked her England recall with goals against Belarus and Turkey this week.
Natalia Pablos, 27, Bristol Academy
Three times a league champion in Spain with Rayo Vallecano, the experienced Natalia is one of three Spaniards adding an international dimension to Academy, a community club packed with home-produced players. A mate of Swansea’s Michu, she has 12 goals in all competitions.