When asked if he could ever imagine winning the league title, Steven Gerrard admitted that it was something he thought was now beyond him.
Yesterday, as his team kicked off at Sunderland, another Liverpool captain, Gemma Bonner, lifted the Women’s Super League trophy above her head.
Whenever silverware is handed out, the script remains largely the same. Queen’s We are the Champions with its questionable line about “...no time for losers...” blares out over the loudspeakers, the manager has sparking wine of varying degrees of quality poured over him and enough tinsel is blown around to dress several Christmas trees.
This was a very sweet moment for Liverpool Ladies. They had finished bottom in the last two seasons and now they could survey the game from the summit. It would be tempting to call it a fairytale except for the feeling that Jack would have been offered a very large cheque to create a plantation of beanstalks.
Matt Beard, the Liverpool manager, his suit naturally sodden with champagne, was slightly defensive about the money the club has spent this season. This was a winner-take-all climax to the season and Bristol Academy’s chairman, Simon Arnold, had pointed out the discrepancies in the two clubs’ budgets.
Nevertheless, this season Liverpool were unquestionably the best side in a women’s game that has been dominated by Arsenal for a decade. They possessed three of the league’s top four leading scorers and won this decider comfortably.
Bristol do not possess an owner like John W Henry, who is prepared to back his interest in women’s football with hard cash. They are a subsidiary, not of the one of the most iconic names in world football, but are run out of Stroud and South Gloucestershire College.
Their manager, Mark Sampson, remarked before kick-off: “Whatever happens, they are champions in my eyes already.” To set up this showdown they had come back from a three-goal half-time deficit at Doncaster Rovers Belles and won 4-3 in the final seconds.
The Women’s Super League had produced the kind of finish the Premier League would have pawned their last bottle of Cristal to have set up. The destination of the title would come down to the last fixture – whoever won would be champions.
That Liverpool were at home and needed only to avoid defeat to take the championship conjured shades of 1989, of Michael Thomas, of Brian Moore’s remarkably restrained commentary and of Nick Hornby celebrating “the greatest game ever”.
The score in both games was 2-0. However, Bristol were not George Graham’s Arsenal. They may have been a mere one goal down at the interval but Liverpool proved themselves a vastly better and more resilient side than Doncaster Belles, who said goodbye to 22 years of top-flight football with a 3-0 home defeat to Birmingham. The FA had attracted considerable scorn by informing Doncaster after the first game of the season that, because of their lack of resources, they would be relegated whatever happened.
They might have saved themselves considerable trouble and abuse if they ruled the club who finished last – a position the Belles easily filled – would go down. Lincoln Ladies, who will be dissolved and reformed as Notts County, had a rather fonder farewell, winning 2-0 at Chelsea.
Hope Powell, who was sacked as England manager after a disastrous European Championship, watched from the stands at Widnes. Much as she would have appreciated the sleekness of Liverpool’s play, it would not have escaped her attention that much of it came from foreign boots. The most dangerous, as far as Bristol were concerned, belonged to Nicole Rolser, who came to Merseyside from the women’s Bundesliga in December, and Louise Fors, a graduate of leagues in Sweden, Spain and Australia.
Mostly, Siobhan Chamberlain proved equal to them on the artificial surface that still bore the rugby league markings for Widnes Vikings. An early shot from Rolser touched Chamberlain’s glove and trickled past a post that Fara Williams was to strike moments later. Then Rolser was brought down. Were a Premier League title to depend on a referee’s decision there would be protests, endless replays and repeated calls to radio phone-ins by those men (it is always men), who cannot reconcile the fact that losing plays a big part in sport.
Here, Richard Wigglesworth’s decision was accepted with the same degree of calm that accompanied Fors’s penalty. The surprise was that Liverpool scored only once more, although the strike from Katrin Omarsdottir was worthy of winning any championship, let alone a single match.
They were still showing Liverpool’s game at Sunderland on the televisions around the Halton Stadium as the Ladies prepared to leave with their trophy but they scarcely merited a glance. When it came to glory, the men could not compete.
Liverpool Ladies: (4-4-2) Laws; Bronze, Bonner, Engen, Schroeder; Fors (Gregorius, 81), Williams, Omarsdottir, Da Costa; Rolser, Dowie.
Bristol Academy: (4-3-3) Chamberlain; McCatty, Rose, Matthews, Yorston; Windell, Heatherson, James; Harding, Del Rio, Sanchon.
Belles’ muted farewell to the top flight
Doncaster Belles final game in Women’s Super League, following their controversial expulsion from the top flight, ended in a disappointing 3-0 home defeat to Birmingham.
After 22 years in the top division, the Belles will play in the newly-formed FA WSL2 next season, with Premier League side Manchester City Ladies, who finished fourth in the Second Division, taking their place. Doncaster finished bottom of the table, four points adrift of Chelsea and Lincoln.
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