Following Manchester City Ladies' title success earlier in the day, FA WSL 1 attention turned to Meadow Lane for Notts County Ladies against Sunderland Ladies where two sides lingering around the drop zone set about earning a crucial three points that would all but secure their place in the top flight next season.
Doncaster Rovers Belles find themselves rooted to the bottom of the league without a point after being hammered by fellow strugglers Reading Ladies earlier in the weekend, though Rick Passmoor and Carlton Fairweather knew the importance of a win in Nottingham when it comes to ensuring a smooth end to a challenging season.
Sunderland edge a tight first half between two attacking-minded teams
Despite facing a Lady Pies team full of experienced faces, Sunderland showed their hand from the outset as they looked willing to attack, though in turn left spaces between their defence and midfield when the hosts broke forward. Angharad James was one of those County players looking to utilise the gaps and she had the first shot of note that drifted wide on six minutes.
With Jo Potter providing the calming influence and pulling the strings in midfield, combined with the movement and guile of Jess Clarke, County certainly settled into the match faster than their visitors, proceeding to play a fluid short passing game. Potter's left foot continued to cause problems as she found Rachel Williams who was unable to direct a header, before further County pressure resulted in a feasible penalty shout for handball turned down.
Sunderland finally began to settle into the tempo of the game midway through the half, with a moment of indecisiveness causing Fern Whelan to lose the ball under pressure, only for Kelly McDougall's subsequent effort to loop into the arms of Megan Walsh. Whelan faced another shaky moment when she misjudged the flight of a long ball and conceded a corner that saw McDougall blocked by Jade Moore with the goal gaping. The resulting set-piece then landed at the feet of Madeline Hill who scooped over when she should have scored.
Abbey Joice had been causing Dani Buet problems throughout the half on Sunderland's left wing and her whipped cross almost provided the opening as Hill glanced inches wide, the midfielder missing a second golden opportunity of the opening 45 minutes. The attacking County players were beginning to see less of the ball, though an excellent touch and strike from Moore that flew over reminded the visitors of her goal threat.
Yet as the first half ticked into added time, Sunderland got their rewarded for a dominant 20 minutes. Lucy Stainforth's free-kick was not cleared and right-back Victoria Williams pounced on the loose ball to fire the visitors ahead with seconds remaining. Injured Sunderland star Rachel Furness admitted "it's a great time to go a goal up" from her spot in the press box.
Experience tells as an improved performance helps the hosts strike back
With a squad decimated by injuries only allowing two named substitutes, Notts County's starting eleven knew they would have to go the distance in an attempt to recover the game. They started the second half with added verve, as a Potter corner fell to Moore who saw her goalbound effort blocked on the edge of the six yard box. Though it was to be the set-piece route that would allow the hosts to draw level as an outswinging Potter corner was crashed home by the head of Williams, just minutes after the restart.
The equaliser did not cause either side to rest on their laurels as a handful of hefty challenges were exchanged and the importance of earning three points prevailed. County almost took the lead as another dangerous corner was cleared off the line, before central defender Whelan struck the post. Crichton then lashed over as she rushed the rebound with the hosts threatening.
There was an added vigour and tempo about the hosts and they made their pressure pay on 68 minutes. County top goalscorer Jess Clarke had dwindled out of the game but she found herself in the right place to flick a long throw from Aivi Luik over Rachael Laws and into the corner as the Lady Pies took the lead.
As the hosts dominated possession, Sunderland were subjected to looking for a response on the counter-attack. Substitute and debutant Beverly Leon broke with pace but the quiet Beth Mead scuffed her effort harmlessly wide. County saw a break of their own almost seal the three points moments later as Clarke's slid cross just evaded Aileen Whelan.
Buet had gradually grown into the game for County and her diagonal ball found Clarke in the box, though a slightly heavy touch allowed Laws to gather the ball at her feet. That was to be the last action of an enthralling encounter that sees Notts County almost guaranteed survival, whilst Sunderland will still be looking over their shoulders at Reading and Doncaster Rovers below them.