The Belles opened the scoring through Natasha Dowie, though Freda Ayisi and Mel Lawley turned the game around for the hosts.
Quick opening for both
Birmingham hit the ground running, making Nicola Hobbs work in the Doncaster goal from the first minute. Charlie Wellings got in behind the defence, running on Leandra Little’s blindside but Hobbs snatched the ball out of the air. Moments later it was Wellings behind the defence again, with Hobbs coming out of her box to clear.
Then it was Freda Ayisi’s turn to tie the Belles captain in knots, breaking behind but the defender got something on the ball to clear it for the first corner of the game. Hobbs was troubled once again from the set piece but managed to grab the looping header.
Then Mel Lawley was running behind the visiting defencel her eventual shot went well off target, and Little was left fuming with her sleepy defence.
The Belles finally relieved the pressure with Natasha Dowie taking off at pace down the left but was blocked off and the visitors had a free kick just in front of the half-way line. The ball was launched into the box from out wide and a Belles head won the first ball to flick it on, it pinged between feet and legs, boots trying to win the wiley ball.
It eventually found Dowie with the use of a backheel. The striker wriggled for an inch to shoot and on the half-turn, with pinpoint accuracy, she snuck the ball just inside of the post. Just six minutes in and the Belles had the most unlikely of leads.
Birmingham fight back
From then business returned to usual for Birmingham, keeping the ball and working the away backline. Alex Gummer, on her debut, worked overtime to keep Ayisi, Wellings and Lawley at bay but the defence was permanently overloaded. Danger was only ever half-cleared when Kerys Harrop sent the ball back into the box from the left, picking Ayisi out at the back-post. He header always too far from Hobbs to the 'keeper to save; one-one and the visitors were nowhere to be seen.
Wellings and Lawley were both behind the defence once again but the latter wasforced out wide, trying to flash the ball across the face of goal as blue shirts flooded the box. The Belles then had a chance to counter, a sterling ball out found Dowie – always a willing runner – who’d snuck behind the Birmingham defence but the home side were quick to get back and cover; the ball half-cleared to Carla Humphrey but her volleyed effort was well off target.
The Blues continued to pile on the pressure and were awarded a free kick 30-yards out, once again the ball bouncing around the danger zone and once more it could only be half-cleared. It fell to Lawley on the left and her looping effort bounced into the back of the net with a little help from the far post. Half an hour played and Birmingham finally had the lead they deserved.
Charlie Wellings, bright as ever, out on the left, cut in and gave Jo Potter the ball but the midfielder’s low drive was scuffed and an easy claim for Hobbs.
There was a spot of controversy when Wellings looked to be offside but with no flag the play continued – and not for the first time – the ball was eventually cleared for a corner. The ball was sent in, cleared out, sent back in, in and out, in and out, when the ball was finally sent goalwards Hobbs made the save to keep her side alive.
Halftime rolled around and Doncaster would have been happy for the respite, having withstood nothing but pressure from the Blues for almost the entirety of the first half. The first subs of the night were made during the break. Jade Moore, making her way back to full-fitness after more than half a year out injured, replaced Emily Westwood, who’d picked up a knock. Glenn Harris made two changes for the visitors. Rhiannon Roberts and Emily Simpkins replaced Sam Tierney and Gummer to tighten up his backline.
A bitty second half
Although the Belles looked brighter in the second half, with Jess Sigsworth trying to make more happen on the right as the visitors looked to open the pitch up and Katrin Omarsdottir growing in influence, they still struggled against a well-regimented Birmingham City. A yellow shirt always hassled by a cluster of blue as she tried to attack.
A quick break following a corner saw the Belles breaking with pace and numbers, exploiting the acres of space in the attacking half. Sigsworth lead the charge but as fast as Doncaster had countered, Birmingham had gotten back, once again crowding the visitors out.
Stronger in attack and stronger in defence too, but yellow shirts still scrambled in the box when Jade Moore dinked the ball in. A third Birmingham goal was seemingly never far away. Sigsworth, on the prowl for the visitors, held off to defenders to keep the ball close before laying it off to Dowie. She found Kasia Lipka who gave it back to Dowie, with her volleyed shot across the face of goal and just wide of the far post.
A third almost arrived for the hosts after miscommunication across the Belles' backline saw Little roll the ball back to Hobbs, who was on the other side of goal, but the 'keeper managed to put the ball out for a corner. More pressure at the corner, Aofie Mannion – who’d been a rock in defence and hadn’t put a foot wrong all game – couldn't find the target, however.
The game wore on into the final minutes and the Belles had one lash push but came up against the wall of the Birmingham defence.
Deserved winners and early trouble
It is a big three points for Birmingham, who were resilient in defence and finally getting the goals they’ve been desperate for since last season. Ayisi, Lawley and Wellings were bright and sharp for their team, timing their runs and accelerating behind a dumbfounded visiting defence. But across the pitch they did not let up for a second, not giving Doncaster any room; from back to front, a solid effort. Three well-earned points, individually and collectively a strong performance they can build on.
The late improvement just wasn’t enough from the Belles. It would be very easy to chalk the performance up to a general lack of match fitness. Of course Birmingham only played a few days ago, conversely the Belles haven’t played a competitive game since the opening weekend.
The cobwebs were shaken off in the second half but by then it was too little too late against an experienced WSL1 side. Whilst Birmingham were spot-on across the pitch there were errors everywhere for the visitors. The two obvious suggestions are for Harris to get his side to man-mark and to build the team around Jess Sigsworth who could be the key to their success this season.
|Match stats||Birmingham City Ladies||Doncaster Rovers Belles|
|Shots on target||9||2|
|Shots off target||7||2|