Emily Westwood's second-half header was enough to see Birmingham City leave Nottingham with all three points on Sunday, as well as a slight sun burn.
Strong start by the Blues
Birmingham settled earlier and relaxed into a smooth passing game, a natural fluency to their game as the ball moved from one player to another, however their hosts were not as easy with the ball. The theme of the game for Notts County was heavy touches, poor passes and a lack of understanding. So many no-look passes to team mates that were on a different page and different part of the turf.
County looked tired, as if they’d already played a match in the sweltering conditions that day; legs heavy and heads hazy. Meanwhile, Birmingham looked fresh. They’d come to Meadow Lane for three points and that’s what they were going to leave with, chasing every loose ball and winning battle after battle with those in black and white.
Hosts fail to convert during their best spell
The first real chance of the game came 23 minutes in, the ball sent in at a corner, cleared, back in, and half cleared to Sophie Bradley-Auckland, the defender lashing the ball towards goal from outside the box, Sophie Baggaley down quickly to smother the ball. It was the first real chance for Notts and Meadow Lane started to rock with noise, the Lady Pies spurned on and entering their best spell of the game.
A quick free kick found Rachel Yankey on the left side of the box, her sharp cross into the box found by Bradley-Auckland, the centre-back heading just over. The noise levels continued to rise. Then another chance for the hosts, another set-piece, cleared and set back, cleared, Ellen White keeping the ball alive and it dropping to Angharad James 30-yards out. The midfielder taking the shot first time, the ball hurtling towards to top left corner and Baggaley with a first rate save to deny her.
The resulting corner turned into a frantic goal-mouth scramble, first White heading straight at Baggaley, the keeper parrying the ball back into the danger zone, Yankey then getting a shot away but once more Baggaley was there to put the ball back at a Notts player, this time Jess Clarke trying her luck from point-blank range but again the young shot-stopper was there to deny the attacker.
The rest of the half was all Birmingham, Notts struggling to retain the ball as passes went astray, the Blues looking to get in behind the County defence (as they had against Doncaster Belles) but the home side catching them offside all game. Freda Ayisi, Charlie Wellings and Mel Lawley all looking dangerous, but unable to time their runs. Ayisi in particular, running at the defence or firing the after-burners to chase down a loose ball but still the hosts stayed firm enough. Late in the first half and Jo Potter and Remi Allen both trying their arm from distance but Carly Telford down quickly to save both attempts.
Second-half continued in the same vein
Into the second half and Ayisi was, once again, breaking for her team down the left and scraping with Bradley-Auckland all the way down the wing. Her ball in was cleared by Fern Whelan – Whelan easily the best player for the hosts, alert all game, covering whenever any of her team mates were bested across the backline; she kept her side in it as much as Baggaley for the visitors.
Notts tried to pass it around on the right, Dani Buet, Clarke, Laura Bassett and James were all involved but it was frantic; it wasn’t pass and move as much it was trying to throw a bomb away. No-one wanted it, no one had any ideas, they just had to keep the ball moving. It was nervous and culminated in Clarke firing it out of play for a goal kick.
A bright moment for County came when White nicked the ball of off Potter - the ball pinging between feet as she wove through the defence - but luckily for her kept rebounding back to her toe, she ran at the box but was tripped en route. Yankey opted to take the 25-yard free kick, but a clean strike was straight into Baggaley’s arms.
Birmingham are always a threat when Jess Carter is on hand to dispatch a throw-in into the box. Her throw found Ayisi, only for Telford to claim the header.
The match was stale and Rick Passmoor opted to inject some fresh legs into the team, Aivi Luik and Aileen Whelan replaced Yankey and Leanne Crichton.
The Blues had yet another free kick – fouls had been rampant through the game but almost entirely all silly and soft, unnecessary shoving and barging gifted both sides more than a handful of set pieces. Potter dispatched quickly as Notts switched off, Westwood pouncing on the ball to head over Telford; the hosts stunned.
Another scramble but Notts unable capitalise
Aileen Whelan used her fresh legs to try to force her side back into the game, surging on the left, and was taken out just outside the box. Buet put in a poor delivery from out wide, not beating the first defender but it bounced back to her as she once again fired at the first defender.
But the ball was eventually sent in and Baggaley tried to claim the ball but missed it and landed on White. Whelan stuck a toe at it to direct the ball towards goal, White scrambled to her feet but unable to connect as Westwood hoofed the ball off of the line. A couple of scrambles for the hosts, and it clearly wasn’t going to be their day.
One last chance for the hosts, White with a flicked header towards goal but an easy claim for a superb Baggaley who had an answer for every question asked of her all afternoon.
Blues climbing the table
It was easy to write Birmingham off before the WSL 1 season started, a team in danger of the drop. But they’re a resolute side, incredibly hard to break down and excellent at disrupting the rhythm of their opponents. Goals still seem to be at a premium for the Blues but they will cause a fair few upsets this season, and were deserved winners today.
It seemed like just one of those games for the Lady Pies, who do seem to have their fair share of just those games, they struggled for fluency and understanding throughout; a couple of goal-mouth scrambles that on any other day would have gone their way. But over 90 minutes it just wasn’t good enough from the disjointed side.