Southampton Women win promotion to second tier after victory against Wolves

·4-min read
<span>Photograph: Cameron Smith/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Cameron Smith/Getty Images

Southampton claimed the Women’s National League playoff trophy in a tense and highly competitive victory over Wolves, securing promotion to the Championship. Sophia Pharoah’s first-half strike was enough to sink spirited opposition who were a player short for the whole second half.

In the words of the Wolves manager, Dan McNamara, in the buildup, this was “the game that shouldn’t exist”. The culmination of this season’s National League saw two regional champions go head-to-head. The prize, a single promotion spot into the second tier of the women’s pyramid. For many, such as McNamara, this is an unsatisfactory conclusion to what has been a superb campaign for both, with such dominance deserving of reward.

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This disappointment aside, the buzz around this finale has been unprecedented. With 1,354 in attendance and streamed coverage of the game for the first time, rarely has the National League enjoyed this overdue spotlight.

The parallels in the clubs’ journeys to this meeting are notable. With progress stalled by the cancellation of the last two seasons, they moved into the Premier Division as a result of the Football Association’s “upward movement” initiative. Wolves cruised to the title in the Northern Division, winning 18 and losing only once. Marieanne Spacey-Cale’s well-funded Southampton were equally dominant – they lost one of their 26 games, scoring 99 goals in the process.

A raucous atmosphere greeted the sides as they emerged on to the pitch. After a tense opening, Pharoah’s strike put the Saints in the ascendancy as they began to exploit the space. Wolves were stretched and their woes increased when Kelly Darby received a second yellow on the stroke of half-time for a rash challenge.

The youthful core of Spacey-Caley’s Southampton side has been key throughout the season. With seven academy graduates included in the starting XI, they were once again at the heart of everything. The 18-year-old Lucia Kendall was dictating the play from the middle. Displaying a football intelligence beyond her years, the youngster spots the spaces before most others on the field and is deadly at set pieces. Pharoah, 21 and the player of the match, relishes the opportunity to progress on the field with this group of players that are Southampton through and through: “It’s extra special because you’ve grown up in and around Southampton. Playing with the girls you played with when you were 10-11 years old, it’s a dream.”

It was perhaps this youthful exuberance that played against them at the start of the second half. Karl Milgate, standing in for McNamara who had been called overseas with the RAF, switched Wolves’ formation and caught Southampton napping. His team displayed immense fight as they tried to claw their way back into the biggest game in their history. They almost found an equaliser right at the death when Tammi George turned a great opportunity over the bar.

Milgate could not have asked more of his team, and he was full of praise for their “valiant effort”, ruing the dismissal. He too added his voice to those who have called for changes to the promotion system. “If we want to grow the game, I think we have to,” he said. “We have to look at which clubs are ready to push on; maybe not right at that moment but they’ve got everything – the structure; the organisation; the business. Two Premier League clubs; as an organisation they’re ready to go. Why are we holding people back?”

In the end, there could unfortunately only be one winner from these two champions. Southampton return to the south coast with a strong future. It is the fruition of a five-year project, steered by Spacey-Caley. She, as ever, was keen to praise the whole organisation for their success: “You don’t build the foundations without incredible support from everybody at the club ... Everybody has just been fantastic in terms of their support for us. We know there’s more to come, that we’ve got support and can move forward knowing we’ve got a really strong future.” Today’s trophy is the third piece of silverware to add to their collection, just reward for a phenomenal season for this squad with a bright future.

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