Blues Ladies' season ended in agony on Sunday, as a 2-2 draw with Notts County saw them end the year in third place, not only missing out on the title, but also a place in next season's Champions League, as Liverpool retained their title in the most tense and dramatic of finale's.
Blues began the day knowing victory at home would ensure themselves a place in Europe, and still leave them with a chance of toppling Chelsea to WSL glory, should the Londoners lose at Manchester City, but also knowing failure to win would leave the door open for Liverpool to sneak in. The hosts were unchanged from last week's win in Manchester, Abbey-Leigh Stringer retaining her place ahead of Jade Moore, who was fit enough for a place on the bench.
Blues started poorly, and found themselves a goal down after only three minutes, Aileen Whelan left free to head home a corner to give the away side the perfect start. The title chasers could not get a foot in the game, as a confident Notts County side were looking to continue on a recent four league game unbeaten run, and they strengthened their grip over Blues on 20 minutes when, following a goalmouth scramble, striker Fiona O'Sullivan poked the ball into the net from close range. Alarm bells were ringing at this point, and with nothing improving up to the half hour mark, David Parker made a tactical change, bringing Hannah Keryakoplis on for Stringer, and setting up with a more attacking formation, and the Welsh forward made an immediate impact, intercepting a loose back pass before rounding Carly Telford and unselfishly pulling the ball back to Kirsty Linnett who, on the second attempt, pulled a goal back.
This livened up the crowd and the players responded, dragging themselves back into the contest, in the knowledge that Man City were beating Chelsea by two goals to nil in the other game, and with three minutes of the half remaining, Blues were given a glorious chance to get back on level terms. Keryakoplis' pass was adjudged to have been handled by a Notts defender, and Carney stepped up to take the penalty, but was denied by Telford with a good save from the penalty, and then a spectacular stop from the follow up.
Jade Moore replaced Remi Allen at the break, and Blues carried on where they left the first half, on the front foot, and were level within five minutes of the restart. Linnett chased down a loose ball, and the clearance bounced off her kindly into the path of Keryakoplis, who only needed two touches to control the ball and calmly slot it past Telford to send the home crowd into raptures, knowing only one more goal would mean title glory, with Chelsea still losing in the North. Moore and Carney went close minutes after the goal as Blues pushed for that pivotal third, but Liverpool were winning 3-0 at home to Bristol, so Blues knew it was all or nothing in terms of league positions.
County sub Dunia Susi clipped the bar with a twenty yard shot, highlighting the danger of pushing so hard for the winner, but at this stage a draw was as irrelevant as defeat, so Emily Westwood was brought on with ten minutes left as the hosts went hell for leather, and the bumper crowd reacted with great noise and enthusiasm, willing their side to grab the winner.
Liverpool had kicked off a couple of minutes earlier than Blues, so their game had finished as Blues and Chelsea went into injury time, Chelsea having pulled a goal back and were now battering away at a Man City side with a player sent off, and it was in the additional four minutes added time that Blues' best chance came and went. Carney turned smartly in the middle of the park to create space to run into, and she found Linnett on the edge of the box. Her first touch was inch perfect, but once again Telford denied her with a superb save, tipping her powerful effort round the post. She was at hand for the resulting corner as well, tipping Potter's cross over the bar for another corner, from which Mannion's header was deflected wide by Linnett, and that was that.
The final whistle was met with tears from players, fans and staff alike, the devastation of missing out on both prizes available on the day hitting home, Liverpool winning the league and Chelsea grabbing the second Champions League place. In time, the achievements of this squad this year will be looked back upon with great pride, and rightly so, in light of everything they have gone through as a squad, with a limited budget, to finish third in the WSL is an incredible feat, but it will take time for the team to come to terms with the feeling of what could have been on a day of so many contrasting emotions. Keep Right On may never have been a more appropriate anthem than it is for those players right now, but I believe that, should they stay together and not lose important players, this experience will only serve to make this group even more determined to finally lift the trophy they desire the most.
Blues: Spencer, Weston (Westwood 80), Mannion, Harrop, Carter, Allen (Moore 46), Potter, Stringer (Keryakoplis 28), Lawley, Carney (c), Linnett. Subs not used: Baggaley, Sergeant, Torkildsen, Simpkins
Notts County: Telford, Walton, Turner, Corsie, Brogan, Scott (Susi 64), Hoyle, Whelan, O'Neill, Clarke, O'Sullivan (Friend 88)