A lightning 25-yard strike from Beth England gave Chelsea a win over Tottenham in a historic first Women’s Super League game at Stamford Bridge in front of a rocking 24,564 fans.
The England international’s early goal gave the home side a small cushion but the Blues struggled to capitalise on a dominant first-half performance, giving the WSL debutants Spurs hope and providing a scintillatingly tense finish to the London derby.
If there was a fear that the free tickets might provide a bit of a damp squib after the 31,213 fans at the Etihad for the Manchester derby the day before, approaching the ground quickly quashed those feelings. Packed trains emptied on arrival at Fulham Broadway and fans streamed towards the ground. This was a proper derby day. Horns hooted by the station, kids gripping tickets posed for photos with the mascots and even half-and-half scarves were on sale, perhaps providing an amusing downside to the move to playing in a big stadium.
With more than 40,000 tickets given out for the match there will likely be disappointment at not having beaten the record set in Manchester, but it was still five times higher than Chelsea’s best league attendance and possibly a more vocal and atmospheric support. Perhaps, though, the fact that more paid to watch the match at the Etihad than attended this game for free has shown the importance of putting a value on top-level women’s football. That said, hopefully we are at the start of an arms race between top teams to lift the record higher.
“When I came to Chelsea and England, playing in big games, that got me excited – you play with no fear then,” said the England and Chelsea centre-back Millie Bright before the game, and the home side burst out of the blocks with intensity.
Just three minutes in, with the central magician Ji So-yun brought down, a header on from the resulting free-kick saw Magda Eriksson, newly named captain, toe-poke the ball wide of the post at full stretch.
One minute later the hosts had the breakthrough and it was a cracking goal. England muscled the former West Ham player Ria Percival off the ball, cut inside and hammered past Becky Spencer from 25 yards out. If Caroline Weir’s effort for Manchester City from a similar distance the day before had laid down an early goal of the season marker, England’s strike upped the ante.
It was the perfect start for a fresh-to-women’s-football crowd, which sprung into life as England wheeled away and did a knee slide towards fans behind the home dugout before being engulfed by teammates.
Chelsea should have scored more. The 2017-18 Double winners passed the ball around slickly, with the full-backs Hannah Blundell and Maren Mjelde almost viciously effective on the wings.
Despite the Chelsea dominance, Spurs were not without chances and Hayes would likely have been frustrated that her side failed to extend their lead.
A Kit Graham cross was cut out by a diving Ann-Katrina Berger but the goalkeeper could only parry it. Rachel Furness almost collected the loose ball but a smart clearance from Bright spared Chelsea’s blushes.
Not long afterwards, a Chelsea corner late in the half saw Mjelde robbed on the edge of the penalty area but the Spurs break was quelled by Blundell, who tracked Lucy Quinn well. Having worked the ball back, Graham collected and fed Coral-Jade Haines, who took a pop from the edge of the D but her effort flew narrowly wide of the top corner.
It was rare time on the ball and the Spurs first-team coach, Juan Amoros, looked pained on the edge of his technical area but it did give the visitors hope.
With the lead kept at 1-0 Spurs grew in confidence. Gemma Davison, twice a title winner with Chelsea, collected a cross from Quinn at the far post, then the tricky 32-year-old dashed a low shot at goal that was deflected out for a corner. It was an effort that buoyed the travelling fans, who burst into song that echoed around Stamford Bridge. Davison has added experience to the first-time WSL participants and it showed with every break for injury. The winger would take a teammate and seemingly coach them on the pitch, pointing, directly and putting an arm around them.
On the hour mark Chelsea should have doubled their tally. Ji fed Drew Spence, who cracked a shot against the crossbar. Guro Reiten leapt highest for the rebound but her header ricocheted off a post and a follow-up strike was blocked heroically by a sliding Ashleigh Neville.
Chelsea rode out subsequent pressure and with their big-game experience and stronger legs proving just too much they set up camp in the Tottenham box, with Ji masterminding every chance.