Oxford Women ended the season in second place in the National League following a 1-0 win over Gillingham Women on Sunday.
The only goal of the game came from striker Carly Johns just after half time, in what was a hard-earned victory for the Yellows.
It was a tight first half at the Kings Hill Sports Park on a pitch not fit for royalty. The stone-hard, bobbly turf made it difficult for both teams to settle on the ball for the opening 15.
The first chance fell to the Gills, whose overlapping full-back cut inside and curled an effort towards Rose Kite’s far post. The Oxford keeper made a confident save to put the ball out for a corner.
20 minutes into the half, Oxford started to find their rhythm. In the 23rd minute, Johns beat two defenders, driving forward from right-back and finding Daisy McLachlan. The number 7 chopped inside her marker and fired a great effort at goal, which was matched by an excellent fingertip save from the Gills keeper.
Then, just before the half-hour mark Cheryl Williams found herself free on the edge of the box, but her strike was just too high.
The U’s were forced into an early substitution as Sophie Baker went down on the halfway line after a strong challenge. She was replaced by Megan Alexander on 30 minutes, and Oxford shuffled around their formation.
Oxford’s momentum was stifled, and the Gills came back into the game making it a tight end-to-end encounter.
In the 38th minute, Gillingham’s right wing-back went on a marauding run from within her own half, carved through the Yellows defence, and drilled a shot-come-cross just past the stretching attacker at the far post. Wake up call.
The first half was tense, and Oxford looked tired after two mammoth performances against their top-of-the-table rivals. The U’s went into the break level.
Whatever Liam Gilbert said in the dressing room at half time worked; Oxford found the lead within two minutes of the restart.
In the 47th minute, McLachlan pounced on a loose ball, a product of her excellent pressing. She went through one on one with the keeper who stood up strong to make a save. The ball fell to Johns whose first effort was blocked, but some determined work meant the ball fell to her in the box and she calmly slotted home into the bottom corner.
After taking the lead, Oxford started to control the game and some great football from Megan Alexander and Beth Lumsden combining down the left led to some good chances.
The wind picked up and Oxford knocked the ball around nicely. Carly Johns and Merrick Will were everywhere and the whole team pressed Gillingham into making mistakes.
The U’s made their first sub on 66 minutes, when Riva Casley came on for Gemma Sims, who received a huge round of applause
Gillingham made Oxford work hard for their win, but the U’s remained focused and dug in till the very end.
In the final 20 minutes, Hannah Mackenzie, Billie French and Libby Gilmore replaced Sarah King, Cheryl Williams and Emily Wallace.
The referee added on four minutes of stoppage time which gave Gillingham one last chance to level. Kite made a huge save on 90 minutes to tip the ball over the bar from an in-swinging cross. She came to punch the resulting corner and the goalmouth scramble that followed had the travelling Yellows’ supporters watching through their fingers.
The full-time whistle was blown, and some angsty minutes followed as players, coaching staff and fans alike refreshed Twitter feeds. Portsmouth beat Ipswich 1-0 and Oxford’s win means that they leapfrog Ipswich to secure second place.
The U’s were forced to grind out a hard-earned victory to top off an excellent season, and the players and staff celebrated, huddled together to the applause of the Oxford fans.
See you next season.
Kite, Baker, Beaver, Johns, King (Mackenzie 78), Lumsden, McLachlan, Sims (Casley 60), Wallace (Gilmore 93), Will, Williams (French 88)
Report by Billy Lawrence, pictures Darrell Fisher