The first round proper of the 2022/2023 Vitality Women’s FA Cup gave us a fascinating match-up on Sunday at the competition’s northernmost outpost as Alnwick Town Ladies welcomed AFC Fylde Women to the historic St James’ Park. The visitors, playing two tiers above their hosts, were hoping to avoid a cup upset, and a powerful first half performance with impressive fire-power gave them a comfortable lead to defend at the break. A spirited display from Alnwick as the game wore on resulted in a late goal but it was all too late to prevent an exit from this season’s cup after a successful run through the qualifying rounds.
There was a warm welcome from Alnwick club chairman Tommy McKie as the black AFC Fylde team bus opted against trying to squeeze through the car park gate, and the visiting players filed off after their four-hour journey from Lancashire for this 1pm kick off. There was a crispness in the air, the fog encountered after passing Morpeth not descending on Alnwick, and the pitch was looking in prime condition, the lush grass of the sloped and slightly undulating surface slightly soft to the touch.
This marvel of a stadium, flanked by houses with the local rugby club over the fence at the far end, is rumoured to have a 3ft slope from end to end, and the window sill of the club house against the barriers around the pitch give testament to that. Today was not only an opportunity for the hosts to give a team from a higher division a run for the money, but it was also the first game with their new compact stand; much cause for optimism at the club since their relegation last season after mixing it with the big clubs in the Women’s National League Div 1 North, culminating in a fairytale fixture at the newer of the St James’ Parks in Newcastle in front of over 20,000 fans.
“Moving on up”, the Primal Scream anthem, blasted from the P.A. – echoes of the other St James Park as the black and whites of Alnwick appeared from the changing rooms and assembled for the walk-on.
Today was remembrance Sunday; following warm-ups and the customary line-up to shake hands, the players and youth team mascots assembled to observe an immaculate two minutes of silence, the kick off eventually delayed by a few minutes.
After an extended huddle from the Fylde players, and the Alnwick goalkeeper clearing away some poles that were left over from warm up, the referee brought the game to life, and the opening exchanges set the scene for a big first half from the visitors. Indeed, only a few minutes had gone and we saw the first goal, the right-sided, strong-running Iszy Binks letting rip from well outside the area with a shot the seared into the net for 1-0. It was two a few moments later, after home keeper Katy Stark had made a great save – the ball ended up at the feet of the classy Hannah Forster who fired in a shot from way out, Stark diving to her right and getting a hand to the fierce shot, but the ball rolled agonisingly into the net. A second great hit, and AFC Fylde were on fire.
Striker Katie Smith then intercepted a loose backpass and rounded Stark, but her finish was expertly cleared off the line by the last Alnwick defender. It wasn’t long though before a wonderful pass by the technically gifted and strikingly tattooed Cara Fields found Smith in space and she finished confidently despite a suspicion of offside.
Three goals up and barely a quarter of an hour on the clock, this was looking ominous for the home team and they had to weather further pressure, skillful midfielder Sasha Rowe testing Stark on two occasions from distance. The corner count started to climb and a fourth goal seemed inevitable, and this time it was a deft header into the path of Emily Hollinshead who calmly slotted past Stark, the calls for offside waved away again. There was time for Rowe to glance a shot off the post before the referee brought the half to a close and the teams went in to take stock of what had just happened in an enthralling first half.
The visitors were encouraged at the break to use the space and make the most of their dominance, but the opening moments of the second half suggested that the home team might have something to say about the scoreline. A glorious chance fell to Alnwick’s bustling striker who took a touch and blazed over the bar from a great position, and that could have been the chance to turn the game.
Instead, the second half was a close contest. The quality of Rowe in midfield was outstanding, captain Forster bossed the middle of the park, her close control and tidy footwork getting her out of numerous tight corners. Alnwick did have some possession, but in truth, the game was there to be wrapped up by Fylde, and the home team had Stark to thank, plus some desperate and brave defending to contain the busy Smith and the sublime skills of Fields.
Time was running out, the day was starting to wane and the cold starting to bite, but there was time for a well-worked goal from the home side. A free kick was played short, a cross was curled in, and Alnwick had three players at the far post, the ball forced towards goal with not the cleanest of touches, and the crowd roared as Town gave themselves a chance of winning the second half. A second chance fell their way as Fylde faded, Megan Hunter saving well low down to prevent a grandstand finish. The referee, who had been excellent today with his commentary and constant chatter to the players, blew for full time and the players congratulated each other before the Fylde players locked themselves into a post-match huddle to reflect on this important FA Cup first round victory.
A long journey back across the Pennines awaited Fylde, and as soon as they were through the fog, the last of the sunshine set them off on their way home, looking forward to the second round draw.
Today was a special day. The magic of the cup was in evidence, we saw some cracking goals, and there are some very talented players, especially in the AFC Fylde squad – we didn’t even get to see former New Zealand international Laura Merrin who was on the bench today.
Thanks to Heather, AFC Fylde women’s media guru for the info, thanks to Alnwick Town for the hospitality, and if there are any details in this feature that are inaccurate, feel free to contact me here; not an easy one to do with no squad lists and teamsheets. All the best for the rest of the season and good luck in the second round of this prestigious competition. For me personally, this was a first Women’s FA Cup game, and was yet more proof that women’s football is going from strength to strength in England.