By Neil Evans.
Despite having the best defence in the league last season, shot-shy Lady Pies finished in sixth place. Now Rick Passmoor’s side are looking to star striker Jess Clarke and returning Ellen White to help fire them up the table.
Notts County Ladies conceded an incredible EIGHT goals in the last campaign – that’s fewer than a goal a game. Last season was County’s first in their new identity, having previously been Lincoln Ladies. The name and location may have changed but one thing remained the same: Rick Passmoor’s side were as miserly at the back as ever with more clean sheets than any other team.
But, as we all know defence is only one half of the equation because goals win matches and wins generate points. Sixth position was not a just reward for such a well-organised Lady Pies side. The reason for this? Just 12 goals scored and therein lies the dilemma for Passmoor – open up more and risk conceding more goals or stick to a tried and trusted game plan.
When you consider that Notts scored seven of those goals in their last four league games as they finished the WSL term strongly, then perhaps, that may be a glimpse of things to come this season. Thanks to a strong Continental Cup campaign, star striker Jess Clarke finished with 15. With Dunia Susi adding six that was, effectively, County’s attack. The Continental Cup semi-final against Arsenal encapsulated Notts entire season as Gunners spent most of the 90 minutes pressing, with Clarke’s occasional counter thrusts the only respite. It took until extra-time, but Arsenal eventually found a way to unlock an obdurate rearguard.
There are always reasons for such a relatively anaemic attack. Ellen White spent the entire season on crutches, or excelling as a TV pundit, rather than scoring goals. Her return is bound to take some of the weight off Clarke. At the back, Carly Telford is a fine keeper and shot stopper. Sophie Bradley is the heartbeat and organiser of the back-line, assisted by the accomplished Laura Bassett to form one of the strongest centre-back pairings anywhere in women’s football. Alex Greenwood has joined from Everton to bolster the left, whilst the evergreen Rachel Unitt remains an important squad player. Emerging talent, Laura-Jayne O’Neill, adds a touch of youth to a streetwise group.
Susi remains a pivotal figure in midfield, whilst Sophie Walton can play as a defender or holding midfielder. Combative former Chelsea player Danielle Buet joins to add further steel. Desiree Scott provides attacking thrust down either flank and the Canadian international – nicknamed The Destroyer – will be relied upon to supply the ammunition needed.
Up front, Clarke will be the Lady Pies main threat, as she can play as a lone striker or out in her preferred wide position. Rachel Williams is an impressive acquisition and is a handful for any defence. County have also made a canny signing in former Doncaster Belle Jess Sigsworth and she provides another type of option. And there is the return of White, which should give fans real optimism of seeing a lot more goals this season.
That said, are the improvements enough to see Notts challenge at the sharp end of the table? I don’t think so, at least, not this season. They still appear to be one or two quality players short of making a real breakthrough at the top. They will upset many teams and, in my opinion, will be battling with Birmingham for fifth position. They need to make the most of having four of their first six WSL1 games at home. With that defence, don’t rule out a decent cup run either. It’s not like they haven’t done that before . . .
2015 Prediction: 6th
Key Player: Jess Clarke
Notts County Ladies FC begin their WSL1 campaign v Chelsea Ladies on March 29th. Kick-off is at 17.00pm.
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