Southampton FC Women secured their place in the FA Women's Championship after overcoming a resilient Wolves side at Stockport County FC.
Saints took to the pitch at Stockport County’s Edgeley Park in front of a record crowd for the FA Women’s National League Championship Play-Off Final. Saints enjoyed the majority of chances throughout the first half, but it wasn't until the 21st minute that they were able to make one count, as a fantastic ball from Georgia Freeland was brought down expertly by Sophia Pharoah, nudged past the keeper and slotted home with some individual brilliance.
Wolves fought hard to get back in the game but had to do so a player down in the second half as Kelly Darby received her second yellow on the stroke of half time. Despite fashioning a few opportunities, there was no denying Marieanne Spacey-Cale's side the victory and their place in the FA Women's Championship.Saints put Wolves under early pressure as Alisha Ware was inches away from latching onto a long ball forward from Kayla Rendell, before being blocked out by two of the Wolves back line. However, despite the glimpse of an early chance the first five saw both sides struggle to get a real handle on the game, as they each attempted to get a measure of the competition.
Kendall was inches away from opening the scoring minutes later, as another Pharoah link-up saw the Saints number 17 through on goal. With an onrushing Shan Turner to contend with, Kendall was unable to make the chance count, as her lob was tipped past the post by the Wolves shot stopper.
An unfortunate slip from Megan Collett on the left-hand side saw Wolves gifted a foray into the Saints half. Jade Cross drove down the wing before delivering to Marie Gauntlett in the middle of the box, who was well shepherded by Laura Rafferty to clear.
Kayla Rendell was called into action shortly after, as Wolves managed to deliver a searching ball from the right-hand side which spun goalward; a routine collect from the Saints keeper.
As the clock ticked past 15 minutes, both sides began to settle, and despite some confident Saints play, Wolves were making themselves felt - dishing out some crunching challenges across the pitch, with Laura Rafferty and Marie Gauntlett cautioned by the referee after some particularly hardy play.
However, Saints were finding and exploiting gaps in the Wolves back line with Alice Griffiths notably delivering a pinpoint perfect ball down the channel which saw Lucia Kendall race into space, before Wolves were able to recover and clear.
Wolves were unable to deal with a similar ball forward shortly after, and a last-ditch tackle saw Saints gifted a free-kick halfway inside the Wolves half. A whipped ball in from the right was met by Leeta Rutherford header from freekick 20minutes
Saints made their chances count less than a minute later, as Georgie Freeland calmly chipped a ball from the right-side of midfield to a waiting Pharoah in the box. Pharoah expertly brought down the ball, turned her player and rounded an onrushing keeper to slide the ball into the back of the net.
It looked like Saints would get another shortly after, through Pharoah again, as a Griffiths free kick was nudged on by Rutherford to the feet of the number 12. A congested box was the downfall of Saints, as the tap back to Kendall was knocked frantically away from danger for Wolves.
Wolves’ Kelly Darby was the first player to enter the referee’s book in the 32nd minute, as she clothes-lined Rutherford who looked set to burst into the box with the ball after a neat one-two.Saints went agonisingly close from the ensuing free kick. Kendall stepped up to take and hammered her curling shot onto the post. The rebound looked like it would almost certainly hit the back of the net, but Griffiths' first-time effort sailed over the bar to the relief of Wolves. Captain Parnell was the next player to get a writing up from the referee, as a stray ball backwards from the attack saw Wolves break the lines. Parnell did well to recover, but was judged to have been overzealous in her challenge, receiving a yellow for her effort.Collett was unlucky to give away a free kick as the first half wound to a close, getting back to deny Gauntlett a crossing opportunity before both players ended up sprawled on the ground. Saints cleared well and looked to counter down the left-hand side through Alisha Ware, only to see her dragged down on the touchline and getting a stamp in the process. Darby was the player at fault, and the referee didn't hesitate in taking out a second yellow and sending the Wolves player down the tunnel.
Saints sped out of the blocks in the second half, catching ten-men Wolves napping in the opening exchanges.Milly Mott was the first to create something out of nothing, as she raced down the right-wing before delivering a stinging cross into the danger area. Pharoah got her body to the ball, but there wasn't enough on the connection to trouble Turner in the Wolves goal.
Kendall had Turner backtracking seconds later, as the youngster collected the ball just outside the box, before lofting a ball towards the far post. A visible sigh of relief from the keeper as the ball dropped just wide.
Despite Saints enjoying the lion's share of the possession in the opening 15 minutes of the second half, Wolves were able to fashion an opportunity for Amber Hughes, whose shot from the edge of the box was well-held by Rendell.
Marieanne Spacey-Cale opted to make her first change of the game in the 61st minute as Ella Morris entered the fray, with Georgia Freeland making way.
The change in personnel paid off nearly instantaneously, as Morris ran Anna Morphet ragged on the right-wing, going one-on-one and zipping in some dangerous crosses which Wolves were able to scramble away.
Spacey-Cale made her second change of the match as Katie Rood replaced Megan Collett on the grass in the 73rd minute.
It was with just her third touch of the ball that Rood tried her luck on the edge of the box, and her curled effort wasn't far off, as it sailed over Turner and just past the second post.
Saints were still creating opportunities looking forward as the game wore on, and following a foul on Mott inside the Wolves half, Rood headed just past the post from the free kick. Griffiths once again providing the perfect ball into the box.
Wolves didn't stop putting the pressure on, however, and Rafferty and Parnell had to be at the top of their game to deny a number of long balls forward as they looked to get back on equal pegging.
There were four minutes to be added on as Saints looked to shut out the persistent Wolves, and Spacey-Cale's side continued to push hard till the very end. Despite the defensive masterclass, Rood looked to cause issues going forward as she latched onto a ball down the channel, only to be dispossessed near the corner flag.
There was a collective inhalation of breath from Southampton fans in the dying seconds of the game as a long ball across the box from Wolves was headed back into danger by Alisha Miller to an onrushing Laura Cooper. However, the final shot sailed over the bar.
Despite the late onrush from Wolves, Saints were able to see out the game, and the single goal from Sophia Pharoah was enough to secure Southampton FC Women's place in the FA Women's Championship for the coming season.