Katie Wilkinson’s solitary strike earned Southampton FC Women a dramatic 1-0 victory at St Mary’s, dealing a hefty blow to the promotion hopes of London City Lionesses.
An all action affair from the first minute to the last, both teams created countless opportunities but constantly failed to convert them until the 83rd minute, when Wilkinson was alive to stab home following Ella Pusey’s volley.
That goal earned her side a hard-fought but richly deserved victory in their penultimate home Championship game of the season.
Saints came into the match in poor form, having earned just a single point from their previous five matches whilst London City Lionesses arrived in SO14 off the back of an impressive 1-0 victory over Charlton Athletic as they looked to haul further pressure on league leaders Bristol City.
In ideal conditions for football, the game started rather evenly as both teams wrestled for early possession.
The first presentable opportunity fell the way of London City’s Jamie-Lee Napier after six minutes; the ball was fed delicately through a gap and into her feet but the attacker couldn’t steer her left-footed attempt on target.
Whenever possible, the visitors seemed to be forcing the ball out to their left flank with the lively Napier delivering cross-after-cross with her left boot.
Saints had captain Rosie Parnell to thank for some excellent defensive headers to quell the danger but it was an attacking avenue that Saints needed to stem, and fast.
Following some positive battling in midfield, the hosts earned their first opening after 18 minutes as the flying Ella Morris broke down the right flank and reached the by-line before firing a low cross into the path of Sophia Pharoah who, under pressure, couldn’t sneak her flick inside the near post.
With the match opening up beyond the 20th minute, the visitors again put pressure on Saints’ goal but couldn’t test Rendell; Carly Girasoli’s looping header from a corner rustled the wrong side of the net.
After soaking up some more pressure at the back, the home contingent were on their feet in the 26th minute when the skilful run of Pharoah resulted in her travelling along the edge of the oppositions box with a trail of blue shirts desperately trying to track her.
Urged to shoot, but on her weaker left-foot, the attacking-midfielder delayed the attempt with the chance eventually disappearing altogether despite her excellent work originally.
With the pendulum constantly swinging, there was a collective feeling around St Mary’s that the first goal of the contest could prove crucial, with both sides creating chances but neither able to make one count as yet.
Pusey looked to change that in the 40th minute, using her tremendous pace to escape into open space towards the remaining defenders but, just as she looked to release the ball, the striker found her legs cynically swiped from beneath her as Shanade Hopcroft deservedly entered the book for the offence.
In the blink of an eye the ball was up the other end, with City looking to find the illusive opener late in the half. Grace Neville’s effort was struck firmly, but lacked precision, with the audible slap of Rendell’s gloves enough to redirect the ball wide.
Despite just seconds remaining in the first half, Southampton somehow found time for a late onslaught as Chloe Peplow decided to try her luck from considerable range, slicing across the ball and sending it swirling toward the bottom corner, only for the preoccupied Yanez to recover and tip wide in the nick of time.
Moments after making such a brilliant save, the goalkeeper found herself in hot water on her own goal line with Pusey’s relentless pressure forcing her to hack clear in panic as Saints ended the opening 45 on the front foot.
In the second half, it didn’t take long before the next opportunity arose; Atlanta Primus broke free and skipped past the advancing Rendell before going down as all eyes turned to the referee who, after a second of reflection, appeared unconvinced by the dramatic fall and signalled for a goal-kick instead of a penalty.
With the clock ticking beyond the hour mark, the visitors looked to be the team on top, with Parnell and Paige Peake combining effectively on several occasions to protect Rendell and her net despite the pressure.
That being said, London City were inches away from an opener on 62 minutes as captain Harley Bennett rose highest to meet an out-swinging corner but planted her powerful header onto the crossbar from close range.
Three minutes later, Pusey tried to turn the tide as she combined well with substitute Lucia Kendall before striking toward the near post, denied by a brave block from Hayley Nolan.
With just 20 minutes remaining, London City were the first to go for the knockout blow but Amy Rodgers’ low effort from just outside the box lacked direction as Rendell clutched gratefully.
Moments later, Morris found herself with time out wide to whipp in a dangerous cross that was a little too close to Yanez, who claimed confidently.
With the sheer frequency of chances, a goal in the match had never looked more likely. Cue the 83rd minute, when it finally came.
Another cross from the right flank proved to be the key for Saints; the ball was floated onto the right boot of Pusey at the far post whose controlled volley forced Yanez into a spectacular fingertip save, but one she failed to direct away from the lurking Wilkinson who stabbed home into the empty net before wheeling away in celebration towards the 2,089 jubilant fans.
Despite the celebrations, Saints knew that seven long minutes still remained, with the roles were reversed from the fixture earlier in the season as London City were the ones keeping their fingers crossed for a late comeback.
In a bid to get her side level, Nikita Runnacles looked to her bench and introduced Lucy Shepard and Katie Kitching. Marieanne Spacey-Cale immediately responded, sending Phoebe Williams and Lexi Lloyd-Smith into battle.
With the ball continually being launched into Saints’ box, relief came in the final moments when Beth Lumsden came away with possession and showed maturity in her decision to go to the corner and waste a few more precious seconds.
Southampton came together as a team to ensure their eventual victory, Benn’s full-time whistle a sound that was welcomed around the ground, signalling a first win in the league for Saints since February.
Amid the celebrations, there was also widespread appreciation for the efforts of London City Lionesses, who, despite their hearty performance, would head back to the capital with their promotion hopes badly bruised.
Next up for Southampton is the final away fixture of the season against bottom of the table Coventry United next Sunday at Butts Park Arena, kick off at 2pm BST.
Southampton: Kayla Rendell, Ella Morris, Milly Mott, Rosie Parnell (c), Ella Pusey (Phoebe Williams 90), Sophia Pharoah (Lucia Kendall 64), Chloe Peplow (Beth Lumsden 78), Alice Griffiths, Katie Wilkinson (Lexi Lloyd-Smith 90), Megan Collett, Paige Peake.
Unused subs: Beth Howard, Laura Rafferty, Georgie Freeland, Megan Wynne, Ashleigh Ward.
London City Lionesses: Shae Yanez, Grace Neville (Lois Heuchan 85), Carly Girasoli, Amy Rodgers, Jamie-Lee Napier (Katie Kitching 89), Harley Bennett (c), Hayley Nolan, Karin Muya, Lucy Fitzgerald, Atlanta Primus (Lucy Shepherd 89), Shanade Hopcroft (Kyra Carusa 60)
Unused subs: Hermione Cull, Lois Joel