Three Kings United bounced back to winning ways in the Lotto Northern Premier Women's League at Becroft Park on May 19, accounting for Forrest Hill-Milford United 4-1 to return to the top of the table.
The reigning champions didn't have it all their own way, however, and were very much out of sorts in the opening twenty-five minutes as "The Swans", inspired by the effervescent Chloe Knott, gave their opponents more than a bit of a hurry-up.
Just four minutes into the contest, Hannah Robert gifted possession to Hannah Reddy, who worked a one-to with Knott before forcing Rivalina Fuimaono into a sprawling save.
Six minutes later, the champions' goalkeeper committed one of the cardinal sins of football when playing the ball across the face of her own goal - from a goal kick, on this occasion.
Her pass put Georgia Martin under all sorts of pressure, and she very swiftly coughed up possession to Knott. She picked out Talisha Green with a pass which invited the striker to let fly from the edge of the area. Fuimaono plunged to her right to turn the shot to safety.
Just two minutes more had elapsed when Knott - she was having a field day during the early stages of the contest - linked with Arabella Maynard for Reddy's benefit. She played the ball across to Milly McWhirter, whose teasing chip of Fuimaono arced just over the bar.
Three Kings were playing like a team lacking confidence in these early stages, with their crisp passing game, in particular, missing, presumed having a good time. But they fired a warning shot across "The Swans"' bows in the fourteenth minute when Deven Jackson volleyed Hannah Robert's corner straight at Emily Couchman.
Knott reacted to that with a superb solo attack, running at the heart of United's rearguard and turning defenders this way and that before engineering room to let fly from twenty yards.
Had Martin not flung herself into the path of the shot, the home team would almost certainly have been celebrating the opening goal of the game, and a deserved one it would have been, too.
Stacey Martin took the corner resulting from her namesake's whole-hearted block, and what followed - captain Jessie Mathews was clattered into and left in a heap in the penalty area, with referee Deb Stevens remarkably decreeing that no offence had been committed - proved to be the catalyst from which the title-holders rediscovered their mojo, and began asserting themselves on the game.
Before they did, however, former United midfielder Knott was giving her old club gip yet again, and reminding all present of her undoubted precocious talent, something which can be forgotten when you don't see these US scholarship players in action on a regular basis.
The Georgetown University midfield general was up to her tricks again in the 23rd minute, taking on and beating two opponents before unleashing a shot which deflected narrowly past Fuimaono's right-hand post, with Green, whose left flank raid started the move, going close to getting on the end of it.
The grizzly bear had been roused from its slumbers, however, and United finally got their attacking game together on the half-hour. Estelle Harrison surged down the left before linking with Mathews, who worked a double one-two with the hitherto subdued Rebecca Burrows.
That wasn't the case from this point on, as the best midfielder in the league this season raced past two opponents before rifling a drive towards the target which Couchman saved at the second attempt.
After Maynard had fired wide following more good work by Knott, Burrows delivered a beautifully weighted ball in behind "The Swans"' defence for Jackson to latch onto, only for Couchman to save at her feet at the near post.
Hannah Blake had been largely anonymous to this point, great testimony to the fine defensive performance Aneka Mittendorff was producing for her side - a good prospect, this lass.
Mittendorff couldn't keep Blake in her back pocket forever, however, and in the 36th minute the age-grade international set off on a jinking run past three opponents before Stacey Martin stepped in to stop her.
That interruption was brief, however, as within seconds, Mathews had won the ball back for United and presented Blake with the chance to pull the trigger. Couchman saved well, and kept out a header from Jackson three minutes later, after the visitors contrived a super flowing move featuring Georgia Martin, Mathews, Robert, Blake and Harrison, who supplied the cross.
Three Kings were now getting into their stride, following their sluggish start, and with five minutes remaining until half-time, they took the lead. Blake got the better of Casey Klyn, who tried in vain to hang onto her opponent's shirt-tails - literally! Blake accelerated away from her, then played in Jackson, who deftly steered the ball beyond Couchman - 1-0.
Within seconds, the lead could very well have been doubled, with Blake forcing a save from Couchman after the title-holders had mounted a right-wing raid in which Claudia Crasborn, Burrows and Jackson were to the fore.
Down the left flank was where United next raided, seconds into the second spell, culminating in a wrong-footed effort from the largely left-footed figure of Harrison going close to doubling the title-holders' advantage just fifty seconds after referee Stevens - she has had better games - blew her whistle to resume proceedings.
United didn't have long to wait to increase their lead, however. Just three minutes later, a Harrison corner was cleared to Burrows, who, from twenty-five yards on the angle, picked out the top far corner of the net with a cracking strike - 2-0.
Back came "The Swans", captain Chloe Wilson leading the charge. Martin and Knott linked up with the fullback, whose picked out Maynard with a measured pass in the 51st minute.
Another flurry of passes ensued, with Knott, McWhirter and Green featuring, before the last-mentioned's cross to the near post was headed past the upright by Reddy, much to her dismay.
Burrows led United's response, a driving run past four opponents before her through ball caught Blake on the wrong foot, much to the relief of the home team, who dragged themselves back into the contest in the 57th minute when Maynard lobbed Fuimaono from fully thirty yards, after a United move had broken down inside their own half.
That roused the locals, who came within an ace of drawing level three minutes later. Martin intercepted a pass near the centre circle and stormed downfield, taking on and beating three, one of whom, Ally Toailoa, proffered a lazy-legged challenge which … let's just say it's not the sort of challenge you expect to see from an age-grade international
Two minutes later, Wilson, victim of a crunching late tackle from Jackson in the dying minutes from which she'll still be feeling the effects this time next week, turned away in disgust after completely miscuing an attempted cross … which very nearly embarrassed Fuimaono, who was forced to grab it at the last minute as it approached the far post.
Cue a United counter-attack, Harrison, Robert, Blake and Burrows weaving their way down the left before Jackson received the ball with her back to goal deep inside "The Swans"' penalty area.
Although swiveling to score left-footed a la Robbie Fowler was an option, Jackson's left peg was only for standing on on this occasion, and she held the ball up before Blake arrived on the scene. The lay-off invited the striker to let fly, but she directed her effort past the post.
That wasn't the case in the 69th minute, however, as Blake restored United's two-goal advantage. Robert released the striker down the left, but Mittendorff matched her stride for stride and won the race for the ball.
Unfortunately for the defender, when she turned away and played the ball across the top of her penalty area, there was a gaping hole where Martin should have been, a sight which lit up the eyes of Jackson, who dashed into the vacant area.
Wilson, hurtling across from left-back, arrived simultaneously, but Jackson got to the ball just ahead of her then lured Couchman out of goal before setting up Blake for a shot which crossed the line via a deflection off the recovering figure of Mittendorff.
Nineteen minutes from time, Harrison executed the perfect hanging cross to the far post, which Couchman spilled. Blake instantly swooped, but was crowded out by "Swans" defenders, who scrambled the danger to safety.
Seconds later, they were exploiting a United defensive mix-up at the other end of the park, McWhirter's instant chip of the stranded figure of Fuimaono going desperately close to bringing the home team back to within a goal of their opponents.
United responded through Harrison's gem of an angled through ball, which invited Jackson to dash through on goal. Couchman raced off her line to block well at close-range near the edge of the penalty area.
In between Blake twice being denied goals by the offside flag, both Jackson and Couchman watched without moving as another hanging cross from Harrison arced invitingly towards them in the vicinity of the far post.
The ball bounced before either reacted. Why neither of them attacked it while it was still airborne defies logic, particularly Jackson, who only had the 'keeper standing between her and the goal, and who would have been well aware of Couchman's nervousness from spilling a similar delivery minutes earlier. A striker's goal which went begging, this one.
Three Kings kept up the pressure, Crasborn and Mathews - who recovered well from her early hammering, which severely impacted her mobility - combining neatly on the right for Burrows' benefit, the playmaker surging past two opponents before firing a shot on the turn over the bar.
Sixty seconds later, Burrows turned provider, her through ball bisecting "The Swans"' defence to leave Jackson in on goal with the approaching Couchman to beat. Seeing the danger, Mittendorff stretched out and looked to time her tackle from behind to perfection, only to clip the legs of Jackson and prompt referee Stevens to point to the penalty spot.
Remarkably, Blake blazed wide from the twelve yard mark, which gave the home team hope of reducing the 3-1 scoreline again inside the final seven minutes of the contest.
Three Kings weren't having a bar of that, however, and kept the National Women's Knockout Cup holders at arm's length in the remaining minutes, while creating a couple of openings of their own, both of which featured Burrows, Jackson and Blake.
Couchman blocked the first opportunity, which fell to the last-mentioned, but in stoppage time, the Three Kings trio were queuing up to score, Burrows finally blasting the ball home to wrap up a 4-1 win for the title-holders, whose return to winning ways also saw them return to the top of the table, although they have played two games more than previous incumbents Eastern Suburbs.
FHMU: Couchman; Klyn, Mittendorff, S. Martin, Wilson; Knott, Johnson, McWhirter; Maynard, Reddy (Mitau-Wasi, 72), Green (McKimm, 81)
TKU: Fuimaono; Crasborn, Toialoa, G. Martin, Harrison; Bloomfield, Burrows, Mathews; Jackson, Blake, Robert (Dowsett, 90)
Referee: Deb Stevens