After the wet and windy conditions of last week, Saturday’s FA Girls’ U17s Centres of Excellence Youth Cup Semi-Final against Aston Villa took place in glorious sunshine at Maidstone United’s Gallagher Stadium. It was a perfect setting for the biggest game in Gillingham FC’s Girls Centre of Excellence history, a sign of how far the centre has developed in recent years.
The day started for the Gillingham girls at Priestfield Stadium, where they met for a team & family breakfast. The players got the chance to fuel and hydrate before the game as well as socialise and relax, along with family members and Gillingham staff. The players seemed in good spirits and extremely focussed on the game to come.
During the morning the girls were visited by Gills legends Ian Cox and Andy Hessenthaler, along with Youth Development Officer Darren Hare, who offered some words of encouragement and advice gained from their own experiences of FA Cup football.
From the ground the girls travelled with their families across to Maidstone United to prepare for the game. Aston Villa had travelled down on the morning and were impressed with the facilities for the game.
The game started at an electric pace with both teams trying to get an early advantage and a strong foothold in the game. And that early advantage went to the Gills as Tamsin de Bunsen swung in a free-kick from the right which eluded everyone, including the Villa keeper and found its way into the back of the net off of the far post to put Gillingham 1-0 up.
With the game continuing at a fast pace there were small mistakes being made across the pitch but the Gills girls continued to carry more of a threat and had a number of decent attacking opportunities but with some resolute defending, Villa managed to keep them from adding a second goal. Lydia Wills and Jess King didn’t give the Villa defenders a moments rest and both looked dangerous. From midfield Tamsin, Evie Kenna and Madison North were matching the Villa girls and breaking up play nicely. As the first half moved on, Aston Villa managed to see more and more of the ball but were unable to carve out any real clinical chances in front of Katie Startup’s goal.
When Villa did get good possession in the final third they were met with some last gasp defending from Hannah Bartholomew, Jade Tinsley and Millie Waud who stuck together well and managed to stifle the Villa strikers. The half carried on with both sides looking to get forward and both Seren Bentley and Fiona Constable had some very positive moments down both wings.
Jaimee-Ann Heyes replaced Jess late in the first half and looked to use her pace to cause Villa problems and was almost set clear but for a last ditch interception from a Madison pass. Katie in the Gills’ goal had a couple of routine saves to make and looked comfortable towards the end of the half and with the half-time whistle looming she managed to stop well from a close range effort from the Villa number 11, unfortunately the ball bounced back to the feet of the same player who was able to equalise by tucking the ball in the bottom corner. Soon after this the whistle did go to make the game 1-1 at half-time.
The Gillingham girls seemed a little deflated by conceding after working so hard to hold on to the lead for so long but gathered themselves before the start of the second half.
Martha Kent replaced Seren at half time and was immediately called into action, defending well from growing Villa pressure, whilst looking to join in attacks where possible. Not long into the second half Villa played the ball into the box and the Gills saw the ball turned into the net past Katie, however the assistant referee came to the rescue by signalling an offside.
The game became a little scrappy from both sides and Aston Villa looked more threatening with a number of corners and free kicks which had to be defended carefully. And it was from a free kick that Aston Villa took the lead. Slightly to the left hand side of the box and about 20 yards out the Villa player hit a great strike into the far top corner, giving Katie in the Gillingham goal no chance.
Megan Maslak and Mia Hyland both entered the game in the second half and gave everything they had in an attempt to chase the game. The Gillingham girls never gave up and carved out a few half-chances against a resolute Villa defence. Laurel Colllins, Emma Wilkinson and Michaela Hill encouraged well from the bench and stayed positive throughout, hoping for just one more chance to fall to the Gills. And that chance came with seconds left on the watch
Gillingham were awarded an indirect free kick inside the Villa penalty area for an infringement by the goalkeeper and Tamsin stepped up. Whilst being closed down by half the Villa team Tamsin managed to strike the ball against the Villa bar and after a scramble in front of the goal their goalkeeper managed to get her hands on the ball and the referee blew the full time whistle. Aston Villa had booked their place in the final with a 2-1 win.
Whilst it was a very disappointing result for the girls, after the game they were all aware of just how much they had achieved and could hold their heads high.
Manager Pete Sayer added: “The game could have gone either way today and with a little more luck here or there we could have won. Hats off to the Villa girls who battled so well after going a goal behind and the goal that won the game was one to be proud of. If I’m honest I think the game may have come a week too soon for us, with a number of knocks and aches from last weeks’ efforts against Liverpool but no excuses.”
“I’m still so proud of these girls and am so privileged to have the chance to work with them and to enjoy the successes that we have had. We’ve remained positive all season and have shocked a few people who’d written us off and it’s important that we continue to try to do so for the remainder of the season.”
Thank you to Maidstone United for hosting the game and for being so accommodating and welcoming to the squad, it was such a perfect setting for the game.
Thank you also to the players, staff and supporters of Aston Villa, good luck with the rest of your season and in the final against Arsenal.
Thank you as well to the parent’s, families, friends and players who came and supported the girls not only at the game but throughout the season, every time the Gills got the ball we could hear the cheers and it made it such an amazing experience for the girls.
And last but not least thank you our U17s who made Gillingham Football Club so very proud. You conducted yourselves with true professionalism and it’s an honour to have you all as players at the club, thank you girls.
Next up Millwall on the 21st March.
Up the Gills
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