A goalline clearance by Demi Stokes deprived Manchester United of a phenomenal comeback win against their bitter rivals Manchester City in the Women’s Super League.
City had dominated the first half of the showpiece Women’s Football Weekend opener with such brutal efficiency that it looked impossible for the home team to claw their way back. Their two-goal lead, however, was not enough to kill off their increasingly threatening neighbours and goals from the USA forward Tobin Heath and the half-time substitute Kirsty Hanson ensured United remain top of the league and undefeated, while City stay fifth, a point behind Everton having played a game more.
All the talk before this derby was of the power shift seemingly under way in Manchester; by half-time it was all about the “tower of power”, Sam Mewis. Where Arsenal had crumbled under the high press of United, City seemed more alert to the threat, cooler in possession and their quick, confident, one-touch passing left the red shirts chasing shadows.
It had looked as if United would continue their impressive form, which had seen them take a point off Chelsea early on three off to leapfrog their opponents to the summit of the WSL. In the fifth minute at a grey and chilly Leigh Sports Village, Heath slipped a pass to Sunday’s match-winner Ella Toone on the edge of the area and her lobbed effort sailed narrowly wide of the far post.
Unflustered by the early chance of their rivals, the Blues took control and Mewis was central to their establishing a rhythm. The World Cup-winning midfielder is as tall and powerful as her nickname suggests and she lurked around the centre circle reading movement and passing faster than anyone else on the pitch.
It helped that she was left unfathomably unmarked. The Dutch forward Jackie Groenen, a reliable terrier for United this season, seemed to have made the decision to leave the US star to it in the knowledge she would just not be physically capable of taking her on.
As Mewis, Lucy Bronze and Ellen White provided the muscle for the visitors, it was the deadly pace and fearlessness of youth on the wings, through the England duo Georgia Stanway and Kelly, that provided their greatest attacking threat.
Within 10 minutes City had the lead. An Alex Greenwood corner was scrambled high by United, Kelly attempted to bring the ball down and clip it goalwards but it was cleared as far as Steph Houghton, who poked a scuffed pass back towards Kelly. At the second time of asking and with her back to goal, she flicked the ball sharply in at the near post.
By the interval they had doubled their lead, though United were aggrieved that Kelly was not flagged offside in the buildup. A long-range effort from Mewis was tipped into the path of the former Liverpool midfielder Laura Coombs who lashed a rising strike past the England goalkeeper Mary Earps.
If the United manager, Casey Stoney, borrowed Sir Alex Ferguson’s hairdryer at the break then it certainly worked. She had said this game would “not define our season” but were the scoreline to get away from them the bruising would endure.
It was a mistake from Bronze, the 2019 European player of the year, that opened the door, her poor pass under pressure pounced on by Heath, who cut on to her right before smashing beyond Roebuck.
The goal breathed life into United and on the 74th minute they had a deserved leveller. Hanson, on at half-time for the forward Jess Sigsworth, forced a fine save from Roebuck but the young keeper could not keep out her point-blank rebound.
With the clock ticking down, a corner from the right from Leah Galton was headed goalwards by Lucy Staniforth and Stoke scrambled it away from behind her goalkeeper. A let-off for City, but Gareth Taylor’s side desperately needed three points to keep their title aspirations alive.