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Colchester Utd manager Kevin Anderson hailed the "great rivalry" between his club and West Ham Utd after watching the U's prevail in a nail-biting penalty shootout to win their third Essex Women's Cup title.
The success edged his side one victory ahead of the Hammers in terms of competition wins, and Anderson believes the pair can continue to push each other on to further glory. "It's a great rivalry and perhaps in the past there's been a little bit of needle to it, but I think we just have a great amount of respect for each other now and every game we play is so competitive and so tight," he claimed following a compelling encounter at AFC Hornchurch.
A bumper crowd of 357 - the biggest of the Association's County Cup finals so far this year and including Irons Chairman David Gold - emphasised the groundswell of support for female football at the moment, and they witnessed Colchester make the better start. The U's could have been ahead as early as 45 seconds into the game when Amelia Southgate turned Megan Jiggins' free kick against the left-hand upright, but they did edge in front in the 13th minute.
Having scored ten goals in Colchester's previous two matches in the Essex Women's Cup, it was no surprise that Helen Bass was responsible for nodding her team into the lead. The skipper made ground to the near post, where she glanced Hannah Gowland's pinpoint cross beyond Nikki Duncan.
Gowland herself was presented with a chance to double the advantage in the 24th minute, but she could only direct a long-range effort into the gloves of Duncan after Stacey Little had surrendered possession. She did impress on the half-hour, though, when turning provider again for Bass, who fractionally failed to touch home another left-wing centre.
West Ham came back into the game as the first half reached its conclusion, and Nikita Runnacles made an outstanding stop to deny Kelley Blanchflower as she attempted to convert Becky Merritt's cross. Hammers' leading markswomen Blanchflower, and Gemma Shepherd, then combined to squander another chance, Shepherd sweeping her team mate's cut back wide.
Anderson was pleased with the way his team approached the opening period: "We've played 4-3-3 during most of the season to be solid and secure in our league games, and they play a similar style. In the games we've played already, we've almost cancelled each other out. We felt we had to do something a little bit different with how we set up and it gave them a problem or two to deal with in the first half. It took them a long while to figure that out."
However, West Ham equalised just 13 seconds after the interval with a strike of outstanding quality. Merritt advanced through midfield unchallenged from the kick-off and was allowed to smash a sumptuous, dipping drive over Runnacles into the top left-hand corner.
Worse was to follow for the North Essex club as their FA Women's Premier League South rivals took the lead eleven minutes later. This time Blanchflower latched onto a through ball and, although Runnacles made an impressive stop, she was powerless to stop Shepherd from tapping in the rebound from close range.
"Credit to Julia [Setford, West Ham's Manager], she sorted them out at half time and they figured out we were quite narrow," reflected Anderson. "They started getting the ball wide and causing us a lot of problems, and we just didn't come out of the changing room for that kick-off. We got caught, and they got their tails up. We could have buckled at that point with quite a few young players out there, but they've shown some character to come back."
Colchester responded, and Zoe Rushen saw a thunderous attempt pushed away by Duncan before Bass' skidding effort was touched into the side netting by the shot stopper. West Ham, too, were determined to score again, and they were unfortunate when Rosey Sullivan planted a header against the base of the left-hand upright from Tracey Duxbury's corner.
Ultimately, it was the U's who would grab an important equaliser 17 minutes from time as Essex Women's representative talent Rushen collected the ball to the left of the penalty area and arrowed a clinical finish into the opposite corner of the net. "I thought we had a couple of really good chances at 2-1 down and their 'keeper made a couple of cracking saves one-on-one," said Anderson. "Once we got the equaliser, it could've gone either way from then on."
The match was certainly more attritional from that point onwards, with both teams having worked out each other's methods. Bass shot wide from an Emily Clements cross in stoppage time and Rushen fired into the gloves of Duncan from distance during the additional 30 minutes but, even after extra time, the sides could not be separated.
The stage was set for Runnacles to become the heroine in the shootout. Her involvement was instant, palming away Captain Natalie Grafton's opening spot kick before compounding the advantage by similarly denying Sullivan. Having promptly stepped up to slam home herself from twelve yards, she was then able to maintain a watching brief as Gowland stroked home a fourth penalty from four for the U's to give them victory.
"We're two well matched teams, and you just need to get that little break to win," Anderson declared. "We got the little bit of luck and rub of the green today, so we'll take that. We thought about it before the game and we maybe didn't have a ton of confident penalty takers, but Nikita's produced two brilliant saves.
"You need the momentum in a penalty shootout and, for a goalkeeper, she strikes the ball so well, I just thought we'll put her in at number three, she'll put her foot through it. If it's on target, it's got a chance, and she's buried one in the corner. She was buzzing after a couple of saves, and that adrenaline was going and she struck the ball cleanly and put it in. I thought we took four really good penalties under pressure."
Colchester Utd: Nikita Runnacles, Hayley West, Emily Clements, Sian Fagg, Megan Jiggins, Laura Guyon (sub Amy Nash 79mins), Helen Bass, Zoe Rushen, Hannah Gowland, Amelia Southgate, Maegan Doyle (sub Lily Mellors 86mins). Subs not used: Alex Shepherd, Alice Diss, Rosie Mellors.
West Ham Utd: Nikki Duncan, Natalie Grafton, Jess Barling (sub Tracey Duxbury 45mins), Rosey Sullivan, Danica Revell, April Bowers (sub Carly Roache 45mins), Stacey Little (sub Kerry Stimson 119mins), Kelley Blanchflower, Gemma Shepherd, Becky Merritt, Lindsey Morgan. Subs not used: Kate Duffy, Melanie Abegglen.
(Report by Robert Craven)
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