As ever, there was something riding on the game. If Teddington were to beat their dear old rivals Fleet, they would seal fifth position. If they were to lose, it would give the Hampshire side, still chopping their way through a backlog of fixtures, a decent chance of overhauling their hosts.
And for once, sound the horns and praise the heavens, the home side had options. For the first time this season, there were 14 players to choose from.
Let us linger a while on numbers. Officially, this was a squad of 15 players, but it never was. One of them left in December, another had only joined in November and a third was only available once before Christmas.
This was Teddington’s 14th and final game of the season. Only once before had they had as many as two substitutes; on six occasions, there was one (sometimes half-fit) sub, and on the other six, a bare 11 to fashion into a working XI.
That the resultant teams played so well so often is a tribute to the players’ flexibility, insisted upon by the management. Of the 26 players in the club’s history, 24 played in more than one position. They may not have liked it at first but many of them grew to love their new assignments – and now, when they join a new team, they have more than one string to their bow, more than one chance to excel.
On this occasion, the team reverted to 4231. As she has doen so often in her one season with this team, Jennifer Neves cheerfully agreed to go in goal; it’s a task for which her colleagues will always thank her, and a position in which she shone, but for this final game she was always going to come out at half-time.
In front of her, a mixture of youth and experience. At left-back, club legend Saskia Brewster made her 80th appearance, having been tempted out of her rowing boat to stand one last time alongside her old mate Millie Theobald, lining up in the centre of defence for the 94th time. As has frequently been the way in the last couple of seasons, Millie was partnered by the team’s youngest player, Amy Hallett: herself a blend of youth and experience, playing her 80th game in what’s probably her seventh different position. And outside Amy, in a right-back position she didn’t know she could play before this season, was Amy’s best mate Emily Bashford.
The midfield was founded upon what has become the usual triumvirate of Carla Novakovic and Liz Kriebel behind Giulia Clini. Emily Coulson switched from her typical left-flank beat to the right to accommodate Frances Clark, with Ella Dodd up top. And that, folks, was the 13th different starting XI in Teddington’s 14 games this season. On the bench, biding their time, were Sarah Dillamore, Annabel Taiwo and Ella Bothamley, the latter making a welcome return from injury after only playing once in three months.
Amid a carnival atmosphere, with family aplenty and a host of former players reappearing to cheer on their friends, the game started very evenly. As predicted, while tidying up a few rakers from the visitors Teddington had most of the possession in the middle third but didn’t start to truly threaten until the 14th minute.
Fran had started the game with her engines revving, and found Doddsy just outside the corner of the six-yard box. Everyone expected the selfless striker to reset to a team-mate, but instead she tricked her marker with a turn and fired against the bottom of the post.
Two minutes later, Teddington threatened down the other flank – ah, five pleasant years of writing that in match reports – when Emily found Doddsy, who did well to turn goalwards a near-post shot that Fleet were forced to scramble away.
Fleet sent a shot across the bows, or rather into the side-netting from a corner, before Teddington made their first change on 25 minutes, bringing off the blameless Emily for the eager Boz. Indeed the sub almost scored with her first touch, getting onto the end of a searching Carla free-kick but not quite converting.
Just before the half-hour, Fleet should have a penalty: the forward knocked it past Millie, who stretched out a desperate leg which the visitor went over. One of those time-stretching moments ensued in which the crowd turns to see the ref put whistle to lips, breath in, minutely shake his head and wave play on.
A moment later and up the other end, a foot-race developed between Boz and a goalkeeper who rapidly realised she wasn’t going to get there. Just about running out of space, the attacker flicked it over her and toward goal but the goalie stretched well to pat it away.
And the glove-wearer was at it again shortly after, doing just enough to slap away a fierce Liz free-kick after Fran had been brought down out wide. It felt like the goalkeeper was keeping her team in it.
Which made it all the more irksome and off-script when Fleet scored with five minutes of the half remaining. It came, as so often they did, from a corner being headed home relativdely unchallenged from 10 yards. The management duo exchanged a glance. Too late to change that now.
Changes came at half-time, though. With a goalkeeping replacement needed for Jen, Boz volunteered and the two swapped positions, Jen going wide right. The hard-working speed merchants Bash and Fran were rested, with Emily returning to the left wing and Dillers coming into central defence, Amy slipping to right-back. Liz had a breather with Giulia dropping back into central midfiled, her No.10 slot taken up by Doddsy behind the oncoming Annabel. Told you they were flexible.
Within thre minutes, Emily had a shot on the bounce from just outside the area, fielded well by the goalkeeper. Speaking of goalkeepers, Teddington’s new goalkeeper Boz, who isn’t a goalkeeper, came out well to deny a Fleet counter.
The second half started to develop a more pendulous momentum, Teddington perhaps going slightly longer than has usually been the case – perhaps through a desire to level the score, but also through Boz’s long drop-kicks raking toward the rangy Annabel up top. When Flet did break through, Boz was rapidly off her line to close down – and though the striker got her shot away, Dillers was quick enough to scoot back and calmly Sort Things Out.
In the 58th minute, shortly after a nice through-ball which Jen got onto but couldn’t finish with sufficient ferocity, Teddington switched again: Fran on for Sas as an overlapping left-back, Liz replacing Carla in midfield. Immediately the American sent Doddsy through for a solid shot well saved, then she had a go herself, the ball dropping just over the angle of post and bar.
With 10 minutes to go, one last substitution, one last roll of the dice, one last commitment to attacking football: Millie T made way for Bash, another overlapping full-back with Amy slipping back into the centre of what was now effectively a 2-4-4 formation. Take that, Guardiola.
There’s a risk there, of course: Fleet immediately broke through but were denied by an offside flag, which led to some chuckling requests for VAR from those filming the game. But risk can bring reward.
In the 73rd minute, a ball toward the corner flag held up a little in the grass, and Annabel sprinted towards it with rather more determination than the goalkeeper. The resultant corner, swung onto the edge of the six-yard box by Liz, was turned home by Emily – Teddington’s record appearance-maker and record goalscorer.
A moment later, Fleet again broke that two-girl offside trap, and Boz hared off her line. The striker shot low, Boz flung out a leg, the ball deflected away and the locals cheered loud and long.
With three minutes to go, extraordinary scenes. Emily went down on the edge of the penalty area under a challenge that was tough but fair, the ball squeezing out and bobbling toward the flag. While everyone else stood about waiting for something to happen – a whistle, a clearance, an ice-cream van – the ever-alert Doddsy exploded onto it, picked it up on the byline and pulled it back to the suddenly reanimated Emily; she couldn’t quite finish it, the half-clearance falling to Doddsy whose shot was pushed wide for a corner.
Had Teddington found a late winner, it would have been slightly too Hollywood, and certainly somewhat harsh on Fleet. As it was, with Fleet unable to fulfil their subsequent back-to-back fixtures with QPR, it was a fitting end to a long-running rivalry between two sides who have always been closely matched, if differently geared: the all-time results (chronologically, with Teddington’s scores first) have been 2-0, 3-3, 2-2, 1-1, 1-0, 3-2, 3-3, 2-2 (5-4 on pens), 4-0, 5-2, 4-0 and 1-1.
And in their fifth season, Teddington finished fifth: not their record position, which was third in 2016, the season between their two Cup Final appearances. But considering this season's opponents included two more sides affiliated to Football League clubs, it's a very good return. Considering they were second-bottom at Christmas, it's a startling return. Considering the lack of numbers they've had all season, it's almost astonishing.
Whoever their opponents, these Teddington girls have usually given a very good account of themselves. They can be proud of what they have acheived over the last five years, however large or small a part in it they’ve played.
The idea has always been to win, but more importantly to play with style, to develop fine young players, fine young women, people who would be a credit to their club, to their families, to football and to themselves. On that score, there’s no doubt at all that Teddington are winners.
TEDDINGTON ATHLETIC Jen Neves; Emily Bashford, Amy Hallett, Millie Theobald, Saskia Brewster; Carla Novakovic, Liz Kriebel; Emily Coulson (1), Giulia Clini, Fran Clark; Ella Dodd. Subs: Sarah Dillamore, Ella Bothamley, Annabel Taiwo.
Thanks as ever to Catherine (and, before her, David) for photographs; there’s many below the table. Thanks for reading. It has been a pleasure.