You wonder if Casey Stoney has revised her opposition to VAR, or if her calls for goalline technology in the women’s game now have greater credence in light of afternoon where the Manchester United manager saw two goals disallowed and a third rescinded only for the referee to about-turn and give it anyway.
United could hardly dispute the first – a Katie Zelem corner floated beneath the bar, only for Kirsty Hanson to back into City goalkeeper Ellie Roebuck and surrender the kind of foul that always falls in a keeper’s favour. No one is any wiser if the second, a Zelem free-kick prodded home at the far post by Lizzie Arnot on 72 minutes, actually crossed the line before the Manchester City goalkeeper Ellie Roebuck clawed it away, not least because the most favourably-positioned television camera was behind the goal and the line obscured amid a pack of bodies.
These are the holes remaining in the women’s game as the stakes – Manchester United are out of the FA Cup, Wednesday’s League Cup game against Chelsea their final shot at silverware – increase. In Stoney’s eyes, these were “two perfectly good goals not given”, and if this young Manchester United side had been able to score earlier there could have been a different outcome from that frenetic final period where they turned the screw.
“We’ve got people in-line with it and they’ve seen that it’s over,” Stoney said. Who are these people? “People up in the control room, people up in the boxes. They said, straight away, it’s over, quite considerably over. It looked [like] it to me. I think we’re very unfortunate not to be in the hat tomorrow.”
Stoney acknowledged that her team ultimately needed to defend better given that the ensuing seconds saw Jill Scott plant a low, scurrying finish from twenty yards beyond the United goalkeeper Mary Earps to restore City’s two-goal lead and seemingly put the game beyond United’s reach.
The onslaught of second-half drama and chances was a welcome gear change – for the neutral, at least – from a first half that by Nick Cushing’s own admission was “terrible” at times. The Chelsea boss Emma Hayes had warned him to “enjoy the derbies because they’re terrible games”, and he joked post-match: “I agree now. I’ve been involved in three derbies and all three have been terrible. No structure, end to end, teams going for it. Maybe there’s so much emotion and passion in a Manchester derby that it’s always going to be like that.”
That feels a harsh assessment based on United’s renewed second-half vigour, but you wonder if Ellen White heard the catcalls of “what a waste of money” from the noisiest United contingent when she went to spread the ball to Lauren Hemp only to find there were no willing runners. Both sides had endured a turgid first half but the atmosphere – City goaded with chants of “Cushing’s binned you off” – confirmed Stoney’s suspicions that the women’s game is in more partisan territory.
You wonder, too, if those words were still ringing in White’s ears when she broke the deadlock on the next phase of play, Abbie McManus spurning a backpass to Earps for White to hurtle into her trademark dinked finish. Her second, peeling ahead of her marker to lift the ball over Earps from Hemp’s cross, doubled City’s lead after the break.
White initially looked to miss City forward Georgia Stanway, deployed at right back to cover for the injured Aoife Mannion and a Matilde Fidalgo struggling to adapt to the WSL. United’s introduction of Lauren James paid immediate dividends when the teenager latched onto a ball from range, beat Keira Walsh with a backheel and nudged low past Roebuck, a reminder to City that despite White’s credentials United have a world-class forward of their own, capable of igniting a derby with one nonchalant shoulder drop.
McManus’ was-it-wasn’t-it goal was disallowed just as United grew in stature. A Zelem corner curling under the bar and deflecting off the back of Hemp’s head – initially disallowed but then given – gave them hope of a late fightback but they could not muster a leveller despite five added minutes.
Manchester United: Earps; Smith, M. Turner, McManus, A. Turner; Sigsworth (Arnot 69), Ladd, Zelem, Groenen; Hanson, Ross (James 60)
Subs not used: Mikalsen (g), Harris, Palmer
Goals: James 69, Hemp (OG) 87
Man City: Roebuck; Stokes, Bonner, Houghton, Stanway; Hemp, Weir, Walsh, Scott; Wullaert (Coombs 78), White
Subs not used: Benameur (g), Bremer, Toland, Park, Bissell, Fidalgo
Goals: White 30, 56, Scott 76
Referee: Michael Barlow