It was a cold night at Kingsmeadow when Chelsea LFC and Tottenham LFC gathered for a celebration of Claire Rafferty’s ten years as a senior player with the club. The legendary left back is, in some sense, the lone survivor from the pre-Emma Hayes era at the club, and has seen the fortunes of the side flourish and expectations grow over the last five years. Now in the waning years of her career, the once stalwart first team choice has been finding it difficult to get minutes on the pitch alongside the most abundantly talented group of players that Chelsea LFC have ever seen.
Anyhow, someone should’ve told Tottenham that there would be a game of football to mark the occasion, as the visitors didn’t really show up ready to go. They were played off the pitch by Hayes’ side, which saw a number of rotations make room for rare appearances from Rafferty as captain for the evening and Becky Spencer in goal. Nonetheless, the Lilywhites were played off the pitch by the home team, in spite of the Spurs needing at least a draw to advance from the group.
An early keeper gaffe let in a weak shot from Hannah Blundell to open the scoring before Fran Kirby notched a classic brace. Drew Spence added a fourth after a bizarre error from Spencer gifted Tottenham their only real chance of the game.
The honor guard for Rafferty to open the proceedings must’ve gotten the home side rather fired up, as they came out in an imperious mood and dominated the entirety of the first half. With three minutes on the clock, Ramona Bachmann picked out Spence with a cross from the right flank, but the Englishwoman could only steer her volley wide of the post. Chelsea’s number 24 was again off-target two minutes later, when Kirby drifted into the inside left channel and found her teammate arriving late at the edge of the box to fire in a low, narrow miss.
The let-off led to Spurs’ only threatening action in the first quarter of an hour, as a quick release down the wing caught Chelsea’s back line out, but the ensuing cross failed to find the onrushing Sarah Wiltshire. Spence then returned to the controls of play, sending Kirby through on goal, but the typically clinical striker wasn’t able to beat a superb reaction from Spurs keeper, Toni-Anne Wayne.
Gemma Davison missed a curler from the left, and soon after, a two-minute spell produced three clear chances in quick succession. Maren Mjelde whipped a free-kick inches wide of the target, Spence headed home a beautiful Rafferty cross, only to have it cleared off the line, and finally Erin Cuthbert, who looked increasing dangerous as the match went on, rattled the upper right corner of the woodwork with a ferocious strike from distance.
Five minutes later, the Blues’ hard work was rewarded with a bit of luck. After a missed header that would wind up being the only shot from Tottenham of half, Millie Bright blasted a long searcher from her position as the right-sided center back, and Bachmann headed it down intelligently into the path of the surging Blundell. The wing back’s effort from the right side of the area was rather tame, but Wayne couldn’t get enough of a fist on it to push it up over the bar, and the ball nestled into the side netting for Chelsea’s opener.
Of course, the Blues were only hungrier having gotten the taste. Claire Rafferty was not going to be left out of her own party, and got in on the fun with a terrific pass into Fran Kirby. She split the defense with a neat ball into the striker, who made another uncharacteristic mistake in putting her shot wide from six yards out. Another chance went begging for her on 36 minutes, as she allowed Spurs defender Sophie Mclean the time to get in the way of a venomous strike and it skewed past the post.
After that mistake, one could be forgiven for thinking it just wasn’t going to be Kirby’s night, but the goal she had been chasing finally arrived on the stroke of half-time. Rafferty’s dangerous run down the left flank started the move off, and her lay off to Davison allowed the ball to be worked around to Blundell by way of Kirby. The wing-back, on a goal already, had room to try and test the keeper, but opted instead to return the ball from whence it came and the choice proved to be an excellent one. Kirby’s first-timer from the edge of the box was inch-perfect into the corner, and the lead was doubled.
After the sides returned from the break, Bachmann found Maren Mjelde in space, but Norway’s captain smashed her shot over the bar. Bachmann went for power herself when presented an opportunity moments later, but Wayne was strong enough to keep that one out.
With 57 minutes played, Chelsea netted their third through incredible team play involving the usual suspects. Rafferty worked the ball up to Davison, who in turn found Kirby, who then attempted a quick one-two with Bachmann, but the latter had other ideas. Her pass instead pushed Spence to the touchline, where she squared the ball along the surface to an immaculately-positioned Kirby, who had reincarnated her normal flawless self and had no problems tapping in from five yards.
Three goals to the good and all but cruising, could’ve had a fourth through Kirby and Bachmann on 62 minutes, had the latter been on target. The Blues were unfairly punished just two minutes later, as Lauren Pickett pulled one back for Tottenham after collecting Becky Spencer’s poor pass under no pressure.
Had the match been tighter, Spurs still would not have been able to revel in the joy of the gift they’d been given, as Chelsea were immediately at them again. Mjelde and Cuthbert both made the keeper tremble within the space of a few minutes, only a quivering post could deny the cannoned shots from the two stars. There truly were tremendous performances from everyone in blue, with the unfortunate exception of Spencer, who was largely untested outside of her missed kick.
Hayes made changes at the 75 minute mark, introducing the effervescent Crystal Dunn for Bachmann and the inimitable Ji So-Yun for Kirby. Within minutes, Chelsea turned three into four. Cuthbert’s tireless work and excellent dribbling would pay off in the form of an assist as she unselfishly dragged the ball back for Spence, who gave the Blues the cushion they more than deserved with a magnificent far corner finish that looked effortless. Ji was denied the chance to add icing to the cake before the final whistle, but Wayne and co. kept the score flattering with their perseverance.
Finally, Rafferty was brought off in the penultimate minute to roaring applause, a deserved honoring of a beloved servant to the club.
Next up... The Blues face Manchester City in a battle of the WSL 1 titans on Sunday. This will be a crucial opportunity to take the league lead back from the would-be champions.