It was the result that no one saw coming. Chelsea Women were on a run of 33 games unbeaten in the Barclays FA Women’s Super League – stretching back over two years – when struggling Brighton Women came to Kingsmeadow in February.
Emma Hayes’ side were bulldozing every team put in front of them and were on course for another WSL title. Brighton, meanwhile, had not won a game since November and had been pulled into a relegation battle.
Reflecting on the mood at Brighton ahead of the game, midfielder Megan Connolly exclusively told Sky Sports: “If you looked at our results beforehand, you’d see it wasn’t the best month. We had a range of different teams we played – we played Man City, that was quite a big loss, then there was Bristol City.
“After Bristol, we wanted to try and get a win and the next team we had was Chelsea, which was kind of hard.
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“I think it was at a point in that week leading up where we were rock bottom and it was a case of needing to pick ourselves up, pick our performances up as a team and try to change everything we’re doing, go back to basics and get anything we can from that game.
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“We were almost driven to get a result, to try and get something and a good performance to try and help us go back up the table.”
Aileen Whelan nodded home from Megan Connolly's corner to equalise against Chelsea
Sunday February 7 was a snowy and blustery day in Kingston, and Chelsea began perfectly when Sam Kerr fired the hosts ahead inside five minutes.
But three minutes later, Brighton hit back as Aileen Whelan empathically nodded home from Connolly’s corner. It was the perfect way to mark her 50th appearance for the club
“We’d gone 1-0 down quite early and we’d gone on the attack and won a corner,” Whelan said. “We know Megan can put the ball into the box in good areas, so I just had to stand there and let it hit my head really. I went to attack the ball and we got the goal back in good time.
“And to get a goal at all, they’re not really a team that lets you score against them. Before the game, we were at rock bottom and we couldn’t have got any worse. We could only go up and that’s what we intended on doing. The game plan was right and we went out and got the win.
“I didn’t even know about it [the 50th appearance] until one of the girls told me before kick-off, but it was a good way to celebrate it. There was still a long way in the season to go and I could reflect on it at the end of the season. But in the moment, I just knew we needed to go out and get a result from the game.”
Chelsea continued to dominate – Pernille Harder hitting the post in the second half – but could not find a way past Hope Powell’s resolute side. Then came Connolly’s astonishing winner with the rarely seen direct corner.
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She explained: “We got a corner and the wind maybe helped a little to really get the curl in, but we wanted to get the ball right on top of the ‘keeper and then it got an extra bit of whip.
“The people in the box did a good job to put her off because it would have been easy for her to jump up, but everyone doing their role made it hard for her to get a clean punch or catch so that helped as well.
“It’s the best ever – I’ll never beat it. Especially against Chelsea with the magnitude of the game it was for the team. It was the result we needed and wished for. Considering how low we were and then how high – you couldn’t have written it better, as a team, to get that win.
“You couldn’t dream of it really, getting an assist and a goal, but it was more so what we needed as a team to get that win. If it didn’t go the way it did, we wouldn’t have gone on such a great run, because it was a win against Chelsea with the performance and everyone putting a shift in. It was then a case of if we do that, we can get a result against anyone.”
Connolly celebrates with Brighton manager Hope Powell after her winning goal
For the first time in over two years, Chelsea were unable to find a way back against their opponents as Brighton inflicted their only defeat of an otherwise perfect WSL campaign. It was a famous victory for the club and the biggest upset of the 2020/21 season.
The two sides play the exact same fixture at Kingsmeadow this weekend, live on Sky Sports, but the Brighton pair are only looking ahead and not into the past.
“After that game, Chelsea looked like the best team in the country and probably in Europe,” Connolly reflected. “So when you look back on it, you think ‘wow, that was such a big result’.
“At one point in the game, they made three subs and it was Harder, Kirby and Ji came on and everyone said ‘nothing changes, just continue’ and I’m thinking ‘everything changes!’
Connolly (right) pointed to the strength of Chelsea's bench
“You look who they bring on, they have some of the best players in the world and we can’t be naïve and think ‘we won last time’. That result is in the past, it’s there in the history books and Saturday is another brand new challenge.
“Chelsea have recruited and gotten better and it’s just for us to try and perform, not get too ahead of ourselves and not expect what happened last time, because it’s never going to be the same. We just need to do our best, perform well and the result is in history now.”
Whelan added: “In terms of the club’s history, it was the first time we’ve beaten one of the supposedly top four teams. We’re not such a new team now, but we were, and every little milestone is good in terms of recruitment season on season.
“It’s helped in terms of bringing in new players with good quality so it was a good stepping stone in terms of the progress we’ve made at the start of this season.
Whelan celebrates after her equaliser at Kingsmeadow in February
“I think we’ve got to reflect on what we did well, going into the game on Saturday, take the positives and work on what we could have done better and do more of the same.”
The result sparked a mid-season resurgence for Brighton. They went on to win five of their remaining WSL games last term, and have won two of their opening three at the start of the current campaign, seeing them fifth in the table.
However, they were beaten last weekend by Aston Villa. It proves once again how incredibly competitive the Women’s Super League is becoming, which Brighton already demonstrated with their victory against Chelsea in February.
Whelan said: “We can’t be naïve about the teams we’ve played so far and we should have nine points on the board so it’s points dropped in our eyes. But there’s going to be harder tests than what we’ve faced already so it’s keeping grounded and focusing on performances, which will get us the points.
“I don’t even know how many years I’ve been playing in this league now but the difference from the start to now is incredible. The calibre of players that are coming in, especially internationally, just proves how hard this league is.
“But it’s good, it’s drive, it’s competition and it pushes you as a player to be better as well. It’s good for the league, good for women’s football but also good for individuals and teams.
“It’s more exciting I think, it’s not as obvious as to who is going to be the top three. It’s more exciting that teams who are ranked lower normally are pulling off big results and that’s making the bigger teams because more switched on.”
Highlights of the Women’s Super League match between Brighton and Aston Villa
Connolly added: “Last weekend, there was a lot more we could and should have done. Villa were the better team and deserved to win. But again, it’s our performance, trying to be consistent so even on a bad day, we find a way to win. But it’s only three games in so we keep trying to perform and trying to get results.
“Even against the top teams, you see the results they’re having against each other and on any day, any result can happen.
“We want to be hard to beat. Chelsea have people who can score loads of goals, so that’s the biggest thing, being hard to beat and you never know what can happen.”
In a WSL season where results have been hard to predict, another Brighton victory at Kingsmeadow cannot be ruled out, but they will certainly face another strong Chelsea side looking to defend their title.
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