Bill Shankly famously said: “Some people believe football is a matter of life and death, I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that.”
In a year where a global pandemic has halted and contextualised sport, we have been reminded time and time again that, in reality, football does not matter. However, in an icy-cold Academy Stadium, in the critical game between an Arsenal side second at kick off and fourth-placed Manchester City, the importance of the result, a last-gasp 2-1 win for City, felt a world away, but the importance of football more broadly and the role it can play could be felt as strong as ever.
In the buildup to this fixture the Arsenal centre-back Jen Beattie had spoken publicly for the first time about her breast cancer diagnosis. Having received the news on the evening of Thursday 8 October, she played and scored against Brighton the following Sunday, and the team poignantly engulfed her. With her family in Scotland and the pandemic raging, it was her football family that stepped in. She told the BBC: “The celebration of that goal [summed] up the whole experience and how the girls have reacted.”
Here in Manchester, the 29-year-old was again embraced, this time by both sides, who warmed up in shirts with her name and number on the back. It was even more fitting given the Scottish defender, who is undergoing radiotherapy and played 90 minutes, had spent four years with the home side before rejoining Arsenal for a second spell in 2019.
In terms of the football, Joe Montemurro’s side have struggled against those around them at the top this term, suffering cup defeats to City and Chelsea and a first league defeat to the leaders, Manchester United last month, which was followed by a late own goal and draw with Chelsea. However, if Arsenal have been rattled by their record against the biggest sides in England, they did not show it early on in Manchester. Their pressing game began in earnest and it was instantly successful. A poor pass from the England full-back Lucy Bronze put Keira Walsh under pressure and her one touch played the ball straight to the feet of Vivianne Miedema who, with pinpoint accuracy, slotted the ball low into the net from the edge of the box.
The Arsenal press seemed to burn out quickly, though, despite their fresher legs, with City having played in the Champions League on Wednesday. City regained their composure and grew into the game, with the US World Cup winner Sam Mewis and the winger Chloe Kelly at the heart of their best play.
At the half-hour mark the home side grabbed the equaliser. Caroline Weir’s corner floated into the box and Beattie got in the way of Lydia Williams, preventing the goalkeeper from punching clear and allowing Mewis to send a looping header in.
The fact that none of the previous 13 WSL games between these two sides had ended in draw was an ominous sign and in the fourth minute of injury time Weir struck from 20 yards to give City a victory that has clawed them to within a point of Arsenal, who have dropped to third.
It was a cruel blow for the visitors, who again dropped points to rivals and on a different day we would perhaps go harder on Montemurro, who said that Arsenal’s problem is “obviously mentality”. However, on a day when it was Beattie’s story that mattered most, that can wait.