By Beth McCowen
Arsenal have been at the forefront of women’s football in the UK since the team was founded in 1987, with an astonishing 60 trophies to the club’s name, and an admirable commitment to the advancement of the women’s game at all levels.
The 2022/23 season, however, presented the team and its management with unprecedented challenges, largely in the form of an injury crisis which saw four players (Beth Mead, Vivianne Miedema, Leah Williamson, and Laura Wienroither) suffer Anterior Cruciate Ligament ruptures, an injury which is devastating to any footballer, and concerningly common in female players. In addition, captain Kim Little experienced a significant hamstring injury in late-March which saw her miss the rest of the season.
Photo: @arsenalwfc on Instagram.
Fast-forward to now, and after being knocked out of the Champions League in the first qualifying round, the Arsenal Women faced a rocky start to this season of the Women’s Super League. With a 1-0 loss to Liverpool at home, followed by a hard-fought draw finishing 2-2 with Manchester United away at Leigh Sports Village, questions were being asked about what this year would hold for the former league-winners. The Gunners finally secured their first win of their current WSL campaign against a strong Aston Villa side at the Emirates Stadium on October 15th (with an impressive 35,829 fans in the stands). It was a frustrating ninety minutes for Arsenal, who remained one-nil down from the 25-minute mark after a quality header from the brilliant Maz Pacheco sent the ball straight into the back of the net. A long twelve minutes of extra time saw the home team fire in two game-saving goals from two of their key players: the Republic of Ireland’s captain and World Cup goal-scorer Katie McCabe, and impressive new signing and England international star, Alessia Russo.
There were some painfully close attempts in the second half from the likes of Caitlin Foord and Stina Blackstenius, but not quite close enough. So, what changed in those final twelve minutes which allowed Arsenal to finally put the ball over the line? Beth Mead. Arsenal has been home to countless top quality footballers, such as Alex Scott, Rachel Yankey, and Kelly Smith, and Beth Mead is a name which certainly sits among the legends. The forward gave a consistently outstanding performance at the UEFA Women’s Euros 2022, where she played a vital role in the Lionesses’ victory and deservingly won Player of the Tournament (to add to her collection of awards). Shortly after her return to club football, in a competitive home game against Manchester United, Mead experienced the dreaded three-letter injury. Notorious for its gruelling recovery, the damage to her ACL would see Arsenal’s most-valuable number 9 out of the game for a solid eleven months, and unable to take part in the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup, where she would undoubtedly have been a great asset to England.
Having been diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2021, on January 7th, 2023, Beth’s much-loved Mum, June Mead, sadly passed away. The Arsenal player has been open about the challenges of the last couple of years, and her long-awaited return to the football pitch was an emotional one for herself, her teammates, and fans alike. Even some of the opposition’s players applauded Mead as she was subbed on towards the end of the game, which speaks volumes of how respected she is within the football community. It is no coincidence that the two goals scored by her club took place within the limited minutes that she was playing, bringing a whole new meaning to the phrase ‘super sub’. Throughout the match, there was applause for Mead as she warmed up from the bench, and when Arsenal’s Head Coach, Jonas Eidevall, finally made the crucial call to bring her on, the crowd quite literally went wild. The stadium made a welcome back announcement for the footballer, who has been missed so deeply by her team and its supporters, whilst she went through what one can only imagine was the hardest time of her life.
Photo: @arsenalwfc on Instagram.
Having eagerly awaited the return of their beloved Meado, Arsenal were invigorated, despite being a goal down with seemingly little time to make amends. This new wave of energy amidst what had already been an electric afternoon in North London, translated into the performance of their squad. The home side made an unbelievable number of crosses into the box across the course of the match, with accuracy often proving to be an issue, resulting in few feasible chances at goal for their strikers. That is, until the 92nd minute, when a clever pass from Foord resulted in a stunning assist from Victoria Pelova, and ultimately a powerful goal from McCabe. Just two minutes later, Mead did a wonderful job at setting up Russo for a stunning shot, which won them the game and turned Arsenal’s already special day around completely.
Heartfelt celebrations took place, and for over ten more minutes, both Arsenal and Aston Villa battled on, before the final whistle eventually blew. Arsenal took away a big three points in front of a large home crowd, but the stand-out memory and the biggest win of the day was, in the eyes of many, seeing the unstoppable Beth Mead back in her rightful place.