Welcome to Full Time, The Athletic’s women’s football column, a one-stop shop every Monday to discuss the big issues in the game in the UK and Europe.
On Friday morning, Sheffield United announced they had sacked coach Jonathan Morgan based on “new information (that) came to light about his conduct”. The Athletic revealed that the reason for Morgan’s dismissal was a previous relationship with a teenage player during his time managing Leicester City.
The decision came just weeks after Morgan was cleared of any wrongdoing by an external inquiry — carried out at the request of Sheffield United player Maddy Cusack’s parents following her death at the end of September.
How Morgan’s ‘immoral’ relationship with his teenage player led to his sacking
Morgan’s sacking has distinct parallels with the situation of former England manager Mark Sampson, who was dismissed by the Football Association (FA) in 2017. Sampson was also the subject of an inquiry after he was accused by former England forward Eniola Aluko of displaying racist behaviour. He was cleared, but the FA eventually sacked Sampson based on reports of a relationship with a player when he was manager of Bristol Academy (now Bristol City) three years earlier.
In both cases, the alternative reasoning for the sackings has led to an obscuration of the original accusations.
Cusack’s family were not informed by Sheffield United that Morgan was being fired — they found out online. The attitude from the club seems to be that, because the incident triggering the sacking took place at another club, they are absolved from asking themselves what it means to have had someone who has previously taken advantage of players in charge of their team for the past year.
Speaking to The Athletic, Morgan defended himself by referencing the changing realities of the women’s game — the implication being that now women’s football has become more formalised and professionalised, his relationship with a teenager is something he would have recognised as inappropriate.
That begs the question as to why he kept the relationship a secret, but the truth is we are repeatedly shown that safeguards within the women’s game are not sufficient to stop predatory behaviour.
While the FA only explicitly rules out relationships between people in positions of trust and people they look after when they are under the age of 18, it expects club codes of conduct to deal with matters such as Morgan’s. The regulation of relationships between consenting adults is complicated, but in both cases with Sheffield United and England, it is concerning that clubs and associations can suddenly appear to do far better due diligence on staff when they are being investigated for other issues.
For Sheffield United, this weekend marked the opportunity for a fresh start on the pitch following Morgan’s dismissal. Heading north to play Durham, they found themselves 2-0 down after 20 minutes but rallied to win 5-2. Their players now have a chance to move forward following the emotional turmoil they have faced over the past five months.
West Ham’s Chigwell Construction Stadium is not a happy hunting ground for Arsenal. Having drawn 0-0 there last year, they lost to West Ham (2-1) for the first time ever this weekend.
Despite forward Alessia Russo’s opener in the 43rd minute and a first start for defender Leah Williamson (who took the captain’s armband), a Viviane Asseyi penalty and a spectacular goal from defender Hawa Cissoko secured the Hammers their third WSL win of the season. Their fans had not seen them win at home in the league since they beat Leicester 1-0 back in November 2022.
For Arsenal, the result is catastrophic. They have lost three games this season and no Women’s Super League (WSL) team has won the league having lost more than two. They still have to play Chelsea, Manchester City and Manchester United again.
It is hard to definitively write them out of the title race at this point, but overhauling a six-point deficit to Chelsea (who beat Everton 3-0) whilst hoping second-placed City also drop points is a big ask.
After the match, Arsenal manager Jonas Eidevall suggested their performance summed up their season.
“We’ve come back, especially in the second half, to some sins early on in the season. We missed targets on our finishing and we had finishes blocked as a result of not playing the chance a lot bigger or setting up the final pass a little bit better.”
According to Opta, Arsenal have missed 60% of their big chances created this season, in comparison to Chelsea’s 50% and Manchester City’s 57%. They have kept a clean sheet only once in their last five WSL matches. Goalkeeper Manuela Zinsberger’s ineffective punch, leading to Cissoko’s close-range goal, summed up Arsenal’s defensive frailty.
West Ham defended resolutely throughout the match, with player of the match Honoka Hayashi’s sliding interception to stop Vivianne Miedema’s shot was the highlight of the match. Hayashi, Katrina Gorry, Cissoko and Asseyi all shined for their defensive effort.
The match was not without its controversies. The foul which led to West Ham’s penalty looked to be outside the area, while Arsenal also had shouts for penalties of their own for handball and a foul on forward Cloe Lacasse.
One wonders what defender Katie McCabe made of the match from the stands where she was serving a suspension for receiving her fifth yellow card of the season. There had been some suggestion that she had contrived the booking to miss this match after she looked to be purposefully time-wasting against Liverpool, especially with Arsenal having crucial matches against City (in the FA Cup), United, Tottenham Hotspur and Chelsea coming up.
Her team’s result showed you should be careful what you wish for.
Player of the week
United have not had many bright moments this season, but the success of forward Nikita Parris playing through the middle does feel like a rare occasion where manager Marc Skinner — who has recently come under pressure from fans — has got things right.
Twenty-nine-year-old Parris scored her 7th and 8th WSL goals of the season in United’s 2-0 win over an unsettled Brighton & Hove Albion, who sacked manager Melissa Phillips last week. Parris looks like she is returning to the form that triggered her Golden Boot win with City back in 2018-19.
Skinner under pressure but hopes of fresh INEOS investment fuels belief at United
Even more importantly, the shift to put Parris up front is finally unlocking Brazil international Geyse, who signed from Barcelona last summer. The 25-year-old forward got both assists and these were her first goal contributions in the league since she scored in November.
Playing off the right has allowed her to unlock more one-on-one situations against defenders, making the most of her ability to carry the ball and take on players. It seems Skinner has finally landed on an effective attacking configuration.
Goal of the week
Who knows whether City knew that Arsenal had dropped points, with their match being half an hour behind, but as the minutes ticked away, there was no doubt that eager Chelsea fans were salivating at the possibility of both their title rivals dropping points.
Fortunately for City, forwards Lauren Hemp and Chloe Kelly scored spectacular efforts in the 82nd and 85th minutes to ensure they beat Leicester City 2-0.
Hemp’s goal saw her start the move, driving forward, with Jess Park’s run catching Leicester’s defenders off-guard. Forward Bunny Shaw’s movement out wide further disoriented them. This left Hemp with enough space to volley in the opener. Not to be outdone, Kelly wrapped up the three points by scoring from a corner three minutes later.
City found a way to get three points in some style.
Moment of the week
West Ham’s shock win means the gap has once again widened on bottom-placed Bristol City. It is unclear whether their point against Aston Villa could prove crucial.
Villa squandered chances throughout the game with former England international Jordan Nobbs putting them 1-0 up before Amalie Thestrup equalised. Villa retook the lead through forward Adriana Leon, only for Carrie Jones to score a spectacular strike that arched away from the outstretched fingers of Daphne van Domselaar.
Villa’s defensive errors cost them, but Bristol City continue to refuse to go down without a fight.
Elsewhere in Europe
This weekend, Neil Diamond’s ‘Sweet Caroline’ sounded different in Spain.
Real Madrid’s Caroline Moller and Barcelona’s Caroline Graham Hansen were the stars of La Liga F. Moller scored a 15-minute hat-trick — three of Real Madrid’s seven goals against Valencia CF.
Moller finished off three assists (two from Naomie Feller and one from Athenea del Castillo) between the 38th and 53rd minutes. This season, she has explained how she has worked on her mental strength, with coaches helping her to find the best version of herself.
At the Johan Cruyff Stadium, another Caroline made history. Barcelona won 4-0 against Sporting Huelva and Graham Hansen was the scorer of the 400th Barcelona women’s goal at their home stadium in just 78 matches.
And it wasn’t just any goal. It was poetic justice for how much the winger is giving her team. The Norway international approached the box, dribbled past the last defender and the goalkeeper and passed into an empty net. As her celebration, she walked away, shaking her hands as if to say: “What have I just done?” Minutes later, she assisted Esmee Brugts to make it 4-0.
What’s up next?
The Continental Cup quarter-finals take place this week, with Tottenham vs Manchester City being the pick of the four fixtures. Arsenal and Chelsea both face Championship opposition in London City Lionesses and Sunderland, while Villa head down to Brighton.
The UWCL draw takes place on Tuesday. Chelsea, as the only WSL side left in the competition, will discover who their quarter-final and potential semi-final opponents will be.
(Top photo: Matt McNulty – The FA via Getty Images)