Playing in the shadow of the main stadium at The Hive, Becs Bell and Niamh Andersson were preferred to Hayley Bridge and Sophie Humphrey while Izzy Glass-Oliver made a welcome return to the matchday squad.
It was the hosts who made the brighter start on an initially overcast and rather breezy day. Kayla Potter robbed Emma Blakely on halfway, broke clear and fired narrowly wide of ‘keeper Lauren Dolbear’s near post.
A few minutes later, Sammy Quayle led a Red’s response by starting off in identical fashion but then slipped in Andersson, who bore down on goal only to be denied at the death by a last-ditch intervention from Aaliyah Charles.
Right on the quarter-hour mark, a run on the right resulted in Reighann Olivero eventually forcing a fine full-length save out of Dolbear, at the expense of a corner.
Followed, sixty seconds shy of the midway point of the first-half by Katie Young winning and taking a free-kick, wide on the right, that Backi Bath spectacularly volleyed Van Basten style across the face of goal, over on the opposite side.
Charles did well to find room on the edge of the box for a curling effort that went past the post, before the game’s potentially defining moment, up the other end.
The pace of Bell took her into the penalty area, where she admirably stayed on her feet to draw a close-range stop out of home custodian Ella Hunkin, when she could have gone down under a defensive challenge.
A minute further on, Young and Bath linked up again in a similar way to their earlier promising pairing; once more producing a powerful shot that Bath fired over.
However, Dolbear needed to be at her best to deny Lauren Cullum after Janeye Beaufort played her in.
Shortly before the break, Young’s ball over the top was perfectly weighted for Gemma Worsfold to latch onto, break through the inside-right channel and send in a delivery from the byline that Quayle was inches away from converting. A full-committed Sammy fearlessly kept out by Hunkin, who was, thankfully, able to continue after treatment.
Stoppage time saw Dani Rowe pounce on a loose pass and immediately set Quayle up for a half-cleared cross that Bell couldn’t quite keep low enough.
The opening stages of the second period almost saw Bees take the lead, only for Young to get in a vital block that prevented Shauna Munnelly opening the scoring.
Unrelenting, the home team then created an opportunity via Angie Dunbar-Bonnie’s deep delivery picking out an incoming Munnelly at the back stick; Dolbear diverting the danger courtesy of a strategically-placed right boot.
The Bees were very much buzzing and only the width of an upright stopped Beaufort breaking the deadlock, just prior to Dunbar-Bonnie blazing the rebound above the crossbar.
A triple change introduced Chloe Winchester, Hayley Bridge and Sophie Humphrey to the action and it was the former who (almost) made an immediate impact. Young’s long rangefinder released CW on the right wing, from where ‘Winch’ finally reached the eighteen yard box but Hunkin stood tall again to frustrate the forward. Bath ultimately driving the follow-up marginally the wrong side of the post from the ‘d.’
Time ticked towards an extra thirty, though not without Dunbar-Bonnie watching her left flank set-piece being punched clear by Dolbear and ‘Loz’ doing brilliantly to parry a mirror image attempt away from Potter shortly afterwards.
Beaufort belted a beauty inches over the top from distance then, just when it looked like more than ninety would be required to (potentially) decide the outcome, Blakely’s header fell kindly for half-time sub Taylor O’Leary, twenty yards out, to instantly return with interest. A stunning, first-time, dipping volley leaving Dolbear, for once, helpless.