Belles fell to a disappointing defeat against Northampton Town Women at the Eco-Power Stadium in front of their largest home attendance since 2007.
Playing in their penultimate league game of the campaign, Belles manager Nick Buxton made two changes to the side that won away at Wem Town, with Sophie Scargill and Izzy Trevillion returning to the starting line up to replace the unavailable Holly Housley and Mollie Barlow, who dropped to the bench.
Kicking off towards the South Stand it was Northampton who settled quicker into the game, with Belles looking nervous in front of a big crowd, and on six minutes the visitors had an early chance when hesitation in the Belles' backline allowed Jade Bell to get in and loop a shot just over the bar.
The Cobblers had started well, playing the more composed football, but Belles started to come into the game when on eleven minutes Lindsey Tugby was brought down outside the box. Abi Coley stepped up but her free-kick went wide of the post. Moments later, Sophie Brown went to meet a dangerous Sophie Scargill cross from the right, but was adjudged to have fouled 'keeper Holly Mayfield right on the goal-line.
Belles continued to ease themselves into the game and on fifteen minutes had a claim for a penalty turned down when Tugby appeared to have her leg taken from under her when lining up to shoot from just inside the box. Just seconds later, Mayfield had to be quick out of her six yard area to block a fierce goal-bound shot from Coley.
At the other end, Northampton were still causing problems for a nervous Belles defence, with no-one claiming a superb teasing cross into the Belles' six yard area from Abbie Brewin, instead putting the ball out for a corner, from which Ellie Sharpe collected confidently under pressure. A few minutes later, captain Jess Andrew gave the ball away but did brilliantly to get back and block a cross, the ball going out for a corner instead.
As the game moved into the second quarter, Belles started to find some consistency and structure, with midfielders Emily Cahill instrumental in winning the ball back and Tugby in developing the play. On twenty-five minutes, Coley did really well to steal the ball and then put a pin-point pass over the defence for Scargill to run on to and put in another great cross, but Brown under pressure on the six yard line couldn't get a firm header onto the ball.
Two minutes later, Izzy Gigg collected the ball twenty-five yards out, lost her marker and shot from the edge of the box, with Mayfield having to parry the ball away at full stretch. On twenty-eight minutes, Ryley Johnson put a high ball into the box for Brown, who headed the ball back out to the advancing Scargill, but the Belles club captain couldn't keep the ball down and her first-time shot went over.
Following that spell of Belles pressure, the game evened out for a while with both sides pushing forward and building in midfield but unable to get any clear cut chances on goal. However, as halftime approached, Belles had two great chances to take the lead when on forty minutes Northampton failed to clear a corner with the ball falling nicely to Tugby on six yards, but Mayfield was there again to block the shot at close range.
Four minutes later on the stroke of half-time, The Cobblers were grateful to Vicky Barrett for getting across to put her body in the way of Coley's shot and keep the scores level going into the break, as the ball would have otherwise gone into the empty net with Mayfield struggling to get back from the edge of her box.
Northampton should have scored very early in the second half when Alex Dicks robbed Olivia Harness on the halfway line and ran the length of the half into the box, but then fluffled her shot at the crucial moment. With that early let off, Belles came back, with good interplay between Gigg and Coley on fifty-one minutes putting a ball in for Brown which was cleared, only for Player Of The Match Tugby to put her follow-up shot well over.
Moments later, Scargill did well to get down the right to put in a cross for Coley on the six yard line who flicked the ball goalward only for it to be saved on the line by Mayfield diving to her right. On fifty-nine minutes good battling by Izzy Gigg saw her win the ball back on the edge of the box and shoot from a tight angle, but Mayfield was there yet again to block.
Belles were having most of the play now, with Izzy Trevillion and Coley in particular linking up well down the left, but with only the one real chance to show for their efforts. With Northampton always looking to attack on the break, the warning signs were there when on sixty-five minutes good play through the centre of the park by Dicks found Bell on the right in the box, but Sharpe stood up well to block her shot from ten yards.
However, the visitors then took the lead four minutes later when Dicks put a perfect through ball for JADE BELL to run on to and slot under the advancing Sharpe into the corner of the net. Nick Buxton replaced Harness with Freya Rattenbury and Brown with Mollie Barlow, but things were going to get worse for his side when ALEX DICKS got away from Rattenbury down the left, cut inside along the byline and shot past Sharpe from a narrow angle to put Northampton two goals up in the space of five minutes.
Belles were now up against it as the game entered the final period, their play becoming more rushed as they looked to get back into the game. However, Northampton and 'keeper Mayfield were in no mood to give way or sit back on their lead, and so the threat of a third was always there as the clocked ticked down to full-time. With eight minutes to go Nick Buxton made his third and final substitution replacing Gigg with Shelbey Morris, but despite their possession Belles were unable to trouble Mayfield any further and fell to only their second home defeat of the season in front of a large and disappointed but appreciative crowd.
Team: Sharpe, Andrew ©, Harness (Rattenbury 71mins), Trevillion, Johnson, Cahill, Tugby, Gigg (Morris 81mins) Scargill, Coley, Brown (Barlow 71mins)
Subs unused: Banaszczyk, Bedford
Goals: Northampton: Bell 69, Dicks 73
Belles Player Of The Match: Lindsey Tugby