The Pro Cloud Transatlantic Tournament
The Pro Cloud Transatlantic Tournament
Image credits – Sharks v Wolverines-Geoff White
Lions v Wolverines-Kyle Hemsley
Sharks v Lions-Dave Tidswell
Three teams play three games over three days, sounds straight forward enough, but this was no ordinary Football event. I’ve been in and around Football for thirty-four years and I have to say it had that something special about it. It was planned and delivered with meticulous precision by the host team Birmingham Lions, all orchestrated by their GM Jo Kilby. No detail had been missed, and the environment was one of supportive enablement, with everyone involved, from players, coaches, officials, media and spectators, co-allessing to deliver a Football experience par excellence.
Clearly the sharks of New York had the longest journey to get to Birmingham, flying in to London earlier in the week, they took the opportunity to engage in a little sightseeing on their route to Birmingham. The Wolverines jetted in from Helsinki closer to game time, and as we would see, were all business. The Lions had the “luxury” of not having to travel, and given the structure of the game schedule, also had the opportunity to see the other teams in action before they entered the field. The three programmes involved were the Champions in their respective national leagues, so the standard of play was of an elite level.
This tournament was the “Grand FINale” for the Sharks as an organisation, who after twenty years under the stewardship of owner Andra Douglas would be playing their last two games before taking their place in the Football history books. With that in mind, and having recently won their own national Championship, they were determined to end their era with another trophy. The Wolverines, fresh from securing a repeat national title, had revenge on their minds, having previously lost to the Lions in a nine a side encounter in 2017. For Birmingham it was all about challenging themselves on the international eleven a side stage, they had a track record of previous success, but this competition would be at a different level. With all the preparations complete, it was time to get down to some Football!
Friday night under the lights was the setting for the opening encounter, and saw the Sharks take on the Wolverines. Helsinki won the toss and elected to receive, coming up against a tenacious Sharks defence led by two-way athlete Jennifer King, they were forced to punt. New York started their opening drive on the Wolverines thirty-five-yard line, four plays later veteran quarterback Karen Mulligan found receiver Krystal Molina for the opening score! Chelsea Alt tacked on the extra point, 7-0 Sharks. The Wolverines were stunned, but came right back, returning the kick all the way to the Sharks fifteen. They followed two short runs with a pass from Minna Tiainen to Jenni Kangas, touchdown! Sanni Seppala converted the PAT attempt, and just like that, the game was all square, and it stayed that way for the rest of quarter one.
King was an enforcer for the Sharks
The second quarter saw the Wolverines focus on their ground game, with the Impressive Tytti Kuusinen breaking several big runs, however, they were unable to convert these into scores. Mulligan was now getting into her groove for the Sharks, putting together some impressive drives, utilising wideout Gina Capardi to good effect to keep the chains moving. Running back Janea Wilkerson was keeping the Helsinki defence honest, and the impressive New York offensive line were giving Mulligan plenty of time to find her targets. Just inside the two-minute warning the Sharks struck again, Capardi making the touchdown catch, and with Alt being good with the kick the score moved to 14-7 New York. In a frenzied final ninety seconds of the half, the Sharks smelt blood! adding two further scores. Mulligan found Brilynn Fields on a screen pass and defensive back Cheri Eleazer snagged a pick six! Alt tacked on a conversion, leading to a half time score of 27-7.
With the second half underway the Wolverines stayed with their solid ground game, and as Kuusinen racked up the yards they looked determined to get back into the game. A burst up the middle by the workhorse back had Helsinki inside the red zone, from where Tiainen found Seppala for the score. Seppala converted her own touchdown to pull it back to a two-score game, 27-14. The Wolverines now had the momentum, but despite some big plays were unable to break down a resolute Sharks defence where King, Nandhi Brown and Darleen “Blue” Hall made several drive ending tackles. The Sharks offence weren’t able to manufacture any further points and when Mulligan was picked off, the Wolverines were in possession at the end of the third quarter.
Kuusinen was racking up the yards
As the game went into its final stages Kuusinen continued to add to her yardage total, racking up sixty-five yards in just three plays! The Wolverines had first and ten at the New York twelve but couldn’t find the endzone. The Sharks couldn’t move the ball either, and the Helsinki offence came right back completing a seventy-yard pass, only for the New York defence to make the stop inside the five. Tiainen found Kangas in the corner of the endzone, but she couldn’t hold on to the ball, and on the next play the outstanding King made an interception to end the Wolverines hopes of reducing the deficit. Inside the two-minute warning the Sharks offence had another opportunity to extend their lead, but were forced to punt, presenting the Wolverines with a final chance with less than a minute to go. With just seconds left Helsinki ran the ball, attempting to get out of bounds to stop the clock, Sharks defender Melissa Blaise made a crunching hit to stop the play, but in doing so, dislocated her shoulder causing a long injury delay. The game was effectively over and the officials called time on a 27-14 victory for New York. It had been an exciting start to the tournament, with both teams showing why they were championship winning outfits, ultimately the Sharks had just too much Football moxy for the Wolverines. Both teams undoubtedly left the field having learned from the experience. The Sharks would now have a day’s rest, however, the Wolverines would be back in action within twenty-four hours against the Lions.
A nice touch at the Pro Cloud saw the opposing teams pick the game MVPs. The Wolverines nominated a very deserving Jennifer King from the Sharks, and unsurprisingly New York gave the award to Tytti Kuusinen.
It's now Saturday afternoon, and it’s time for the Lions to enter the fray against the Wolverines. It’s worth noting, that despite their domestic dominance, the Pro Cloud games will be only their fourth and fifth outings in the eleven a side format as a programme. Add in the fact that they will be missing four of their Great Britain internationals in the shape of Michelle Gwynne (a dominant force on the line) and effectively their starting linebacker corps of Lucy Kirk, Alice-Mary Smith, Ciara Pinnington and the talismanic Phoebe Schecter, and you’ll get an idea of the challenges lying ahead for the Lions. Schecter was scheduled to play but was offered a season long coaching internship by the Buffalo Bills, an opportunity you just can’t turn down, she flew out to upstate New York over the weekend.
Birmingham received the opening kick-off with Hannah Pye making yards. Shortly after it was text book Lions, as running back Ruth Matta burst around the right end and sped seventy yards to the endzone, what a start! but wait, it’s called back for a holding penalty. Birmingham are forced to punt, and it’s blocked and recovered by the Wolverines. For this game Helsinki had installed Pia Kosonen at quarterback, and two plays later she handed off to the force of nature that is Tytti Kuusinen, who powered in for a touchdown, Seppala is good for the extra point, 7-0 Helsinki. Later in the quarter the Lions are pinned in their own half and have to punt again, this time an errant snap flies into the endzone to be recovered by Birmingham, but it’s a safety and the score moves to 9-0. Not the start the Lions had hoped for!
The second quarter started with the Wolverines putting together a long drive that saw them camped in the redzone, but some tenacious Birmingham defence featuring Aimee Cottingham and Affia Law meant they had to settle for a field goal from the reliable Seppala, moving the score to 12-0. The Lions were struggling to find any consistency on offence and had to punt again, but as the Helsinki offence took to the air, Lions defensive back Nancy Stone picked off a pass to lift the Birmingham side-line. The Lions had the ball on the Wolverines twenty-five-yard line and Kilby targeted her receiver in the endzone, drawing a pass interference penalty. On the next play Kilby took to the air again, this time connecting with Kim Tsiga for the score. Birmingham secured a two-point conversion, courtesy of a naked bootleg by the nimble QB. It was now game on! at 12-8. Leading towards half time Helsinki bagged an interception of their own setting them up in the Lions half. Kosonen found her target who sped into the endzone, but only for it to be called back. Undaunted, the Wolverines went airborne again, and this time they were successful finding the impressive Seppala, who also secured the extra point. Going in at half time the scoreboard showed Helsinki holding the advantage at 19-8.
Kilby looked to air it out
At the start of the second half the Wolverines were looking to extend their lead and put the result beyond doubt. Feeding Kuusinen the ball, they drove downfield with intent, and this time the drive culminated with Kosenen running the ball in behind her impressive O line, Seppala was reliable as usual with the kick, 26-8 Helsinki. Pye returned the ball to the thirty-six, but the Wolverines defence stood firm, forcing the punt. The Wolverines kept the ball on the ground and had some success, that was until a fierce hit by Stone caused a fumble, which she duly recovered, giving the Lions a further chance to reply as the quarter came to an end, however they turned the ball over on downs.
With a quarter to go there was no let up in the action. The Wolverines had seen the most success running the ball and that’s how they continued. A direct snap to Kuusinen led to a big gain and was followed up by an impressive sweep resulting in another touchdown, this time it was Jenni Kilpelainen breaking the plane. Somewhat surprisingly the conversion attempt was unsuccessful, making the score 32-8 Wolverines. Following a big return by Matta, Natalie Parker took over a t quarterback for the Lions. Ashleigh Aiston came in at running back and showed an impressive burst on a couple of runs, but it wasn’t enough to sustain the drive and the Wolverines took over on downs. Helsinki weren’t done scoring just yet, and Kilpelainen added her second score on a thirty-yard run, this time the PAT was good, 39-8. Inside the final two minutes Birmingham were still giving it their all, Parker hooking up with Jodie Harris for a big catch and run for a first down, but it was too late to impact on the game with the final whistle sounding soon after.
Kilpelainen had been the perfect foil for Kuusinen
The MVP’s? Matta for the Lions and Kosonen for the Wolverines.
That was it for the Wolverines, who having gained their revenge, would have to wait and see the outcome of the Sharks and Lions match-up to determine their position in the final rankings. The Lions for their part, would take the opportunity to lick their wounds and prepare themselves for their next big challenge just twenty hours later.
Sunday afternoon saw the third and final game of the competition, where the Sharks would square off against the Lions. With the sun shining and a good-sized crowd in attendance, Birmingham would receive the opening kick-off and have the chance to redeem themselves after the defeat by the Wolverines. Hannah Pye secured the ball and weaved her way some sixty yards before being forced out of bounds at New York’s seventeen-yard line. Matta swept right to be met by Nhandi Brown for a short gain, but on the next play took a pitch to the left and darted in for the touchdown. Kilby picked out Rachel Trim for a two-point conversion catch, giving Birmingham an encouraging 8-0 lead. It didn’t take the Sharks long to get back on terms, when Mulligan found Capardi deep in Lions territory. Wilkerson wove menacingly through the Birmingham defence, before Birmingham were flagged for pass interference, leading to the Sharks finding themselves with first and goal. Wilkerson took the hand-odd and strode in for the score. Maggie Natell’s kick re-bounded high off the post, leaving the Lions with a two-point advantage. 8-6. Birmingham were back in possession and Kilby proved elusive on a keeper, but a good read by the ball hawking Nhandi Brown led to an interception. At this point New York introduced Ellie Snyder at running back, and she made an instant impression ripping off two big runs as the quarter ended.
Snyder was running with determination
Mulligan found Brilynn Fields for big yards, but Nancy Stone saved the touchdown with a last-minute tackle. However, on the next play Fields was the target again, this time securing the ball and the score. The conversion was unsuccessful, so the Sharks now edged ahead 12-8. The Lions struggled to move the ball and then bobbled the punt, giving New York possession on the Birmingham twenty-eight. A Wilkerson run set up Mulligan to find Capardi for another score. This time the conversion was good, 19-8 Sharks. Birmingham were digging deep to get back into the game and when Kilby connected with Matta for thirty yards, it looked promising, but the drive led to a turn over on downs. Snyder was causing all sorts of problems for the Lions defence and broke another big run with two minutes left in the half. Mulligan was picking out her receivers with a range of precision throws, and hooked up with Krystal Molina for a thirty-yard touchdown pass. Adding on the conversion kick, New York led at the half 26-8.
As the third quarter got underway the Sharks received the ball, and had no intention of taking their collective feet off the gas! Mulligan found Fields between the hashes, before putting the ball in the hands of Wilkerson, who burst up the middle to give New York first and goal. A catch by Natell had the Sharks at the two, and some impressive power blocking from the O line opened a big hole for Wilkerson to go in untouched for six more. Another successful kick made it 33-8. A big hit by Brown forced a turn over on downs by the Lions, handing the ball back to the mercurial Mulligan. Two more big bursts by Snyder and a catch by Fields put the Sharks inside the ten, from where Snyder ran off left tackle into the endzone for a deserved score. Chelsea Alt tacked on the extra point, closing out the quarter with the score at 40-8 the Sharks.
At the start of the final quarter, New York introduced Danielle Ayala at quarterback and Daish Butts took over the running back duties. Ayala completed passes to Aricela Fontanez and Capardi for good yards, before unleashing Butts on a dive up the middle. With the O line clearing the way, she didn’t stop until she arrived in the endzone, touchdown Sharks! Alt’s kick split the uprights edging New York to a 47-8 lead. Birmingham also had a change at quarterback, with Natalie parker taking over the reins on offence. Running back Ashleigh Aiston broke some promising runs, and Jodie Harris snagged a Parker pass for a big gain, but the Lions were unable to sustain a drive, handing the ball back to the Sharks with little time left.
Jodie Harris showed good burst after the catch
Mulligan returned to the game to see it out and took the knee as New York adopted the Victory formation, closing the tournament and signalling the end of a distinguished career for herself and the end of a dynasty in Women’s tackle football.
The deserving MVPs were Mulligan for the Sharks and Matta for the Lions.
There was also an overall tournament MVP award for the excellent Tytti Kuusinen.
It was a bitter sweet moment for the Sharks and particularly their owner Andra Douglas and COO Dana Sparling. They had steered the team on a season that you could say was “The Fairy-tale Of New York”, their Grand FINale as they liked to call it. However, their last season was no fairy tale, it was an emphatic exclamation mark of much deserved success, earned through determination, persistence and excellent play.
The Sharks players would swim off into the depths of Football history, with some of them resurfacing back in the big apple as “Wolves”, part of the new incarnation of women’s tackle football in New York.
The Wolverines would return home, happy in the knowledge that they had evened the score against the Lions, and with the respect of all who had seen them play.Head Coach Pekka Lamminsalo was happy with how things had gone. “First of all a big thanks to the Lions for organizing such a great tournament. Everything went as smoothly as one can hope for. In terms of football we were happy with our performance. We were able to play a competitive game against the Sharks. Way made a few mistakes that such a good team took full advantage of. However, we felt like we could compete, and we are going in the right direction with our player development. Playing against the Lions with such a short window to rest was also challenging, but we are happy how we played. I liked the resiliency that our players showed and how our focus was on only the things that we could control. All in all the tournament was a great experience and we are looking forward to attending similar events in the future”.
Dana Sparling was, as you might expect, reflective. “"This inaugural event was beautifully orchestrated by the extremely capable Jo Kilby and her equally capable, hospitable and generous staff. Our Sharks loved traveling in England on what - for most - was their first trip out of the U.S. The overall experience was one 'of a lifetime' for us all. While our travel to the UK and adjusting to a 5 hour time difference was challenging, our players stepped up and performed in both games. I am extremely proud of them and of who we are as an organization. We are tremendously grateful to Jo and Jamie Kilby, Maz Hughes and the Birmingham Lions for hosting this successful event. We are grateful to have created new friendships and comrades in both England and Finland, through which we will continue to grow the participation in women's football around the world. My Football Family just got bigger, and I'm thankful for that. "
Before she flew back to her coaching internship with the NFL’s Carolina Panthers, Jennifer King gave me a player’s perspective. “It was an awesome opportunity for our team to travel and play internationally vs solid European teams. This tournament was a testament to how far Women’s Football has come as a sport and I look forward to future events”.
Sharks quarterback Karen Mulligan was also in a reflective (New York) state of mind. “So looking back on this trip I feel like it was well organized and from my standpoint we had no issues when we arrived. We were greeted when we got there and made sure everything was settled. I know it took a lot of work to put a tournament like that together. I know that myself and my team really enjoyed this past weekend and it will be something that we will remember forever. Personally, one of the things that I really enjoyed is that most of us made a trip out of this weekend tournament and spent a couple of days in London before coming to Birmingham. It also gave some of our teammates, who have never been out of the US, a reason to go abroad. The best part about it is that you are away and the only thing you have to worry about is playing football. There’s not many times, if any, that you only get to worry about playing. I know this trip further bonded our team because we got to experience something new together. What was also great is bringing our three very different teams together and getting to see the diversity and knowing that women all over are playing football and doing it well”.
It’s Fins Up! For the Champion New York Sharks!
What about the Lions? Hannah Pye was positive about the experience. “The tournament was well organised and all parties were excited to participate in the event. It was fantastic to see players across all teams keen to come together to grow and develop the sport... globally! From a Lions player point of view, I found the games themselves great because they provided us with new situations against highly experienced 11 aside teams. Consequently, it enables us to develop our own performance within the 11 a-Side game. I’m most certainly looking forward to the Lions next step and our future opportunities”.
As was Caley Parnell. “My reflections on the tournament are firstly what an amazing experience to be a part of - 3 great teams, a fab venue and home support. While the results didn’t go our way, we certainly put up a tough fight and learned a lot both as individuals and a team. These losses will only make the lions come back even better and stronger. Credit to both the Wolverines who were clearly hungry to reverse the result from Finland and the New York Sharks who were definitely not going to give up winning their last ever game as the Sharks lightly. Both teams were brilliant opposition - challenging, professional and friendly with a shared desire to progress this sport for women. I am excited for this tournament to open doors to more opportunities against other teams from around the world!”.
Birmingham Head Coach, Jamie Kilby was already looking to the future. “Well we asked for a challenge and we sure got one. I've spent the last 5 years pushing the lions to ever greater heights finding out just how far we could go. For the team to meet those challenges and remain unbeaten throughout is a feat in its self. In a chance meeting with old friend James Hossack from the Tamworth Phoenix, he pointed out that it’s not a bad thing to lose, as it re focuses the mind on the job at hand, and he is absolutely right. This is just a bump in the road for the lions we shall rebuild the team and be back on the international scene leaner and meaner than ever before. I spoke to Pekka after the game, and he explained the loss 2 years ago to the lions cut deep, and retribution for them was long in the planning. With the series tied at one a piece, I think you can guess what comes next! Competition rivalry aside, the weekend was an enormous success and I thoroughly enjoyed meeting new players, managers and coaches, networks have been formed and relationships started. From here, I believe international club football has a very bright future ahead”.
And what did the main architect of the tournament, Jo Kilby, have to say. “It was a great learning experience for the team and whilst we were outgunned on the field, the future is still very bright for the Lions. We were missing some influential players and blooded a number of rookies, so overall you have to stand back and applaud the team, they pulled together and we showed in fits and bursts our potential. The lessons we take from the experience are valuable and give us much to work on. The tournament was a great success, with much thanks to a lot of people working tirelessly behind the scenes. We must thank our game sponsors, Enterprise Rent-A-Car, Midshire Business Systems Ltd and Ace Embroidery Ltd, who were fabulous in getting behind us and the event.”
Women’s Tackle Football weren’t the only ones to benefit, a sizeable donation was raised for Birmingham Children’s Hospital, a cause close to the heart of the Lions. I thoroughly enjoyed the whole “Pro Cloud Transatlantic Tournament Experience”. Personally, I hope this event serves as a catalyst for the other British women’s teams to appreciate what can be achieved with plenty of enthusiasm, application and hard work. The sooner they are all playing eleven a side football, the better.
We're all in this together!