Premier League Southern: Lewes 2-0 Keynsham Town
Lewes finally halted the downward spiral that has sent them tumbling down the Premier League to secure their first league win in nearly four months.
Two second-half goals in three minutes, from the indefatigable Catherine O’Hagan and Kelly McCullock, earned the Sussex side a rare – and ultimately well-deserved – three points.
The win keeps them safely ensconced in mid-table – still a point ahead of neighbours Brighton – in only their second season in the division.
But it was tough on struggling Keynsham, who were without five of their regular squad and faded noticeably after injuries to two of their most threatening players.
The West Country side, who are one place off the bottom in their first season back in the Premier League, belied their problems with a composed start to the game, during which they played the better football without creating many clear-cut chances.
Playing the ball with assurance from the back, and offering a genuine threat down both flanks, the visitors gave Lewes’ defence a torrid time during the opening half-hour, as the hosts relied heavily on O’Hagan to provide an outlet.
Yet the more direct approach threatened to pay dividends, with O’Hagan combining well with Kirstie Spice and Nikki Payne.
The differing tactics made for an entertaining half, with both sides enjoying significant possession without unduly troubling either goalkeeper.
Lewes could have gone ahead in the 10th minute when good work by Spice on the left helped set up Charlotte Bennett in space, but she blasted her shot over the bar from 18 yards.
The home side forced two corners in quick succession, but both were wasted, and then Michelle Beazley was called into action to parry a snapshot by Keynsham’s Olivera Markovic, who was causing problems down the left flank.
Markovic and particularly Rafaela Silva on the right were a constant threat during the first half, and with Hajrija Sabic displaying an excellent first touch up front, Lewes’ defenders were having to work hard to protect Beazley.
But after successfully resisting the triple threat, Lewes ended the half the more dominant, and arguably the game’s big turning point came five minutes before the interval, when Markovic was badly injured in a challenge with Spice.
Bad to worse
The Keynsham winger needed lengthy treatment, and the visitors were forced to play out the last five minutes of the half with only 10 players.
Markovic resumed after the break, but was never the same player, and Lewes took full advantage, right-back Katie McIntyre enjoying a more attacking role and the packed midfield revelling in the extra space they were creating.
Things went from bad to worse for Keynsham when their other winger, Silva, suffered a thigh injury in an ugly challenge by Bennett, less than five minutes into the second half.
And with Lewes now dominant, their pressure told in the 56th minute, when O’Hagan nipped between two defenders to meet Bennett’s clever headed pass and lob the ball over Gwyn West in the Keynsham goal.
Both sides made their first changes before play resumed, Clare Trafford replacing Spice for Lewes and Keynsham’s Candice Hopson coming on for Justine Carrard.
Within two minutes, Lewes had doubled their lead and effectively killed off the game. Payne, who was revelling in a central midfield role, played a superb ball out to McCullock on the right flank, and the midfielder struck a wonderful first-time volley from a narrow angle beyond West’s reach.
To their credit, Keynsham refused to fold, and midway through the second half, they began to enjoy more possession, Markovic getting in their first shot of the period, but firing wide.
Sian Heather replaced Bennett, giving the Keynsham defence another headache, and the two substitutes’ fresh legs began to stretch the tiring visitors.
O’Hagan continued to dominate, with boundless energy and strength and pace in abundance, and with a first touch that continually gave her half a yard’s start on her marker.
But she was not involved in Lewes’ best move of the game, which began with a quick pass by Trafford and ended six touches later with a point-blank save by West from Heather’s shot.
Inevitably, Payne, who continued to grow in confidence and effectiveness as the game wore on, had been at the heart of the move.
The visitors continued to send in the occasional reminder to keep the Lewes defenders on their toes, but they were reduced to snapshots that rarely troubled Beazley.
With under 10 minutes to go, Keynsham brought on 16-year-old Georgie Hart for Ellie Carter and switched to 4-4-2.
Defender Aimee Clark had two half-chances but shot over each time.
‘We wanted it more’
And a final shot from Silva, which forced Beazley into her best save of the match, marked the end of the meaningful action.
Lewes manager Jacquie Agnew was relieved to get back to winning ways after a run of seven games without a win.
“This time of the season, it is often a case of teams that want to win getting the win, and I thought we wanted it more,” she said.
She said she had urged the players to be more positive in the second half, and to use the wings more. “I thought that worked well,” she added.
Agnew paid tribute to her substitutes, who she felt made a difference, and she admitted to being taken by surprise by Payne’s superb performance in the centre of midfield.
“She normally plays out wide, but I decided to give her a go in the middle. She’s only young. Nothing fazes her.
“You never stop learning, even as a manager. It worked better than I thought it could.”
Agnew’s opposite number, Barrie Newton, had no doubts that the injuries to his two key players proved the difference between the sides.
He said: “We had two players kicked off the park and effectively out of the game,” he said. “We had five players out injured, one of our substitutes hadn’t played for 12 months, but I thought we did very well in the first half.
“The injuries disrupted us, and we lost concentration for one goal, but if this is the standard for the middle of the table, I feel confident we can better that (next season) if we stay up.”
Sent Her Forward player of the match: Catherine O’Hagan (Lewes) A superb performance as a lone striker, providing strength, energy and fine skill that gave Keynsham’s defence a torrid time.