Last season they had an almighty tussle in the battle to be the best in Sussex, but this time Brighton and Lewes have their eyes set on a more prestigious prize.
The East Sussex rivals are gearing up for the next step in their footballing odyssey, with new club structures to help them prepare for a future that will be more challenging still.
But while their ultimate goals are the same, their approaches are slightly different.
Brighton this week bade farewell to their manager, John Donoghue, who had led the team for a single season, a casualty of the club’s ambitions, signified by the appointment of former Gillingham boss James Marrs in his place.
And five miles up the road, Lewes prepare to appoint a new first-team boss to fill the void left by the club’s only manager to date, Jacquie Agnew, who now has control over the entire female football set-up at the club.
In both cases, the appointment of new managers (or in Brighton’s case, a head coach) is but part of more sweeping changes to establish what have become known as football talent pathways, linking the clubs’ very youngest talent with their most senior counterparts.
Tracy Doe, Brighton’s élite women’s and girls’ football manager, will play a similar role at the Amex Stadium-based club to that of Agnew, ladies’ head of football operations at the Dripping Pan.
And they have both been talking to Sent Her Forward this week, with – despite their experience in the game – an excitement that goes with embarking on a thrilling new adventure.
With some justification, I would suggest.
Brighton have announced plans for a girls’ academy, bridging the gap between the 16-year-olds emerging from their centre of excellence and the seniors playing in the club’s Premier League and Premier League Reserve teams.
The venture, in conjunction with Worthing College, will provide a solid coaching-based grounding in the next step on football’s escalator, preparing teenagers aged between 16 and 19 for the world of adult football, while providing an academic education to A-level standard.
Assuming Doe and her team can get everything in place in time for the next academic term, Brighton Academy – whose coaches have yet to be appointed – will play in the British Colleges League.
Brighton trials dates
|Brighton & HA WFC:||June 25, University of Sussex, Pavilion Way (6.45pm)|
|Brighton & HA Academy:||July 2, University of Brighton 3G pitch (1.30-3.30pm)|
And while she is at pains to point out she would be taking Brighton down the academy path even if the club’s ambition were nothing more than to stay in the Premier League, she is acutely aware that providing the missing development link will become a key element of any future attempt to join the FA Women’s Super League (WSL), which is the club’s avowed intention.
“That is the overall ambition,” she said. “Somewhere along the line there will have to be an alignment. There will have to be promotion and relegation at some stage.
“Women’s football is going to balloon in the next 10 years. You are going to see it change out of all recognition to what it is.
“Women’s football is about to take off. Whether we’re in the Women’s Super League or the Women’s Premier League, we need to have a talent pathway in place that makes sure that we maximise the potential of our players.
“And I think the academy will bridge the gap between the centre (of excellence) and senior football.”
Lewes, too, are looking to bridge a similar gap, which they believe would also position them perfectly for an assault on the WSL if and when the current closed shop is unlocked.
They are creating two extra teams for the new season, building on the phenomenal success of their under-16 side to create an under-18 outfit, but with the addition of a development side that will act effectively as reserves to their well-established first team, who finished sixth in the 11-team Premier League last season, one place and eight points ahead of Brighton.
The under-18s are set to play in that age group of the Sussex County Women’s and Girls’ Football League – a logical progression from under-16 level, where Lewes have had a team in the past – and with which they hope still to continue.
And the development team, which will comprise largely under-23-year-olds, is to join what promises to be a bigger Premier Reserve League, featuring the second strings not only of clubs like Gillingham, Spurs and Portsmouth, but also, this coming season, Chichester City.
Agnew will oversee the whole set-up, taking a step back from the day-to-day running of the first team, which she guided in little more than a decade from steps 5/6 to step 3 following two promotions and two years of consolidation at what is the top level of women’s football outside the WSL.
Lewes trial dates
|Lewes LFC (first team, development & U18s):||June 18, Lewes FC (7pm)|
It will be a big change, both for her and her former players, who have never known another boss at Lewes.
But she felt now was the right time to move aside, enabling her to devote more time to planning for the future of the club’s female footballers and stepping up the campaign to persuade the FA to drop some of its more controversial and divisive policies that separate the women’s summer and winter games.
Agnew told Sent Her Forward: “The club are very keen to state that we will not be going into a Super League under a franchise licence system (as was used to create the current set-up).
“We want to get ourselves ready for when the FA open it up to promotion and relegation.”
She added: “We want to compete at that level, but we don’t want to put a bid together and get a licence. That would be hypocritical.”
Agnew – with the support of the club board – has been at the forefront of the nationwide fight to open up a two-way route between the Premier and Super Leagues and to protect the former’s status as an FA league.
With fellow director Ron Moore, she has presented a blueprint for the FA to consider, outlining an alternative to its own development plan that would safeguard the governing body’s aims for an established, properly funded élite while not cutting the rest of the football pyramid adrift, both practically and financially.
The club is also considering legal action against the FA’s plans to prevent clubs outside the Super League cabal from providing contracts to players – measures that Lewes believe breach employment and competition law.
Agnew is also gnawing away at the restructuring of the top tiers of the winter pyramid – the two regional Premier Leagues (WPL) and four Combination Leagues – to safeguard the WPL clubs’ voting rights.
All of which takes time – and all of which would mean that promotion via any means other than merit to the WSL would be inconceivable to Lewes.
Despite the setbacks she has encountered, Agnew is confident that a form of movement between the two leagues could be in place within two seasons – probably in the form of limited promotion to WSL2 initially before fully fledged promotion and relegation was implemented by 2017/18.
And Agnew hopes the new team structure being introduced at the Dripping Pan – which is also set for a multi-million-pound transformation, with the construction of a proposed new clubhouse and state-of-the-art training complex – will ensure Lewes are ready for that move.
Many of last season’s championship-winning under-16 squad are expected to form the core of the new under-18 side, while the development squad will comprise largely new faces plus the return of first-team fringe players who were loaned to other clubs for regular match experience last term.
However, crucially, there will be fluidity between the three sides.
Mark Currier, the manager of the successful under-16s, who will take charge of the young development side, says there will be scope for those who shine at either of the new levels to step up to the next stage.
He also says under-18s who get a taste of the more demanding, more physical, reserve league can also then step back down to the intermediate level, where they might feel more comfortable.
Agnew says: “There are probably two, three or four (under-18s) who might be good enough to get into the development squad. But there will be three or four senior players helping these youngsters through.
“It doesn’t matter about age. We believe in meritocracy. If you’re good enough, you’re old enough.”