Chichester City 5 (Ambler 3, Grant, Challen) Crawley Wasps 0
Pre-season friendlies are chiefly about learning.
After the turmoil of summers spent losing players, persuading players to stay, attracting new ones and working out just who you have at your disposal for the campaign, these games are vital in honing those resources, testing their flexibility, establishing a playing style and, of course, improving fitness.
All the training in the world – and in grassroots football, with the demands of summer on your squad, even that is an alien concept to many clubs – will not compensate for testing your skills and tactical plans against the challenges and counter-strategies of another team.
Pre-season friendlies are the opportunity to mould the old, the new, the reborn and the precious squad players into a coherent collection that, over the final weeks of the summer, can ready themselves for the rather different challenge that genuinely competitive matches will bring.
Today at Chichester City’s Oaklands Park was an opportunity for two of Sussex’s more resourceful clubs to take their first tentative steps along that path, pitting in direct opposition a pair who would otherwise rarely meet.
Chichester and Crawley Wasps are two clubs going through the process of transition, but at vastly different stages of the cycle.
The home side, whose first team will now play under the FA banner in their former South West Combination League, are well into their journey, ready to integrate their old reserves side much more into the first-team picture.
The visitors play in the league just below Chichester’s, two levels above that in which Chichester’s reserve side were playing last season. Crawley exceeded expectation in that league last term, finishing third – their best-ever finish.
But while they, too, are fielding their own development side this season, the Wasps have only just begun their adventure, looking largely to last season’s successful under-18 side to provide back-up to a first team, who themselves are trying to deal with the loss of a couple of key players.
On the face of it, Chichester City Development, as the reserves are now called, playing last season in the South East Counties Women’s League Division One West, would get an indication of how they might fare in their new environment – the FAW Premier Reserves League, alongside the likes of Portsmouth, Gillingham and Brighton’s second strings.
In turn, their opponents could test the spirit, hunger and commitment of some of the fringe players and teenagers at the club who might be called upon in the coming season to take the giant leap to the London & South East Regional League, where the first team is now well established.
However, for a variety of reasons – not least unavailability and the cancellation of Chichester’s first-team friendly in midweek – the sides that took the field at Oaklands were probably far removed from those who will start their respective league campaigns in a few weeks’ time.
Matt Wright, the first-team manager, looking after Chichester in the absence of development manager Caz Henry-Evans, selected a decent smattering of first-team players alongside established reserves and one or two new faces.
He started with an ostensibly less experienced line-up before introducing the likes of Jodie Greenway, Lauren Cheshire and Lucie Challen into the mix.
But it was still far too strong for a largely experimental Crawley side missing their top goalscorer, Faye Rabson, who is expected to feature more with Premier League Lewes than Crawley this season under the clubs’ joint agreement, and midfielder Alexandra Lebrato, who has returned to Spain.
Manager Paul Harding also fielded just a smattering of first-team players, but whereas his opposite number was able to rely on a nucleus of players who had spent much of last season together, the bulk of Crawley’s squad at Oaklands were either fringe players, members of last season’s under-18 league-and-cup-winning side or hopeful trialists who might sink or swim in the water with the big girls.
That none really sank was due in part to Harding’s thoughtful use of the squad, sparing some of the more raw members the ordeal of coping with Chichester’s traditional in-your-face starts and getting the measure of the game before being thrown into the fray.
It was due, too, to the composure shown by some of the newcomers, notably Beth Kemp, who was a calm head in defence, and Emily Robinson, who did not look out of place in attack against a top-class central defence.
But for all their spirit and endeavour, Crawley were worn down early on by Chichester’s pressing style which capitalised on the visitors’ attempts to play the “right way”, isolating the defender on the ball and limiting her passing options.
Chichester’s superior fitness also showed: some of their players have featured in beach soccer tournaments with England during the summer, and few of them schooled in the Chichester Way will have passed up the opportunity to maintain fitness levels during the close season.
Allied to the immense skill at Wright’s disposal, in hot and sticky conditions, Crawley’s task was always going to be an uphill one.
They won the game’s first corner – on 10 minutes – but by then they were already a goal behind, Kally Ambler finishing confidently after a superb through-ball by Kerri Grant.
The strike pair reversed roles for Chichester’s second, on 13 minutes. Ambler threaded the ball to the unmarked Grant, returning to the side after a lengthy absence, who finished as though she had never been away.
Lauren Ellis, Chichester’s reserve-team striker, was excelling at centre-back, alongside talented first-team defender Emma Alexandre. Yet three times in the first time, they were beaten to headers from dead-ball kicks by Crawley players.
Holly Walker was first to Kemp’s corner but steered her effort just wide. Then Natalie Stephenson’s free-kick was met by Kemp, causing a rare moment of panic in the home defence. Then Walker again beat her marker to a free-kick, but her header fell harmlessly for goalkeeper Hannah McNamara.
Hannah Chalk matched her reserve-team colleague Ellis’s composure in defence, making some crucial interceptions and largely distributing with thought rather than nerve.
Ahead of her, Challen, a first-half substitute, was causing havoc on Crawley’s right flank, combining tenacious tackling with powerful running and accurate crossing.
But the score remained 2-0 at half-time – a fair reflection of the flow of the game at that point.
Both sides made more changes after the break, Wright throwing on more first-team players, but also Remi Crawley, from the development side, on the right, and newcomer Cherelle Jameson up front.
Both made instant impacts, as did Becky Baron in midfield, who quickly discovered a fallibility in the Crawley defence to angled through-balls for the likes of Ambler, Jameson and Challen to run on to.
The tactic paid regular dividends. Ten minutes after the break, Ambler latched on to one such pass and finished with unerring accuracy. She should have had her hat-trick 10 minutes later when Baron played another incisive pass into the striker’s path, but she fired well over.
Ambler didn’t have to wait long to claim one of the myriad match balls lost during the game, finishing off good work by Jameson to fire a superb angled shot across goalkeeper Rachel Hillman into the far corner.
The Wasps were visibly wilting in the heat under the relentless onslaught of a team playing for first-team places and trained never to give up.
And Ambler spurned enough chances for a second hat-trick, foiled by a combination of smart goalkeeping and slightly wonky radar as she tried her luck from increasingly narrow angles.
Kemp remained resolute in the face of the charge, with smart positioning and astute distribution.
However, with a reluctance on everyone’s part to try to launch the ball over the Chichester defence, they spent most of the second period camped in their own half.
The inevitable fifth came four minutes from time when Jameson threaded the most delicate of through-balls between flagging defenders for Challen to claim a deserved goal.
Harding admitted there was a lot to learn from the experience. “Four players had never played in the squad before. We just tried to get them working as a squad,” he told Sent Her Forward.
“Last season we had to loan a couple of players out because we only had the one team. We need to get that second team up and running. They will all have a chance to step up, but you can see the difference [in standard].”
The manager praised the returning Nicholle Smith, who was making her first appearance for the club for two years after leaving to start a family, and newcomer Kemp, who he said showed composure and maturity.
He declined to elaborate on the impact of the loss of Rabson, except to acknowledge that her pace and finishing had given the team an “outlet” in tight games where all else appeared to be failing.
But he insisted that today’s experience would help him identify the areas most in need of attention, “putting the right pegs in the right holes”, as well as taking the younger players through those first steps required before the giant leap from youth to adult football.
The biggest lesson may be how the inexperienced line-up reacts to having their morale – as well as their strength – sapped by a team already well on their way towards the next level.
After finishing third in a season in which they enjoyed their best-ever FAW Cup run and won the Sussex County Cup for the first time, Chichester must be setting their sights on an even higher finish this time around.
Wright declined to specify a target, but he admitted the team would focus less on the cups and more on the league this time round, with the principal purpose of the development side being to feed players to the first team rather than worrying about their own position in the Reserves League.
After watching some eye-catching performances from the likes of Ellis, Crawley and Baron, Wright admitted: “We have probably got more depth in the squad than we realised.
“The two [squads] need to be interchangeable so we can move players up and down whenever we want. We need the development squad to be at a higher level [than previously].”
Wright could not fail to be pleased with his players’ performances, although he was a little disappointed that they were not tested more.
“We did hammer them a bit, but then there are so many players fighting for first-team places.”
Sent Her Forward player of the match: Kally Ambler (Chichester City)
Her pace, power and precise finishing proved far too much for Crawley. The prolific striker’s all-round game has moved to a new level.
Lucie Challen, Lauren Ellis, Remi Crawley, Becky Baron and Cherelle Jameson also impressed, as did Beth Kemp for Crawley.