Brighton 3 (Gibbons 2, Gurr) Copsewood Coventry 1 (Rowles)
Brighton gave notice that they will be the team to beat in the Premier League this season with an exhilarating performance against newcomers Copsewood.
The blend of established Brighton players and new faces who followed head coach James Marrs to Sussex from Gillingham hit it off instantly and gave their Coventry opponents a tough introduction to Premier League football.
But the visitors, who endured a nightmare journey south, with many of the team arriving less than half an hour before kick-off, refused to be overawed and played their full part in a match that did much to enhance still further the image of women’s winter football in this country.
They struggled to cope with the high-intensity opening that is a trademark of Marrs’ sides and could have conceded a hatful by half-time.
But a combination of wayward finishing and inspired goalkeeping by Nikki Duncan kept the Midlands side in the game, and their response in the second half was sufficient to have Marrs laying into his players for easing off after the break.
Of course, it was harsh on his players, all of whom played their part in a superb team performance that was a joy to watch.
But it’s the kind of attitude that his former Gillingham charges are only too familiar with, and one with which his newer acquaintances will soon have to come to terms if they are to survive the ride towards the Super League.
Nowhere was that more in evidence than with Brighton captain Jay Blackie, whose frustration with her own second-half errors exemplified the standards Marrs is instilling in his team.
The reality was Blackie was the rock on which this Brighton performance was built, and on which so many Copsewood attacks foundered.
As she did at Gillingham, the midfielder provided the fulcrum for attacks, providing intelligent one- and two-touch passes and always an outlet for her team-mates.
Only once did she take more than two touches, and that was when she dribbled past three players on a surging run through the heart of the Copsewood midfield.
In front of her Kirsty Barton and Charlotte Owen, reunited in midfield after the latter’s long injury lay-off, tore Copsewood apart in the first half, aided by a superb performance on the right flank by Charley Boswell.
In the second, with Boswell playing a more withdrawn role and Copsewood coming more into the game, Rosie Kmita did a similar job for Brighton on the opposite wing.
But they didn’t have it all their own way, and while Duncan was keeping her side in the game, Nicola Foskett, captain in the absence of Jodie McGuckin, and Sarah Harvey were doing their best to carry the game to Brighton’s defensive trio.
For all Brighton’s early pressure, their insistence on passing at the back almost handed Copsewood an early lead, and only goalkeeper Faye Baker’s alert challenge on the edge of the box denied the visitors a gilt-edged chance.
Playing two up front, and showing little evidence of their wearying journey, the Midlanders tried to put pressure on Brighton’s back three of Charlotte Young, Deanna Cooper and Amy Taylor.
But most of the traffic was in the opposite direction, with Blackie pulling the strings and Owen and Barton providing the glittering bows that tied Copsewood up in knots.
A flowing passing move between Owen, Fliss Gibbons and Boswell gave an indication of things to come, Boswell’s excellent low cross just cut out at the near post.
That preceded a three-minute passage of play that will be hard to beat all season.
Firstly, Barton, Blackie and Owen combined through the middle to create space for Owen to get in a shot which forced Duncan into a fine diving save.
Then Charlotte Gurr held the ball up well in the Copsewood box, turning brilliantly to fire a shot straight at Duncan.
Within a minute, the pressure looked certain to pay off, as Owen was played in from a quickly taken free-kick, but although her shot finally beat Duncan, it cannoned off the post to safety.
Copsewood could have been forgiven for buckling under the pressure, but they were not overawed and continued to pose a threat on the counter-attack.
But it was surely only a matter of time before Brighton’s mesmerising passing would reap its reward.
Owen again found space in the area, but Alice Belcher denied her with a superb last-ditch tackle, and got a kick for her troubles.
At the other end, Copsewood earned their first corner, almost half an hour into the match, when Boswell showed the other side of her game, getting back to deny Natalie Dean space for a cross.
But Harvey’s flag kick was headed over by Rebecca-Jane Knight.
Back came Brighton, and Duncan made a magnificent triple save, twice denying Owen as the Copsewood goal came under siege.
The goalkeeper again denied the rampant hosts, reacting first to Young’s header.
But then, on 38 minutes, came the breakthrough that had been on the cards pretty much since the first minute. Gibbons and Gurr combined well, the latter’s curling effort coming back off the post, and Gibbons was there to knock home the rebound.
In a rare breakaway, Hannah Jones tried her luck from 40 yards, but Baker held the shot comfortably.
And then, as Copsewood looked to see out the final seconds of the first half, they conceded a devastating second.
Gibbons did well to turn and fire in a cross, which Gurr stooped to head home.
Despite the possession stats and those two late goals, Copsewood were not dead yet, and an early goal after the break would have brought them right back into the match.
Instead, it was Brighton who extended their lead with less than two minutes of the second half played. Barton split the defence with a cute through-ball, and Gibbons‘ first-time shot took a deflection on its way past Duncan.
The blow seemed to sting the visitors into action, and there was more bite in their tackles as they sought to find a way back into the match.
And after 54 minutes they stunned their hosts with an excellently worked goal. Foskett dispossessed Taylor and found Knight inside the Brighton box. The striker laid the ball back into the path of Sarah Rowles, whose superb shot beat the diving Baker.
It was Copsewood who suddenly looked threatening. The hard-working Foskett outwitted her marker on the right flank, creating space for a cross that just eluded the on-rushing Knight.
Harvey then showed the kind of skill that exemplified Copsewood’s positive approach to the game, but it was to be her last involvement, as she made way for striker Leah Williams.
Marrs was becoming increasingly vocal on the touchline, imploring his players to work harder and match their first-half intensity. But that early onslaught was proving to be at a cost, as one or two players began to struggle.
As Boswell’s and Owen’s influence began to wane, Rowles came more to the fore, prompting a new wave of attacks from the visitors.
From one, Baker bravely denied Williams as she shaped to shoot. Then after Lucy Somes and Amy Green replaced Barton and the injured Gurr, a hopeful free-kick caused rare panic in the Brighton penalty area.
With 15 minutes to go, and time running out for brave Copsewood, Williams again threatened, lobbing just wide after excellent approach work.
But if the Coventry side thought they had ridden the storm, they were in for a rude awakening. Kmita, who was becoming more influential as the game wore on, again beat her marker on the left and fired in a brilliant cross that Green did well to meet, but her header landed on top of the net.
And in a final hurrah, the substitute finished off what was becoming a familiar flowing Brighton move, involving Blackie, Owen, Somes and Kmita, with another header just over.
The win was expected – and inevitable; the scoreline a reasonable reflection of the game, although Brighton could have doubled their tally. But Copsewood can be proud of their contribution to an attractive, open, entertaining match, and will win more than they lose at this higher level if they continue to play in such a way.
James Marrs, Brighton’s head coach, was disappointed with his team’s second-half performance, but acknowledged that it was still a work in progress.
“It was a really positive first half, but it was a labouring performance (after the break) and we got a bit stale,” he told Sent Her Forward.
“We are delighted with the three points, but our intensity dropped off hugely in the second half, and we could possibly have punished them more severely.
“But the girls know that. It is important that the girls understand it, and if they can see that, it bodes well.”
He was happy with how the players already at the club have adapted to his desired style of play, which took a while to perfect at his previous club.
“Everyone has slotted in just nice, so it hasn’t taken too long for the others to get engaged into what I’m looking for. But it will continue to take time.
“I’m not expecting us to progress until around Christmas time.”
Ryan Conneely, his Copsewood counterpart, felt the frustratingly long journey had an impact on his team’s first-half showing.
“When you turn up half an hour before kick-off and have a 10-minute warm-up, it’s not ideal,” he said. “We have been put in this league reluctantly, but we have to get on with it.”
Conneely, who guided Copsewood to the Midland Combination title last season, added: “It was a tough baptism. Coming up against the league favourites was never going to be easy, and missing our captain didn’t help.
“If you had asked me at half-time, I would have said we were out of our depth, but second half we drew 1-1. It took the (third) goal for us to wake up. But we worked very hard, defensively were very solid and scored a great goal.
“If you had said before the game we would have a narrow defeat, I wouldn’t have been too concerned. If you had said at half-time that we would have drawn the second half 1-1, I would have had your hand off.
“I think the Super League took a big chunk of quality out of the Premier League, but I would class Brighton as one of the best teams in the league.”
Sent Her Forward player of the match – Jay Blackie (Brighton)
Brighton’s new talisman is one of the most accomplished and influential footballers – of either gender – I have ever had the privilege to watch. She ran the match in the first half, preferring simplicity to the spectacular. And she personifies what Marrs wants from his Brighton team.
She was brilliantly supported by Charlotte Owen and Kirsty Barton, two of the classiest midfielders in the league, with Charley Boswell and Rosie Kmita on the flanks taking it in turns to terrorise the Copsewood defence. Deanna Cooper was outstanding for Brighton at the back and kept her opponents on their toes with her surging runs, too.
Copsewood goalkeeper Nikki Duncan kept her team in the game with some outstanding saves in the first half, and Sarah Harvey, Sarah Rowles and the excellent Nicola Foskett looked naturals at this level.
Sent Her Forward match rating: 9/10 If they’re all like this, the Premier League is going to draw in the crowds this season.