Crawley Wasps 5 (Carter 2, Walker, Simmons 2) Aylesford 1 (Kilroy-Downs)
The harsh realities of life at a higher level are being hammered into Aylesford in these first few weeks of their maiden season in the third tier of the women’s winter game.
And manager Steve Golding knows the lessons have to be learned quickly if his side are to survive more than a solitary season in the London & South East Regional League.
The team has won successive promotions, from the depths of the South East Counties league to the verge of the FAW Premier League set-up, but if they needed any evidence of how big the leap to this level is, they’ve received it in abundance in their opening two fixtures.
Yet to field a full-strength side, Aylesford have conceded 12 goals in two matches – and Golding’s biggest consolation is that most of the seven first-choice players missing today are defenders.
“I always thought the first six games would be a big learning curve,” he admitted after his side’s comprehensive defeat at the hands of one of the league’s most impressive performers last season.
But while he felt there were some consolations in last week’s 7-4 defeat at home to Fulham Foundation, Golding was struggling for positives today. He described it as a shocking team performance.
He had a point, but if the frustration at the final whistle tended to overshadow the encouraging aspects of today’s heavy defeat, when he digests the events at Three Bridges over the next few days, he will know that there are plenty.
Not least will be the outstanding performance of midfielder Lara Tanti, whom he met at training for the first time only a few days ago, and who shone as a beacon of tenacity and composure, especially in the first half, when her team-mates faced an onslaught from Crawley’s rampant attacking players.
He will know already the talents of her fellow midfielder, captain Becks Barr, whose assured passing was a feature of Aylesford’s best moves.
He will be delighted by the performance of Sam Kilroy-Downs, who rounded off a fine move to score the Kent side’s only goal and who struck the underside of the bar with a thunderbolt during their late rally before being foiled 60 seconds later by a wonder save from Crawley’s Catherine Polykett.
And he will derive satisfaction, too, from how his cobbled-together side held Crawley to a single goal in the second half, even if it was at the expense of Kilroy-Downs’ attacking threat as she was deployed more deeply to contain the Wasps’ own lethal strike force.
But he knows Aylesford still have a long way to go before they can feel comfortable in this division – as their opponents do.
It has been a frustrating start for Wasps’ boss, Paul Harding, too. Having lost his top goalscorer, Faye Rabson, to Lewes – and the best part of his pre-season to holidays and postponements – he had yet to field what he considers his first-choice team.
He felt it showed in their 2-1 defeat to Maidstone United last week, and the difference seven days later, was immense.
Crawley tore into their inexperienced opponents from the outset, putting the makeshift defence under immense pressure and stretching them with their clever runs and pacy approach play.
Within four minutes they were in front. After living dangerously in front of their own goal, they broke quickly down the left, and before Aylesford’s defenders could recover their positions, Rebecca Carter took advantage of space in the penalty area to calmly slot past goalkeeper Jemma Thripp.
Yet by the 11th minute Aylesford were level. Barr turned superbly in midfield and played a delightful pinpoint chip into the path of Kilroy-Downs, whose first effort was blocked. But she kept her head, reacting fastest and calmly rounding Polykett before firing home.
Against the run of play it may have been, but it was just the fillip Aylesford needed. But all that good work was wasted when, just three minutes later, Crawley went back in front.
A corner from the right came off a defender’s head, wrong-footing Thripp and leaving the unmarked Hollie Walker to stab into the unguarded net.
It was to be Walker’s last meaningful contribution to proceedings, as midway through the half she collapsed in agony as she attempted to clear and was taken to hospital with suspected knee ligament damage.
As so often seems to happen in women’s football, within minutes of the resumption after a lengthy delay, Crawley went further ahead – from another corner.
This time Aylesford’s defenders did well to block a goalbound effort, but the rebound came out to Carter on the edge of the area, who fired an unstoppable shot beyond Thripp’s dive.
Still Aylesford had chances. Tanti, who was enjoying a magnificent first half, made a superb interception in her own half and clipped a gem of a pass over the Crawley defence into the path of Kilroy-Downs.
But with fellow striker Beth Hulme running into space in the middle, she hit a cross-shot that sailed wide.
While Aylesford were spurning precious chances, Crawley were putting most of their plentiful supply away, and on 39 minutes they took a 4-1 lead. Laura Harding fed Toni Smith, whose shot was blocked, but Jade Simmons reacted most quickly to dispatch the rebound.
Golding had plenty to say to his stuttering side at half-time, and made liberal use of his substitutes throughout a second half in which his side enjoyed much more of the ball and constructed some decent passing moves.
But he had Thripp to thank for keeping the score to four when Carter, a constant threat for Crawley up front, capitalised on hesitation in the Aylesford defence but was denied her hat-trick by Thripp’s save.
After their high-intensity start to the game, Crawley were visibly tiring, but they still had enough guile to continue causing their opponents problems, Carter and Aston Worsfold in particular stretching Aylesford’s left-hand side.
Just when it looked as though the visitors were going to hold out for a second-half clean sheet, Simmons grabbed her second – and Crawley’s fifth – 10 minutes from time. A neat passing movement caught the defence napping and Simmons finished with aplomb from 10 yards.
Crawley thoroughly deserved their victory to get back to winning ways. But their manager, Paul Harding, knows his side will face far tougher tests this season.
Their experience in this division was in evidence not only in the cohesive moves they put together, but in the confidence they showed in each other’s abilities.
Unsurprisingly, confidence was what Aylesford were lacking after a daunting introduction to the L&SER League – that and their first-choice defence. But they can take great encouragement from the problems they caused Crawley – albeit all too infrequently – when they did get the ball down and play.
Crawley’s Harding was delighted with the way his players reacted to Walker’s distressing injury. He told Sent Her Forward: “At that point I was almost thinking, what do we do for next week? And I was wondering how the players were going to react.
“But I was really pleased with their reaction. Overall, I couldn’t have asked for more. I sensed early on that (Aylesford) were psychologically beaten after losing last week and realising what a step up it is. But I was pleased to see a lot of confidence coming back because we knew we had two goalscorers on the pitch, whereas last week we didn’t have any.”
Golding was left – rather like his players – to pick up the scraps of consolation from a second successive heavy defeat. “We were shocking this week as a team,” he said. “Individually, we worked hard, but as a team effort, we didn’t work with the person beside us or behind us.
“At this level, you get punished for one mistake, but we didn’t make them pay for theirs. We stood off. But that’s something we must learn.
“It was frustrating that we had key players (unavailable) watching from the dugout. But hopefully, we get a couple of faces back…”
Sent Her Forward player of the match: Rebecca Carter (Crawley Wasps)
The debutant was a constant thorn in Aylesford’s side with her menacing running and clever positioning. Always available to receive a pass, she also demonstrated her clinical finishing.
She might have been pipped to the award by another debutant, Aylesford’s Lara Tanti, had she not tired in the second half as Aylesford paid the price for Crawley’s high-pressure start.
Tanti’s team-mates Becks Barr, Beth Hulme and Sam Kilroy-Downs also shone in a losing cause, while Crawley’s Catherine Poleykett deserves credit for her superb second-half save, as does Zoe Martin, who performed impressively as a substitute.
Sent Her Forward match rating: 6/10 Plenty of skill in an attacking game, which faded until Aylesford’s late rally.