Gosport Borough 0 Chichester City 3 (Ambler, Challen, Cheshire)
Chichester City returned to winning ways with a routine victory over league newcomers Gosport Borough that was always comfortable – perhaps a little too comfortable.
Matt Wright’s injury-hit side, which had lost their last two games, both at home, eased past a spirited Gosport side still coming to terms with the step up to the Premier League.
And while the home side rallied in the final stages, peppering the Chichester goal with hopeful – rather than threatening – shots, the visitors were never in danger of losing their grip on an entertaining, but error-strewn, game.
However, in a match punctuated by some fussy refereeing, Chichester’s players and officials struggled to control their frustration with some of the decisions, Kally Ambler being punished with a yellow card for her comments on the pitch and Wright unleashing an uncharacteristic outburst of criticism after the game.
He told Sent Her Forward: “I don’t think the referees are good enough. They are ruining our games.”
The Chichester boss added: “The officials are embarrassing at this level. I watched Southampton v Newcastle yesterday and they were wrestling with each other, but the referee let the game flow.
“But our refereeing (in the FAWPL Premier League Division One South West) has been horrendous.”
Wright made clear it was not just today’s referee, Jim Stokes, and assistants Tim Watts and Jan Brindley, he was referring to, but those in each game his side had played this season.
“[The referees] were all right when we were in the South East division (of the Combination League which preceded the current set-up), but not in the South West.”
Certainly, Chichester players, who play the game competitively but generally with respect for the officials, seemed frustrated regularly throughout the game, frequently questioning their decisions.
But they appeared as much frustrated with their own mistakes as the perceived errors of the referee and his assistants.
Naomi Greene was spoken to at least twice, as was Ambler, whose feelings got the better of her in the second half, when she questioned Stokes once too often – not in the heat of the moment but at the end of a 50-yard jog back to the centre of the field.
Such moments may come back to haunt Chichester, who are already digging deep into the club’s reserves to field a team each week following a spate of injuries to key players.
Ambler is due to serve a ban for a red card received last week in similar circumstances, and with Abbey Shrubb still not match-fit, despite making a welcome appearance as a late substitute today, Wright will have to tinker again with his line-up to cover her absence.
Of course, when she lets her football do the talking, Ambler is virtually unstoppable, as she proved once again at Privett Park. The number nine was a constant thorn in Gosport’s side and should have had more than the solitary goal to show for another fine exhibition of pace, power and awareness.
Her eagerness to close down took Borough by surprise and constantly foiled their attempts to play their way out of defence until she tired after taking a knock late in the second half.
Alongside her, Greene also made a nuisance of herself – and not just to the match officials. Her physical presence proved a handful for Gosport’s back three, and it seems only a matter of time before her pairing with Ambler clicks and the goals start to flow.
But it was farther back that Chichester shone most brightly. Lauren Cheshire, playing at right-back, was superb throughout, her pace putting Gosport on the back foot and her intelligent runs creating space for others.
On the other flank, Lucie Challen has matured into a top-quality player, as at home on the left wing as at left-back.
In-between them, in an area where the Sussex side have traditionally been very strong, the largely untested partnership of Becky Barron and Cherelle Jameson, slipped seamlessly into their central midfield roles, minimising the impact of losing new captain Jade Widdowson (injured), Hollie Wride, who has moved to Watford, and the now-retired Kirsty Willett.
In the first half in particular, Barron was the epitome of calm, playing simple, but effective, balls to team-mates and always there to clear up when things broke down.
Her touch is top class and her perceptive passing – certainly over short- and mid-range – the match of any of her illustrious predecessors.
Jameson grew in influence as the game progressed, showing wonderful control and intelligent use of the ball.
Gosport, reeling from a difficult start to life at the higher level following their promotion last season, endured a torrid start as Chichester applied constant pressure. The visitors had two corners in the first couple of minutes and three in the first six.
But for all their pressure, somehow Borough survived the onslaught, with – in truth – very little direct threat to their goal, as Chichester seemed to sense it was only a matter of time.
Yet Gosport were contributing to their own problems, not only making a hash of their attempts to play their way out of defence but even giving the ball away from sloppy short free-kicks less than 10 yards from their penalty area.
Cheshire’s long throws down the line for Ambler and Remi Crawley to run on to were also causing Borough repeated problems to which it took them time to adapt.
And they were reliant on a couple of timely tackles, from Xian Blackman-Price and Kayleigh Merret to thwart threatening Chichester attacks.
However, it was no surprise when the visitors took the lead on 16 minutes. Nor was the identity of the scorer or the way the goal came about.
Ambler sneaked between two defenders to intercept another pass 20 yards out and powered into the box, firing a precise finish across Gemma Needham and in off the post.
Gosport’s attacks were only sporadic, and most of their pressure came from set-pieces.
But Chichester were proving a major threat down the flanks, with Cheshire and Crawley, on the right, and Challen and Lucy Harnett, on the left, capitalising on the space behind Gosport’s wing-backs.
At the back, the defence, marshalled magnificently by stand-in captain Emma Alexandre, was rarely troubled, leaving young goalkeeper Nea Piiroinen – selected in preference to former captain Hannah McNamara – a stress-free first half.
Wright introduced Lizzie Ogden at half-time for Crawley, who had faded after a bright start, but it was Gosport who created the first danger of the second period, Jess Lewry feeding Merret, whose high cross was held at the second attempt by Piiroinen before Borough could capitalise.
But it was the visitors who almost doubled their lead in the 52nd minute when Greene got ahead of her marker to meet Ogden’s cross, but headed just wide.
In a rare Gosport counter, Lewry did well to get in a cross that just eluded Blackman-Price.
But back came Chichester, who should have taken advantage of more slack marking when first Ambler and then Barron found themselves in acres of space.
The introduction of Sophie Kingsley-Smith provided Gosport with greater protection from midfield for the defence, but it merely delayed the inevitable.
Ambler fired over from a short corner and then sent Challen – who had swapped roles with Harnett – away down the left. But her progress was halted by a fine tackle from Kingsley-Smith.
Chichester had two decent penalty appeals rejected in the space of 60 seconds. Firstly, Greene appeared to be brought down by goalkeeper Needham as the pair raced for the ball; then Ambler’s legs appeared to be taken from under her as she headed for goal.
The decisions – together with growing frustration at their inability to turn their dominance into goals – rattled Chichester, and it was no surprise when Ambler was shown a yellow card for challenging yet another decision she disagreed with.
But the second goal was not far away, and it owed much to Cheshire’s speed and tenacity. The full-back-cum-striker won the ball superbly in midfield and set off down the right, firing in a perfect ball to Challen, who steadied herself before tucking home a neat shot, again off the far post.
Natalie Clarke replaced Greene and almost grabbed a goal within minutes, exploiting another defensive mix-up, but this time hitting the wrong part of the post, and the ball bounced away to safety.
Gosport substitute Jess Timbrell also found her way into the referee’s book for holding Ambler’s shirt – another offence that regularly induced the ire of the official.
The home side were certainly putting up a better show in the second half, and as the match approached injury time, they almost grabbed one back, Kingsley-Smith’s long-range free-kick bouncing back off the bar.
The significance of such small margins at this level was reinforced within 60 seconds when Cheshire‘s fast break down the right ended in her intended cross floating over Needham for Chichester’s third.
Still Gosport pushed forward in search of a consolation, but despite a spirited very late rally, they were to draw a blank, both in terms of goals and points.
Chichester will face harder tasks in the league this season – indeed, they already have – but they will be happy that their stand-in players are beginning to strike up an understanding with the established members of the team.
Barron and Jameson look top-quality players, who will only get better, and Cheshire and Challen are already giving teams headaches on the flanks. Defensively, there was room for improvement, and a sharper side might have punished the odd error.
But Sienna Howell, making her debut for the Sussex side, did not look out of place alongside Alexandre in central defence.
There were definite signs of promise for Gosport’s beleagured manager, Dave Pickering, who has seen successive first-team coaches have to pull out, leaving him to run the side single-handedly.
He told Sent Her Forward: “Today was a better all-round performance. No disrespect to Forest Green Rovers (who beat them 6-2 in their first league match), but I think Chichester probably look stronger, so I was pleased with the girls.”
He said Borough were missing last season’s top goalscorer, Kelly Baker, who is on maternity leave.
But he added: “The performance was very good. We are getting fitter, but it is the fitness and movement off the ball that we are lacking.”
That and a coach to help him out.
But he insisted Gosport would continue to try to play in the same way – including the almost suicidal tendency to play a passing game from the tightest of corners at the back – something a more predatory attack might have exploited more effectively.
While Wright vented his wrath at the performance of the officials, his assistant, Liam Greenfield, focused on the pluses after Chichester’s successive home defeats.
He told Sent Her Forward: “We could have scored more goals, but we have quite a new team. A couple have left and we have quite a few injuries, so it’s good when you see them coming together and players starting to fit in more with the system.”
He and Wright both paid tribute to the performance of goalkeeper Nea Piiroinen, who has been promoted from the reserves ahead of McNamara.
Wright declined to go into details about the reasons behind the axing of his captain but said: “It was a massive decision to drop Hannah. But it was the right one.
“Nea had the best game in the reserves last week. She has trained really well and come through the ranks. It’s good to give youngsters a chance, and she proved herself.”
Sent Her Forward player of the match: Lauren Cheshire (Chichester City)
To be honest, it was a toss-up between her and her fellow full-back, Lucie Challen, both of whom were superb.
Cheshire’s searing pace, which sapped her opponents’ energy early on, and intelligent movement, both with and without the ball, probably just tipped it in her favour. But Challen has improved beyond imagination since last season.
Becky Barron – particularly in the first half – looked perfectly at home in midfield, and Cherelle Jameson looks an outstanding talent. Kally Ambler continues to be the scourge of opposition defences, although her ruthless streak appeared to abandon her a little during Chichester’s early onslaught, and on another day she might have had a hat-trick.
It must be hard to shine with confidence eroding with every defeat, but Gosport showed great spirit right to the end, and can be especially proud of the contributions of Xian Blackman-Price, Leanne Griffiths-Lower, Sophie Kingsley-Smith, Kayleigh Merret and Jess Lewry.
Sent Her Forward match rating: 7/10 Gosport contributed to an open and well-contested game that saw the confidence coursing back into Chichester’s play.