Lewes Development 2 (Tibble 2) Portsmouth Development 7 (Skinner 2, Currie 2, Gratton 2, Dark)
Once again, the kids shine brightest. Several times last season the best matches I saw featured under-16s and under-18s, and so it was again today at Uckfield.
Only this time, it was an adult game.
Reserves football is a tricky juggling act, with managers torn between producing players for their clubs’ senior sides and making a decent fist of their own competitions.
Both Lewes and Portsmouth are trying to do just that, but the priority is to ensure they support their respective Premier League sides’ aspirations for Super League football.
Portsmouth, whose first team today went to the top of the Premier League Southern, may be nearer their goal, but Lewes now have a structure in place which they hope ultimately will lead the same way.
As Portsmouth’s Super League credentials continue to grow, Perry Northeast, Katie Poore and their players can rest assured that they have the next generation coming through – a generation who not only should provide a strong Portsmouth team for years to come, but some of whom pose a genuine threat to current first-team players’ places.
For Lewes, it’s an earlier part of the cycle – and the learning curve. Manager Mark Currier has not been able to field the same team twice and today used his fourth different goalkeeper of the season.
But he knows that’s the way it is going to be, with Lewes’s brand new development side, featuring largely under-21 players, either on the fringe of the first team or, as was the case today, fresh from last season’s under-16 league – a massive chasm to breach.
One of the finest 45 minutes of football I’ve had the pleasure of seeing for some time
No fewer than six 16-year-olds featured against a very impressive Portsmouth side who themselves gave youth its head in a game played with the refreshing freedom that tends to come with tender years.
And some of them excelled.
Currier has warned his side to expect some heavy defeats in this debut season at FAW Premier Reserves League level – the key, he says, is to learn from them.
And judging by today’s game of contrasting halves, the young Lewes Ladies are quick learners.
Overawed, overrun and overwhelmed in the first half, Lewes reached the interval 6-0 down to a rampant Portsmouth who bossed the game in every department.
But they heeded Currier’s half-time dressing down – one what was thoroughly deserved on their first-half showing – and came out for the second half not so much with all guns blazing, which would probably have cost them an even bigger hiding, but with a measure of commitment and composure that they rarely showed in the first half.
Key to the transformation were half-time substitutes Molly Miller and Holly Currier, who brought a youthful zest and controlled commitment to their play, restricting Portsmouth’s skilful and energetic forwards and, more importantly, providing the sort of service that their own talented front-runners thrive upon, enabling them finally to put Pompey’s defence under pressure.
Currier was rightly proud that his team “won” the second half, although how much Pompey eased off the gas with the game already won is hard to measure.
Portsmouth hit the woodwork three times during that second period – one of the finest 45 minutes of football I’ve had the pleasure of seeing for some time. So the margin could have been greater.
But most heartwarming for Currier is surely the fact that his young side showed that they are capable of living with top-quality teams at this level.
And make no mistake, Portsmouth’s development side are a top-class team.
From Rhia Cox, their former under-18 goalkeeper, who is now impressing at adult level, to Eileadh Currie, an outstanding midfield workaholic, to their talented attackers, Laura Newsome, Chloe Dark and Ellie Skinner, they shone with their skills, their work-rate and – in the first half, at least – their finishing.
Currie, a 16-year-old, bagged two goals. Skinner, who is 17, scored two more. And Dark got the other. She also hit the post, while Newsome was unlucky to see successive strikes hit bar and post in a crazy 60 seconds midway through the second half.
Georgia Tibble scored the two goals her outstanding performance so deserved for Lewes, and it will have been reassuring for Currier and his players that those strikes gave the team tangible reward for their second-half efforts – not merely consolation.
After pinning Lewes in their own half for the opening five minutes, Portsmouth effectively killed the game off with two goals in a minute, both from errors by the home side.
Skinner cut inside a hesitant defence and shot from outside the penalty area with reasonable – but not exceptional – power. Katie Burr, making her debut in goal for Lewes, could not hold it and the ball trickled over the line for a sickening opener.
There was little Burr could do about the next one, just seconds later, as Currie ploughed through a series of half-hearted challenges to plant a measured shot into the far corner.
Lewes, who had actually beaten Portsmouth earlier in the season when they had more experienced players at their disposal, had already betrayed a lack of confidence before those devastating blows.
And they went into their shells still further after conceding the rapid double, appearing to lack the intensity and desire that their opponents were showing.
Yet despite the lop-sidedness of the game, every now and again Lewes’s skilful and energetic attacking players would give Pompey a less-than gentle warning not to underestimate them.
They created one of the best moves of the half when Tibble displayed her pace and power to leave Hannah Reed in her wake, and then threaded an astute pass beyond the covering defender to Dominique Beckett, whose first-time shot was fielded comfortably by Cox.
Portsmouth lost Ellena Cautcher to an ankle injury but none of their momentum, and hit Lewes with another quickfire treble that effectively ensured them all three points.
Gratton raced on to a hopeful through-ball that she should not have been favourite for and reached the pass ahead of the stranded Burr to tuck home the third in the 25th minute.
Then not for the first time, Danielle Perrin was caught in possession and Skinner arrowed confidently into the top corner.
The fifth, just a minute later, was a virtual copy of Currie‘s first as she again shrugged off the flimsiest of challenges to give Burr no chance.
Lewes were restricted to occasional forays, but the pace of Tibble meant they were invariably dangerous ones. She combined brilliantly with Mia Taylor, but there was no-one to meet the inviting cross.
Molly Booth, who had replaced Cautcher in midfield, just added to Lewes’s woes, rarely wasting the ball and belying her tiny stature to control the midfield in that unhurried way that true class players do.
Then it was Lewes’s turn to suffer an injury, Ryleigh Brown replacing Abby Dawson, and within a few minutes Portsmouth had their sixth.
The indefatigable Currie rampaged down the left flank and fired in a low cross. Skinner missed her kick, but Gratton was on hand to calmly slot home her second.
Currie, who was proving almost unplayable, could have had a hat-trick, but her 30-yard volley was pushed on to the bar by Burr and over for a corner.
And as a first half prolonged by injuries drew to a close, Lewes spurned a real chance to go into the interval with a little more confidence when Tibble made another brilliant run and held off a hefty challenge before shooting narrowly wide.
As it was, Lewes returned to their changing room at half-time a shell-shocked and beaten side.
They emerged little more than 10 minutes later a rejuvenated one.
Currie brought on his daughter, Holly, to play on the left and another 16-year-old, Miller, in the centre of midfield.
The transformation was almost instant. After a brilliant block by Carly Noakes saved a certain Portsmouth goal following Currier’s mistake, Lewes signalled their intentions with a sleak passing move between Tibble and Zoe Heather, who cut inside her full-back but dwelt too long on the ball and was crowded out.
Their reward for a more composed start to the second half followed quickly, the dangerous Tibble latching on to a through-ball on 56 minutes and lobbing over Cox.
Noakes was proving a rock in defence and rock-hard in the tackle, inspiring her inexperienced team-mates but agitating her battered and bruised opponents.
Meanwhile, her opposite number, Currie, continued to cause mayhem, tearing through the Lewes defence but hitting a tame shot straight at Burr.
On the hour, Pompey hit the bar for the second time when great play by Newsome set up Dark for a shot that was so close to restoring her team’s six-goal cushion.
And then came two more let-offs for the home side within 20 seconds. Dark again turned Perrin and fed Skinner, whose cross was met by Newsome, but her header, too, hit the bar.
Burr’s weak goal-kick was intercepted by the lively Newsome and her measured shot hit the base of the post, rebounding to safety.
Portsmouth were enjoying a fine spell, but such periods were becoming far rarer, largely because Miller was dominating midfield, breaking up play, denying Pompey’s runners the space they enjoyed in the first half, winning virtually all her 50-50 challenges – another contrast with the opening 45 minutes – and distributing the ball calmly and intelligently.
The consequent quality of ball to Tibble, Taylor, Heather and Beckett was significantly better, offering the attacking players hope of some reward for their endeavours.
Lewes were enjoying an even second half, which was providing full entertainment for the spectators. But just when it looked like the hosts had shaken off that first-half torpor, it returned to haunt them. And once again, they were punished.
This time it was Dark who slalomed through some half-hearted tackles before taking an age, unchallenged, to pick her spot and firing past the helpless Burr to make it 7-1 with 15 minutes to go.
A much more spirited Lewes still had more to give, though, and grabbed a deserved second when Tibble capitalised on a mistake between a defender and the goalkeeper to slot into an empty net.
Cox had time to redeem her rare error when she spread herself in a one-on-one to deny Tibble her hat-trick.
The game threatened to be as one-sided as the scoreline suggests it was. Yet although Portsmouth could have had double-figures, they encountered a very different Lewes side after the break.
Lewes have a lot to learn at this level, especially in terms of defensive cover and challenging. But nobody is suggesting they should be the finished product at this early stage of the season and their adult careers.
And they boast some potent attackers, not least the magnificent Georgie Tibble.
Portsmouth are clearly ahead of Lewes, yet they, too, fielded a very young side, some of the reserves’ graduates from last season now ensconced in and around the first team.
They have some exceptional players, but more pleasingly, they play sublime football which their senior peers will struggle to match at their higher level.
Pompey’s development squad manager, Lee Hurrell, could barely hide his delight at the team’s performance, especially in that opening 45 minutes.
He told Sent Her Forward: “In the first half we were absolutely unplayable, creating chances all over the place.
“But I was disappointed with the [Lewes] goals. They were balls over the top that we hesitated over.
“There are a few areas where we need to tighten up defensively, but we hit the woodwork three times in the second half, so it was still positive. And we moved the ball around nicely.”
Currier was able to take solace in his side’s second-half recovery after laying into them at half-time.
He told Sent Her Forward: “I wasn’t sure at half-time whether to try to be gentle with them or have a go. I had a go.”
He added: “The substitutions at half-time (bringing on Currier and Miller) were a risk, but I thought they were exceptional. We won the second half 2-1, but the energy in the second half was 10 times better.
“We worked hard, shut them down, made runs with the ball.
“We are going to take some hidings at this level, we know that. But if they keep giving me 100%, I’ll be proud of them. I was today.”
Sent Her Forward player of the match: Eileadh Currie (Portsmouth)
Pompey offered a host of candidates for the award, but Currie was outstanding throughout, grabbing two goals, setting up another and tormenting Lewes with her strength and running.
She looked like an experienced head in a sea of teenagers. She is actually 16 years old.
Newsome, Perkins, Dark and Skinner also impressed, as did Cox, whose occasional fine saves paled in comparison with her sweeping, positioning and cajoling of team-mates.
It must have been particularly hard for Lewes to take when, already 2-0 down, they had to face substitute Molly Booth, the side’s regular captain, who proceeded to control the midfield in a performance that oozed class.
The superstars weren’t all in the visiting side, though. Tibble is a special talent, who harnesses pace and skill effectively. She was well supported by Taylor and Heather, while Noakes performed admirably against the waves of Portsmouth attacks.
But the most spectacular performance came from Miller. The 16-year-old half-time substitute put on a majestic midfield display on the day that the talented teenager became a woman.
Sent Her Forward match rating: 8/10 Despite the scoreline, both sides played their part in a thoroughly entertaining and fascinating match that was a credit to the league.