Sent Her Forward exclusive
FAW Premier League special preview – Sent Her Forward match to watch: Charlton Athletic v Brighton
Pre-season title favourites Brighton are beginning to click after an up-and-down start to the season.
Coming from me, an objective observer who has seen the Premier League leaders play a couple of times this season, that might simply tell future opponents what they already know, or even that I am a master of understatement.
But the bad news for the rest of the division is that that assessment is not mine, but that of Jay Blackie, their inspirational and hard-to-please captain, for whom hyperbole is anathema, and who is probably her own harshest critic.
If Jay Blackie thinks Brighton are starting to approach the form that she and manager James Marrs want to see regularly from the side, you’d better believe her.
And with the likes of Charlotte Gurr and Lisa Fulgence coming back from injury, there is every likelihood that the Sussex team of all talents will get better still.
Listening to her talk about the club’s 5-1 victory at Gillingham – the former club of so many Brighton personnel – last night, it sounds as though that game might prove to be a watershed in a season that is bound to throw up more twists and turns through the winter months.
In an interview with Sent Her Forward the day after the Gillingham victory and just two days before the table-toppers encounter another fierce rival, free-scoring Charlton Athletic, Blackie uses phrases like “very dominant” and “improving greatly”.
At no stage does she suggest that Brighton have arrived at their destination, and anyone who knows her, or her manager, will know there is not the slightest question of anybody resting on their laurels.
But her language is no longer just cautiously optimistic. It now conveys an air of satisfaction and excitement that she never once let slip in earlier conversations.
“Last night was one of the first times we’ve really played as a team,” she said. “It felt like we really won it as a team, as well.”
Recent results – and even the slightly more positive post-match reactions of their manager – suggest Brighton have been on an upward curve in recent weeks.
Certainly, their presence back at the top of the table after a mini-wobble, when they collected only four points in three games – a run that included their only defeat of the season, to Portsmouth – suggest they are gaining momentum.
Blackie puts the improvement down to specific work on the training ground as well as continual practice of elements Marrs has been trying to instil since taking over at Culver Road in the summer… and the penny finally dropping.
“We are doing a lot more shape work, and it’s just the same points that James is going over and over and over,” she said. “It’s becoming more natural, I think. We’re listening to each other, and we’re understanding more and more each week.
“When you see it working, it brings confidence.”
Not one to get over-excited when things are starting to go well, Blackie equally sees no reason to worry about Brighton’s form in the first half of last month, when they lost 2-0 at home to Portsmouth and drew 1-1 at Cardiff, albeit with a 5-0 victory over Plymouth Argyle sandwiched in-between.
She said: “[In] the game against Portsmouth, we looked tired. We didn’t look physically ready for the game – throughout the game that was blatantly obvious.
“But for the rest of the games, we’ve put in part-performances, so parts of the game have been really good and other parts haven’t.
“It’s trying to out-balance the bits that are not so good with the bits that are good, and each week it is improving.”
Rival scores to settle
Now Brighton are back on top – albeit having played a game more than Pompey, who are one of a few teams near the summit who have been on an excellent run.
And after the eerie experience of returning to the area where she and so many of her team-mates plied their trade for two years and more, they follow that impressive victory at the Priestfield Stadium with a visit to another fierce rival, Charlton.
“Charlton are always going to be a rivalry,” says Blackie. “A few of us used to play for Charlton, and there are players there who we have either played with or against for years.
“Brighton have also got their own little rivalry with them because… last year there were a few scores that I’m guessing both teams won’t be happy with.”
As if it needed it, there will be added piquancy to Sunday’s encounter, not least because, like Portsmouth, Charlton are on a terrific run, losing only twice in all competitions so far, and scoring a hatful of goals.
Blackie says: “It will be interesting. They’ve got some of their good players back, who were out last season, so they will be a lot stronger.
“But if we concentrate on ourselves, and if we play as well as we can do, it’s going to be a really good match, and we’re more than good enough to come away with the three points if we play well.”
Blackie acknowledges there can be mixed emotions when playing against teams with close links and admits there were plenty of nerves before their game at Gillingham.
“I thought after the first game, the atmosphere and nerves would have worn off. But it didn’t. It felt just as strange before the game.
“As much as there are friends in the other team, you’re not friends until after the game, and I think that’s always quite difficult.
“There’s always a chance that either team could win it, and neither of us wanted to walk away being the team that lost.”
She admitted there were “a few crunching tackles, a few nasty bits”. “Then at the end, there was the normal shake of hands. You go back to the people you’re friends with and you’re friends with them again.”
Blackie says the possibility of hurting an opponent – especially an opponent who is a friend – has to be eradicated from players’ minds when they are on the pitch.
“It’s a game of football,” she explains. “When you’re on the pitch you might hit a crunching tackle. Then you get up and you have a stern word with each other, because you’re not friends while you’re on the pitch, and of course you never want to hurt anyone.
“In the past I did hurt a friend,” she admitted. “It was a complete accident. I felt terrible, but during the game, if there are tackles for me to hit, I’m going to hit the tackle because the game has to come first.”
Message for Jade
And just in case that philosophy suggests there’s no room for sentiment in Brighton football, Blackie is anxious for me to convey to her former Gillingham team-mate, Jade Keogh, who missed last night’s game after suffering a bad ankle injury last Sunday, the best wishes of her and her fellow ex-Gills at Culver Road.
“She is still a very good friend of all of us, and we are gutted for her. We’d really like to wish her well and for her to know we are all behind her to come back stronger. She’s one of the nicest girls in football.”
But if Blackie’s upbeat assessment of her team’s form gives anyone hope that complacency might be setting in at Brighton, they might like to hear her view of her own performances.
She was outstanding in Brighton’s first league game of the season, against Copsewood Coventry, when she was Sent Her Forward player of the match and earned a few compliments from within the Brighton camp.
But she felt her form dipped over the next few games – until a tweak to her personal training schedule this week, which she believes helped her produce an improved performance last night, when she scored her second goal in successive matches.
“I felt a bit better, a bit sharper,” she said. “I hurt my ankle about two weeks ago, which didn’t give me the best of starts at Plymouth (where Brighton won 5-0). But I definitely think I’m on the up again and I’m going to try to pick those performances up.”
Prediction: Charlton possess the firepower, but Brighton have the momentum to sneak the points.