Sussex Women’s Challenge Cup special: Wivelsfield Green v Brighton, Hanbury Stadium
It’s the chance of a lifetime for the players and officials of Wivelsfield Green on Sunday when they take on one of the best women’s teams in the winter game – and they don’t know whether to be excited or petrified.
The Mid Sussex club, who have just moved their home from the village after whom they are named to nearby Haywards Heath, host Premier League high-flyers Brighton & Hove Albion in the first round of the Sussex county cup.
And while the opportunity to pit their skills against top-quality opponents is an enticing one, the prospect of a mega-defeat worries one or two of them – particularly those who were part of Wivi’s double-figures loss to Chichester City in the same competition last season.
For many at the club, who play in the South East Counties Women’s League Division One West, that comprehensive 12-0 defeat at Oaklands Park proved to be a turning point in their season. Club chairman Brian Holmwood said it had a devastating effect on everybody and was partly to blame for their failure to maintain their impressive early-season league form.
Wivelsfield go into Sunday’s game against opponents four levels above them, knowing the same – or worse – could happen. But they believe they are better equipped to cope with it this time round – and might even try to enjoy themselves.
Helen Bashford, their long-serving goalkeeper, who is now also club secretary and part of the management team, says they learnt a lot from last season’s defeat and will use the lessons learned to ensure any impact this time round is limited.
She told Sent Her Forward: “Some of the players – both young and old – are excited by the prospect of playing such a big team and see it as an experience in which they have nothing to lose.
“Others – myself included – worry about what it might do to the confidence within the club. We’ve had a rocky start to the league this year, with three heavy defeats, and we are just picking ourselves up again, starting to regain that team spirit and confidence that we’ve always been lucky enough to have within the club.
“When we played Chichester Ladies last season and were heavily beaten, our season was definitely affected, and this is something I’m keen to avoid this season.”
Record trophy winners
But don’t imagine that Wivelsfield Green is currently shrouded in gloom. The players are relishing the prospect of welcoming James Marrs and his talented team to Hanbury Stadium and of sharing their pitch with a magnificent bunch of players who could be joining the Super League in less than 18 months.
Brighton are currently third in the FAW Premier League Southern, just three points off the top, having lost only twice all season and having booked their place in the next round of the FAW Premier League Cup with a 4-0 victory over Derby County last Sunday.
They boast some of the best players outside the Super League, in goalkeeper Faye Baker, defender Deanna Cooper, captain Jay Blackie, midfielder Charlotte Owen and regular goalscorers Charlotte Gurr and Fliss Gibbons.
Traditionally, Brighton – who have won the trophy a record 14 times – have fielded their first team in the competition, augmented on occasion by one or two fringe players.
Last season’s 17-0 win over Worthing Town attracted some criticism, but the club defended their right to play competitively in a competition they had a strong chance of winning – and were praised by their opponents for the respect they showed them.
Marrs has suggested little has changed since his arrival in the summer, vowing: “We will be putting out a strong team and won’t be taking any risks whatsoever.”
He added: “After what happened last season (when they lost 3-0 in the final to Chichester City), I’m sure that all of the players will go for the victory and give us the best possible chance of winning the trophy back.”
With crunch games against title rivals Spurs and Charlton Athletic coming up in the next fortnight, Marrs may well look to his reserves to play a key part in Sunday’s county cup clash.
But with the development team currently doing a good job of defending their FAW Premier Reserves League title, with three wins in their four games to date, I’m not sure that will make Wivi’s task that much easier.
Fit and talented
Bashford said: “We are playing Brighton, so anybody who plays for them is going to be a talented footballer. We just have to embrace the challenge and try our best against whatever team is put in front of us.”
She acknowledges that Wivi know little about their opponents – though she confidently expects them to be “extremely fit, well-drilled, talented, and with many game-plans up their sleeve”.
But their illustrious opponents are likely to be just as much in the dark about their hosts.
Wivelsfield will bring a mixture of skill and combative enthusiasm to the game but will struggle not only with Brighton’s mesmeric passing game but also with their supreme levels of fitness.
What Wivi might lack in those departments they will make up for in feistiness and endeavour.
However, they have been beset by injuries and illness that has ripped the heart out of the side – though most definitely not out of the club.
Super striker Emma Chrimes, their record goalscorer, is out with ankle ligament damage, midfielder Emma Skilton has a long-term knee injury, and defender Katie Lambert – one of the best players I have seen at this level – is unavailable. Leigh Farley, their top-class midfielder and now manager, has also been a long-term absentee.
And also unable to play is feisty midfielder Donna Cox, who has scored two goals in each of Wivi’s last two games, both of which they won.
But striker Jade Gardiner is in fine form and will probably line up alongside experienced striker Claudia Vogel, with much depending on Wivi’s other experienced players – the likes of Sarah Smart, Hayley Plummer and Bashford herself, who has donned the goalkeeping gloves for several games this season after going into semi-retirement in the last campaign.
Their young summer signings, who are likely to become the Wivi team of tomorrow, will also be in contention as Wivelsfield look to celebrate the opportunity rather than hide away from it.
Bashford added: “The girls have absolutely nothing to lose. Nobody expects us to get anything out of the game, so as long as the team know they tried their hardest and enjoyed themselves, then as far as I am concerned, it will be an experience they will never forget.”
Manager: Leigh Farley
Position: 4th, South East Counties Women’s League Division One West (5th tier of winter pyramid)
Sent Her Forward one to watch: She may not look like your archetypal footballer, but you under-estimate Jade Gardiner at your peril. She is resolute and determined and deceptively skilful, and has scored three times in four appearances this season.
Reasons to be cheerful
– The match of a lifetime for the Wivi players, and a rare – perhaps unique – opportunity to pit their skills against one of the best women’s teams in the English winter game.
– It’s a diversion from the ups and downs of the league, where Wivi have experienced a bizarre first couple of months. It’s fair to say it won’t be like this every week.
– There will be a decent squad to pick from. Those players up and down the country who sometimes text in sick or injured on the day of a game tend to be there for the really big occasions. Only those with serious injuries will be unavailable for selection. Unfortunately, Wivi have a few.
– It’s a chance to shine, to rise to the occasion, in front of a bigger-than-usual crowd, and maybe even catch the eye of the Brighton manager or coaching staff.
– They say you learn more in defeat than victory. Should be plenty of lessons to absorb and take into the rest of the league campaign.
– Nothing is certain in football. Catch Brighton on an off-day, or when they allow confidence to become complacency, and you might just pull off the kind of shock rarely seen in the women’s game. If you’re relying on a James Marrs side to be complacent, though, don’t hold your breath.
– It’s a chance to advertise the team in front of a few more people than usually turn up. Who knows? A gutsy performance – whatever the score – could turn a few of the casual observers into long-term Wivi fans. Just like me!
Reasons to be fearful
– Wivi know at first hand the effect a heavy cup defeat can have on their season. This season they are already falling behind in the league, but they’ve just won two on the trot. Could a big defeat at Hanbury on Sunday disrupt that momentum?
– The club probably have a share of players saying bring ’em on and others hiding in the corner, fearing the worst. Will they learn from their opponents or shrink into their shells after being nutmegged for the umpteenth time?
– Could they set an unwanted record? Brighton won a county cup game at this stage 17-0 last season. Wivi lost 12-0 to Chichester City, who went on to win it. And they have already lost 13-0, 8-2 and 9-2 to teams supposedly on the same level as them this season. Could Sunday’s score take them to a new level?
Brighton & Hove Albion
Manager: James Marrs
Position: 3rd, FAW Premier League Southern (1st tier of winter pyramid)
Sent Her Forward player to watch: Much depends on who from his embarrassment of riches Marrs selects, but if she plays, Wivi need to beware the pace and crossing of Charley Boswell, who is having an excellent season.
Reasons to be cheerful
– A comfortable win, at the very least, and a place in the next round of a competition whose trophy they are anxious to get back – and have an excellent chance of lifting.
– An opportunity for some of the fringe and development players to get first-team experience and to practise the seniors’ tactics and formations at first-hand.
– A broader opportunity to raise the profile of women’s football: to spread the word to the provinces and encourage more women and girls to play, and people of both sexes to watch.
– The honour of playing on my doorstep!
Reasons to be fearful
– They will be expected to win handsomely. Anything less than a crushing victory might feel like failure.
– Hanbury Stadium is a step or two up from Wivelsfield’s previous home at the village recreation ground – literally a public park. But the facilities are still spartan compared with what they are used to, even at some of the lesser grounds in the Premier League, and the less-than-pristine pitch will feel a million miles away from their usual home at Sussex FA headquarters in Lancing or even their old ground at Withdean.
– There’s always a risk of injury, particularly against a lower-league side looking to prove themselves in a one-off contest against superior opposition.