Burgess Hill Town 0 Chichester City 6 (Ellis, Ambler, Cheshire 2, Payne, Barron)
The last time Chichester City played a game in the Sussex Women’s Challenge Cup they were the underdogs. But winning that final, at Sussex FA headquarters, to steal Brighton’s county cup crown has changed things.
Chichester are no longer underdogs to anyone. As county cup holders, they are the team to beat – and that means they can expect more thorough examinations, even from clubs way below their level, as they encountered in the first half at Leylands Park.
Burgess Hill, struggling after a bright start to their South East Counties League campaign, performed admirably in that first 45 minutes, confining their opponents to a one-goal lead and giving the Chichester defence plenty to think about, too.
They could even have gone in level had Keeley Wheatley’s opportunist snap-shot volley from 20 yards not hit the top of the crossbar.
But they knew that whatever else their illustrious visitors threw at them, fitness would be key towards the end. Their manager, Mark Bishop, felt that if they could just ride out the first quarter of an hour after half-time, they could still be in the game.
Chichester’s lightning start to the second half soon put paid to that, and by the hour mark it was a question of how many the cup holders would score in their first defence of the trophy.
That they scored “just” six speaks volumes for Burgess Hill’s character and commitment in the face of an effervescent second-half display, prompted by the sometimes unplayable Lauren Cheshire, not to mention the admirably consistent goalkeeping standards of stalwart Tracey Smith.
Smith denied the Chichester strikers time and again as they queued up for a shot on goal. Kally Ambler was particularly unfortunate to encounter the keeper in such fine form.
But the brittleness of Hill’s squad – no doubt a factor in their league struggles this season – restricted their opportunities to freshen things up and present the cup holders with a new challenge.
And once the third Chichester goal went in with not even 50 minutes played, they foresook their star striker, Wheatley, who moved to the neighbouring pitch to liven up the second team’s attack.
Cross on a plate
For Chichester, it will probably go down as a routine win – all the more welcome for their inconsistent league form. But they will probably be thankful that they were tested in that first half after not playing for a couple of weeks and delighted that they were able to step up several gears in the second to finish off the job.
Fielding just four of the side who won the cup in March, they took the lead after seven minutes, having already had a few sighters. Cheshire was the instigator, breaking down the right and putting her cross on a plate for Lauren Ellis, who timed her run to perfection, to turn in.
Smith denied Ambler for the first – though certainly not last – time a few minutes later when she stuck out a foot to divert the striker’s goal-bound effort behind. From Cheshire’s corner, Emma Alexandre, who had headed her first one just over, nodded wide.
Ambler was enjoying a bright opening, carving through the Burgess Hill defensive line almost at will, while centre-back Alexandre was making several forays into the opposition half.
But the hosts refused to cave in and put together some nice moves of their own, Sadide Ashby, Wheatley and Shannon McFadden combining particularly well.
And they gave Chichester a shock on 15 minutes when Wheatley hit a bouncing ball first time, over goalkeeper Nea Piiroinen and on to the bar for a goal-kick.
It was all too rare a threat, though, as Burgess Hill struggled to provide the necessary support for the lively Wheatley, who impressed against two top-class centre-backs in Alexandre and Sienna Howell.
Howell in particular, read the game superbly and was able to intercept more often than she needed to dive in, her cool head providing a springboard for Chichester’s counter-attacks.
At the other end, Smith again did superbly, getting down low to keep out another Ambler effort.
With Alexandre and Howell so steady at the back and Becky Barron and Natalie Clarke complementing each other well in midfield, Burgess Hill were limited to occasional ambitious shots that barely troubled Piiroinen.
But they deserve great credit not only for their competitiveness but also their attempts to continue playing the ball out from the back.
It was a luxury that the new-look, jet-powered second-half Chichester were soon to deny them.
Naomi Robinson made several enterprising runs for the home side, only to find a crowded greeting party every time she broke through, and Mica Saunders was doing an excellent job of shackling right-winger Lucy Harnett.
As half-time approached, Wheatley scuffed a half-chance after her run was brilliantly spotted by Smith, and then Chichester went close to extending their lead as Ellis turned well and fired across goal, but Payne just failed to get a toe to it.
Half-time: Burgess Hill Town 0-1 Chichester City
Any hope Burgess Hill had of springing a surprise disappeared within the first four minutes of the second half. They had been playing for less than a minute when Ambler had a chance to do what she does best, latching on to a through-ball, outmuscling her marker, Ellie Card, and firing a shot under Smith’s despairing dive.
Cheshire and Harnett had swapped places at the interval, the pacy Cheshire now playing further forward and Harnett at right-back. The former combined well with Ambler to draw another save from Smith, but by the 49th minute the game was effectively over as Cheshire shook off the attentions of Saunders to fire a perfectly judged angled drive beyond Smith into the far corner.
With the game gone, Bishop withdrew Wheatley to bolster the club’s reserves – who kicked off an hour later – and brought on Chloe Farrell.
Chichester responded, bringing on Emily Symonds and Naomi Greene, both of whom were to add to the home team’s problems.
Smith surpassed even her earlier efforts to tip over a screamer from Greene, who then dispossessed Robinson and fed Cheshire, whose superb low shot narrowly missed the right-hand post.
A minute later, with 72 on the clock, Cheshire had her second, showing expert technique to volley in at the far post from a pinpoint cross from Symonds.
Even at 4-0 down, and reeling from the pace and power of Cheshire and Ambler, Burgess Hill continued to play their football, and Charlotte Pollendine and Dani Bishop were showing some nice touches in midfield.
As if a reminder were needed, the visitors reiterated their threat as they broke at pace, sweeping the ball in a thrilling one-touch sequence from Alexandre to Greene and on to Cheshire before Barron concluded the move with a first-time shot straight at Smith.
Cheshire, who thus far had taken all Chichester’s corners, maintained her threat at set-pieces in the 80th minute, reaching Barron’s flag-kick ahead of her marker but heading over.
A minute later, Chichester had their fifth. Cheshire – who else? – broke through once more and threaded a delicate pass into the path of Sian Payne, who finished expertly.
It was attack v defence now, with Harnett, now theoretically encumbered by a more defensive role, showing more attacking threat from right-back than she had from the right wing in the first half.
But still Burgess Hill tried to play their football. However, with no reliable outlet up front following Wheatley’s substitution, and the back four under immense pressure every time they received the ball, it was admirable that they continued to try to play around the green-and-white blizzard that frequently engulfed them, Robinson playing an increasingly influential role.
But with time almost up, the cup holders finished in style. Cheshire once again raced to the byeline, but without time even to look up, she heard Barron‘s call and pulled the ball back perfectly into the path of the midfielder to add the sixth.
The two-tier difference between the sides was eventually reflected in the scoreline, and Chichester will face a tougher challenge in their quest to retain the county cup if they face Brighton en route.
But Burgess Hill did themselves and their league proud with their performance against a side that are so thoroughly drilled that you can almost tell what they are going to do – even if you have no power to stop them doing it.
Secretary Peter Hickman and manager Mark Bishop were rightly proud of Burgess Hill’s performance, both expressing their admiration for their first-half showing.
That they were unable to match it in the second owed much more to Chichester’s increased intensity than it did any shortcomings in their own efforts.
Bishop told Sent her Forward: “We did really well. We knew we had to keep it up for the first 15 minutes in the second half because their fitness is so much better and we knew we’d have our backs against the wall.
“It didn’t work, but I was well chuffed. We had a hard game on Wednesday, and we still need one or two players. But we always play to the final whistle, we were playing for pride. And if someone had said to me before the game take 6-0, I would have.”
Chichester’s assistant coach, Liam Greenfield, also paid tribute to Burgess Hill’s performance. He said: “They were very organised and played some quite good football. Their goalkeeper played particularly well.”
He said the coaching team were not entirely satisfied with Chichester’s performance, although he rightly exempted centre-backs Alexandre and Howell from criticism.
“The whole performance we are not particularly happy about overall,” he said. “We had to up our tempo after half-time.”
And he suggested that the management would take the opportunity in next week’s friendly against AFC Wimbledon to give more of the development side a chance alongside some first-team players.
Sent Her Forward player of the match: Lauren Cheshire (Chichester City)
In the first half she had merely been very good. In the second she was sensational, and the South East Counties League defence won’t be the only one to struggle to deal with her pace and accuracy.
But Chichester’s attacking platform was built on a defence in which Emma Alexandre and Sienna Howell were excellent and a midfield in which Natalie Clarke shone with her tenacity and simplicity of passing and Becky Barron continued to enhance her growing reputation with another composed and mature performance as playmaker.
Tracey Smith was once again superb for Burgess Hill before she joined Keeley Wheatley – who had not looked out of place on the same pitch as Chichester’s classy outfit – in the reserves. Mica Saunders did an excellent job of containing Harnett in the first half before being subjected to the full force of Cheshire in the second, and Naomi Robinson also showed glimpses of class on a pitch full of the stuff.
Sent Her Forward match rating: 8/10 A first-class cup tie between two enterprising teams, and it was no disgrace to lose so heavily to a side deserving of the title Sussex County Cup holders.