Lewes’s decision to pull out of the Sussex County Cup before their quarter-final clash with rivals Brighton has cost them a fine – and reopened the debate over the future of the competition.
After boycotting the cup last season because the club feared the competition’s existing format could jeopardise their league campaign, Lewes entered this season, electing to field their newly formed development squad rather than their first team.
But after being given a bye to the second round, Lewes pulled out ahead of their trip to Brighton, handing their great rivals and competition favourites a free passage to the semi-finals and landing their own club with a fine for breaching Sussex FA competition rules.
The Premier League club told Sussex FA they didn’t feel able to subject their young development side to Brighton’s high-flying senior team – a decision that “disappointed” Sussex FA football committee chairman Gareth Flemington, who revealed he had not realised that they had entered their second string until he received the e-mail from the club saying they were pulling out.
He has arranged talks with Lewes and FA representatives to learn more about their reasons and concerns about the county cup as it currently stands.
But he told Sent Her Forward: “I personally would have expected both Brighton and Lewes to enter their senior teams into our senior competition.”
Lewes have been sceptical about the format of the Sussex Women’s Challenge Cup for some time, arguing that the major sides’ first teams should not be able to participate to avoid the sort of mismatch that frequently occurs in such an all-embracing competition.
The club have also advocated seeding to give lesser sides a chance to progress before facing one of the cup’s likely finalists and a switch to midweek games to avoid impingeing on league competition – particularly with the prospect of an end-of-season backlog caused by the inevitable winter postponements.
After declining to enter last season’s competition – won for the first time by Chichester City, who beat Brighton in the final – Lewes decided to rejoin this year, but entered their development side, which was originally envisaged to comprise a mix of experienced and emerging fringe players and developing youngsters.
Jacquie Agnew, the club’s ladies’ head of football operations, told Sent Her Forward: “At the time that I entered us into the competition, we were never going to put our first team in, because of the reasons I’ve outlined.
“We said we would probably look at putting our development squad in because that would make more sense.”
But following a summer of upheaval, with Agnew switching from manager to her new administrative role, appointing replacement manager John Donoghue, new coaching staff and a number of new players to fill the development squad – together with the establishment of a teenage feeder side – the club do not yet have the kind of mix of players in the second string that they initially envisaged.
She said: “We’ve ended up with a lot of 18-year-olds (in the development squad), which we’re very pleased about, because it bodes well for the future.”
But once they were drawn against Brighton – who had mauled them 9-0 a few weeks earlier in the FAW Premier Reserves League, fielding a number of first-team players – she felt it could have done untold damage to the youngsters to have gone ahead.
“A hell of a lot of work has gone into coaching them, a lot of work is going into structures, and it’s all starting to take shape,” Agnew told Sent Her Forward. “It has taken us weeks to get to that. And then to be faced with [Brighton’s first team] it would have been humiliating.”
She added: “I don’t think it would have been a very competitive match for Brighton, and I don’t think it would have been a very good fixture for us, simply because of where we are with our development. This has just come too soon for us.”
The experience of the development side a few weeks ago was clearly fresh in the club’s mind when Agnew took what she said was a very difficult decision to pull out and incur the undisclosed financial penalty – which she readily accepts.
The second string were hammered 9-0 in the FAW Premier Reserves League by a Brighton side containing a number of senior players on a day when first-team manager James Marrs took charge while the reserves’ usual coach took a first team featuring a number of inexperienced players to play relative minnows Wivelsfield Green in an earlier round of the county cup.
Agnew said: “It’s up to Brighton what they do. They’ve got every right to do what they want to do. Looking at what James (Marrs, the manager) did on the day, he did exactly what I would have done – split the first team into two… because had he taken his strongest unit to either one of those fixtures, one of those teams would have got absolutely walloped.
“But I don’t want my 18-year-olds to go through a really humiliating experience, because no-one gains from that.”
She said: “John (Donoghue)’s remit is to concentrate on the league first; then the FA Cup, because you actually earn some money from it, and any other bits and pieces we just have to try to spread around, offering it to the reserves, etcetera.”
Mr Flemington, who has called a meeting for next month involving Agnew, Sussex FA women’s development officer Clare Nicholls and Thura Win, the chairman of Sussex FA’s women and girls working committee and a member of the FA’s women’s committee and judicial panel, remains to be convinced.
He told Sent Her Forward: “As far as the women’s [game] is concerned, we need to boost it up, and it is a bit disappointing with Lewes’s attitude that because it’s Brighton, we’re not playing.”
Mr Flemington said seeding was impractical with so few teams taking part – only 14 adult sides in the whole of Sussex entered this season’s county cup.
“Unfortunately, with 14 teams, that would be the semi-final where they’d be meeting, and I don’t think that that’s fair that any team should get a bye to the semi-final.
“If everybody entered the competition, we could look at that, like they do with the FA Cup, and look at bringing the bigger teams in later on. But what is a big side? Lewes are only putting out their development team.
“It makes a mockery of our competition by doing that sort of thing.”
Mr Flemington added: “We need the backing of everybody. We can run the competition, but if clubs are turning round and saying, ‘We’re not going to enter because we don’t think we’re going to win,’ well, that’s not what football’s about.”
He has called a meeting of Sussex FA’s football committee for the day before the Lewes talks regarding plans for the future of women’s and girls’ football in the county, and he hopes there might be sufficient interest to establish competitions at each age group that culminate in finals at Sussex FA headquarters in Lancing.
But he is keen that the association learns from the Lewes withdrawal to ensure that whatever developments the Sussex FA provide will enjoy the support they need.
“I want to see what [Agnew] thinks we should be doing because I’m always open to any suggestion. Obviously, the biggest thing is whether we can afford to do it, but it is my intention that we have a lot more competitions for women and girls.”
For her part, Agnew is relishing the chance to convey to county and national administrators the constraints within which women’s teams have to operate.
But despite the apparent willingness of the Sussex FA to provide competitions that suit the requirements of its constituent clubs, the lethargy the current format has induced in many – leading to such small entries in recent years – together with the perennial challenge for clubs to maintain young players’ interest in the game into adulthood, suggest there will need to be a series of similar meetings before an ideal compromise is hammered out.