Crawley Wasps (Davies 2) 2-2 Carshalton Athletic 2 (E Curtis, L Curtis)
Carshalton Athletic’s rampage through the middle divisions of women’s football in the South East hit a minor hold-up as Crawley Wasps mustered enough sting at least to slow their feisty opponents’ progress.
Last season’s London & South East Division One champions and Surrey County Cup winners have adapted seamlessly to their new surroundings in the London & South East Premier Division, losing only one of their first seven fixtures before today, with games in hand of the only two teams above them, and progressing impressively in both the FAW Cup and their defence of the county cup.
Crawley, by contrast, have failed to build on last season’s club-best finish, losing key players in the close season and struggling at the beginning of the current campaign.
However, Paul Harding’s team are starting to find some consistency, despite continuing to be beset by injuries, and sit mid-table, almost certainly out of the promotion race and surely too good to be troubled by the dog-fight below them.
They gave Carshalton – who have lost only one of their 13 games in all competitions – an early glimpse of the kind of quality they are capable of, taking a 13th-minute lead through Suzy Davies, before injury to defender Michelle Ward appeared to unsettle them, and they allowed their visitors to overpower them.
By half-time, they were behind, to goals from Carshalton’s two Curtises – Emily and top-scorer Laura. But in an ill-tempered second half in which they came under sustained pressure, they showed their character, grabbing a goal against the run of play and holding out at the other end through a combination of dogged resilience and good fortune.
Harding was the happier of the two managers at the final whistle, but his opposite number, Brian Edwards, must have been satisfied that his team’s journey from the depths of local football to the verge of Premier League status was stalled rather than reversed.
Crawley began with one of their key attacking players, Toni Smith, on the bench because of illness. Carshalton, too, named a player who is not yet fully fit as their only substitute.
Both were forced into earlier-than-anticipated appearances because of an incident midway through the first half that was to change the course of the game.
Wasps began brilliantly, taking the play to their opponents in style with some of the best football I have seen outside the Premier League this season.
The pace of Rebecca Carter and Davies worried the visitors, and with Aston Worsfold pulling the strings behind them, it was no surprise when Crawley took the lead.
Carter had already served notice of what was in store in the 12th minute when she somehow made space in the Carshalton area and played a perceptive angled pass to Jade Simmons, who just failed to reach it.
Seconds later, Wasps’ top scorer seized upon a mistake at the back and fired in a shot, which goalkeeper Chantell Yardley blocked. Carter was quickest to react, but the angle was narrow and she unselfishly passed across the goal for the on-rushing Davies to bundle home.
Crawley were playing some irresistable stuff. Confidence was high, and they had no qualms about playing their way out of defence as Carshalton’s midfield struggled to support their strike force.
However, their visitors’ front pair, Laura Curtis and Ella Bale, were beginning to cause problems themselves, and they went close to equalising after 20 minutes when Curtis did brilliantly to beat two defenders and crossed superbly towards her strike partner, but the ball bounced off Bale for a goal-kick.
Crawley responded with another stylish attack, Laura Harding playing a delightful pass to Carter on the right wing, but her fine cross was headed clear.
Then the Carter-Simmons combination repeated their earlier move, but with the same result as the former’s through-ball proved just too long for the latter.
Then came what proved to be the turning point. Ward was badly hurt in a challenge by Carshalton’s Ellie Dorey and had to be replaced by Smith, who had been deemed not well enough to start.
Crawley were aggrieved that the perpetrator of the foul that put her out of the game was punished only by a yellow card, although Dorey, too, played no further part, sustaining an injury of her own in the challenge and being replaced by their sole substitute, Emma Bignall, who is on her own road back to fitness after injury.
Crawley’s resentment appeared to get the better of them, and as they took their eye off the ball, figuratively at least, Carshalton showed no mercy, seizing the initiative and testing the Wasps’ resolve with power, pace and some tenacious tackling.
Within three minutes they were level. With the Crawley defence for once caught napping, goalkeeper Catherine Poleykett parried a close-range snapshot, but only as far as Emily Curtis, who poked the loose ball home.
Carter was continuing to cause problems in the Carshalton defence, though, and forced Yardley into a save with a shot on the turn.
However, the momentum was with the visitors, and on 33 minutes Georgie O’Halloran came so close to adding to her nine goals this season, firing in a spectacular shot that rocked the cross-bar and bounced down on the line.
The game was becoming more physical – a development with which Carshalton seemed to be more comfortable than Crawley.
And their pressure paid off again in the 36th minute. Kayley Smith’s corner kick fell to Laura Curtis in the area. There could be no better person for it to fall to, and the striker calmly beat her marker and hit a shot beyond Poleykett for Carshalton’s second and her 22nd of a productive campaign.
Crawley came close to an equaliser two minutes later when Yardley held Natalie Stephenson’s free-kick, standing behind her goal-line, but the assistant referee ruled that the ball had not crossed and Carshalton survived.
Half-time: Crawley Wasps 1-2 Carshalton Athletic
The visitors hit the bar for the second time within minutes of the restart. Poleykett hesitated as she came out to meet a high through-ball but redeemed herself as she deflected Laura Curtis’s fierce drive on to the bar and over.
But with Carshalton now very much in the ascendancy, Crawley rocked them with a shock equaliser on 53 minutes that once again owed much to Carter’s tenacity, pace and unselfishness.
She intercepted a back-pass, but as she headed towards goal, she slipped, still recovering before any defender could react and poking the ball into the path of Davies, who touched home her second.
Wasps immediately made another change, introducing Rebekah Dunt, who had just played half a game for their development side before racing to Three Bridges.
But she would have found the demands of her second game rather greater than those up the road as Carshalton continued to overpower in most parts of the field.
Crawley have spirit in abundance, though, and occasionally produced a gem of composed football in the face of channelled aggression – no more so than when captain Hannah Duncan curled a precise clearance, under pressure, right on to the head of Davies, who flicked on for Simmons, who was given no time to bring it under control.
With the match on a knife-edge, the tension continued to rise, and Bale was spoken to by referee Paul Farmer after an altercation with a spectator – something that was to continue after the final whistle.
But on the field, Bale was continuing to cause Crawley all sorts of headaches, and she winced in dismay after seeing her 20-yard drive go the way of so many other efforts and bounce off the cross-bar.
The attacker was struggling to keep her emotions under control, and the referee again had to warn her for something she said.
Still she was a central figure, though, and her frustration grew when she just failed to connect with Laura Curtis’s cross.
Crawley had another escape in the 68th minute when Curtis’s volleyed cross skimmed the bar and landed on top of the net.
The striker had another chance to add to her tally seconds later when a free-kick fell to her inside the area but she could only shoot weakly and Poleykett made another comfortable save.
As the game moved into the final 10 minutes, Emily Curtis fed Bignall with a superb pass out to the right flank, but Beth Kemp timed her sliding tackle to perfection to deny the substitute a chance to run at goal.
The second half was littered with free-kicks, and Paige Atkinson became the second Carshalton player to receive a yellow card, for a cynical foul on Kemp after she had played a superb one-two with Davies.
Then it was Davies’ turn to show the defensive side of her game, denying O’Halloran as she was about to pull the trigger.
It was the last action of an absorbing and high-quality game, which was marred only slightly by the tetchiness that followed Ward’s injury.
Despite their modest position, Crawley are playing some fine football and have a core of players who would no doubt flourish if it were not for the current paucity of numbers in the first-team squad.
But Carshalton proved they are perfectly capable of continuing their impressive rise of the past three-and-a-half years, combining silk and steel and overawed by nobody.
The pace and strength of Laura Curtis is a precious asset, and she has good support from the likes of Bale and O’Halloran.
But Carshalton are no pushovers in defence, either, and should not be far from promotion, come the end of the season – if they can cope with all their cup activity, too.
Crawley boss Paul Harding felt the result, against a team he believes could finish in the top two, was fair, conceding that Ward’s injury disrupted his team. “She’s our left-back and we got a bit disjointed after she went off, moaning about challenges,” he told Sent Her Forward.
“In the second half we rode our luck a bit, but on reflection of the whole game, a draw was a fair result.”
With Crawley languishing in eighth place in the 12-team league, Harding revealed that he has more or less written off his side’s chances of promotion, enabling him to offer first-team support to the club’s development side, who are doing well in the Sussex County Women’s League.
Carshalton’s manager, Brian Edwards, is overseeing a mini-revolution at the club, with a number of youngsters ousting senior players since the club’s promotion.
“If they’re good enough, they’re old enough,” he said. But he, too, is ruing injuries that have depleted his squad, forcing him to turn to their sole substitute today much earlier than he would have liked.
While some of Crawley’s players complained about their opponents’ physicality – something Harding conspicuously did not mention to me – Edwards was more concerned about the referee’s performance, feeling his side got the worst of the decisions and did not let the game flow.
But he had mixed feelings about the result after seeing his side boss the second half and the latter stages of the first.
“If you look at the reaction of the players at the end, they looked like they had won the game,” he told Sent Her Forward. “My players were peed. I thought they deserved a bit more.”
Sent Her Forward player of the match: Rebecca Carter (Crawley Wasps)
In a game of many top-notch individual performances it’s difficult to single one out. But Carter’s combination of pace, close control and awareness of others probably set her apart. She may not have got on the scoresheet herself, but she provided Suzy Davies, who ran her close for the award, with both her goals and severely tested the excellent Carshalton defence.
Crawley’s own defenders performed well under a severe examination from the lively Laura Curtis and Ella Bale – both of whom deserve credit for their performances – with Hannah Duncan and Natalie Stephenson showing touches of class in the pressure-cooker atmosphere.
Goalkeepers Catherine Poleykett and Chantell Yardley also distinguished themselves with some good saves.
Sent Her Forward match rating: 7/10 With both sides starting by playing open, attacking football, the first half was an absolute treat to watch. However, with the simmering aggression occasionally bubbling up above the surface, the second half was punctuated by far too many free-kicks.