Brighton Reserves (Blackie 4, Somes 3, Perry, Talbut-Smith, Baker-Carroll) 10-0 Gillingham Reserves
Reserve leagues are a minefield for clubs and their managers. Are they really just platforms for younger players to learn their trade and fight their way into first teams, or does the very existence of a league format mean they should be taken seriously as competitions in themselves?
It’s a conundrum that few have quite got to grips with. They’re an ideal opportunity for senior players returning after injury to get match practice, and they’re useful for keeping fringe players match-fit.
But if their primary purpose is to aid development of youngsters, they can prove a double-edged sword – providing the kids with valuable experience against established players, but risking damaging morale if those senior figures play even close to their full potential.
And it was the latter that Gillingham’s reserve team manager was concerned about after his teenage battlers were comprehensively beaten by a Brighton side featuring at least half a dozen players with first-team experience.
Jason Wright questioned why his opponents felt the need to field such a strong side against a bunch of girls, most of whom have just emerged from the club’s centre of excellence.
Brighton continued their march towards retaining FAW Premier Reserves League title that they won with a weaker team last year, scoring five unanswered goals in each half against a club still reeling from losing most of last season’s first-team players to today’s opponents.
While senior team manager Simon Ratcliffe is beginning to mould a competitive outfit at the Priestfield Stadium, the club’s youthful second string are inevitably going to struggle even more – and while their battling qualities and commitment cannot be faulted, that is exactly what they did at the Withdean today.
Jay Blackie, who less than a year ago was leading Gillingham’s first team to second place in the Premier League and an FAW Cup run that was halted only when they came up against Arsenal, the eventual winners, helped herself to four goals; Lucy Somes – another first-team regular – scored three, and there were goals, too, for Holly Talbut-Smith, Paige Baker-Carroll and Sophie Perry – a Republic of Ireland international.
The Gills were never really in it – and to be honest, began the match as though they never really expected to be.
In an almost carbon-copy of the respective first teams’ encounter at the start of the season, the visitors appeared so much in awe of their opponents at the start that they were almost falling over themselves to give it away.
In mitigation, Brighton began the match with the sort of determination that has become a hallmark of the first team under James Marrs. They strung passes around, pulled their opponents out of position, and took three early goals clinically.
Gillingham barely had a chance to settle and were spared a bigger hammering in part because Brighton eased off in the middle of both halves – and because they have a talented goalkeeper who made as many crucial saves as she conceded goals.
“Morale-wise, that’s killed them today,” Wright told Sent her Forward. “I’m the one that’s now got to pick them back up, ready for what I call one of our division matches (against Bedford Reserves) next week.”
“The majority of my side are 16 and 17. They’ve come up from the Centre of Excellence. There are three who are 18 in the side.”
Wright acknowledged: “They’ll learn some things from this. They’ve had to compete against very good players. But it’s just not very fair.”
But Gillingham should not take it personally. Brighton have regularly fielded a handful of players with first-team experience during their title defence.
They racked up 11 without reply against Chichester City’s development side, nine against Lewes and eight against C&K Basildon.
They also beat Gillingham 7-1 in the first match of the season.
But their reserve team head coach, Ed Stimpson, says it’s less about winning trophies than ensuring players are ready to step up to the white heat of the Premier League, where Brighton are competing against the likes of Cardiff City, Charlton Athletic and Portsmouth for the chance of an end-of-season play-off that could take them into the FAW Super League.
He told Sent Her Forward: “We always set the girls targets, and the development-squad girls do benefit from the first-team girls coming down as well.
“They’re positive role models, and they talk them through the games.”
He said that with Brighton’s first-team game called off today, it was an opportunity to provide some of the senior players with match time after the Christmas and New Year break.
Among them was Blackie, Brighton’s first-team captain, who helped herself to four goals – including a first-half hat-trick.
She began the match in an advanced position, just behind Lucy Somes, the main striker, and close to Holly Talbut-Smith, one of Brighton’s talented youngsters who is knocking on the door of the first team – or at least, would be if there were not so many quality players ahead of her – before switching to a deeper role until she was substituted after an hour.
“She’s talking to them, she’s making runs and communicating, so the players learn a lot from that,” said Stimpson. “She’s a very intelligent player.”
While Blackie inevitably had a big influence on proceedings, it was the two wide players – Talbut-Smith and Perry – who ripped the heart out of Gillingham, giving them a torrid afternoon, particularly in the first half.
Blackie pounced on a ricochet after good work from Perry to put Brighton ahead on four minutes, and the Irish international again provided the assist for Somes to double the lead after nine minutes.
Perry turned scorer for the third, nine minutes later, even providing her own assist after reacting most quickly when her header came back off the bar.
Gillingham had their first – and possibly only – chance of the first half on 21 minutes when Georgia Pilbeam found Kayleigh Galvin on the left wing with a superb ball. But after cutting inside, her shot was easily gathered by Molly Towers in the Brighton goal.
Her opposite number, Courtney Shanley, was by far the busier goalkeeper, and she made the first of a string of fine saves just a minute later, tipping Perry’s fierce shot over the bar, and followed it with another seconds later, getting down well to another effort by the same player.
Gillingham were struggling to string together any meaningful passing sequences and were made to work all the harder to try to win the ball back.
Their cause was made even harder when Hollie Musmeci was adjudged to have fouled Blackie as she broke into the area, and the midfielder dispatched the perfect penalty in the right-hand corner, just beyond Shanley’s reach, to make it 4-0.
While Perry was causing mayhem down the left flank, Talbut-Smith was doing much the same down the right, both benefiting from astute passes behind the full-backs from midfield.
Their width enabled Brighton to set up a host of chances. Orla Dimond shot just over after good work by Isabelle Burt and Blackie.
Then Blackie was denied her hat-trick by another fine save from Shanley, who then tipped Blackie’s snapshot on to the bar.
Brighton turned the screw. Burt was just wide when she tried her luck from the edge of the area, and then Shanley made another excellent save, from close range, to deny Somes after another good combination between Burt and Talbut-Smith.
In-between, Brighton had a slight reprieve when Dimond received nothing more than a talking to from the referee after kicking out following a foul on her.
Shanley continued her heroics, saving well from Somes, before Charlotte Long – one of the Gills’ few players with first-team experience – was shown a yellow card following a heavy challenge. Long, who was sent off in the corresponding first-team fixture between the two clubs, was immediately substituted.
Then, right on half-time, Brighton grabbed their fifth, as Blackie finally got her hat-trick after being fed by Somes.
Half-time: Brighton Reserves 5-0 Gillingham Reserves
The half-time break seemed to do both sides some good. Brighton, who appeared to fade in the latter stages of the first half, came out refreshed and energetic, while Gillingham at last tried to get their passing game going.
They still relied on Shanley to keep the score down, though, the keeper coming off best in a series of one-against-one confrontations.
But the half was less than 10 minutes old when the floodgates opened and Brighton scored three goals in three minutes.
Burt set up Blackie, whose effort was again stopped by Shanley, but the ball came back to the first-team captain, who made no mistake for 6-0.
Less than a minute later, Somes had her second with the most spectacular of the match, hammering a 30-yarder past Shanley.
And before the dust had settled, Talbut-Smith made it eight, finishing off another excellent move down the left.
The visitors were focusing on damage limitation, offering precious little support for their lone striker Ashleigh Loosemore.
But Brighton’s football was now at its most fluent, building confidently from the back, mirroring the senior side’s approach, and stretching their opponents with quick delivery from midfield to the flanks, where by now Perry and Talbut-Smith had swapped wings.
Former Gill Vicky Ashton-Jones, who finally made her first-team debut for Brighton just before Christmas after more than a year out with a knee injury, galloped unchallenged from her central-defensive position to the edge of the Gillingham box in a run reminiscent of Deanna Cooper’s frequent forays in the first team.
Then substitute Paige Baker-Carroll delivered a superb cross on the run from the left wing, but Shanley cut out the danger.
After 13 minutes without a goal, the ninth finally came on 69 minutes, Baker-Carroll heading home from almost on the line.
Inevitably, the home side stepped off the gas, as they had appeared to do in the first half, signalling Gillingham’s best spell of the match – more often than not involving Pilbeam and Loosemore.
And on 85 minutes they produced their best move, Chloe Cavenagh sending a brilliant diagonal ball to Lydia Wills on the right, but the substitute’s cross sailed over the Brighton bar.
The hosts exacted the ultimate punishment, moving into double figures a minute later, Shanley again parrying a fierce shot, but Somes slamming home the rebound for her hat-trick.
There was still time for two more crucial saves. Firstly, Talbut-Smith took Shanley out of the game with a superb shimmy, but Emily Lyons was on hand to clear brilliantly on the line.
Then, in the last action of the game, Shanley again foiled Talbut-Smith in a one-on-one.
The result reflects the mismatch that has become a regular feature of the FAW Premier Reserves League this season, with the bigger, stronger clubs using their greater resources to good effect.
Brighton deserved 10 and could have had 20, had it not beeen for the superb display by Gillingham’s 18-year-old goalkeeper.
Gillingham began like startled rabbits and finished with a degree of credit, chasing every ball and enjoying their best spell of the game in the closing minutes.
Jason Wright, their manager, was clearly not best pleased with the strength of the side his opponents fielded but accepts it’s an option that resourceful clubs are able to use.
“I knew what was going to happen today, with both first-team matches off,” he said. “I could have done the same – I could have brought in the first team. But Simon (Ratcliffe, the first-team manager) and myself will always play our reserve teams in the reserve division.
“It’s a development division, not one to come and get smashed by a team that’s top of the Premier League.”
He praised his defence for holding their shape and all the players for never giving up. But he felt that while the young players would be the richer for their experience of playing against some of the Premier League’s top players, their development could probably have done without the footballing lesson they were given.
Brighton did what was necessary to keep the pressure on West Ham United at the top of the Reserves League.
Stimpson, their head coach, said: “With the first-team game being off today, the first-team players that came down were the ones that were looking to get minutes in. Some have been coming back from injury, as well.
“Vicky has been out for the last 16 months or so. She’s played for us for a couple of weeks now, and she is going back in the first team, but it’s a matter of getting her match-fitness up, along with Amy Taylor, as well.”
He added: “They’ve got a tough run-in now until the end of the season, so it’s keeping their fitness up – and it’s good for them to play with the [development squad] girls, because they can learn a lot.”
But he insisted winning the reserves league was incidental. “It’s not the number-one goal, but we won it last year, so we’d like to win it again. But the main thing is trying to get the girls into the first team.
“The long-term goal for me and Dan (Wright, the women’s coach) is to get [the development players] into the first team, so we need to try and play as close to [how the first team play] as possible, so that when they do get the opportunities they can hopefully fit in quite seamlessly.”
Sent Her Forward player of the match: Courtney Shanley (Gillingham Reserves)
She let in 10 but prevented at least as many again. Shanley is a good shot-stopper who also makes a formidable opponent in one-on-ones. Like many keepers in the women’s game, her kicking needs improvement, but at 18, she has a promising future in the game.
Sophie Perry did most of the early damage, not only creating two and scoring the other in the opening 20 minutes, but whittling away Gillingham’s fragile confidence. Holly Talbut-Smith did much the same on the opposite flank and looks a top player for the future.
First-teamers Jay Blackie and Vicky Ashton-Jones also showed their class, as in spells, did Orla Dimond, Isabelle Burt and Lucy Somes, who took her goals well.
There were few chances to shine in the Gillingham ranks. Bonnie Long made a couple of decisive tackles and Emily Lyons‘ brilliant goal-line clearance epitomised her approach.
Georgia Pilbeam, Ashleigh Loosemore and latterly, Lydia Wills, were their creative outlets.
Sent Her Forward match rating: 6/10 Some fine football and heroic effort, but the game was too one-sided to be compelling.