Brighton (Blackie, Barton 2, Somes 2, Boswell) 6-2 West Ham United (Sherwood, McCrea)
Brighton have torn many teams apart this season on their way to the top of the FAW Premier League, but their victory today in the second round of the FAW Cup represents a new dimension to their continuing evolution into a genuinely top-class side.
By the time West Ham had gone 2-0 up with little more than half an hour played, Brighton’s hopes of matching last season’s cup run looked to be in tatters. After a spirited opening, they were in big trouble, rattled by a team who intimidated them physically and never let them rest in possession.
Somehow, they managed to squeeze in two unlikely goals before half-time, but few could have anticipated the transformation that was to unfold after the break – a victory as much for the players’ mental resilience and self-belief as their considerable skill on the pitch.
There was no single catalyst for the change, although Brighton not only switched personnel but modified their shape in the second half.
The biggest factor was faith – in themselves, but especially that their style of play would pay dividends, as it did so spectacularly in that second period.
By contrast, West Ham were distraught. Their alliance of physicality and technical proficiency earned them a deserved two-goal lead.
But Jay Blackie’s reply, followed so quickly by Kirsty Barton’s equaliser, seemed to knock the stuffing out of them, and Julian Dicks’ team were a shadow of their buoyant, relentless selves in the second half.
It drew an angry response from Dicks, who accused them of laziness and warned them that none of their places was guaranteed.
In a typically honest assessment, the West Ham cult hero told Sent Her Forward his team’s performance had been embarrassing and that his players had failed to show the level of commitment that he takes as a given from his team.
In a frenetic start to the second-round tie, during which Brighton’s ability to produce their traditional high-tempo opening was hampered by West Ham’s robust approach, the most frequent sound was of referee Paul Barratt’s whistle as he awarded a series of free-kicks and had cause to speak to several players.
April Bowers was booked within five minutes for a foul on Blackie, Brighton’s playmaker. Sarah McCrea followed her 15 minutes later. And as the action hotted up, Barratt was as busy as anyone, having a word with West Ham’s Vicky Kinsman for apparent dissent and then the West Ham bench before giving Blackie a stern talking to after she berated one of the assistants for failing to spot an offside.
In the meantime, the tide was beginning to turn. Brighton’s fluency was thwarted by West Ham’s tenacity, and their refusal to adjust their tactics in the face of such pressure forced a series of mistakes.
Faye Baker saved well from Lily Mellors after being played into trouble. Moments later, Catherine Cooper, who had made an outstanding start in the central-defensive spot normally occupied by her sister, Deanna, diverted a through-ball just wide of the wrong-footed Baker’s left-hand post.
Then Kinsman did well to keep a loose ball in play and managed to find Sherwood, who threaded a through-ball beyond Brighton’s back three, but Baker was up to the challenge.
West Ham captain Stacey Little became the latest player to be spoken to before her team almost took the lead with a superb piece of opportunism.
A quick free-kick on 22 minutes found McCrea in space down the left and her brilliant first-time lob was palmed from under the bar by Baker and eventually cleared by Charlotte Gurr.
Brighton responded on the break. Fliss Gibbons found Lucy Somes with a brilliant ball, but with more time than she probably realised, her finish was disappointing.
It was a rare respite for Brighton, as West Ham’s dynamic start became increasingly threatening. Kelley Blanchflower made a marauding run from deep inside her own half before being stopped by Vicky Ashton-Jones.
And then, with 27 minutes played, came the goal that the visitors had been threatening. Kinsman found Sherwood with far too much space inside the Brighton box and she shot calmly past Baker.
West Ham ratcheted up the pressure and Brighton tottered. Cooper’s immaculately timed tackle thwarted another menacing attack, and then, in the 29th minute, from Sherwood’s pinpoint corner, Little volleyed into Baker’s arms.
Within two minutes the Londoners had doubled their lead. Another Brighton error left McCrea in space on the left wing, albeit 30 yards from goal. But she drove perfectly over Baker for a superb second.
In a rare positive moment for the home side, on 31 minutes, Gibbons turned just inside the box and fired over. But West Ham were as tenacious in defence as they were aggressive going forward, with Little and Danica Revell in particular standing firm.
Blackie, who had begun so well, faded as she became the target of much of West Ham’s close attention, and she became the third player to be booked after a late challenge.
Yet a minute later she had her revenge, inflicting the body blow that was ultimately to change the match. With half-time only eight minutes away, Brighton strung together their best move of the match, beginning with a fine pass by Lucy Somes to Gibbons on the left wing.
The striker, who seemed to be relishing the physical nature of the game, did brilliantly to shake off her marker and send over a fine cross which Blackie met first-time to score off the post.
Incredibly, four minutes later, Brighton were level, Barton passing the ball into the goal following a right-foot cross from Charley Boswell.
The hosts rediscovered their passing game, and it was a shell-shocked West Ham left hanging on for half-time, goalkeeper Nikita Runnacles saving her side on 43 minutes after Boswell played in Gibbons.
Half-time: Brighton 2-2 West Ham United
If Dicks and his coaching staff were mystified as to how their side weren’t ahead at half-time, they weren’t the only ones. It wasn’t that the home side were poor, but for half an hour they had no answer to West Ham’s intensive pressing game, with Blackie’s impact on proceedings progressively neutralised as the Hammers’ midfield afforded her less and less time on the ball.
And the Brighton captain was a half-time casualty as Danielle Carlton took her place, not only on the pitch but in her crucial position, just in front of the back three.
Within seconds of the restart that third goal that Brighton had threatened in their late first-half rally came. Boswell broke down the right and delivered a delicate ball across the goal for Somes to tap home from two yards.
West Ham were on the ropes. And three minutes later it was 4-2. Barton and Gibbons exchanged passes and the latter fed Boswell, looking offside, who finished confidently.
It was an incredible transformation. In 12 minutes, Brighton had gone from 2-0 down and on the ropes to 4-2 up, and if not quite out of sight, then just where they wanted to be.
Gibbons was playing like a woman possessed, showing great strength and control in attack but never shirking her defensive duties.
Carlton was enjoying a freedom in midfield that Blackie had rarely been afforded in the first 45 minutes. And Barton was beginning to have more effect in a more advanced role.
West Ham’s game, by contrast, was falling apart, those confident, sweetly struck first-time passes that had enabled them to break effectively at speed in the first half supplanted by anxious – and aimless – hacks forward that belied their ability but probably reflected their mental anxiety.
They introduced Jade Smith for McCrea on 53 minutes, but they had no-one to match the dominance of Barton, whose array of passing and poise on the ball stood out.
Her astute ball inside the full-back was met in full stride by Boswell, but she elected to pull the ball back rather than try her luck from a narrow angle, and the ball was scrambled clear.
And it was no surprise when Brighton extended their lead on the hour. Following another sublime sequence of one-touch passing involving Carlton, Amy Green and Somes, Barton again produced the killer pass for Somes to race on to and slot past Runnacles for 5-2.
Their by now clearly defeated opponents still managed to summon up the occasional dangerous counter-attack. Katie Bottom did well to cut out the danger from another Brighton surge and found Sherwood, whose excellent ball was so close to playing in McCrea.
But back came Brighton, and from Carlton’s accurate corner, Lauren Davis shot just over.
Gibbons did the same and then fed Boswell, who just beat Runnacles to the ball but toe-poked just wide.
Deanna Cooper, one of Brighton’s outstanding players of an outstanding league campaign, replaced Davis in the 72nd minute and illustrated the versatility that manager James Marrs likes to see in his players, moving immediately to the right wing and delivering a fine cross that Gibbons failed to bring under control.
Little, West Ham’s captain, was one of the few to maintain her standards of the first half, and she instigated a rare counter-attack with a sublime pass to Blanchflower, who cut inside and fired a powerful shot that Baker saved at full stretch.
Brighton continued to rotate their players, Cooper – normally centre-half – switching from the right wing to central striker, while Somes moved to the right wing and Gibbons to the left.
Quite honestly, it didn’t matter who played where by now. West Ham were a beaten side and Brighton were passing them to death.
The only surprise when they grabbed their sixth, four minutes from time, was that it had taken so long to come.
Barton began and finished the move, breaking up a rare West Ham foray and feeding Somes, whose cross was met by Barton’s head. Runnacles did well to parry it, but Barton, falling to the floor, still reacted more quickly than any defender and forced it over the line.
As the game moved into injury time, there was one last chance for Brighton. Charlotte Gurr, whose touch throughout had been superb, delivered a wonderful ball to Gibbons, leaving her one-on-one with Runnacles. But from nowhere, Little executed a perfect tackle to deny her opponents a seventh.
For the first half-hour, Brighton’s supporters were “treated” to the rare sight of their team in real trouble, refusing to sacrifice their passing principles in the face of sustained pressure from a West Ham side matching their physical endeavour with good technical ability and a cutting edge.
What they saw in the second half was a more familiar Brighton, lording it over demoralised opponents and playing superb one-touch, flowing football.
What they might not have noticed was the psychological strength that enabled them to ride out the considerable first-half storm, with absolute belief in their ability – and significantly, trust in their manager’s faith in them.
Marrs delegated the Brighton post-match assessment to coach Lee Hayes, who revealed that the half-time pep-talk had reminded the players of precisely those points.
He told Sent Her Forward: “We just said to the players to be more patient – to look to get involved in the play rather than go hiding, because they pressed us quite high and our passing game was getting pressurised quite a lot.
“But we said to the players to believe in their own ability and to make sure that we continued to do the things that we’re good at. And scoring early on in the second half did help. It kicked us on, and they had the confidence then to go on and play the way that we’ve always played.”
However, he acknowledged that it was the two goals just before half-time that provided the platform for the second-half transformation.
“It did give us a bit of light at the end of the tunnel, to give the players a bit of hope.”
Hayes felt the players matched West Ham’s physicality in the second half and pushed their wide players even wider to stretch their opponents, who had enjoyed much the better possession in midfield.
And he added: “We believe in our players’ ability. It’s probably the strongest squad we’ve got fit at the moment, and it was good to see they all believed what we were saying to them at half-time, that they actually carried on into the second half.”
Dicks was emphatically less happy with what he had seen from his players.
In a frank interview as he headed away from the Withdean Stadium, he told Sent Her Forward: “Today, for me, it was embarrassing, absolutely embarrassing, with their work-rate and fitness.
“Yes, we got beaten by the better side over the 90 minutes, but my players didn’t work hard enough – not all of them, but most of them.”
The former West Ham and Liverpool full-back added: “[Brighton] are by far the best team we’ve played [with] their passing and movement. But it was simple for them because if people don’t close you down, then you’re going to play around them.”
He said he was satisfied with much of his players’ contributions in the first half but accused them of failing to work hard enough after being pulled back to 2-2.
“My players were too lazy today an they got their arses kicked,” he said.
Sent Her Forward player of the match: Kirsty Barton (Brighton)
Exactly a year ago I saw – a very different – Brighton for the first time, winning a second-round cup tie against Tottenham Hotspur. Barton was my player of the match that day.
But 12 months on, the midfielder is a totally different player. Under the guidance of Marrs, a manager she needed to win over after he brought a wealth of top-class talent with him from Gillingham, and training and playing alongside those quality players, she has blossomed into a superb footballer in her own right.
After a first half in which she and most of her team-mates were largely over-powered by their opponents, she epitomised Brighton’s strength of character when she emerged after the break, retaining her composure and refusing to be intimidated out of her game – something I’m not sure would have happened 12 months ago.
Her two goals reflected her new levels of confidence, and in turn they boosted her self-belief. Yes, she gave the ball away – too often for comfort – but she never wavered from her focus to help Brighton play their way back into the game, prompting, supporting and delivering an array of astute passes to the team’s dangerous attackers.
In fact, few players were immune from error-making in a game of such contrasting periods of play, and goalkeeper Faye Baker made her fair share, often playing team-mates into trouble as Brighton built from the back. But like Barton, she never wavered from her absolute belief in Marrs’ values, playing only one hurried clearance long in the whole match, and making a succession of vital saves.
Jay Blackie, who will no doubt analyse her short-lived performance to death after being substituted at half-time, actually made a major contribution to Brighton. Her role of fetching, carrying and always being the go-to player is an extremely exposed and unselfish one. But she fulfilled it admirably in the opening phases where her team enjoyed some decent possession, before being largely nullified by the extremely close attention of West Ham’s midfield.
Catherine Cooper was as superb at the back as Fliss Gibbons was at the front, while Lucy Somes took her goals confidently and caused the Hammers defence no end of problems in the second half.
Danica Revell made some key interventions as Brighton’s attackers got into full flow, while Sarah McCrea and Emma Sherwood took their goals well as West Ham threatened at one stage to turn the game into a massacre.
But Stacey Little stood out for the Hammers, through good times and bad, showing strength in the tackle and speed of thought.
Sent Her Forward match rating: 8/10 The opening half-hour was a little frenetic, with the referee called on to intervene rather too often. But the game ebbed and flowed, with no little decent football played, producing an enthralling comeback to cap it off.