Lewes Development 0-4 Crawley Wasps (Davies, Kendall, Robinson 2)
Women’s football in Sussex may be having a bit of a tough time, with two clubs accused of playing ineligible players, another folding and the Under-18 Division scrapped through lack of interest.
But what remains of the Sussex County Women and Girls League continue to be fine ambassadors for it.
The SCWGFL may be down to eight teams, but there is an excellent battle going on between potentially five of them for the league title, and possible promotion to regional football.
And the beauty is, many of those sides are full of young players.
Witness today’s clash at Ewhurst Playing Fields, where Crawley Wasps’ first team passed over the chance to play their postponed fixture against Hassocks so that their second team could host Lewes’ development side, who were unable to stage the game at its scheduled Convent Fields venue.
Wasps currently lead a rather uncertain league table, which has been redrawn not once, but twice in recent weeks to remove all reference to matches involving Predators, who pulled out of the league earlier this month, and to three games involving Worthing Town and Wasps themselves, who are accused of exceeding limits on fielding players with recent first-team experience.
They are top despite the removal of their league record-equalling 21-0 win over Henfield just before Christmas – although a key victory of one of their rivals, Lancing, is also excluded pending the SCWGFL hearing.
Despite the off-field dramas, which have shaken officials of both Crawley and Worthing, who argue there was no intention to deceive, the division is still throwing up some cracking games – and today’s was no exception.
Wasps’ side features the core of the team who last season won the Under-18 Division in a dramatic play-off against Hangleton Rangers, who themselves remain Crawley’s closest rivals under their new guise of Lancing.
Three goals in three minutes
Boosted by the occasional first-team player (notwithstanding the recent apparent oversight that has landed them in hot water with the league), Wasps have won eight of their 10 fixtures so far, including games against Lancing – regarded by many as favourites for the title – and Lewes, their opponents again today.
And with no other games in the league surviving, Crawley extended their lead with a deserved 4-0 victory, thanks to a three-goal burst in as many minutes just before half-time, which, while reflecting Wasps’ growing dominance in the game, knocked the stuffing out of their spirited opponents.
Until that point, the East Sussex side, who have stepped up two levels after winning the Under-16 Division last season, had weathered the Crawley storm with some resolute defending and outstanding saves by goalkeeper Katie Burr.
The three-goal salvo meant the match was over by half-time, but Martin Perkins’ players continued to make it as hard for Crawley in the second period as they had until the point that the dam had burst in the 41st minute.
In fact, Lewes had started – as, indeed, they finished it – brightly and had posed Wasps’ superbly organised defence some early problems before they settled.
Amy Perkins, Lewes’s playmaker, who started the game on the left wing, caused panic with a volleyed cross that was poked wide.
Then the same player conjured up a sublime pass from the same flank that just eluded the stretching Ellie French.
While Wasps had enjoyed their fair share of possession in the opening stages, it was not until the 13th minute that they sounded their first warning of what was to come when Suzy Davies and Zoe Martin combined well down the left, the latter finally thwarted by a wonderful tackle by Ellie Bonwick.
French and Perkins were continuing to cause problems at the other end, the former setting the latter free with a perceptive reverse pass after taking the ball with her back to goal.
But the pace and skill of Davies, one of the first team’s outstanding players this season, and Rebekah Dunt, who has also featured for the senior side, were beginning to stretch Lewes, who for a while were reduced to long, hopeful balls towards French and Charlotte Russell.
Beth Jago was impressing in the Lewes defence and snuffed out a real threat after Dunt had stolen the ball from Maisie Preston.
Megan Gates tested Crawley keeper Izzy Lowen with a hopeful curler from 25 yards after winning another midfield tussle, but Lowen held it comfortably.
But the tide was beginning to turn and Wasps were posing a much more incisive attacking threat, with Dunt and Davies combining well down the Lewes right and Emma Kendall beginning to take a grip on the midfield.
Davies created a yard of space with some clever trickery on the edge of the area, but her shot lacked pace and was comfortably held by Burr.
Davies must have thought she had beaten her with her next effort, on 32 minutes, a full-blooded strike from just outside the box, which Burr somehow kept out at full stretch – a truly stunning save. Dunt put the rebound past the post.
Wasps were in complete control, forcing a succession of corners, but couldn’t find a way past Lewes’ spirited defence.
Then after French had been replaced, Lewes were forced into another subsitution when Jago was injured making a superb tackle to prevent another shooting chance.
It proved a turning point. Dunt’s shot on the turn on 41 minutes was deflected for another corner, and Kendall’s fine delivery was never properly cleared, the ball eventually falling to Davies, who rifled her effort past Burr.
Within seconds, Crawley had doubled their lead, Kendall letting fly from some 30 yards to make it 2-0.
Worst was to come only a minute later for shell-shocked Lewes. Wasps put together another incisive one-touch sequence involving Davies, Dunt and Nicholle Smith, who presented top-scorer Emily Robinson with the sort of opportunity she rarely passes up. She didn’t.
Five minutes had elapsed since Jago had been forced off and Crawley had taken full advantage, firing in three goals in three minutes, right on half-time.
And things went from bad to worse when the stylish Perkins had to be replaced after aggravating a long-standing knee injury.
Half-time: Lewes 0-3 Crawley Wasps
Wasps continued where they had left off after the break, penning their opponents in their own half. They had an early chance to add to their lead, from a free-kick 25 yards out, but Kendall’s drilled kick just eluded a queue of heads at the far post and sailed out for a goal-kick.
Lewes were struggling without the physical and technical virtues of Perkins and Jago, and while French, restored after being substituted midway through the first half, continued to look lively up front, Wasps had more than sufficient resources to deal with her occasional threats.
But despite their possession, Crawley were finding it difficult to extend their lead, with the Lewes back four performing resolutely, and in the case of left-back Lily Smith, outstandingly.
It was the Lewes right that was taking the brunt of the pressure, with Rebekah Dunt enjoying excellent possession and proving difficult to shake off the ball.
On 64 minutes, Dunt turned quickly and delivered another shrewd ball, this time into the path of substitute Melissa Kilner-Brown, who shot narrowly wide.
Just as it seemed Crawley were going to have to be satisfied with three, they were presented with a bonus fourth in the 65th minute, courtesy of a rare error by Burr.
The goalkeeper, who had done so much to keep Lewes in the game for the first 40 minutes, compounded her own poor goal-kick by letting the rebound, off Robinson, slip through her legs, and the striker knocked the loose ball into an empty net for her 15th goal in seven league games this season.
Burr didn’t allow her mistake to affect her game, as she continued to keep Wasps at bay, denying Kendall her second, pushing her fierce free-kick around the post, and then stretching to pluck Martin’s back-header from under the bar.
Having resisted a tidal wave of attacks by a rampant and clearly extremely fit Crawley side, Lewes could be forgiven for capitulating.
Yet, they rallied in the last quarter of an hour, Gates and French testing the Wasps defence and the increasingly impressive Smith denying Crawley’s en-masse attacks down their right flank.
Ellie Bonwick epitomised Lewes’s resilience and late revival, suddenly springing to life, cleverly evading a challenge before putting in a fierce tackle of her own to win back the ball from the outstanding Kendall.
That was the end of the Crawley midfielder’s contribution, as she limped off to be replaced by Davies, who had been rested for most of the second half.
Lewes even forced a couple of late corners, but rarely threatened Lowen’s goal, and Crawley survived the late revival to record a crucial victory in their bid to be top dog in the Sussex league.
On a day when very few matches – even at women’s Premier League level – survived, it was a credit to Crawley Wasps that the match, at the communal ground where their second string play, was fit.
It was a tricky surface, which made flowing football very difficult. None the less, both sides succeeded in doing so – Crawley rather more than their opponents.
The strength and fitness of their key players, who have experience of playing in the London & South East Regional Women’s League, three tiers above, proved invaluable – and the injuries to two of Lewes’ best players ultimately proved fatal.
Had it not been for some doughty defending in the first half – and some marvellous saves from Katie Burr in the Lewes goal – Crawley might well have been comfortably ahead even before that three-goal salvo just before half-time.
But they had to fight for every ball, and the fact that they managed to score just one more in the second half – and that a gift from the unfortunate Burr – was testament to their opponents’ indomitable spirit and developing maturity.
Martin Perkins felt the injuries to Jago and to his daughter, Amy, were critical. The Lewes boss told Sent Her Forward: “We had that injury to Beth, made the change and were a bit disorganised. That five- or 10-minute spell killed us.
“That was the difference, really, apart from that little mistake that the keeper (Burr) made for their fourth. But that happens.
“She had a blinder; she made some cracking saves.”
Perkins also praised his defenders, despite conceding four goals. He said: “We’ve definitely improved defensively. As a team, we’re more robust, stronger defensively. I think the injuries that we had killed it for us, really.”
He was proud to see his players continue competing right to the end. “They’re a resilient bunch,” he said. “They will keep going. They don’t know when they’re beaten.”
His opposite number, Simon Pavey, who took over Crawley’s young team in the summer after moving from Horsham Sparrows, was similarly proud of his own side.
He said: “After the first 20 or 25 minutes, I think we were dominant. We played very well. We played a passing game. Lewes play a very, very good passing game as well.”
He added: “I always thought it was going to be a good game. That great 10-minute spell that we had at the end of the first half, I think really put it to bed. [In] that 10-minute spell before half-time I think we were very, very good.
“It was what I was hoping it was going to be – two of the top teams in the league playing good football.”
Sent Her Forward player of the match: Emma Kendall (Crawley Wasps)
Where to start? There were so many contenders for the accolade. Suzy Davies‘ pace and skill rattled Lewes, while Rebekah Dunt‘s occasional first-team run-outs are paying dividends whenever she returns to play alongside her young team-mates.
But Kendall’s contribution was perhaps most decisive. Her dead-ball delivery was superb, and her goal worthy of any footballing stage. But her skill and tenacity in midfield helped sew up the key area of the pitch for Crawley.
Zoe Martin and Alicia Hawarth also warrant special mentions, as do the entire Crawley defence – which was much-changed after half-time.
Lewes lost two of their best players – Amy Perkins and Beth Jago – before half-time and struggled for sufficient quality possession thereafter to enable their creative players to make much of a mark. But Ellie French caused Crawley’s excellent defence plenty of problems, while Lewes’ defence performed admirably in the face of a strong attacking threat.
Left-back Lily Smith showed a level of composure on the ball that marks her out as a potential star of the future, while Charlotte Russell and Megan Gates also merit notable mentions for their performances in what will surely be one of their toughest games of the season. And despite her error, Katie Burr once again performed heroically, pulling off one of the saves of the season.
Sent Her Forward match rating: 7/10 Another entertaining, well contested Sussex League game on a pitch not conducive to free-flowing football, but which produced it none the less.