Rottingdean Village (Clark, Sanders) 2-1 Lewes (Miller)
Rottingdean must get fed up with the comparisons and contrasts of their style with the young whipper-snappers who have turned the Sussex County Women’s League upside down this season.
The veterans of so many county league campaigns have been there, seen it and largely done it at this, the entry level for adult footballers in Sussex, while so many of their opponents this season are rookie teenagers still adapting to life in the senior game.
With no Under-18 league this season, the Women’s Division has been swollen not only by the best of last season’s under-18s but also by the likes of Lewes, who were an under-16 outfit last term.
Week in, week out, Rottingdean’s experienced team, tough as teak and with attitude, find themselves tested by the young up-and-coming hopefuls – some still in school.
And while the Brighton side, who lost out on the title last season in a last-gasp decider, might no longer be the team to beat, they are still, for many managers, the team against whom clubs measure their own progress.
In that respect, there was satisfaction for everybody from today’s result. Rottingdean, dominant in possession but wasteful in the final third throughout the first half, stepped up their game after going into the break a goal down and grabbed a victory that might not win them the league but reminded their rivals that they’re not a team to be taken lightly.
Not that Lewes made that mistake.
Martin Perkins’ girls knew that they needed to earn the right to play their football – which they managed in spells in that first 45 minutes.
But while Rottingdean’s pressure meant there was precious little chance for them to shine after half-time, they survived the inevitable onslaught and were only a few minutes away from holding out for a draw.
The 2-1 defeat more or less ends their chances of winning the title – a most unlikely prospect when they were hit with the news, just a few weeks before the start of the season, that there would be no Under-18 Division in which to continue their steady development.
But they remain firmly planted in the top half in their debut season at senior level. And equally – perhaps more importantly – they are growing in maturity and learning how to look after themselves.
They certainly managed that, as by and large the tyros coped with the hosts’ strength in the challenge and determination in every part of the pitch.
Their defence still has much to learn about dealing with incessant pressure, and the midfield was today unable to achieve the dominance required to dictate the game at this level.
But with livewire Chloe Evans again pulling the strings up front and leading Rottingdean’s uncompromising defenders a merry dance on occasion, they carried a threat that was always likely to produce a goal.
When it came, just before half-time, it had the dual effect of providing a comfort blanket for the visitors but also waking their opponents.
Rottingdean came out of the traps for the second half in determined fashion, powering in a shot virtually from the kick-off and barely retreating into their own territory for the next 45 minutes.
It was more the Rottingdean of old rather than the plain old Rottingdean that they had been for chunks of that first half, where for all their possession, they were reduced largely to pot-shots from well outside the penalty area.
Lewes won the game’s first corner with just three minutes played, after Evans intercepted a poor back-pass. And from the flag-kick, Ellie Ramsauer’s shot was cleared off the line.
The hosts responded with a corner of their own three minutes later after good work by their indefatigable captain, Sam Morley.
Sam French’s superb kick – which was to become a feature of the game – eluded everyone, but a couple of minutes later, her second led to an excellent point-blank save from Lewes’s promising young goalkeeper Katie Burr as Morley got her head to the driven corner.
Both sides enjoyed decent possession in the opening period as the players settled into their roles, and it was Lewes who strung together the first flowing move. Miller won the ball back after conceding possession cheaply and played an astute pass into the path of Evans. But Bex Hayward made a magnificent covering tackle to snuff out the danger.
Then Fran Smith found Rottingdean’s goal machine Amy Clark, and the striker’s strong low shot was expertly tipped around the post by Burr.
The ensuing corner immmediately led to another as Rottingdean mounted their first spell of sustained pressure. But Lewes were far from over-awed, and Evans was already posing the home defence all sorts of problems with her pace, persistence and shrewd runs off the ball.
The home side were raining in shots from distance, but Burr was equal to anything they could throw at her.
French fired in an effort from 30 yards, midway through the half, which was on target but held comfortably by Burr. Then after superb interplay with Sarah McCarthy, the midfielder unleashed a powerful low drive that the goalkeeper did well to get down to.
Two minutes later, French finally beat Burr, but her shot hit the underside of the bar with the keeper stranded.
Lewes responded with another impressive passing move, started by Burr’s accurate kick to Lily Smith on the left. She fed Evans who played a first-time pass to Charlotte Russell on the left touchline, but her cross failed to find the on-rushing Evans.
The visitors were enjoying their best spell and won their second corner on 26 minutes. But Rottingdean cleared the danger and mounted a counter-attack through Clark. The striker fed Morley, whose shot again failed to beat Burr.
Back came Lewes, and inevitably it was the superb Evans at the heart of it. She embarked on a mazy run from deep within her own half before finding Russell again on the left, but her first-time pass once more failed to reach the frustrated Evans.
Rottingean’s corner count continued to mount, and from another wonderful French delivery, Morley’s header was cleared off the line.
The visitors responded in the form of a terrific run down the left by Russell. Her cross was too high for Evans but was met by Miller, who volleyed over.
Despite their dangerous forays into Rottingdean’s half, Lewes were coming under sustained pressure, but their defence held out, restricting the home side to a series of long-range shots.
Then moments after Clark had screwed another effort from distance wide, Lewes’s more incisive counter-attacks bore fruit.
Substitute Ellie French found a way through Rottingdean’s previously impenetrable left-hand side and played in Evans, who – not for the first time – unselfishly chose not to shoot but instead laid the ball off for Miller, who calmly slotted home.
The goal, just a minute before half-time, seemed to sting Rottingdean into life. Kerry Short headed just over, then denied Miller with a superbly timed tackle at the other end.
Even then there was still a chance for Lewes to double their lead. Evans broke clear and fed Ellie Bonwick, who shot weakly wide.
Half-time: Rottingdean Village 0-1 Lewes
From the restart, the home side tore into Lewes with a ferocity and determination rarely seen in the first half, Clark shooting wide with the second period only seconds old.
Almost immediately, Morley turned brilliantly inside the box and hit a shot that Burr saved at her near post. French’s corner created panic in the Lewes defence, but McCarthy shot wide when she might have expected to do better.
Rottingdean were in a different gear from the first half, closing down quickly, denying Lewes’ playmakers any space, and attacking in numbers, carrying greater threat.
McCarthy, in particular, was enjoying a purple patch down the right flank, causing Lily Smith no end of problems.
On a rare trip into Rottingdean’s half, on 54 minutes, Lewes won a corner, from which Ellie French’s shot was brilliantly blocked.
Within seconds Rottingdean were back where they were to spend most of the second half, deep inside the Lewes half. Morley made another fine charge down the Lewes right, but Russell kept with her, denying her space to cross and then finally winning the tackle.
With just over an hour gone, Gaby Fitzsimmons, another Lewes substitute, intercepted brilliantly to deny Clark a clear run on goal.
But in the 63rd minute, the goal Rottingdean had been threatening finally came. Sam French, who had been a thorn in Lewes’s side throughout, used her strength and skill to wriggle free from two defenders before unleashing a powerful angled drive that hit both posts before falling into the path of poacher Clark, who made no mistake.
The visitors responded with another of their occasional odysseys into the Rottingdean half. Evans cut inside and set up Miller, but she slipped as she shot and her effort sailed well over.
The final 20 minutes featured corner after corner and free-kick after free-kick for Rottingdean, but somehow Lewes held firm and continued to frustrate their opponents, despite increasingly shaky moments inside their own penalty area.
With 10 minutes to go, Sian Crewe replaced McCarthy as Rottingdean pressed for a winner. French again got her shot on target after another surging run, but again Burr was up to the challenge.
And with time running out, Clark was denied another chance by a magnificent tackle by Smith.
But just as it seemed Lewes might survive for a point that might have given their fading title hopes a little more credibility, Rottingdean’s second-half pressure finally paid off.
With 87 minutes gone, substitute Sabrina Sanders was afforded far too much room in the area, and her shot was deflected past Burr off Maisie Preston for the winner.
They may be poles apart in terms of experience, but Rottingdean and Lewes both have a blend of skill and strength that will help them win more games than they lose.
While the home side enjoyed more possession in both halves, Lewes looked more dangerous with their share in the first period, and their defence held out well, restricting Rottingdean to largely long-range efforts.
But Russell Brooks’ players are nothing if not fighters, and they harnessed the quality of Morley and French with hard work and tenacity to dominate the second half – but significantly, also showed much more of a cutting edge.
The Brighton side are aware that for all their experience and knowhow, they have developed a bit of what Brooks calls “a reputation”.
And they certainly know how to look after themselves.
But every time I’ve seen them play, even in feisty title-deciding matches with Adur Athletic last season, their football has been hard, but fair.
If they do stray the wrong side of the line, it is with their constant haranguing of the officials, not only over decisions they genuinely feel aggrieved about but also, it seems, almost by instinct.
Much of it seems to be borne of a frustration with themselves – and each other. And it’s probably the case that Rottingdean wouldn’t be Rottingdean without it.
But Lewes manager Martin Perkins had no complaints. He told Sent Her Forward: “We knew it was going to be a tough game. They are a much more experienced team than we are.
“We were under the cosh at times, but we held our own. At half-time we were in a good position, and we were going to do more of the same in the second half. But for whatever reason we were just a little bit short. [Rottingdean] definitely upped it and we probably didn’t respond.”
Perkins praised Rottingdean’s wholehearted approach and feels his young side are beginning to learn how to deal with the slightly more intimidating environment of adult football.
He said: “Rottingdean are a good bunch. They are very, very competitive and passionate about what they want to do. But there’s nothing wrong with that. I enjoy playing against them.
“If mine are as competitive and passionate when they reach that stage of their careers, I couldn’t ask for more.”
Of his young charges’ development over the season, he said: “They have gone through a curve where they were a bit shell-shocked to begin with to perhaps over-reacting, as 16- and 17-year-olds will do, and now accepting it.
“But you can tell from the free-kick count, they gave as good as they got.”
Of course the down side of experience is keeping pace with youth, and Brooks paid tribute to his players’ ability to match Lewes stride for stride before turning the screw in the second half.
“We haven’t got many spring chickens among them, but they play for fun and even if they had drawn or lost, they would probably still have come off shaking their hands,” he said.
“There were no bad fouls that I can remember. No-one tried to hurt anyone. If it had been a boxing match, we would probably have won on points.”
The Rottingdean boss added: “It was good to see them against a younger, fitter side and give them a goal start and yet we’re still there at the end.”
Sent Her Forward player of the match: Chloe Evans (Lewes)
If ever there was a yardstick by which to gauge the young side’s progress in women’s football, Chloe Evans is it. The diminutive striker is nobody’s fool and can look after herself at this level. Her pace causes panic, her strength makes her difficult to better, and her attitude is first class. She is an intelligent player – remarkably so for her age. Perhaps her weakness is her unselfishness in front of goal.
Katie Burr once again excelled in goal, drawing generous praise from opposition manager Brooks. Charlotte Russell and Ellie French also impressed down the flanks, while Lily Smith again showed signs of a maturity beyond her years.
Rottingdean never know when they’re beaten, and nowhere is that epitomised more than in their feisty defender, Kerry Short. Her fuse may match her name, but her approach is spot-on and she’s a formidable opponent.
At the other end, Sam French provided the biggest threat with a performance full of skill and endeavour, while on the flanks, Sam Morley performed to her usual excellent standards and Sarah McCarthy was almost unplayable for a 15-minute spell.
Sent Her Forward match rating: 7/10 This was a game full of commitment and plenty of attacking verve that once again did credit to the Sussex County Women and Girls Football League.