Bobbly pitch but Chichester and Gillingham delighted to have level playing field at last

Chichester City Development 0-0 Gillingham Reserves

Action between Chichester City  Development and Gillingham Reserves Feb 8 2015

Both sides played some excellent football on a difficult pitch

At the lower end of what are effectively two divisions within the same league the chances to pick up wins are at a premium.

So the first clash of the season between Chichester City’s young development side and Gillingham’s even younger reserves in the FAW Premier Reserves League represented a rare opportunity for a much-needed confidence-boosting victory for both teams.

Of course, three points were at stake, but in a league where preparing players for the next level is considered by most (if not all) as the primary objective, the quality of performance was arguably more significant.

And in a match that both teams viewed as winnable – and indeed, both had chances to win – there was at least the consolation of knowing that these two young squads are jam-packed with players ready to make the step up.

That neither side did win was down largely to poor finishing, magnificent defending and an outstanding penalty save, but what I witnessed today – in contrast to many of the Reserves League games I’ve seen this season – was a football match… a competitive, even football match between two teams eager to prevail but not yet accomplished enough to ensure it happened.

On a surface that could kindly be described as bobbly (though club officials on both sides used harsher descriptions), there was an abundance of good football played by both sides, as two of the league’s more junior outfits – with just two wins apiece this season – showed how creative they can be when their backs are not constantly up against the wall.

The visitors settled more quickly and were soon into their stride, passing out of defence and midfield. Annie Morrison very nearly found Georgia Pilbeam with a perceptive through-ball from the centre of the park, but it struck the young striker on the back as she prepared for a foot race with Chichester’s Gemma Halford.

Even in the opening minutes, Pilbeam was giving glimpses of her immense talent that will surely see her propelled towards the senior squad before too long, and with only five minutes gone, it took an impeccable tackle by Ellie Hawes in the middle of the penalty area to deny her an early goal-scoring chance.

Gillingham were certainly looking the more composed in the early exchanges, but Chichester were beginning to impose their pressing game on the visitors, with centre-forward Jules Teague looking particularly sharp.

Fascinating spectacle

In her side’s first cohesive move, on seven minutes, she did well to sprint clear down the right and fired in an angled shot that begged for a touch, but her team-mates had yet to arrive.

Georgia Selby, who was beginning to impose herself in midfield, did well to steal the ball in the Gillingham half and sent a dangerous ball across the box, which Gillingham’s goalkeeper, Sophie Ledger fumbled before gathering with Teague ready to pounce.

The game was swinging Chichester’s way now, and Jemma Cottam-Verbruggen, the elegant midfielder, found Hannah Chalk in space. The winger beat her marker for pace but fired a shot over.

It was a fascinating spectacle, with Gillingham determined to be patient and play out from the back and Chichester denying them space while showing creativity in attack, where Teague was continuing to shine.

Ledger had to be out smartly to save at the feet of the on-rushing striker as the home side finally began to discover their own passing game.

Hawes, Chalk and Cottam-Verbruggen combined well down the left before Lucy Harnett switched play to the opposite flank with a gem of a ball to Selby, but her cross was too near the goalkeeper.

It was a lively and entertaining opening quarter-of-an-hour, but Kiera Daulby lifted the game to another level with an exquisite turn and a brilliant run down the left, turning defence into attack in an instant, before she ran out of energy – and options.

As the game swung back towards Gillingham, Georgia Reece occupied two Chichester players in a surge down the same left flank before Imogen Alabaster hit a half-chance wide.

Action between Chichester City Development and Gillingham Reserves Feb 8 2015And with 21 minutes gone, Halford rescued Chichester twice within a few seconds with magnificent blocks inside the her own area.

Gillingham’s players were taking it in turns to show glimpses of their range of skills, as first Pilbeam then Morrison, Emily Lyons and Kayleigh Galvin outsmarted their opponents.

But Chichester held firm to turn the tide once again, Selby central to everything they did.

Hawes, who was also proving key to the hosts’ continual improvement, made a brilliant run down the left on 30 minutes, feeding Zoe Hughes-Jones, whose shot was blocked.

Just as Chichester’s midfield was getting to grips with their skilful opponents, they suffered a big blow when Harnett was injured and replaced by Natalie Clarke.

But still the home side pressed, and Teague and Levi Thorpe combined well, only to be denied by Reece’s brilliant tackle.

A feature of both Chichester’s senior and reserve sides in the time I have been watching is the range of passing from midfield.

In this tough first season in the Premier Reserves League, opportunities to be so creative have been few and far between, but Cottam-Verbruggen offered a couple of reminders as the closely matched sides found the time and space to express themselves.

And she played the pass of the match – which is some accolade – inch-perfect over full-back Lucie Heath, to send Chalk away, although Selby ran her close with a 40-yarder to find Teague.

Unfortunately for Selby it was to be her last meaningful contribution of the match as she collapsed in agony following a challenge, apparently suffering a recurrence of a knee injury, just seconds after Hughes-Jones had wasted a chance to put Chichester ahead on the stroke of half-time, blasting over with just Ledger to beat.

Half-time: Chichester City Dev 0-0 Gillingham Reserves

Amy Bailey replaced Selby at half-time and played a slightly more advanced role, supporting the ever-willing Teague.

But the substitute squandered her first opportunity, shooting weakly after a brilliant cross from Chalk.

It was not until the 48th minute that the first corner was awarded – and Gillingham won two within 60 seconds. The first was played short and wasted. From the second, Alabaster’s superb delivery was well cleared.

Ironically, within two minutes, Chichester had their first corner – followed by two more in the space of a minute.

All three were well flighted but failed to create an outright chance.

Daulby, who had excelled for Gillingham in a creative role in the first half, showed the other side of her game with a superb tackle on Teague.

Then it was Becky Steed’s turn to maintain the impeccable standard of tackling in the match with a fine stop to thwart Pilbeam after good work by Alabaster.

Penalty save

The long-awaited breakthrough finally looked to have arrived in the 62nd minute when Chichester were awarded a penalty when Chalk’s shot hit Heath on the hand at point-blank range following excellent work by Bailey.

A tired-looking Teague hit her spot-kick well towards the top corner, but Ledger flung herself to the right to pull off a tremendous save.

The penalty refllected Chichester’s growing domination, but the save kept the Gills well and truly in the game, and with Alabaster’s influence growing with every minute, they continued to send their hosts reminders of the threat they posed.

With 68 minutes played, Galvin’s long-range shot was comfortably held by Hannah McNamara in the Chichester goal. Then Bonnie Long fired a free-kick just outside the area narrowly over.

Within three minutes, Bailey, who was posing Gillingham’s excellent defence a new range of problems, carved a chance out of nothing, turning brilliantly inside the box and firing in a shot which Ledger parried before falling on the loose ball as Chalk prepared to pounce.

Back came the visitors. Daulby dispossessed Teague and fed Morrison, who combined well with Reece before the counter-attack petered out.

On 75 minutes Chichester put together another fluent move down the left, Chalk doing well to make space and send across a dangerous cross, which was met first-time by Teague, but after Ledger’s penalty save, the effort proved routine fare for the Gillingham keeper.

Chichester made their final change 14 minutes from the end, with Rachel Towler replacing Cottam-Verbruggen.

Almost immediately, Chichester put together another sweeping passing move, Chalk finding the increasingly dangerous Bailey, whose shot was deflected behind, although a goal-kick was given.

One final Gillingham attack, which ended with McNamara saving Alabaster’s shot, was followed by a couple of free-kicks for Chichester in dangerous positions near the left touchline. But neither led to the breakthrough both sides were so desperately seeking.

The verdict

In a game regarded as winnable by both teams, there was disappointment in both camps that neither had managed to achieve what would have been only the third of the season for either.

But there will also have been relief that the sides, uncomfortably close to the bottom of the division, had avoided yet another defeat in a campaign of morale-sapping heavy losses against the stronger, more experienced sides in the league.

Chichester manager Caroline Henry-Evans appeared the more aggrieved. She told Sent Her Forward: “I think we bossed the game at times. We had at least three massive opportunities to score goals. They’ve had two shots on target the whole game, and they were in the second half.

“We obviously need to work on our shooting because we had two very clear-cut opportunities and a penalty, and we still didn’t manage to get a goal. We should have won today.”

The Chichester boss was delighted that her side had the chance to show the creative side of their game in a season punctuated by heavy defeats against the likes of Charlton Athletic, Crystal Palace and Brighton.

She said: “We took the step up (to the Premier Reserves League rather than South East Counties Premier Division to which they had been promoted) so that they could start to express the football that they’re good at.

“Last season it was sometimes a bit too much of a walk, and some of the players still haven’t quite grasped the fact that they need to run this year. Last year, some of them could walk and we were still winning games.

“And fitness is a massive issue for us at the moment, because last year we could afford to train twice a week. This year we can’t… and come 60, 70 minutes, they’re getting tired.”

Ironically, while Gillingham’s entire squad was left reeling from the exodus of so many players in the close-season, fitness is less of a problem after the club’s women were taken under the wing of the League One men’s club.

However, with even the senior women’s side still struggling to come to terms with the fallout of the summer upheaval, the development of the reserves is all about learning as quickly as they can to provide reinforcements for Simon Ratcliffe’s inexperienced first team.

And with that conveyor belt already starting to operate, today gave a tantalising glimpse of the goodies that Ratcliffe will have at his disposal surely sooner rather than later.

Sophie Ledger in action for Gillingham Reserves against Chichester City Development, Feb 8 2015

Sophie Ledger made a superb diving penalty save to deny Chichester a win

Reserves manager Jason Wright told Sent Her Forward: “We’ve got one player that’s 18. The rest are 16 or 17. It’s hard for them this year, but we are all about development and trying to bring players through for the first team.

“One of our players, Chloe (Cavenagh), has gone up to regular first team [football] now, and we’re continuing working on with the others.”

He added: “In spells today they did some really good play, but it was very difficult because of the state of the pitch.”

He described the surface, at Clymping FC, as “terrible”. “Both teams tried to play football, which is nice to see. But it was very, very difficult for both teams. The pitch [was] terrible. We were so frustrated, trying to play balls through. Some of the girls were really winding themselves up.”

He added: “When we meet again in a couple of weeks, back at our ground, I think it will probably be an even better game because we can both express ourselves even more.”

Sent Her Forward player of the match: Gemma Halford (Chichester City)
I’ve never had so many candidates from which to choose. Both sides were full of players who gave their all and produced astonishingly good football on a pretty disappointing pitch.

But for all the genuine creativity on show, it was Chichester’s defensive performance that suggested to me how far they have come since those early-season, morale-sapping drubbings. And Halford was the rock on which Gillingham’s talented front-runners foundered.

She tackled with trademark strength, but her positioning and timing also enabled her to get the better, more often than not, of her lively opponents – and particularly Georgie Pilbeam, who looks to be a star in the making.

Ellie Hawes also excelled in defence for the Sussex side, while until her injury, Georgia Selby had been the fulcrum on which Chichester’s best attacking moments were based.

Jules Teague‘s non-stop running posed Gillingham’s own impressive defence all sorts of problems, particularly in the first half, before she understandably faded a little after half-time. And she should not blame herself for failing to put away her penalty – that was down to an outstanding save.

Jemma Cottam-Verbruggen showed glimpses of the cultured football so becoming of Chichester midfields, while Hannah Chalk continued her marvellous personal season with a terrific second-half performance, when she combined well with substitute Amy Bailey, who added to Gillingham’s discomfort when she came on.

The visitors, though, provided a host of player-of-the-match candidates – not least Georgia Pilbeam, a striker with pace, power and a delightful first touch. She was brilliantly supported by Annie Morrison, Kiera Daulby and Imogen Alabaster – surely another youngster only moments away from the first team.

Georgia Reece and Bonnie Long were the pick of the defence, while goalkeeper Sophie Ledger was solid throughout and brought off a sensational diving penalty save.

Sent Her Forward match rating: 8/10 Even without taking into account the state of the pitch, this was a game full of all the reasons I watch women’s football. Long may it continue.

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