Sussex Women’s Challenge Cup final: Brighton & Hove Albion v Chichester City, March 12 (7.30pm)
Normally when cup holders reach the following season’s final they start as hot favourites, but nothing could be further from the truth when Chichester City defend their Sussex County Cup title on Thursday against Brighton, the team from whom they won it.
After 12 months of upheaval at both clubs that have left Brighton substantially stronger and Chichester possibly a year away from where they might want to be, the West Sussex side, who shocked their Premier League opponents with a 3-0 victory in foggy Lancing a year ago, go into this season’s final even bigger outsiders than last time.
And that is just how it suits them.
When the two clubs met on March 13, 2014, Brighton were a decent mid-table side in a Premier League that was suffering from a lack of connection with its Super League sibling – and with no foreseeable way for clubs to break into the new order.
Twelve months on and the first tentative barriers have come down. The FA has now allowed limited promotion – though not yet relegation – for one Premier League side into WSL2 for each of the next two years, and that has transformed the competitive nature of winter’s top women’s domestic competition.
And right at the forefront of that revolution-in-waiting are Brighton, who have appointed a new manager and imported half a squad of talented players who wanted to join him on the south coast.
The result is that the County Cup is the lesser prize still at stake for them this season – although nobody can doubt just how seriously James Marrs and his players will take it.
Brighton under Marrs just don’t do half-hearted.
Route to the final
|Round 1||Wivelsfield Green (a) 9-2||Burgess Hill Town (a) 6-0|
|Round 2||Lewes (a) W/O||Eastbourne Town (a) 3-1|
|Semi-final||Hassocks (h) 15-0||Seahaven Harriers (h) 4-0|
In contrast, Chichester have suffered a disappointing season, hampered by retirements and injuries, which have left them a shadow of their dynamic, exciting selves for much of this campaign.
And then, just as they were stabilising, stringing together their best run of results in recent months, fate has dealt them another blow, with injuries to three of their most crucial and experienced players on the eve of the cup final.
It’s enough to get manager Matt Wright tearing his hair out, but instead, he prefers to view it as an opportunity for his players – whoever they might be on the night – to enjoy representing their proud club in their second prestigious cup final in 12 months.
“All the pressure is on Brighton,” he points out, though to be honest, it has been all season following their considerable summer investment and the unveiling of their magnificent training facilities.
“Quite a lot of pressure after last year, not winning it. [With] everything they’ve thrown at the team this year, as well, in terms of their resources, they will be very much expected to win, whereas, as ever, we’re not, so we can go out and enjoy the occasion and see what comes of it.”
Wright feels his side have stood still this season following successive campaigns of growth and development, but having taken time to adjust to the loss of stalwarts like Kirsty Willett, Hollie Wride and Lizzie Laws, and made what he believes could prove to be some astute signings, he is optimistic that the Chichester machine will be heading onwards and upwards again next season.
However, he could have done without the series of blows that beset his side in Sunday’s competitive 1-0 win over St Nicholas in the Premier League Division One South West.
Kally Ambler, their top scorer and probably the player Brighton would least have liked to face, suffered suspected ankle ligament damage in the first half and is now doubtful for Thursday.
Lucie Challen, who has also impressed this season, was also injured, suffering a suspected broken nose. And Lauren Cheshire, their pacy – and versatile – talent, aggravated a toe injury.
“[Sunday’s] game summed up our season,” said Wright. “We’ve had a lot of players out injured, and [Sunday] is typical of what our whole season has been like.
“We lose players through a game that we should comfortably win, it forces us into unncessary changes during the game that we didn’t want to make, and it could have effectively diminished any chance we had of winning the Sussex Cup.”
But he is clinging to the old adage about cup football – that any side can beat any other on the day – and he will be relying on his more experienced players to see his team through rather than waiting for a moment of magic from some of the inspiring newcomers.
“I think we’d look more to our more consistent players, who won’t be fazed on the day,” Wright said.
He cited Becky Barron, the central midfielder, who has frequently shone in Chichester’s games this season. “She’s played every minute of every game. She’s been a fantastic player in the centre of midfield.
“To be honest, we’ll look on Thursday to the likes of Becky, to be their usual consistent self rather than maybe looking to a superstar who’s going to maybe put it in the top corner.”
Sussex County Cup – the past decade
|2013/14||Chichester C 3-0 Brighton||2008/9||Lewes 1-1 Brighton (Lewes won 4-2 on pens)|
|2012/13||Brighton 2-0 Lewes||2007/8||Brighton 5-0 Crawley Wasps|
|2011/12||Brighton 3-1 Lewes||2006/7||Brighon 4-2 Lewes|
|2010/11||Lewes 2-0 Chichester C||2005/6||Brighton 1-0 East Preston|
|2009/10||Brighton 3-2 Lewes||2004/5||Brighton 6-4 Bexhill U|
Marrs’ concerns will centre more on who to leave out.
Brighton are very much in the mix for the Premier League Southern title, which would earn them a play-off against the Northern division winners, not only for the overall Premier League championship but also for a place in WSL2 in 2016.
And the County Cup final could be viewed as a distraction for Marrs and his disciples, just three days before their crucial league fixture at Portsmouth, which itself comes just seven days before they face Cardiff City, the leaders.
But the Brighton head coach insists he doesn’t view Thursday’s game in that way, given the team’s lack of game time since Christmas – a period in which Brighton have played just five matches – only one of them in the league.
He told Sent Her Forward: “It’s another game for us. The thing I’ve been disappointed with since Christmastime is the lack of competitive games that we’ve had.”
Marrs feels it has been difficult to maintain the momentum the club had built up as they entered the new year on top of the table – although the results have still been largely impressive in that period. And he feels that far from disrupting preparation for Sunday’s crunch game, a competitive cup final could help.
“It’s another game to help our preparations for Sunday, and it’s also a cup final, and you can’t beat the atmosphere of a cup final,” he said. “It’s the chance to win a trophy. The girls are really looking forward to it.
“We know it’s going to be a really tough game, and we know we’ve got everything that we need to have in place [for] our recovery, etcetera, ahead of the other game on Sunday.”
Marrs confesses to not knowing a great deal about Thursday’s opponents, although Brighton did beat them in a pre-season friendly behind closed doors. But he respects Wright and knows he will have Chichester well organised and chomping at the bit as they bid to defend their title.
He said: “I’ve had a couple of conversations with Matt and I know he’s quite an astute man. I know that he’ll have his team well prepared, and obviously Chichester will want to retain the Sussex Cup.”
It seems unlikely that a coach as meticulous as Marrs will under-estimate his opponents, even one beset by injuries and absences.
But there’s also the personal motivation – the chance of his first piece of silverware since taking over at Brighton in the summer.
Marrs, who won the Kent County Cup and Ryman Cups with Gillingham last season, said: “One of my targets was to win the Sussex Cup this season, and I’ll be going all out – my players will be going all out – to achieve that.
“Whatever needs to be done to win the game on Thursday will be done to the best of our ability.”
Traditionally the biggest women’s team in Sussex, Brighton are by far the most frequent winners of the County Cup, having lifted the trophy 14 times in the 20 finals to date. Before winning it for the first time last season, Chichester had reached only one previous final – in 2011.
The Premier League side have enjoyed what might politely be called a comfortable path to this year’s final, fielding very strong sides in the two games against Wivelsfield Green and Hassocks, having been awarded a walkover in the second round against Lewes after their East Sussex rivals pulled their development squad out in protest at having to play Brighton’s first team.
County Cup goals
|Jay Blackie||5||Fliss Gibbons||2||Lauren Cheshire||4||Lauren Ellis||1|
|Charlotte Owen||4||Kirsty Barton||1||Kally Ambler||3||Sian Payne||1|
|Paige Baker-Carroll||3||Deanna Cooper||1||Becky Barron||1||Jessica Pike||1|
|Sophie Perry||3||Charlotte Gurr||1||Chloe Dowdell||1||Rachael Waller||1|
|Megan Fox||2||Amy Potkins||1|