Analysis: a look in more detail at the story behind last night’s Sussex Cup final
Everyone who plays Brighton, whether Watford from the Super League or Wivelsfield Green from the core of the grassroots pyramid, wants to be at full strength to give themselves the maximum opportunity against a slick passing side who never give anything but total commitment.
Chichester City (like many other teams this season) did not have that opportunity last night as they defended their Sussex County Cup title against the club they beat in last year’s final.
But while the absence of the likes of playmaker Jade Widdowson – and crucially, the need to field at least three other key players who were less than fully fit – meant that a win ultimately was beyond them, they did at least have the satisfaction of taking their illustrious opponents all the way, earning what felt like genuine praise and respect from Brighton head coach James Marrs – and of knowing that the Chichester of old are on their way back.
They may have been without one of the best central midfielders outside the Premier League, in Widdowson. And they may have been forced to field their menace of a striker, Kallly Ambler, knowing that her ankle ligament injury meant she would be unable to test the resolve of Brighton’s masterful, passing-mad back line as tenaciously as she would have liked.
But they still managed to live with a very strong Brighton side in the dramatic atmosphere of a cup final on their opponents’ home ground, in front of a competition record crowd of 443, swollen, as last year, by the vociferous Green Army as well as a strongly loyal Brighton following.
And there was no rugby-like scoreline that had seemed a possibility, given Chichester’s injury plight and indifferent form this season.
It wasn’t that Brighton played badly. Far from it. Their passing and movement are a joy to watch and were in evidence at a number of points throughout the game.
They did enough to win, stringing together some trademark passing sequences and defending assuredly (for the most part) – and they always appeared to have another gear or two if needed.
But Marrs pointed out that the sign of a good and successful side is the ability to win when playing below your best. And he was right.
The Sussex Women’s Challenge Cup has been almost exclusively Brighton’s property for its 21 years of existence – last night’s was their 15th success in all and their 15th final in the last 16 years.
Their loss to a more confident Chichester last season, when the West Sussex club was vying for promotion from the then South West Combination was an upset, but given Brighton’s form at the time, not an absolute shock.
For the players who were part of that beaten squad last season – and there were only three of them in last night’s starting line-up – it was a chance for revenge.
For the rest, nearly all of whom followed Marrs from Gillingham – where they had won the Ryman and Kent County Cups and finished runners-up in a Premier League that was rather weaker than this season’s – it was an opportunity to lift the first of what must surely be a host of trophies with their new club.
If the core of this team stays together – as they clearly did not at Gillingham – they can only get better. They will play well more often than indifferently, and trophies and titles should follow.
Whether they will include the southern division of the Premier League this season – and the league’s champions’ play-off with the winners of the northern division for a place in the Super League – remain to be seen.
Brighton are good. They are difficult to play against. But they are not impossible to beat, as Charlton Athletic (twice) and Portsmouth have proved already this season.
Even Chichester, from the Premier League’s Division One South West, a level below them, executed their manager Matt Wright’s game plan almost to perfection in restricting Brighton’s outright chances and giving their wonderful defence one or two things to worry about.
My guess is that Brighton’s best opportunity for sustained success in the coming years is not from their undoubted skill but from Marrs’ insistence on achieving goals that are well thought out and carefully targeted; from the players’ belief in his methods and those of his unsung coaching staff, and from their personal determination to be better players.
Half of them travel from Kent or south London to Sussex three or four times a week to train and play for their new team.
Yes, they have – as yet – unrivalled facilities (although the likes of Lewes and Gillingham are making great strides in that respect), and yes, they get assistance with their travel. But that’s an awful lot of dedication, and something they surely wouldn’t commit to for an entire season – and presumably longer – if they did not believe in the philosophy and were not absolutely committed to bettering themselves.
Those who were already at the club when Marrs arrived – and admittedly, that’s not a lot – have bought into his ways and are the better for it.
Charlotte Owen and Kirsty Barton, for example, were among the pick of Brighton’s players almost every time I watched them last season. Both now play with a greater maturity and vastly better positional awareness. Their touch has improved markedly and when it lets them down – as it did on occasion last night – they do not hide but continued to try to play the Marrs way.
Charley Boswell, who also impressed last term, has been a revelation on the occasions I have seen her this season.
There’s a lot going for Brighton and their players.
Of course, for every player who was prepared to adapt to meet Marrs’ exacting needs, there were others who either did not fit the bill or perhaps were not given the opportunity to do so.
A lot of decent footballers who played at the Withdean last season are no longer with the club.
But that is the nature of football. It certainly happens in the men’s game. It happens a lot at professional level – especially in the Premier League.
And if that desire to be best is being echoed in the women’s game, it can only be a good thing.
Brighton are at a level where Matt Wright wants his team to be – and sooner rather than later.
By his own admission, Chichester have not made the progress he had hoped this season, struggling more than he expected to cope with the loss of the likes of Hollie Wride, Kirsty Willett and Lizzie Laws.
But in recent weeks he has detected something that has not always been evident in his team this season – and the togetherness and spirit of the present bunch has been reflected in more consistent results.
Becky Barron was at Gosport Borough last season. With Chichester traditionally boasting a high-quality midfield, she probably expected a bit-part role, for the first half of the season, at least.
Instead, with injuries and form playing a part, she has played every minute of every competitive game since joining and lived comfortably with her Premier League opponents in the centre of the pitch last night.
Lauren Cheshire has shone at a high level in the women’s game for several years, yet she is still young, has electric pace and a will to win and compete that will invariably give her an extra half-yard over opponents.
Lucie Challen has matured certainly beyond my expectations in the two years I have been watching her: her touch is excellent, her strength and pace clear assets, but she looks to me a more intelligent, more aware, footballer than the one I first saw in the Combination.
What’s more, like Cheshire, she is versatile, having played wide, in the middle and up front.
Kally Ambler is a natural goalscorer and a nightmare for defences. She is strong, fast and tenacious and never knows when she is beaten – as she proved when shrugging off her serious ankle injury to excel through an entire 95 minutes.
Then there is Abbey Shrubb, another natural finisher, who has been dogged by injury this season and tells me she is determined to make up for lost time – as, hopefully, will Widdowson after her latest op.
Goalkeeper Nea Piiroinen is keeping last year’s cup-final-winning captain Hannah McNamara out of the side, and while her goal-kicking is a weak link, her goalkeeping isn’t.
And with recent signings like Rachael Waller, from Milton Keynes Dons, Amy Found – whose exocet passing last night provided the launch-pad for Chichester’s late threat – Chloe Dowdell, Laura Ingram and Jess Pike now holding their own in the first-team squad – not forgetting the development side talent, such as Sian Payne, Natalie Clarke and Lauren Ellis, who are on a rapid learning curve in the Premier League’s Reserves division – the future is once again looking bright after a brief watershed.
And while we’re talking about Brighton not quite attaining the heights at Culver Road last night that Marrs and co would like, perhaps we should focus, too, on how they were allowed to play.
While Wright’s players perhaps stood off too much on occasion – perhaps because of nerves, perhaps because of Brighton’s extra sharpness – and failed to support striker Kally Ambler for too much of the game, they were extremely well organised and disciplined and did not leave the glaring gaps that so many of Brighton’s opponents do when faced with their mesmerising passing game.
Nor did they resort to packing their defence or trying to kick their opponents out of the game.
Marrs was full of praise for their commitment and the way his opposite number had organised them, and he feels that a fully fit Chichester could hold its own in the Premier League – even the more competitive one that the prospect of a Super League place has created.
They were beaten on the pitch by a very good team, but they were not beaten in the head. Or heart.