Portsmouth 2 (Quinn, Hillier) Brighton & Hove Albion 1 (Gibbons)
Portsmouth emerged triumphant in the battle of the south-coast giants as they did the Premier League double over much-fancied Brighton with a victory that could prove pivotal to their season and which spoke volumes for their character and belief.
There may only have been one goal between the sides in a hard, close-fought match that could help decide the destiny of the league title, but there was a world of difference in what the result meant to the respective camps.
The contrast in reactions among players and coaches on the final whistle could not have been starker.
Portsmouth’s players and staff embraced in a group hug so popular among footballers these days and then danced jubilantly in a ring of togetherness.
The beaten Brighton personnel trudged dejectedly back to their changing room, none of them daring to look up as they left the pitch, followed by their manager, James Marrs, who wore a face like thunder.
His Portsmouth counterpart, Perry Northeast, described the result as a game-changer. And he said the sense of joy was more to do with what it told them all about their ability to cope with recent setbacks than with what it meant to his side’s chances of winning the Premier League title.
Marrs, as dejected as I have ever seen him, felt the performance – more than the result – raised more questions about desire and commitment than ability.
And as he laid into his players for the second time in a fortnight, he also acknowledged that it reflected on his own ability to prepare his side adequately for the match.
We were second-best to first balls, we were second-best to second balls, second-best to third balls – James Marrs, Brighton head coach
Once again, I believe Marrs, who led his team to the Sussex County Cup on Thursday, was being over-critical. But it’s the standards that he sets – his players and himself – that create sides capable of winning trophies.
I don’t expect a repeat of today’s performance when they take on leaders Cardiff City next Sunday.
Brighton are certainly among those capable of picking up the Premier League title this season and qualifying for a championship play-off for the right to join the Super League next year.
But what they are not is invincible – as was shown for the second time in a fortnight – as Portsmouth followed Charlton Athletic in beating them for a second time this season… although in Pompey’s case, crucially, both victories were in the league, providing them with a three-point cushion over their south-coast rivals, with a game in hand.
Portsmouth are now just a point behind Cardiff, over whom they also have a game in hand. But with more than a third of the fixtures still to be played – and both today’s teams still to play the leaders for a second time – there is time for plenty more twists and turns before the new champions are crowned.
Marrs believes both his club’s big rivals will slip up between now and the end of the season, while Northeast refuses to acknowledge that his team are now favourites, despite the mathematics.
I don’t think today was just a celebration over beating Brighton. I think today was a celebration of coming through the last three weeks – Perry Northeast, Portsmouth manager
Both sides were aware of the importance of today’s game, which while never decisive was crucial to both sides’ prospects. And its significance was reflected in the tentative start made by both sides.
Brighton opted to play four in defence rather than the three they have fielded in most games this season, with attack-minded Charley Boswell and Charlotte Gurr starting the game at full-back.
And they could have taken a dream early lead when Gurr delivered a cross from the left on three minutes which found Jay Blackie, whose header was saved at point-blank range by Blakely.
Portsmouth responded with a shot from Sarah Kempson, recalled after being left on the bench against Millwall in last week’s FA Cup defeat, which was blocked, and Lucy Quinn fired the rebound wide.
Kempson was prominent in much of Portsmouth’s early play, although neither side looked particularly settled as the ball was frequently traded between the two teams.
With 12 minutes gone, the left-footed midfielder foxed Boswell and sent in a cross which Faye Baker held at her near post.
Contrast of styles
A minute later Brighton won their first of numerous first-half corners – and carved out a second clear chance. Lucy Somes’ kick again found Blackie’s head, but this time she could not get her effort on target.
There was a distinct contrast of styles between the two sides, but neither were able to impose theirs on the opposition, and play continued to see-saw.
Portsmouth, looking to hit their front-runners earlier, either through direct balls behind the Brighton defence or through quickfire passing sequences, manufactured another opportunity after 14 minutes when Charley Wilson sent strike partner Gemma Hillier through on the left, but her first touch was heavy and with Boswell matching her stride for stride, the chance disappeared.
Lucy Quinn, Portsmouth’s right-sided midfielder, was beginning to figure more, and after over-hitting a pass intended for Wilson, she did well to conjure up room to deliver a cross from the right, which Baker took confidently before sending Lucy Somes away down Brighton’s own right flank.
Brighton were racking up the corners and from another Gurr delivery Amy Taylor headed wide.
The visitors were beginning to slip into something resembling their normal passing groove, and for a while Portsmouth were relieved to have Wilson as a willing outlet for their hurried clearances.
But Pompey were still a threat, and Jess Frampton sent a reminder of that with a first-time shot on 25 minutes that sailed over the bar.
Three minutes later, they were in front. But while it was rather against the run of play, it came from a move that deserved reward.
It began with a trademark clever flick by Hillier to send Kempson away down the left. The winger cleverly made room to send in a cross, despite the efforts of Boswell, into the path of Quinn, who fired home superbly, with Baker clutching at thin air.
Brighton responded in characteristic style, Cooper sending an exocet of a diagonal pass from the centre of defence to Boswell on the right of midfield, from which she won her team yet another corner.
Gurr again delivered superbly, but Leeta Rutherford, who was proving a force to reckon with at the back, headed away under pressure.
Brighton almost gifted Portsmouth another opportunity when Baker and Vicky Ashton-Jones went for the same ball, but the central defender made up for her role in the error, denying Quinn.
At the other end, Danielle Carlton, playing in front of the back four, found herself on the left wing, from where she fired in a decent low cross, which was cleared – inevitably – by Rutherford.
Then, with 40 minutes on the clock, the same player tried a first-time shot from 35 yards, but it flew harmlessly wide.
While Pompey’s passing moves were few and far between, their power, movement and touch were causing Brighton some uncomfortable moments, and their tenacity and application were much in evidence – not least when Hillier raced back from the front line to close down Boswell on the Brighton right.
Gibbons, who had earlier been spoken to by the referee after questioning an offside decision against her, showed a tenacity of another kind, fouling Quinn when there was no immediate danger and earning herself a yellow card.
Two minutes from the break, Brighton had a chance to equalise when Tiff Taylor sold her goalkeeper short. But Blakely rushed out of her goal to deny Amy Taylor, sustaining a painful injury in the process.
As the half entered stoppage time, Brighton were indebted to Blackie, who – in much the style of Hillier’s earlier effort – read the unfolding danger and raced back from her advanced midfield role to intercept a ball intended for Kempson.
It had not been a classic, but after a tentative start, both sides had settled, creating plenty of half-chances but few clear-cut opportunities.
Brighton would have felt aggrieved to be behind, but they had been undone by a piece of Pompey magic, and the goal had helped the hosts settle, ensuring they maintained their lead at the end of an even first half.
Half-time: Portsmouth 1-0 Brighton
There was definitely a physical edge to this crucial contest, and within 60 seconds of the restart, both sides suffered injuries, with Portsmouth’s Taylor and Brighton’s Gurr both feeling the pain of robust challenges.
And after Wilson beat Blackie to the drop-ball resulting from the break in play, Blackie exacted revenge with a heavy challenge on the Pompey captain’s ankle.
Portsmouth were picking up where they had left off in the first half, enjoying more possession, but in contrast to the opening 45 minutes, they were spending most of it in the Brighton half.
Cooper showed her trademark calmness to head back to Baker under pressure from Wilson, who was becoming a growing thorn in Brighton’s side.
With 53 minutes gone, Kempson confidently dribbled through midfield before being crowded out, but just three minutes later Pompey were 2-0 up, thanks to another well crafted goal.
Wilson, who was pulling her markers all over the pitch, made another great run and pulled her cross back to Hillier, who made the most of the time she was afforded in the box to turn and finish with aplomb.
If the opening goal was against the run of play, Portsmouth’s second was no more than they deserved. But Northeast’s side knew Brighton would not just lie down, and as if to prove the point, Cooper set up Lucy Somes with another quality ball.
The winger, who had switched to the left, cut inside and unleashed a fierce drive, which Blakely somehow clung on to, again from point-blank range.
On the hour, Marrs made his first change, introducing Irish international Sophie Perry for Somes – the first of two substitutions that were to breathe new life into his side.
Cooper, who had not been at her stellar best, was beginning to come into the game more, and she made a trademark break from defence without challenge. But with other options, she chose to shoot from 30 yards and the promising move came to nothing.
A minute later, she was back in defence, denying the ever-dangerous Wilson.
On 68 minutes, Charlotte Owen replaced the injured Danielle Carlton, as Brighton began to rediscover some of their fluency, playing familiar passing triangles out of defence to set up more attacks.
Portsmouth were still a threat, though, and in the 73rd minute Quinn, who was relishing the physical encounter, did brilliantly to beat two players down the right and get in yet another decent cross, although there was no end product.
Then Kirsty Barton dispossessed Kempson in midfield, but she wasted her forward pass.
The two substitutes were bringing a new zest to Brighton’s play, Perry retaining possession well down the left and Owen acting as a springboard for attacks with some quality first touches, and they combined well down the left with a one-two that had Brighton written all over it.
But the end product was missing at their end, too, and with time running out, the visitors grew more desperate, beginning to play the sort of long balls that in most circumstances would incur their head coach’s ire.
However, much like Pompey’s, the passes were not aimless, and they gave the hosts’ defence more problems to think about.
From one such long ball from Cooper, Gibbons knocked it down perfectly into the path of Gurr, who was now playing in a more advanced role. But Tiff Taylor managed to block her effort.
In the 80th minute Nadine Bazan did well to deny Gibbons an effort on goal after a great through-ball from Perry, earning a corner – a slightly rarer event in a second half where Portsmouth were largely in control.
But this time the visitors made it count, Perry’s kick causing havoc in the Portsmouth goalmouth, and after Blakely had twice saved close-range efforts, Gibbons‘ miskick somehow eluded the goalkeeper and trickled over the line.
The goal triggered a brief flare-up as Blakely held on to the ball to prevent Brighton rushing back to the halfway line for the restart, and Quinn received a lecture from the referee before play resumed.
Owen delivered a superb pass into the path of Perry on the left, but her cross was headed away for a corner by the rock-like Rutherford, who had hardly put a foot wrong all afternoon.
Portsmouth made their first substitution on 86 minutes, Ellie Bloomfield coming on for Shannon Sievwright.
Two minutes later, their goal somehow survived as Jess Frampton made two goal-line blocks at close range – first from Perry and then Gurr – that were to prove as valuable as the goals .
As the game moved into stoppage time, with Brighton desperately looking for an equaliser, Portsmouth made their second change, Eilidh Currie coming on for Bazan.
Portsmouth rode out the six minutes added on by the referee, and on his full-time whistle, the celebrations began.
Today was a rare opportunity for me to gauge the south’s two title chasers against each other, and it produced a fascinating contrast of styles, though not a classic match.
Brighton were not at their fluent best but were enjoying the better of the game when they went behind. The goal gave Portsmouth renewed hope and belief, and their second, 11 minutes after half-time, reflected their dominance in a physical encounter.
But Brighton have too much talent ever to be written off, and their scrambled goal 10 minutes from time offered them hope.
And while they have lost an important game in the context of the title race, it is far from a fatal blow, and with more twists and turns inevitable in this excellent Premier League season, they are sure to be there or thereabouts.
Portsmouth’s tenacity and commitment forced uncharacteristic errors from the likes of the normally immaculate Deanna Cooper and the accomplished Vicky Ashton-Jones.
And for most of the match, Brighton lacked their normal punch and clinical finishing at the other end, too – though this was aided in no small part by a noble defensive effort by a back four led superbly by the indomitable Leeta Rutherford and the inspired goalkeeping of Sadie Blakely.
Gemma Hillier and Charley Wilson, by contrast, looked sharp and threatening, although too often they, too, failed to hit the target.
Wilson in particular grew in influence as the game wore on.
Brighton’s late goal set up a grandstand finish, with Marrs’ team sacrificing their normal short-passing game for more ambitious long balls.
But somehow Portsmouth held firm, helped in particular by that superb double-block by Frampton.
Marrs is confident both Portsmouth and Cardiff will drop points between now and the end of the season – which is inevitable, given that the pair still have to meet in Wales – but he believes his team need to win all their remaining fixtures to take advantage.
He said: “It definitely sways towards Portsmouth and Cardiff, but they’ll slip up. They will slip up – I’m confident that they will do that. And they’ve still got to play each other… We need to win every game now in order to give ourselves any sort of chance.”
Marrs admitted he was “really, really disappointed” with his players’ application. “We were second-best to first balls, we were second-best to second balls, second-best to third balls.”
He added: “You could see from [Portsmouth’s] desire and their attitude that they wanted to win. Unfortunately, we didn’t have that today. We didn’t look like we wanted to win.”
But he said he took responsibility for that and it was something that he would “have to address”. “If a team is not working hard together, that is something that has to be implemented by the manager. So that’s something I’ll need to sit down and work on and try to work out where we go from here.”
Marrs was pleased with some of the team’s attacking play. He said: “To be honest, we probably should have come away with a draw. I don’t know how many shots they’ve actually had, but from my reckoning it’s something like two shots and scored two goals. So that’s the difference, really.
“Even though we didn’t play particuarly well, we had some opportunities to score and we never took them,” he added, indicating that the profligacy was one of the issues he raised with his players in the post-match inquest.
Northeast was clearly ecstatic with the win but said he was more concerned with what the team had shown by bouncing back from two successive setbacks, losing to Sheffield in the Premier League Cup and Millwall in the FA Cup.
He told Sent Her Forward: “We’ve had a couple of indifferent weeks where we’ve performed OK on one game – we didn’t really show up in the League Cup semi-final. So I don’t think today was just a celebration over beating Brighton. I think today was a celebration of coming through the last three weeks, because it’s been really tough.
“It’s been tough in training, it’s been tough in games. It’s been tough getting everybody enjoying football again. So today was the end of the toughest three weeks of our season. Everybody was asking questions of everyone. That’s why you saw the jubilation at the end from everybody.”
And he was adamant that the win could prove a turning point in the club’s season. “It could have gone one of two ways,” he said. “Our whole season.
“The players today have stood up at the right time. I have asked questions, like I did last week, of whether we were ready to step up mentally, and today the players have ticked that box, as well. The first time questions have been asked this season, the players have stood up physically and up there in their heads.
“I know now I can rely on everybody.”
He felt his team coped well with Brighton when they were getting up “a head of steam” in the first half, and he was confident the likes of Wilson, Hillier and Quinn could hit them on the counter-attack.
He said: “That first goal was devastating. It was clinical. Just a fantastic phase of play. The second as well. Gemma Hillier is a big-game player, and she was as cool as a cucumber. Where everybody else in this stadium held their breath, she didn’t. She knew what she was doing, and I’m really happy for her.”
The Pompey manager refuses to accept that his team are now favourites for the title. “There are no favourites for the title just yet,” he said. “If there is ever going to be a favourite, then it’s Cardiff because they’re still at the helm.”
Sent Her Forward player of the match: Leeta Rutherford (Portsmouth) The former Super League midfielder was as solid as a rock in the back four, her dominance infusing her team-mates with confidence.
Charley Wilson provided plenty of problems for Brighton’s normally so assured back line, while Sarah Kempson brought a creativity to Portsmouth’s midfield that was missing against Millwall last week. Behind them, Sadie Blakely was outstanding, pulling off a series of crucial stops, often at point-blank range.
It was not Brighton’s greatest game of the season, but they still showed plenty of skill and – despite Marrs’ immediate post-match reservations – application.
The pick of the bunch were probably Charlotte Gurr and particularly Lucy Somes, who posed plenty of problems for Nadine Bazan, especially in the first half.
But the introduction of substitutes Sophie Perry and Charlotte Owen very nearly transformed the match. Both showed poise and purpose missing for so much of the game.
Sent Her Forward match rating: 6/10 Plenty of ability on a decent Privett Park surface, but it was not a classic – although I don’t think the Portsmouth camp will be too concerned about that.
* A little shine was taken off Portsmouth’s victory with the news that former manager Vanessa Raynbird, who steered Pompey to the Premier League’s national division before the Super League expansion, has severed her links with the club.
Chairman David Coyle said: “Vanessa made a very significant contribtion to our success in her 12-year tenure, initially as first-team manager and lately as director of football. We’re very sorry that Vanessa will not be there to support us in an official manner, but we understand and respect her decision to leave the club.”