Burgess Hill Town 0-3 Long Lane (Johnson 2, Jenkins)
After the weather and dodgy pitches, injuries and absentees are probably the biggest scourge of grassroots clubs.
They can undermine seasons before they’ve got going and they can disrupt a side’s run of form just as they’re looking good for a tilt at the title.
Burgess Hill Town and Long Lane have endured their share of both this season, and while the West Sussex side have enjoyed a mid-term revival after being able to field a largely settled side, their visitors have managed a fine campaign despite losing all three of their goalkeepers for virtually the whole season.
And they fielded two different outfield players – as they often have done this season – in goal at Leylands Park as they purred to an ultimately comfortable 3-0 win over a side with little more than pride to play for.
It’s a case of what might have been for Long Lane, and their manager, Cliff Irving, who has steered them to two consecutive promotions, but who believes the absences might have cost them a hat-trick of honours this season.
He told Sent Her Forward: “Unfortunately, of the three ‘keepers we had, one has moved abroad, one has jacked in football completely and the other has only played three games for us this season because of work commitments.
“We have had to put [outfield] players in goal. We started the season with 16; now we’ve got 11.”
Irving believes any hope the club had of a third successive promotion have been dashed by that squeeze on personnel, and he has reset their outlook for their debut season in the South East Counties Premier Division.
“I’ve told them if we finish in the top three I’ll be happy. It’s our first season [in the division] and we’ve still held it [together], with all the odds that have gone against us.”
There’s a fair chance that in a month or so Irving will get his wish. Their victory today lifted them – momentarily, at least – into second place, and while the league title looks beyond them, they are in with a decent chance of finishing third – and will certainly mark their debut season at this level no lower than fourth.
Their opponents are currently fifth – where they probably will finish – just a few places off the glory slots but a world away in terms of points.
Mark Bishop’s team endured an indifferent start to the campaign, but things have begun to fall into place in recent weeks, and before today they had won four of their previous five matches, their only defeat being to title hopefuls Herne Bay, whose journey through the divisions has mirrored Long Lane’s, accompanying them on two successive promotions.
Hill’s side has been much more settled, although the lengthy unavailability of long-serving goalkeeper and part of the management brains trust, Tracey Smith, is a big blow.
They were also without Sharlotte Blythe today for personal reasons – a loss that will help her team-mates keep the beautiful – but ultimately far from essential – game in perspective.
Their performance largely summed up their season: after weathering a blistering start from their opponents, they forced their personality on the game and enjoyed a fine spell of dominance for much of the opening half-hour.
However – and this is where it differs from the campaign at large – uncharacteristic profligacy in front of goal – particularly from their 32-goal striker Keeley Wheatley – was punished severely as Long Lane took the lead against the run of play, providing a springboard from which they went on to dominate without ever looking totally in control.
Ellie Beere and Kelly Goldsmith each kept a clean sheet during their 45 minutes between the sticks for Long Lane, but while both made crucial saves and interceptions, in all honesty, it was more due to the hosts’ failings than the stand-ins’ heroics.
And while the visitors, too, missed a few chances, they showed both composure and technical brilliance when required to beat Burgess Hill’s own stand-in ‘keeper, Chloe Sharp.
The Londoners’ absences meant they arrived with only 11 players, but they played their hearts out, tiring visibly during a 50-minute second half but not only holding on, but even adding the two goals that put a gloss on their victory in the final quarter of an hour.
Hill didn’t touch the ball for the first minute of the game as the visitors settled straight into their possession game, displaying some patient passing in all areas of the field.
But Long Lane were given an early warning of what was to come in that topsy-turvy first half when in the second minute Wheatley cleverly flicked the ball on to Chloe Farrell, who initially did really well to fox her marker before appearing to lose control of the ball.
But bizarrely, with Beere and a defender getting themselves in a muddle, the ball rolled between them and trickled agonisingly – or mercifully, depending on your allegiance – wide of the post.
The Londoners resumed their early dominance of both possession and territory, Charley Jenkins firing a long-range shot on the bounce narrowly wide, and then Leah Croucher pouncing on a weak goal-kick to send a fierce angled drive much further wide.
But that early threat petered out and Burgess Hill, whose main problem had been retaining possession, began to gain the upper hand.
On 12 minutes, Wheatley again knocked the ball on to Farrell on the right. She did well, cutting inside, before her effort was blocked. It fell to Naomi Robinson, whose brilliant 20-yard effort rattled the crossbar.
The chances continued. Wheatley robbed her marker but shot straight at Beere. Then, on 18 minutes, Burgess Hill’s star striker was brilliantly denied, after being put through on goal by Farrell, by a brilliant tackle by the outstanding Demi Brown.
Hill continued to take the game to Long Lane, relying on regular balls behind the visitors’ defence for Wheatley and Farrell to run on to.
They won the game’s first corner on 19 minutes, and despite Long Lane’s general aerial dominance, Charlotte Pollendine rose unchallenged to head narrowly wide.
Four minutes later Wheatley was again put through, this time by Natalie Bagwell, but although she got her shot on target, it was dealt with easily by Beere.
It was largely one-way traffic, with Long Lane offering only isolated threats, and from one such move, in the 25th minute, Croucher cleverly flicked on for Jenkins, but she shot wide after good pressure from Danni Bishop.
Back came Burgess Hill, and Farrell, who was having an excellent game, again foxed the defence, but as she ran on goal, pursued by two defenders, she opted to toe-poke weakly towards goal rather than feeding Robinson, who had taken up a good position to her left.
Robinson did have the chance to shoot in the 29th minute when Wheatley found her in space with a brilliant header. But her effort sailed narrowly wide.
In another of Long Lane’s occasional thrusts forward, Cheyane Johnson took advantage of careless play by Hill defender Mica Saunders, but the full-back recovered brilliantly to win it back and eradicate the threat.
But seconds later, on the half-hour, the visitors were in front, thanks to a smart piece of opportunism. An attempted clearance cannoned off Alana Garrett, who managed to steer the ball to Johnson, who finished smartly to put Long Lane 1-0 up.
Within three minutes, Burgess Hill could have been level – but again their star striker squandered it. Saunders found Wheatley with a lofted pass over the defence, but she again shot weakly straight at Beere.
Wheatley was denied again, this time by smart work by the keeper, who raced out sharply to clear.
With both sides showing a threat, it felt like the hosts needed to make some of their opportunities tell before it was too late, and as the half entered its last five minutes, Long Lane began to exert more sustained pressure.
Jenkins shot on the turn but straight at the goalkeeper. Then they put together their best move of the half, Garrett tackling Farrell and sending Hayley Irving away. Her excellent cross found Croucher, who was beginning to stretch the Hill defence, but she blasted her first-time effort over Sharp’s bar.
There was time for one more Burgess Hill chance before the half-time whistle when Wheatley squeezed between two defenders. But again she elected to shoot with Robinson in space on the right.
Half-time: Burgess Hill Town 0-1 Long Lane
After a dynamic end to the first half, the second began fitfully, with neither side able to impose themselves. Long Lane, who with only 11 players, faced a tough 45 minutes, made a couple of tactical switches.
Kelly Goldsmith replaced Beere in goal, but the injured striker, who has scored 22 goals in 21 games for the Londoners this season, slotted into defence after handing over her gloves rather than move up front.
And there was a perceptible change in style, too, as Long Lane forsook their passing game and turned to sending long balls over Burgess Hill’s defence, in much the way their opponents had been doing.
Hill won a corner on 52 minutes, which caused a scramble before being cleared.
And then their opponents fashioned the first real chance of the second half, almost 10 minutes into it. Goldsmith’s long drop-kick was knocked on by Croucher for the lively Johnson, who stole in front of Saunders to get in a shot.
Two minutes later, China Hinds, who had grown in confidence and in quality as the match progressed, made a surging run out of defence, but her pass, intended for Croucher, was far too long and went straight through to Sharp at the other end.
Johnson and Croucher were causing the Burgess Hill defence all sorts of problems, and the former was foiled as she made for the box by a superb tackle by Ellie Card.
Then it was her strike partner’s turn to be halted by a determined Sadie Ashby, and as the hour mark approached, Johnson was denied again by goalkeeper Sharp’s quick thinking, racing well out of her area to boot away another through-ball before the striker could reach it.
With Garrett dishing out some meaty challenges in midfield and Brown, Hinds and Everett in particular looking more and more solid at the back, Burgess Hill were finding it tough to get a foothold back in the match, and Farrell, who was such a threat in the first half, was having to come deeper and deeper to help out her midfield and defence.
In a rare foray into opposition territory by the home side, Wheatley fired a snapshot over, and then, on 65 minutes, good play between the striker and Saunders and Farrell earned Hill a rare second-half corner.
Robinson was causing occasional problems on either flank, but Farrell continued to be Hill’s main threat, and her contest with Hinds, the Long Lane left-back, was one of the features of the inreasingly feisty game.
The challenges on both sides were becoming more and more robust – for no obvious reason, given that the game had been played in a hard, but fair way, although it’s fair to say Burgess Hill were showing a level of commitment that had been largely absent in the first 45 minutes.
With 75 minutes gone, and Long Lane’s front-runners causing constant consternation among Hill’s back four, Croucher played in Johnson with a most delicate of touches, but her effort went wide. Moments later, Croucher was at it again, feeding the increasingly influential Garrett, whose shot was well saved by Sharp.
Although Long Lane were largely dominating, Pollendine was finding room among the chaos to spray some fine balls to both flanks. But the play was disjointed and moves broke down before they could test the Long Lane back line too much.
They were confined to long-distance efforts or half-chances, and from one such attempt, Wheatley tried a lob, which Goldsmith took at the second attempt.
On 80 minutes, the visitors finally killed off any remaining prospect of a Burgess Hill recovery, going 2-0 up with a goal worthy of winning any game – Jenkins firing home a first-time volley from the edge of the box beyond the stretching Sharp and into the top corner.
Both sides were tiring, but they were still able to piece together some decent moves. Ashby sent Wheatley away with a fine pass, only for Beere to block brilliantly.
Then Croucher, Garrett and Johnson – the bulk of the visitors’ threat – took the game back to Hill, combining superbly in an attacking wave.
The game was petering out, with Croucher in particular struggling to latch on to the over-the-top passes that had been her second-half diet.
On the couple of occasions that she reached them, her final efforts on goal were growing weaker.
At the other end, Robinson tried a long-range shot, which trickled harmlessly wide.
And then, with the regulation 90 minutes all but up, Johnson summoned up the energy to meet another through-ball and loft a well-timed lob over the on-rushing Sharp for Long Lane’s third.
There was still time for Sharp to foil the goalscorer as she chased another long ball, and for Bishop to send Wheatley away for one final hurrah at the other end, only for the striker’s shot to end up once more behind the goal.
There was not a great deal for either side to play for other than pride, and in truth, that was evident for much of the game.
However, both sides enjoyed spells on top. The difference was, Long Lane capitalised on theirs, while Burgess Hill wasted enough chances to have won half a dozen games.
Wheatley was the chief culprit, but after the outstanding season she has enjoyed, she has earned the right to get her bearings wrong on this rare occasion.
Long Lane boss Irving acknowledged that his side’s opening goal was against the run of play, and he rightly pinpointed it as a game-changer.
He said he switched tactics at half-time, as he sensed a weakness in Burgess Hill’s back line that he felt made them vulnerable to balls over the top, and he was delighted with what he considered his side’s second-half dominance with only 11 players available.
Sent Her Forward player of the match: Cheyane Johnson (Long Lane)
Her goals proved the difference in the end, but her willing running and classy control caused Burgess Hill’s defence problems all game. Her partnership with Leah Croucher, who also had an excellent game, looks full of goals.
However, the visitors’ goals might have counted for little if Burgess Hill had converted some of their chances, and while they missed a hatful in the first half, opportunities were few and far between in the second, thanks to brilliant defensive performances by China Hinds, Tayla Everett and Demi Brown.
Alana Garrett grew in influence as the game wore on, and Charley Jenkins‘ volleyed goal was the top-class highlight of the match.
For all their profligacy in front of goal, Burgess Hill were an attacking threat at times, with Chloe Farrell and Naomi Robinson the pick of the bunch.
And while Keeley Wheatley left her shooting boots at home, she showed some fine touches with deft flicks to play in Farrell and Robinson. Charlotte Pollendine seemed to blossom as the game wore on.
Sent Her Forward match rating: 6/10 A decent contest for much of the game, but that final ounce of commitment and hunger that a title challenge or relegation battle can bring was missing.