Lewes 0-1 Brighton & Hove Albion (Gurr)
Brighton eked out a second Sussex derby win in a week to go top of the Premier League on another day of twists and turns in the magnificent battle for the title – and a tilt at the Super League.
They have played better with less reward this season, but their manager, James Marrs, who places more emphasis on performance than results, will not be complaining after Charlotte Gurr’s superb first-half free-kick earned the visitors all three points – and a welcome cushion over their championship rivals.
With the top two, Cardiff City and Portsmouth, both losing, Brighton seized the opportunity to return to the top – and this time Marrs insists they are ready to handle the pressure that being front-runners brings.
The Sussex side have led the league several times during this campaign but on each occasion relinquished it after suffering rare off-days.
But Marrs, who experienced the agony of losing the title with Gillingham last season on the very last day, says he and his team – many of whom shared that pain with him – are determined not to cave in again.
“We’ve already made that mistake this season, and I made that mistake last season, so we definitely won’t be making the same mistakes again,” he vowed. “I know it’s an old cliche, but we are literally taking every game step by step… and we start again [in training on] Tuesday.
“Being top of the league means nothing for us at the moment until that last ball is kicked and that final whistle, and then if we are top of the league when that last ball is kicked, then you’ll see a celebratory Marrs. But until then, you won’t do.”
The result does not exactly put Brighton in pole position, with Portsmouth, Charlton Athletic and Tottenham Hotspur all having a game in hand – and Pompey close enough to overtake them again if they win it.
But it’s a crucial time of the season to retake the lead, and while there are sure to be more twists in these final weeks, Brighton will not relinquish it lightly.
The fact that they won again today, achieving a rapid league double over their East Sussex rivals without ever hitting their top gears, tells of a team with momentum, who can roll with the punches and still emerge victorious.
And their performance on the pitch echoed that as they twice had to dig themselves out of uncomfortable periods camped in their own half to earn the right to a vital victory.
The sides exchanged corners in the opening minutes, with Lewes firing the first shots – literally – through Chloe Howe and Katie McIntyre, both of which were easily collected by Faye Baker in the Brighton goal.
The hosts were enjoying the better of a scrappy opening, and only some alert defending on seven minutes prevented Kim Stenning’s ball finding Howe inside the Brighton box after a pinpoint through-ball from Charlotte Bennett.
Seconds later Claire Trafford dispossessed Jay Blackie but had to delay her advance to await support, and the opportunity fizzled out.
Kirsty Barton, in the Brighton midfield, and Charlotte Owen, ahead of her, showed some nice touches as the visitors began to settle. Blackie, too, atoned for a couple of early errors with a superb interception and diagonal pass to turn defence into attack.
Lewes, too, were passing the ball impressively, and a fine move involving Stenning, McIntyre and Kelly Newton was halted by another piece of alert defending.
With just over a quarter of an hour played, Brighton fashioned their best chance to date when Sophie Perry tried a left-footed cross-cum-shot from the right flank which Gurr just failed to get a toe to at the far post.
On 17 minutes, Lewes won a free-kick in a dangerous position, 25 yards from goal, but McIntyre wasted the delivery, hitting it straight at Baker.
Brighton’s own free-kick, a little further out, a few minutes later, almost had a more devastating conclusion. Gurr shaped to hoist the ball into the area but instead fed the overlapping Perry, but her fierce shot was brilliantly blocked at close range by Allison Cowling in the Lewes goal.
But from the ensuing corner, the ‘keeper misjudged Gurr’s kick and had Sian Cheedy to thank for heading it over for another flag-kick.
The tide had turned. Brighton had survived Lewes’s marginal dominance of the early exchanges and were now on top.
But their hosts were far from overawed and with 25 minutes gone, served up a reminder of their threat when Trafford dispossessed Deanna Cooper at the back and played in Stenning, only for Cooper to make up for her mistake with a brilliant block.
Soon Brighton were back in the ascendancy, and it took a last-ditch interception by Cheedy to prevent another superb Gurr pass reaching Fliss Gibbons, playing in an unfamiliar left-wing role.
But that only delayed the inevitable, and on 33 minutes Brighton took the lead.
Perry was hauled to the ground just outside the penalty area in perfect territory for left-footed Gurr. She struck her free-kick superbly, curling it beyond Cowling’s reach, into the top corner.
Brighton stepped up a gear, with Perry and the skilful Owen posing more of a threat. Blackie shot first-time as the ball was rolled across the edge of the box, but her effort faded well wide, signalling an end to the meaningful action of a first half in which there were more fireworks from the lively Lewes supporters in the stand than there were on the pitch.
Half-time: Lewes 0-1 Brighton
The break came at an awkward time for Brighton, who had begun to get their flowing game going. And it was Lewes who slipped back into the ascendancy after half-time, with Sian Heather immediately becoming a key figure.
She was becoming the principal outlet for Lewes down the right and featured prominently in an early foray down the flank.
Rebecca Thompson, one of two former Brighton players facing their old club, found Heather, who exchanged passes with the increasingly influential McIntyre. Heather tricked her way past Amy Taylor and laid it off to Thompson, who finished the move rather less impressively than she had started it, hitting it wildly over the bar.
The half was only three minutes old when McIntyre dispossessed the impressive Barton and fed Stenning, another ex-Brighton player, but while the move came to nothing, it was indicative of the growing dominance of the home side, thanks in no small part to the indefatigable McIntyre.
On 50 minutes, Lewes threatened again, Thompson doing well and finding Heather on the touchline with a terrific pass. Once again, Heather delivered with a superb cross, met on the volley by the on-rushing Trafford, but it sailed well over the bar.
Two minutes later the home side earned their first corner of the half after McIntyre – who else? – robbed Taylor. McIntyre’s flag-kick found Bennett, whose header was cleared off the line.
As if Taylor wasn’t having enough problems dealing with Heather, Howe joined in, forcing another corner off the defender on 58 minutes. Once again McIntyre found a Lewes head, but Bennett’s effort was just wide.
Brighton were under the cosh, rarely escaping their own half in the opening 15 minutes of the second half, but their goal had survived through a combination of good defending and indifferent finishing.
With 63 minutes gone, Lewes manager John Donoghue sent on Natasha Wells and Kirstie Spice for Thompson and Bennett.
But it was Brighton’s substitution at the same moment that was to turn the game again. Marrs introduced Vicky Ashton-Jones for Lucy Somes, freeing Gibbons to move up front, alongside Owen.
Lewes still carried a threat, as Blackie discovered when she was robbed in her own penalty area by Stenning, but her off-target effort summed up the home side’s day.
With Brighton now finding their feet again after an inauspicious opening to the second period, they finally carved out their first chance of the half in the 66th minute.
Perry, Barton, Owen and Barton again exchanged slick passes to find Gurr, who chipped over.
A minute later Deanna Cooper found Owen, who had time to turn just outside the Lewes area, but her weak shot gave Cowling no trouble.
A Brighton corner in the 74th minute found its way to Cooper, just outside the area, but the defender shot wide.
But two minutes later the visitors had the perfect opportunity to double their lead and kill off Lewes’s resistance.
Gibbons was given far too much space in the area, and Cheedy slid in with a desperate challenge to deny her a shooting chance, bringing down the striker and giving away a penalty.
Gurr struck it well enough, but Cowling dived the right way and turned it away at full stretch – a truly brilliant penalty save.
A couple of minutes later she was at it again, denying the on-rushing Perry with her outstretched foot.
And Lewes had their goalkeeper to thank once again on 85 minutes when she kept out Owen’s superb fading volley with a save almost identical to the one that had denied Gurr from the spot.
Development player Kerry Tagg came on for her second first-team appearance from the bench, in place of Howe, as Lewes sensed they could still get something from the game.
But although Stenning was winning her share of headers up front, in truth, the hosts rarely looked like scoring, and the Brighton players celebrated the referee’s final whistle like they were on top of the league.
Which, of course, they were.
If the sign of true champions is to win when not playing well, Brighton could be in for a very special end to the season.
While there were occasional glimpses of their trademark flowing football, today’s victory was more about attrition, sturdy defending and taking their chances. Well, at least, one of them.
It was more their resilience that shone through today as they faced considerable Lewes dominance – of possession, if not outright pressure – in the second half. But like the champions they might yet be, they emerged unscathed – and on top of the world.
There was plenty for Lewes manager John Donoghue to celebrate against his former club. A week ago, his team had held out for 70 minutes before shipping three late goals.
Today they gave Brighton another decent run for their money, stitching together some quality passing moves that augur well for next season.
They passed the ball better than I’ve ever seen them do – especially in the second half – but Brighton’s passing was slicker, performed at speed, and consequently more incisive.
Donoghue lamented their lack of fire-power – and resources. But he acknowledged their adaptability as they adjust to a new manager and style of play in a league that has become ever more competitive.
He told Sent Her Forward: “Against the top teams, barring Charlton (to whom they lost 5-0 in midweek), we’ve competed brilliantly. We’ve made it difficult for them and we’ve created a few opportunities that we need to score from. Again today, the opportunities that we have, we need to stick them away.”
But he felt there were signs of improvement today, both from last week and over the season as a whole.
“It was a pleasing performance, [with] energy, drive. We actually played better football today than we did last week.”
But he added: “It’s been a very challenging season. We haven’t always had the players available that I would have liked, for various reasons.
“I thanked the board not long ago for allowing me to try to be a bit more expressive in what we’re doing. The risks coming from that, when you’re teaching somebody to do something… if there’s a mistake, you get punished.
“We’ve tried to slowly develop, being a bit braver on the ball and wanting the ball. But we don’t want to take out – as you saw today – the fierceness of the tackle, the energy of the players and the way they love to work with each other.
“The board has been wonderful. We should be on more points than we are, but we’re not, so you deserve to be where you are. We need to keep doing what we’ve done.
“We’ve got a great platform. We’ve competed against all the top teams, but we haven’t gone past any, and that would be something we need to look at.”
Marrs also acknowledged Lewes’s change in style. He told Sent Her Forward: “They did pass the ball around. From my previous experiences with them, they haven’t been a side that passes the ball around. But they did try and pass the ball around; they did try and play the right way, and that’s all credit to them.”
But he said he never felt unduly concerned as Lewes dominated possession, particularly in the 15 minutes immediately after half-time.
“We have done a lot of work defensively over the past two weeks. I don’t think they really had any clear-cut opportunities. They had chances to put the ball into the box, but the numbers we had around the ball were very good.
“I was more worried about us trying to play out in tight areas, once we’d won possession inside our 18-yard box. I thought if they’re going to score it’s going to come from one of our mistakes rather than their creativity.”
Sent Her Forward player of the match: Katie McIntyre (Lewes)
It was never a classic, but there were some fine individual performances, not least from the spine of Brighton’s side, where Deanna Cooper, Kirsty Barton in particular and Charlotte Owen each shone in their roles. But McIntyre’s display, particularly in the second half, was outstanding, especially when judged against the quality she was up against in Barton and the wonderfully composed Charlotte Gurr. She was committed, energetic and passed the ball extremely well.
Sian Heather was also outstanding, particularly in the second half, offering a regular outlet on Lewes’s right flank and giving the accomplished Amy Taylor an uncomfortable time.
Rebecca Thompson also had a good game, keeping the dangerous Fliss Gibbons relatively quiet for spells until she moved up front. And there should be special praise for goalkeeper Allison Cowling, who ensured there was no more than a goal in it, making some outstanding saves, capped by a brilliant stop from Charlotte Gurr’s penalty.
Sent Her Forward match rating: 5/10 Nope. Definitely not a classic, on a tricky pitch. But the match improved in the second half as Lewes gave Brighton something to think about – and Brighton responded in style.