Worthing Minors (Langridge, Hodgson, Bridge 2, Lane) 5-1 Seahaven Harriers (Smith)
Worthing Minors moved to within potentially a point of the South East Counties Division One West championship with a dismissive victory over their big rivals for the title.
It was sweet revenge for Minors, who, with only 10 players, had lost to Seahaven Harriers in the reverse fixture a fortnight ago – only their second defeat in an otherwise unblemished league season.
But it was also probably the final nail in the coffin of their opponents’ hopes of stealing the title from the team that has led the division all season.
And today it was Seahaven’s turn to be under-strength, reduced by injury, holiday and work commitments, to just 10 players themselves.
They put up a brave fight, but it was never going to be enough against a determined Worthing side who wore their rivals down with a combination of neat passing and clinical finishing.
Worthing are now five points clear of Seahaven, who drop to third after Abbey Rangers won again. But with two games left, the Sussex coast side are the only ones who can stop the Minors taking the title that few would begrudge them.
Wins in both Seahaven’s final matches, against Bexhill United Reserves and Adur Athletic, would take them to 46 points – one ahead of Minors’ current tally.
Victory in Worthing’s one remaining game – at Bexhill United Reserves on May 3 – would guarantee the title. But even a draw would be enough unless Seahaven can make up a goal deficit of 15 in their final two fixtures – not an impossible feat, given that they have 8-2, 9-2, 8-0 and two 7-0 wins under their belt this season.
But if Seahaven slip up in either of their remaining two fixtures, it will be celebration day for Minors at Bexhill next month.
Worthing, who reeled off 13 straight wins at the beginning of the season before losing to Abbey – the only team to beat both the potential champions – were given a bit of a fright in the opening minutes as Seahaven exploited uncertainty in their hosts’ ranks as they tried to come to terms with a change of formation.
Hannah Lane, who appeared to start as the middle of three central defenders, was caught in possession straight from the kick-off by Lauren Smith, Seahaven’s lone striker, who bore down on goal, only to be thwarted by Steph Carter’s saving tackle.
Then striker Phoebe Thorpe, playing wide on the right, came to the rescue to break up a quick counter-attack after Caz Hodgson’s cross had been cut out.
And in the fifth minute, Seahaven earned reward for their bright start, Smith capitalising on a catalogue of errors in the defence to put her side ahead with her 28th goal of a prolific season.
Goalkeeper Becky Beale triggered the panic with a poor goal-kick, and with two defenders failing to clear, Smith bundled her way through and just about got enough on the ball to knock it back past the ‘keeper.
The setback shocked Minors into action, and they began to play some of their trademark football, and they earned the first of what was set to become a stream of corners on eight minutes when Danni Lane’s attempt to find Pippa Langridge down the left was deflected behind.
They still couldn’t settle, though, and Seahaven’s only tactic – firing long balls for Smith to chase – was proving profitable as the Worthing defenders all looked ill at ease faced with her pace and height.
When Minors broke on 11 minutes, Hannah Lane heading expertly into the path of Langridge, Seahaven’s goalkeeper, Angharrad Hills, was alert to the danger and saved at the striker’s feet.
Both sides continued to trade attacks, but Minors were able to make use of their superior numbers to move forward in numbers, whereas Harriers were reliant on Smith’s mobility to stretch the Worthing back line in the hope that Katie Franks, Charlotte Russell and Kerri Forshaw could get forward in time to support her.
It was a risky tactic, but perhaps the only one open to manager Andy Ring, who was wary about being short of numbers at the back when the home side were advancing.
At the other end, Hannah Lane, now playing in a more advanced role, raced forward and found Hodgson on the right wing with a smart ball behind Kiri Canning, but again Hills was alert, saving smartly to concede nothing more than a corner, from which Hannah Lane headed just wide, with 13 minutes gone.
Hills was out quickly again to smother the danger after Hannah Lane very nearly found Hayley Bridge.
Worthing were building up steady pressure now and it was no surprise when they equalised in the 15th minute.
Danni Lane, who was beginning to find her feet, made a trademark surging run from centre-midfield to the left wing, where she rounded the full-back and laid the ball back into the path of the on-rushing Langridge, who never even had to check her run as she side-footed neatly past Hills.
Minors were immediately back on the attack, looking for a second, and earned another corner after Bridge dispossessed Natalie Ring and fed the dangerous Hodgson, whose effort was deflected wide.
Seahaven’s attacks were now sporadic, and their inability to keep possession looked likely to prove costly later in the game, as their two banks of four spent more time chasing opponents than creating opportunities, Smith still their only outlet.
But the lanky striker was up for the challenge, continuing to pull defenders away from their positions to follow her to the flanks.
Halfway through the first half, Franks found her with another hopeful pass, but Brooke Marshall covered well to snuff out the danger.
While Minors had overcome their initial difficulties, they were still not the fluent side that had won 14 of their 16 league games this season, and manager Andy Burling, recognising the problem, switched formation and roles.
Marshall initially switched from central defender to left-back, with left wing-back Katie Burling becoming a conventional winger.
Then, moments later, Carter moved forward into midfield, Marshall resumed her central defensive role and Hannah Lane – one of the few to settle into a passing game in the opening quarter – moved to left-back.
Burling, too, was playing some astute passes, showing a maturity beyond her years, and she topped off a fine first-half performance with a clever piece of skill in midfield to set Minors back on to the attack.
On 33 minutes, Worthing had a rare shot on goal when Hodgson used her body well to allow a pass from the wing to roll across her before turning and firing the bouncing ball well over the bar.
Corners continued to come, but were largely wasted by Minors, and they were given a little scare when Forshaw fired over at the other end after Smith had again caused problems in the Worthing defence.
For all Worthing’s domination, they were still level. They needed to take the lead before half-time to settle those lingering nerves, and they did just that on 41 minutes with a goal worthy of settling any championship decider.
Bridge and Hannah Lane combined well, and the former managed to whip over a cross, which the Seahaven defence failed to clear.
It came to Hodgson, 20 yards out and left of the goal. She beat two defenders in a lateral run towards the right and then executed an audacious reverse shot into the top left-hand corner, beyond Hills’ reach.
It was truly outstanding technical skill from a player who was having a major impact on the match.
Minors threatened twice more before half-time, firstly earning another corner and then denied by a superb stop by Charlotte Lloyd after Danni Lane had sent Bridge clear through the middle.
Half-time: Worthing Minors 2-1 Seahaven Harriers
The same 21 players kicked off the second half, Minors choosing not to make any substitutions and Harriers not having that luxury.
They were still in the game, but unless they managed to snatch another in similar fashion to Smith’s opener, it was a question of how long they would be able to hold out as they tired.
Burling gave them early notice of the task they faced with a surging run down the left wing, outpacing her marker and then waiting intelligently for support before delivering a decent ball into the path of Bridge, but the pass was cut out just in time.
Seahaven, who were now playing with the breeze behind them, won their first corner on 50 minutes after Thorpe had put in a superb block.
Hodgson and Lane combined well as the home side began to relax, and it took another great block by the outstanding Lloyd to thwart Hodgson.
It only delayed the inevitable, though, as Bridge effectively clinched the points in the 56th minute with a superb third. Carter played a brilliant pass behind the defender for the striker to run on to, and after a wonderful solo run past several defenders, she topped it off with a cool finish.
Hills, who had kept Seahaven in the match in the first half, continued to do her best to keep the score down, saving bravely at the feet of Danni Lane after she had been put through by Langridge.
33rd of the season
Bridge was denied another by Lloyd’s excellent tackle on the hour, which was followed almost immediately by Seahaven’s best passing move of the match.
Ring began it from the right-back position, finding Franks and then moving intelligently for the return ball as Seahaven made quick progress down the right flank.
But when Worthing countered down that same side on 68 minutes, Bridge wasted Hodgson’s fine cross from the byeline, again shooting over after the on-rushing Danni Lane just failed to connect.
For all the home side’s possession against their 10 opponents, they did not have the goal tally to reflect it, but that was to change in the 76th minute when top scorer Danni Lane finally got the goal she had been threatening all game, carving the defence open with her rapier-like run and calmly slotting into the opposite corner as Hills tried to narrow the angle.
It was the midfielder’s 33rd goal of another extraordinary campaign in which she has scored in all but one of the league games she has played in.
Two minutes later, it was 5-1, with Bridge finally getting her second after latching on to a superb defence-splitting pass by Danni Lane.
There was even time for another dramatic tactical switch by Burling, bringing on Natalie Woolven in goal, with Beale shedding her gloves and donning a number 11 shirt to replace Thorpe as an outfield player.
With two minutes remaining, Lane looked to have got her 34th of the campaign, unleashing a thunderous drive with her magical left foot, but Hills was again equal to it, pushing the shot over the bar.
As the game approached stoppage time and with the game lost, Seahaven finally threw caution to the wind and piled players forward in support of the increasingly lonely Smith.
And for the first time since the opening five minutes, they caused genuine consternation in the Worthing defence.
They stretched their back four and forced only their second corner in a spell in which they looked capable of getting a second goal.
But it was too little, too late. Perhaps if they had done so earlier, it would have been a different story – although with the pace of Worthing’s counter-attacks, perhaps the goals-against tally would have soared.
As it was, Worthing were worthy winners, and the title is tantalisingly close.
The two teams who have made the running all season in Division One West of the South East Counties League have each taken advantage of superior numbers to beat the other as this exciting season draws to a dramatic close.
But Worthing’s success today will surely prove the more decisive after reeling off an ultimately comfortable victory against a team deprived of several key players.
Seahaven manager Andy Ring told Sent Her Forward: “It’s hard work with 10. Two of our best players – Emma Flynn and Taylor Coade – were out today. One was working, the other was on holiday.
“And Katie Bothwell broke her leg in training, so with 11 v 10 it was really hard work.”
He suggested he might have been tempted to throw more bodies forward if Worthing’s reserve goalkeeper had come on earlier, but he added: “We set our stall out with two banks of four and one up front.”
Magnanimous in defeat, Ring had no complaints about the result and said: “[Minors] thoroughly deserved to win.”
But he added: “We didn’t disgrace ourselves. At the end of the day, we worked so hard, but didn’t create a lot of chances.”
While Minors now look odds-on favourites to take the title, Harriers have an excellent chance of winning promotion to the Premier Division.
But although the club have applied for promotion – unlike last season, when only one of the top four did – it’s far from certain they will accept it if the situation arises.
Ring said: “We have a problem next season, with four of the squad leaving. Two are going to university and another is going to Australia. So we might be struggling to put out a team at all.”
It’s a predicament shared by their conquerers today. Andy Burling, Minors’ manager, revealed the club had decided only at the last minute to apply for promotion, with similar fears clouding the issue.
He told Sent Her Forward: “The problem is the [additional] travelling. We have three or four players off to university, so I need to push for new players. The problem is if we don’t apply for promotion, some of the girls will get fed up.”
Burling could barely conceal his delight at getting instant revenge for Minors’ defeat at the hands of Seahaven a fortnight ago, and he rightly praised the contributions of so many match-winning performers.
And he admitted their shaky start, during which they went a goal behind, was totally down to him.
“It was completely my fault,” he confessed. “I changed the formation [to one] that I thought would suit us. We were meant to play two wing-backs, but we ended up playing with a flat back five. I shouldn’t have tried it.
“We changed it 20 minutes into the game, and it seemed to work.”
Sent Her Forward player of the match: Caz Hodgson (Worthing Minors)
There were myriad contenders for the accolade, but I’m going with Seahaven’s choice as opposition player of the match. Hodgson was almost unplayable, popping up on the right and left wings, invariably beating her full-back and delivering a succession of excellent crosses. Only her corner kicks let her down slightly.
But on top of a match-winning performance, she scored the pick of the goals in a game full of gems, with an effort of such technical brilliance that it deserves to win the league title on its own.
Close behind her were half the Worthing team – particularly Hannah Lane, who married her physical presence with a delicate thoughtfulness of pass when so many around her were failing to settle. Another to impress was Katie Burling, whose pace and enthusiasm mark her out as an asset to any team. But she has matured markedly this season, with an array of intelligent passing that belies her young years.
Hayley Bridge, too, was a thorn in Seahaven’s side, helping herself to two fine goals as the visitors tired. And as Seahaven wilted, Danni Lane sprang to life, stretching the visitors with her pace and power, and scoring her customary goal with typical aplomb.
Seahaven’s players had few chances to showcase what they could do, although Lauren Smith caused more problems than a solitary striker had a right to expect, and scored a typical predator’s goal.
Angharrad Hills spared Seahaven’s blushes on many occasions, diving bravely at strikers’ feet and tipping over a strike from Danni Lane that had goal written all over it.
But their stand-out player was defender Charlotte Lloyd, who barely put a foot wrong all game, blocking, tackling and intercepting with ease, standing up to the physical challenge but never resorting to reckless tactics. She was superb and did not deserve to be on the losing side.
Sent Her Forward match rating: 7/10 The game never really lived up to its billing as the clash of the titans because Seahaven were well below strength. But Worthing’s second-half performance – and their opponents’ game efforts to deal with it – made it a decent spectacle in the end.