Crawley Wasps (Smith) 1-5 Hurstpierpoint (Hale, Jackson 3, Ford-Hunt)
Hurspierpoint blew the Sussex County League promotion race wide open, powering to a convincing – and deserved – victory over Crawley Wasps.
It was – almost literally – women against girls at certain stages as Simon Pavey’s young team struggled to get to grips with the ferocity and dynamism of their opponents’ play.
And it wasn’t until the last 15 minutes – ironically, after they had lost one of their few experienced players to the game’s second serious ankle injury – that they finally grew into the match and besieged the visitors’ goal.
But the game was lost by then, Hurstpierpoint doing the damage with four goals in an 18-minute spell either side of half-time to earn them a result that keeps alive their outside hopes of promotion and almost certainly takes the race to the final day of an eventful season – and a showdown against one of the other promotion hopefuls, Rottingdean Village, in a fixture that has yet to be arranged.
Crawley, who have been in the top two for much of the season, still have a chance of promotion, but with their fixtures now complete, their destiny is out of their hands.
Hurstpierpoint can match today’s opponents’ 28 points if they win their final two games, and they have a superior goal difference.
However, Rottingdean can pip both if they beat Hurstpierpoint in a match that is awaiting confirmation pending the outcome of a disciplinary hearing arising out of the teams’ first encounter last month.
Today, though, there were no such controversies. It was a fairly straightforward win for Steve Weller’s side, who possess pace in key areas and strength all over the pitch.
The team may be in their first season as Hurstpierpoint, but they are an experienced outfit, most of whom have been around the block a bit and know each other’s games inside out.
And it showed against the Wasps, many of whose players were competing in the Sussex Under-18 Division last season.
Hurstpierpoint were resolute, determined and powerful. Wasps played neat passing football in places, but defended timidly and relied heavily on their core of players with first-team experience.
One of those – Zoe Martin, who has just been appointed player-coach – lasted only an hour before becoming the second Wasps player to go to hospital with a suspected broken ankle.
Wasps were already 5-1 down at the time and looked to be facing a torrid last half-hour. But with nothing apparently to lose, they got their heads up and the ball down and took the game to their opponents in the final quarter of an hour.
Pavey lamented: “I wish we’d played like that right from the first whistle.”
Instead, Wasps were on the back foot right from kick-off, and it took two smart interventions from the classy Laura Elliott to deny Hurstpierpoint’s Caz Walters and Mel Bramley inside the first two minutes.
The visitors were scything through the Crawley defence with almost every attack, targeting the hosts’ left flank in particular, where Bramley was causing Abigail Knight, Alicia Hanworth and Elliott a lot of problems.
Chances came and went, Stacey Jackson volleying over and Knight denying the same player with a brilliant last-ditch tackle.
In-between, Crawley did piece together a neat passing move involving Martin, Rebekah Dunt, Ellen Clifford and Emily Robinson, but the striker’s shot from the edge of the area was well held by Bex Smallman in the Hurstpierpoint goal.
For all their early dominance, the visitors did not get a shot on target until the ninth minute, when Walters managed a first-time shot that bounced twice before being collected by Wasps’ stand-in goalkeeper, Melissa Kilner-Brown.
But it was to be a baptism of fire for the young reserve player, who volunteered to step in to help solve Crawley’s goalkeeping crisis.
On 12 minutes, Hurstpierpoint were awarded a free-kick on the right wing, just outside the penalty area. Kilner-Brown misjudged the flight of the ball, and although she managed to palm it clear of the waiting Walters, it fell at the feet of Emily Hale, who tapped home.
Within two minutes, Crawley were level with a superb goal from their own number seven, Nicholle Smith. She was set up by the increasingly influential Clifford and steadied herself before rifling an arrow of a shot beyond Smallman into the far top corner.
Wasps could have had a second a minute later when Smith outsprinted Karen Bridgewater down the right. Her cross found its way to Abigail Pavey, who made room to shoot, but Smallman was equal to her effort.
Dunt was having a fine game for the home side alongside Clifford in midfield, but for all Wasps’ neatness, their attacking players were feeding on scraps, whereas Hurstpierpoint piled forward in numbers and, crucially, were winning most of the physical battles, on the ground and in the air.
In the 20th minute, only a good stop by Kilner-Brown prevented Hurstpierpoint regaining the lead, saving well at her near post from Hale after she collected a throw-in.
Walters was troubling Crawley’s back line with her pace and persistence, but she was cleverly outwitted by Knight, with a nice piece of trickery to get herself out of difficulty in the left-back spot.
The visitors were targeting that spot, frequently getting behind Knight, Hanworth and Elliott, but it was the latter who again came to Wasps’ rescue in the 20th minute when she headed out a dangerous cross from almost under her own bar.
Seven minutes later Hurstpierpoint had the ball in the net again, but it was disallowed for an offside offence earlier in the move.
Still they piled on the pressure, and Bramley played in Walters with a great flick, only for Hanworth to somehow come away with the ball.
Jackson, who had already gone close for Hurstpierpoint, was becoming increasingly influential, and in the space of two minutes was central to three key incidents.
On 33 minutes she ended a sweeping counter-attack with a shot that trickled just wide, long after the assistant referee had again flagged for offside. Only after consulting him did the referee bring the game back for the free-kick.
Then she appealed unsuccessfully for a penalty after appearing to trip as Elliott attempted to let the ball run out.
And finally, with 35 minutes gone, Jackson had some reward for a remarkable spell, volleying home from a yard after a brilliant run and cross by Bramley.
Five minutes later they had a third, following their best move of the match. Bramley and Walters played another of their neat triangles at pace before the former played a perceptive pass into the path of Jackson, who slotted home her second.
Wasps, who had injured players on the bench, suffered further problems when Pavey suffered a head injury, although she was able to continue.
Then, shortly after Smallman denied Wasps a route back into the match with a terrific save from Dunt after great interplay with Smith and Clifford, Steph Cox went off, to be replaced by Emma Loxley.
And as the first half entered injury time, Kilner-Brown kept Crawley in the game, pushing Jackson’s header from a Hale corner on to the cross-bar, then watching helplessly as the follow-up also rattled the bar.
Half-time could not come soon enough for Pavey’s players, who faced a mountainous task to get back into the match.
Half-time: Crawley Wasps 1-3 Hurstpierpoint
Two goals in the first eight minutes killed off any remote hopes of a comeback, as Hurstpierpoint picked up where they had left off.
Less than a minute after the restart, Jackson had her hat-trick after appearing to get her foot to the ball just ahead of Elliott.
Kilner-Brown denied her a fourth two minutes later, getting out quickly to pip her to another through-ball.
And then, with only 53 minutes gone, it was 5-1, Sian Ford-Hunt heading in Walters’ corner.
If Crawley thought things couldn’t get any worse, they were in for an unpleasant surprise.
Tracy O’Hagan, a second-half substitute, who had looked bright in an attacking midfield role, had to be replaced on 58 minutes after injuring her ankle.
Then a couple of minutes later, Zoe Martin’s enterprising afternoon ended in agony after a superb piece of individual play had outfoxed Walters.
The player-coach appeared to damage her ankle, too, as she slipped, and followed her team-mate to hospital, this time by ambulance.
After a 30-minute delay, and with the game already won, the stage was set for an uneventful final half-hour. But intriguingly, it seemed to spark Wasps’ best sustained spell of the game.
After a quiet few minutes, in which the only incident of note was a fine run out of defence by Elliott and a couple of runs by lone striker Robinson, which ended disappointingly as she was easily outnumbered, Hurstpierpoint resumed their assault on the Crawley goal.
Kilner-Brown again denied Jackson a fourth when she reached another through-ball just in time; then the striker again struck the woodwork when she reacted the fastest to Walters’ lob, which deceived the goalkeeper, only for her effort to hit the post.
Chloe Ansell tred an ambitious volley from 30 yards which cleared the crossbar, and then Jen Weller fired a long-range effort along the ground, which was safely gathered by Kilner-Brown.
With Dunt now trying to do two people’s work in midfield, Crawley were being stretched, but suddenly, in the 77th minute, they had a revival which changed the shape of the game – if not the outcome.
After forcing two rare corners in quick succession, they began taking the game to their opponents – and for the first time, in numbers.
Clifford went on a brilliant run before putting Robinson through, only for the striker’s shot to roll the wrong side of the post.
Almost immediately, Dunt created a chance for herself, only to overrun it slightly, and Smallman dived to save at her feet.
For all their stylish football, they still looked vulnerable to Hurstpierpoint’s breaks, but with the game won – and a League Cup final against Lewes next week – the visitors were taking no risks.
As the game entered the final few minutes, Ford-Hunt denied Dunt with a brilliant tackle after the midfielder had cleverly jinked her way into the Hurstpierpoint box, and as the ball came back out, Smith’s follow-up went the way of so many before her, rattling the bar.
Almost inevitably, though, Hurstpierpoint had the last say. Jackson finishing a sweeping move involving Amy Dix and Hale with a shot that came back off the bar – a woodwork hat-trick to go with her real one.
Women against girls it was for much of the game as injury-hit Crawley Wasps struggled to match the power and intensity of their experienced opponents.
Hurstpierpoint were not at full-strength, either, but had too much for their plucky – but rather brittle – opponents.
Their manager, Steve Weller, told Sent Her Forward he had been expecting a tougher challenge from a team his side beat just 1-0 earlier in the season.
“I think we were just up for it,” he said. “Up until Christmas we were playing once every three weeks because of the way the fixtures were done, and you just can’t get any momentum.
“Since the middle of February, when the [bad] weather went away, we’ve played every week and played the same sort of side, and it’s worked very well.”
He acknowledged that Wasps – like many other teams in this year’s Sussex County Women’s Division – were a youthful side, but he said teams generally needed a couple of experienced heads to succeed.
“We’ve got some [players in their] 30s, but we’ve also got some very young 20s, so we’ve got a mixture. We think some of the younger teams we’ve played would benefit from an old head. Most teams need that. Sometimes just putting one [older] player in can make quite a difference.”
Weller said the experience of having played together previously elsewhere helped, but he said they worked hard at their tactics at training.
The manager was delighted to have won the three points that keep his team in the promotion race while resting key players who are recovering from injuries ahead of next week’s League Cup final.
“Hopefully, I’ve protected the two that were injured enough for them to be able to play next Sunday. That was the plan.”
And with a promotion place still a possibility, Weller believes the first season of Hurstpierpoint Ladies Football Club can be considered a success.
“To get to a cup final and potentially be second, I think is quite an achievement for a new club.”
His opposite number, whose team currently occupy that second place, must sit it out and see what happens in Hurstpierpoint’s final two crucial fixtures, against Worthing Town and Rottingdean.
Simon Pavey told Sent Her Forward: “The last month has been incredibly difficult, with a lot of injuries and now two more, with two suspected broken ankles.
“Tracey O’Hagan has gone to hospital, and Zoe Martin, our captain and new coach, has gone to hospital in an ambulance.
“She’s very, very instrumental in our game, but the girls, bless them, got up and played the last 32 minutes… I wish we’d played like that right from the first whistle.”
He acknowledged the down side of fielding so many youngsters but says players from the first team have helped the youngsters develop.
“We have got quite a lot of under-18s, but we’ve tried to introduce the likes of Zoe and Ellen (Clifford), our two midfield players who are senior players, and we try and hold the young ones together – which we’ve been very good at for most of the season.
“It just tailed off a little bit at the end of the season, with a lot of injuries.”
Wasps are hamstrung, too, by a three-point deduction for fielding too many players with recent first-team experience – an oversight that Pavey holds his hands up to, but which he feels was dealt with harshly by the Sussex County Women and Girls Football League.
“We’ve been disdappointed with some of the league decisions that have gone against us. I feel that they could have been a little more forgiving to a young side.
“But that’s the way it is. Hopefully, we’ll still be in the hunt for promotion to the South East [Counties League] and move on.”
He added: “Overall, we’re incredibly pleased with the way the whole team has gelled, with three factions – the young team from Horsham [Sparrows, his former club], the under-18 girls and a few from the first team stepping in.”
Sent Her Forward player of the match: Stacey Jackson (Hurstpierpoint)
The striker was an absolute menace to Crawley’s jittery defence. She was denied three times by the goalkeeper, hit the woodwork three times and still came away with a hat-trick.
She combined well with Caz Walters and Mel Bramley, both of whom helped shatter Wasps’ confidence in the opening hour as Hurstpierpoint bombarded the Crawley back line. As usual, without goalkeeper Bex Smallman, they might well have conceded two or three, too.
Wasps had their own share of fine contributors, none more so than midfielders Ellen Clifford, Zoe Martin and Rebekah Dunt, while Laura Elliott showed impressive composure against Hurstpierpoint’s marauding strikers, inevitably caught out on occasion but making some crucial stops.
Sent Her Forward match rating: 6/10 There was some fine attacking skill, but all too sporadic in a stop-start game spoiled further by the lengthy stoppages for injuries.