Lewes’s development side became surely the youngest ever winners of the Sussex County League Cup on Sunday when they resoundingly beat the vastly more experienced Hurstpierpoint 4-1 in the final.
With seven 16-year-olds and nine 17-year-olds, Martin Perkins’ squad, playing in their first season in adult football, had an average age of just over 16.5.
“If there was an under-17 league, they would all qualify to play,” he said.
Indeed, had it been a normal season, they would not even have been in the competition – just a few weeks before the scheduled start of proceedings they were gearing up to play in the league’s under-18 division, having won the under-16 division last year.
But when that was scrapped because of a lack of interest, they – along with a couple of the remaining under-18 sides – were thrust into adult football before, perhaps, they were ready, and certainly before they were expecting it.
And all have acquitted themselves well, with the league producing a fascinating contrast of the young and experienced.
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While Lewes were romping to cup success, and finishing a respectable fourth – or more likely, fifth – in the women’s division, Lancing – another team in their first season, formed largely of last year’s Hangleton Rangers under-18s – won the league at the first attempt.
And Crawley Wasps, who pipped Hangleton to that under-18s title, can finish no lower than third.
At the other end of the scale, Rottingdean Village, an experienced team who have tasted life at a higher level, and Hurstpierpoint – a new team, but featuring a core of players who have been on the Sussex football scene for many years – are vying to pip Crawley to second place.
It has made for some intriguing contests this term and has undoubtedly helped accelerate the rookie sides’ progress in a way that an under-18 division could not.
The managers of all three of the youngest sides have acknowledged that their players have learned quickly how to cope with both the physical and psychological challenges of adult football.
And while playing stronger, more experienced sides has no doubt honed their skills, too, the technical ability of all three was never in serious doubt.
But while Lancing have proved worthy winners of the league, losing just once in their 13 matches so far, it is the achievement of the 16- and 17-year-olds of Lewes that stands out.
For much of the first part of the season they were constantly in the top two before some of their rivals started catching up with postponed games.
They have conceded the second-fewest number of goals in the league, and even to reach Sunday’s final they had to beat Crawley Wasps and Lancing – currently the division’s top two.
The losing finalists, Hurstpierpoint, can still leapfrog them in the league, and Steve Weller’s side’s hopes of a promotion place may rest on their final two results.
But they will consider their cup-final defeat a missed opportunity – particularly after showing such good form in the league the previous week, when they beat Wasps 5-1.
With a side that blends youth and experience, they got off to the worst start possible in Sunday’s final at Crawley Down when Chloe Evans, Lewes’s talented top-scorer, converted a penalty after Charlotte Russell was judged to have been brought down.
Her strike partner, Ellie French, doubled their lead a few minutes later before Evans added her second before half-time.
Hurstpierpoint were denied by the woodwork and a Katie Burr save before the interval but were killed off when Evans clinched her hat-trick with her 23rd goal of an extraordinary first season in adult football.
They did grab a late consolation through Louise Creasey, but it was Lewes who became the 11th winner of the Sussex County League Cup, and only the eighth different club to achieve the feat.
Perkins was understandably proud of his young charges for their achievements – though still not totally satisfied.
“The girls are a credit to themselves and to the club,” he said. “And along with the girls at Lancing, [they are] maybe the new generation of Sussex county ladies’ football.”
But he added: “I was really disappointed not to keep a clean sheet after being four up with 10 minutes to go.”
Yet he acknowledged that their mid-table finish and surprise cup triumph had made their maiden season in adult football one he could only have dreamed of as the club prepared for what they thought was an adjustment to under-18 football.
“I’ve just re-read your piece on our game versus Hurst back in October (when Lewes won a tricky game 2-1) to reflect on how far we have come. You reflected on our defence back in October as being fragile, and I think that is the one area we have improved the most, having conceded 17 goals in the league – the second-lowest.
“We also have the second-best goal difference, so that is a reflection of the performances we have put in this season.”
Meanwhile, Hurstpierpoint’s quest to finish their maiden season in second place resumes on Sunday when they visit Worthing Town.
Weller admitted his side were rattled by the early penalty, which he considered dubious. “A Lewes player accidently kicked the back of Jen Weller’s heels and fell over,” he told Sent Her Forward.
“The ref blew, and to everyone’s amazement gave a penalty. We were rattled and conceded two more quick goals.”
Despite the early blow – and watching his side hit the woodwork twice – Weller described the day as enjoyable. “On the day the best side won,” he said. “Lewes play to their strengths and use the ball over the top with great aplomb. They will be a very strong force next season as they mature.”
Hurstpierpoint’s attentions turn back to the league, where he insists: “There is everything to play for. Finishing second is in our hands. All we need is to win both games.”