Nailbiting – but crucial titles won and lost in the committee room

Part two of Sent Her Forward’s review of the season focuses on the leagues outside the FAWPL

Forest Green Rovers win the league and cup double, Worthing Minors win the title on goal difference, Lewes Development take the Leaague Cup (Photos: FGRLFC/Jane Roberts/Jacquie Agnew)

A season of trophy joy and administrative nightmares: grassroots football is still a winner (Photos: FGRLFC/Jane Roberts/Jacquie Agnew)

It was not just the Premier League that provided thrilling title and relegation battles – nor were the most entertaining matches confined to the women’s top winter competition.

In fact, the best match I saw last season was in the South East Counties League, four levels below. In terms of match ratings, the Premier League games I watched proved to be below average.

But statistics can be as mystifying as they are telling, and I’m delighted to say that of the 43 women’s and girls’ matches I have watched since August 3 last year, very few have disappointed.

So many key decisions are being made in the wake of administrative slip-ups by hard-pressed club staff. Yet as the stakes grow higher towards the end of the season, the errors – or alleged errors – continue to be made.

Interspersed in this review of the season are a few facts and figures from the many games I’ve seen – from the Sussex County Under-16 League to the Premier League title decider.

And in the coming weeks, Sent Her Forward will be announcing its own end-of-term prizes, culminating in the selection of two dream teams – composite sides chosen from the players who have impressed me this season.

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See also: FAW Premier League review

Best match: Worthing Minors 10-2 Burgess Hill Town 2nds, South East Counties Div One West, Dec 14 2014. Match rating: 10/10

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FAW Premier League Division 1 South West

Forest Green Rovers players celebrate winning the FAWPL Div 1 South West (Photo: Shane Healey)

Forest Green Rovers clinched the league title without playing after Exeter City failed to score the 11 goals they needed (Photo: Shane Healey)

If there is a downside to a largely exciting and compelling season, it’s the number of issues that have been decided – in part, at least – in committee rooms.

While the Premier League itself was ultimately determined on the pitch, we were denied the Sunday showdown we had been promised when Keynsham Town pulled out of their penultimate fixture at championship-chasing Brighton.

Portsmouth got the win they needed anyway, rendering the Brighton v Keynsham fixture irrelevant, as it would no longer have a bearing on positions at either end of the table.

The FA’s Premier League management committee is still to decide what to do about the fixture and any penalty Keynsham might face. But whatever happens, the moment has passed. The issues are settled.

While that decision no longer affects the outcome, the battle to break into that league hinged very much on a ruling by the league’s disciplinary mandarins.

Back in January, Swindon Town, who led Division 1 South West by four points, were found guilty of playing an ineligible player in three separate competitions.

They were thrown out of the two knockout tournaments and deducted three points for their league misdemeanour.

As a result, both Forest Green Rovers and Exeter City, who had been six points behind but with two games in hand, finished above Swindon, denying them the promotion that for much of the season had seemed theirs for the taking.

Of course, that is to take nothing away from either Forest Green or Exeter, who both enjoyed excellent campaigns, the Devon side eventually just missing out on top spot for the second season in succession, this time on goal difference.

The trio were far and away the most dominant sides in the division – its first under the FA’s umbrella – and after Swindon’s knockout blow, the other two West Country rivals engineered an exciting finale to the season, which was decided only on the final day.

Forest Green could have clinched the title in their final match, but maybe it was the nerves that got to them, or the sense of occasion, as Chichester City marked Matt Wright’s farewell with a surprise 2-1 victory.

Action from the Hampshire Cup final between Portsmouth and Southampton Saints, April 8 2015 (Photo: Jordan Hampton)

Southampton Saints had a decent league season and did themselves justice in the Hampshire Cup final against Portsmouth (Photo: Jordan Hampton)

It still left Forest Green in the driving seat, three points ahead of Exeter and with an 11-goal advantage, meaning the Devon side had an almost impossible task in their final fixture, against second-to-bottom Cheltenham Town.

But when Exeter raced into a 5-0 lead by half-time in that last game, there was a lot of nail-chewing going on at Forest Green’s Nailsworth base.

The Devon side eventually won 8-0, falling an agonising three goals short and earning Josh Giddins’ side a place among the Premier League élite.

Below the trio, Southampton Saints were the best of the rest, finishing fourth, despite the distractions of a Hampshire County Cup run that ended in an entertaining final against local rivals Portsmouth, which the Premier League champions won.

Saints had an impressive second half to the season, particularly after Jemma Tewkesbury joined them for the final few fixtures, from Super League Yeovil Town.

And if the prolific striker chooses to remain at Southampton, they could prove a good bet for promotion next season.

Sent Her Forward understands there may be no relegation from the league this season, possibly granting a reprieve to bottom club St Nicholas, who finished eight points behind Cheltenham.

Incredibly, after just missing out on promotion from the league’s forerunner, the South West Combination, the previous season, Chichester City finished immediately above the bottom two this time round – although with 21 points, they ended up as close to Swindon as they did to Cheltenham.

Wright’s departure – and Caz Henry-Evans’s from the development team – marked the end of an era at Oaklands Park, but with his assistant, Liam Greenfield, moving into the hot seat, Wright is confident Chichester will be back on course for the top flight next season.

Final table (external site)

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Most entertaining league (average of match ratings): South East Counties Div One West (8/10).

Least entertaining league: South East Counties Premier/Sussex County Under-16 (6/10).

Other games (selected): Hampshire County Cup/SECWFL Chairman’s Cup (8/10)
Sussex County Cup (7.67/10); FA Women’s Cup (7.5/10)

Average match rating: 6.98/10

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FAW Premier Reserve League

This is the competition that presents me with the most difficulties in assessing. It’s a proper, fully-formed league, with a title at stake, but how much value to award that title is open to question.

The Reserve league is exactly that – a league for the second strings of clubs playing under the Premier League umbrella.

Some clubs – such as Brighton and Charlton – have large first-team squads, not all of whom can feature for the senior sides each week.

Others operate very much from week to week, dependent for strength on first-team call-ups and player availability.

Most managers are agreed that the league’s primary use is as a development vehicle for young players aspiring to first-team places, and for senior players who have lost form or are preparing to return from injury.

In which case, which is the yardstick for success: winning the league or producing a regular supply of talent to the club’s first team?

They were issues referred to frequently throughout the season – usually by managers of the smaller sides after coming up against rival teams containing liberal sprinklings of first-team players.

Lewes and Gillingham players shake hands before their Premier Reserve League clash in March 2015

Gillingham and Lewes, like most development sides, are packed full of youngsters

On the other hand, it could be argued that the opportunity to play formidable opponents with something – but not too much – at stake can turn wispy teenagers into battle-hardened competitors in readiness for the competitive times they might face in the Premier League.

The general agreement seems to be that it is up to clubs how they use their resources – but that not too much heed should be paid to results, or league placings.

I have tried to reflect all these points as much as possible in my match reports and – to a lesser degree – in my round-ups. After all, with round-ups, two of the few tangibles to refer to are the results and league positions.

Putting those considerations aside, the campaign was a terrific one, with Brighton and Charlton – the champions and runners-up of the much smaller Premier Reserve League the previous season – again dominating, although West Ham‘s marvellous season under Andy Hill meant they actually finished up sandwiched between the two.

Charlton eventually won back their league crown, taking the title by eight points. Yet Brighton‘s was probably the most spectacular season, their second string – occasionally boosted by first-team quality – rattling in 90 goals on their way to finishing third, three points behind West Ham.

Spurs, Crystal Palace, Portsmouth and Queens Park Rangers were the not entirely surprising next batch of teams, but the performances of the sides who spent most of the season in the bottom three or four were among the more fascinating features of the campaign.

Elevation to the Premier Reserve League represented enormous leaps into the unknown for Chichester City and Lewes.

Chichester‘s second string had spent the previous campaign in the fifth tier of women’s football, while Lewes did not even have a second adult team until the season began.

Intriguingly, Mark Currier’s mix of first-team fringe players and new recruits found the depth they required from the teenagers promoted from the previous season’s Sussex Under-16-winning side that he had run.

Throwing 16-year-olds in among the battle-hardened adults was definitely a gamble. But after a succession of early-season defeats, it paid off, as both Lewes and Chichester found their feet and ended the seasons in respectable positons above the bottom two, where they had spent most of the campaign.

In their places lay Gillingham and Bedford‘s reserves. The Gills, too, had to rely on teenagers after the club’s first team was shorn of most of its talent during the exodus to Brighton.

And if the players I saw a couple of times during the campaign stay with the club, I suspect they will finish a little higher next time around. Unless, of course, they are used to boost the senior side.

Bedford had a dire second half to the season – with one notable exception… the day they turned the tables on Brighton by fielding a side strengthened by a few first-team players, and carrying off a shock 8-3 victory, which was to prove equally controversial.

Final table (external site)

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Total matches watched: 43

FAW Premier League – 8
Sussex County Women’s League – 7
FAW Premier Reserves League – 6
FA Women’s Cup – 4
SECWFL Div One West – 3
Sussex Women’s Challenge Cup – 3
Friendlies – 3
London & SE WRFL – 2
FAW Premier League Div 1 South West -1
SECWFL Premier Division – 1
Sussex County Women’s League U16 Division – 1
FAW Premier League Cup – 1
SECWF League Cup – 1
SECWFL Chairman’s Cup – 1
Hampshire County Women’s Cup – 1

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London & South East Regional Women’s Football League

And back to the committee room.

At the time of writing I cannot even tell you who has won this division – let alone who has won promotion.

The season ended – on the pitch, at least – only last Sunday when London Corinthians beat Aylesford 7-0. But the last title-related match was played two weeks earlier, when Carshalton Athletic defeated Corinthians by the same score.

The victory should have been enough to enable the Surrey side to snatch the title from Old Actonians, the long-time leaders of the division.

But the destination of the championship is in abeyance while Carshalton’s 2-0 victory over Maidstone United a few weeks earlier comes under scrutiny over the involvement of a player who may not have been eligible to play.

Confused? You will be. So many key decisions are being made in the wake of administrative slip-ups by hard-pressed club staff. Yet as the stakes grow higher towards the end of the season, the errors – or alleged errors – continue to be made.

Something really must be done. And maybe simpler, more consistent, player-eligibility rules – and closer scrutiny of them by club officials – would be a start.

Old Actonians celebrate winning the League Cup, May 2015 (Photo: Julie Hoare)

Old Actonians are still waiting to hear whether they can add the championship to their League Cup title (Photo: Julie Hoare)

It is unfortunate that the administrative issue should distract from what has been a fascinating campaign, with teams taking it in turn to head the league – which is but one step from the Premier League structure.

At various stages, Fulham Foundation, AFC Wimbledon, Actonians and Carshalton have all been on top, while Corinthians were in with a mathematical chance of overhauling all of them until the final few weeks of the campaign.

But perhaps it is right that the eventual champions will come from the two who await the league committee’s decision.

Actonians, having already won the League Cup, are on the verge of a double, while newly promoted Carshalton were runners-up in the Surrey County Cup that they had won the previous year.

At the other end of the table, the race to the bottom was never as exciting. In fact, Hassocks spent the entire season there, picking up their only two victories in their final four games.

Even then, there was a disciplinary intervention – the Sussex side being docked two additional points for failing to honour their double-header against Corinthians in March.

Hassocks will surely be relegated, but it is the side who may join them who have left many scratching their heads.

Eastbourne Town spent most of the season clear of relegation worries, despite picking up only two victories in the first two months of the campaign.

But as they embarked on an outstanding, record-breaking FA Cup run – in which they beat Premier League Queens Park Rangers before falling to Derby County in extra-time – they slipped down the table, their fixture pile-up growing by the week.

And those games caught up with Emma Parslow’s side, who picked up just two points from their last 11 matches.

Promotion and relegation issues between the Premier Divisions of the London & South East and South East Counties leagues are decided by a joint-committee covering both leagues, with elaborate permutations possible, depending on geographical as well as table positions, and relying on having applied for promotion.

Final table (external site)

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Games watched: 43

Goals scored: 213 (4.95/game)

Highest score: Lancing 14-0 Predators

Goalless draws: 2 (Lewes v Chelsea Dev; Chichester City Dev v Gillingham Res)

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South East Counties Women’s Football League

Premier Division

Herne Bay celebrate winning the SECWF League Cup (Photo: Julie Hoare)

Herne Bay exacted some revenge after Dartford Royals pipped them to the league title by beating them in the League Cup final (Photo: Julie Hoare)

Aha! A league decided on the pitch rather than off it. Although that’s not to say there weren’t a few asterisks next to the minor placings.

Dartford Royals eventually saw off the challenge of Herne Bay, who were looking for a third successive promotion in their three-year history – although Bay got their revenge in the League Cup, which they won for a second season in the row, beating Dartford in the final.

Both are hopeful of promotion under the labyrinthine system used to juggle the fortunes of clubs in neighbouring leagues – and both suggested they would be at home at a higher level.

Below them, Meridian kept pace for most of the season, but Herne Bay always had games in hand – and had the strength of will, as well as the skill, to make use of them to become Dartford’s most serious challengers.

Crockenhill‘s late rally saw them pull off a remarkable escape from relegation. Having spent most of the season entrenched in the bottom two with South Park, three wins in their last five games (after recording just one in their first 13) enabled them to pull clear and leave Eastbourne sweating on whether they will suffer an immediate return to Division 1 West.

South Park‘s miserable season – in which they won just twice – was rounded off by the deduction of those six points earned for failing to fulfil fixtures.

It represented a remarkable turnaround for the Reigate side who, only two years ago, had hopes of promotion after finishing second to Hassocks.

But in the last two seasons they have won a grand total of four league games, making their relegation this time around inevitable.

Final table (external site)

Division 1 West

Surely the title race of the season. Worthing Minors led from start to very nearly the finish, when after winning their opening 13 fixtures, they lost twice in three matches – including, crucially, to their arch-rivals for the championship, Seahaven Harriers.

Harriers had fallen behind with their fixtures, but remained well in contention, matching Minors win-for-win for most of the campaign.

Both scored prolifically – Seahaven hitting nine once, eight three times and seven twice, while Worthing notched up 13-0 and 10-2 victories – in their marvellous seasons.

But in the end it all came down to the rematch after that Seahaven victory over a depleted Minors side.

In the return game, it was Harriers who were below strength, and despite a valiant effort, they eventually succumbed to a 5-1 defeat, which all but clinched the title for Andy Burling’s team, who picked up the solitary point they still needed in their final game to prevail, by a goal difference of seven.

Action from Wivelsfield Green v Worthing Town, March 22 2015 (Photo: Dave Burt)

Worthing Town finished comfortably in mid-table on their return to regional football (Photo: Dave Burt)

Ironically, both clubs applied only reluctantly for promotion, fearing that the lack of resources which impeded both their efforts would expose them more starkly at a higher level.

But both are now expected to join the South East Counties élite – and if they are anywhere near full-strength, they should survive comfortably.

While the pair were in the top two all season, they were pushed all the way by Abbey Rangers, who enjoyed a smooth transition following their promotion from the Surrey County League.

Paul Johnson’s talented and tenacious side were also free-scoring, hitting 67 goals in their 18 games, but relying heavily on their arch-predator Rachel Johnson, who scored 36 in 23 league and cup games.

They finished only two points behind the top pair and could still, technically, be promoted.

While the top three were leading the way from start to finish, the side who finished fourth got there the hard way. After four games of the season, Wivelsfield Green had three points and a goal difference of 8-30 after encountering a rampant Seahaven (twice) and Worthing Minors in a torrid season opening.

While they made relatively short work of making up the points deficit, their incredible turnaround was completed when, in their final five games they turned that enormous negative goal difference into a positive one – and ended the season with a difference of plus-28 after racking up victories of 6-0, 13-0 and 11-1 in their last three matches – the latter two coming in successive weekends against Dorking, with Emma Chrimes scoring 15 of those goals.

The campaign was also notable for the performances of Worthing Town, whose return to the division ended in a respectable top-half finish, and Adur Athletic, who finished well clear of the relegation places following their promotion the previous season.

Less positive was Dorking‘s season. They celebrated only one win all campaign – their only points in a depressing season – yet they finished on minus-one after being punished over fixture cancellations.

They will be relegated, and Burgess Hill Town 2nds are set to join them after falling into the bottom two on the final day following Bexhill United Reserves‘ unlikely point against champions-elect Worthing Minors.

Final table (external site)

Division 1 East

The league’s parallel division also provided an exciting title race, with Ashford, Prince of Wales and Charlton Athletic Development in a three-way fight for top spot.

The Kent pair had been in a straight battle for most of the season, but all that changed at the end of March, when Charlton’s third team, on a run almost as impressive as their senior sides’, took advantage of a rare off-day for both rivals to move within catching distance of both.

However, the games caught up with them, and they faded in the final straight, losing at home to Ashford – a result that sealed the championship for their opponents.

Their rivals, from Canterbury, stumbled at the wrong time, and they lost again in their final match – against Charlton – leaving Ashford the champions by four points.

Prince of Wales did have the very tangible consolation of the Chairman’s Cup, after outplaying Abbey Rangers in the final, and may yet gain promotion with their Kent rivals.

It was a tough campaign for Aylesford Reserves, following their promotion from the Kent County Division. After losing key players, they found it difficult to adjust and only sporadically found the sort of form that had made them such a force the previous season.

They ended the season botto, although I believe they may escape relegation because of the size of the division.

Final table (external site)

Kent County Division

Long Lane Reserves celebrate a goal in the Kent Divisional Cup final against University of Kent (Photo: Julie Hoare)

Long Lane Reserves completed a magical season by adding the Divisional Cup to their league title, winning every game they played (Photo: Julie Hoare)

Well, it was hardly a nailbiter, but what a season for Long Lane Reserves, who cruised to the league title with an unblemished record of 16 wins out of 16.

Ironically, they were denied the pleasure of achieving that final success on the pitch when their opponents, the University of Kent, forfeited the match, which was scheduled for the exams season.

The students had already lost all 15 of their previous matches and could have expected another battering by the 75-goal champions.

In fact, confirmation of that likelihood had come a few days earlier when Long Lane beat the university 3-1 in the final of the Kent Divisional Cup.

The students ended the season rock-bottom, not only having won no points but actually losing one because of that final-fixture forfeiture.

Final table (external site)

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Teams most watched:
Brighton (FAW Premier League) – 9
Portsmouth (FAW Premier League) – 6
Burgess Hill Town (SECWFL Premier Division) – 5
Chichester City (FAWPL Div 1 South West) – 4
Crawley Wasps (London & SE Regional WFL) – 4
Lewes Development (Sussex County Women’s League) – 4

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Sussex County Women and Girls Football League

Women’s Division

Sam Morley (Rottingdean Village) in action against Jess Mead (Lancing)

It was a fascinating battle of youth versus experience in the Sussex County League

With plenty of new – and in particular, young – blood in the county league, there was a fresh look to a division that had expanded from six clubs the previous season to eight.

While the reason for the expansion was bad news for youth football in Sussex, with the proposed Under-18 division having to be scrapped because of a lack of interest, it proved to be just the shot in the arm that the women’s game needed.

None of the young sides who joined disappointed – in fact Lancing, Crawley Wasps and Lewes spent most of the season battling for the title, which Lancing eventually won.

Lewes were overtaken as their rivals made up their fixture backlogs, but Martin Perkins was more than happy with a mid-table finish for a side that was in fact playing in a league two age-groups below the previous season.

They could still technically finish in the top half if Hurstpierpoint lose the one remaining game at home to Rottingdean Village.

But there is a big question mark over whether that game will go ahead, having been initially postponed because of outstanding disciplinary hearings arising from the clubs’ earlier meeting before being called off the day before it was due to be staged after scheduled works began on the pitch Hurstpierpoint share with Cowfold.

Yet another disciplinary hearing is pending, and the outcome is far from certain, given that the winner would finish second – or, if it’s a draw, Crawley would usurp both to gain the upper hand if a second county league side were to be granted promotion.

In a final league table littered with asterisks, denoting points adjustments following the resignation of one team and the punishment of two others over – you’ve guessed it – ineligible players, even before the Rottingdean-Hurstpierpoint controversies, it is perhaps fitting that Worthing Town, who battled bravely with a shortage of players for much of the season, should have their only remaining victory (after their win over Predators was expunged when the Bognor side folded) wiped out by a points deduction.

Final table (external site)

Under-16 Division

With the under-18 division scrapped because of a lack of teams, the fact that the under-16 league went ahead with only four is a cause for concern in the county.

Unless either of the under-18 sides (Crawley Town and Portsmouth) who fled to other leagues when the Sussex one was cancelled return to the fold, the SCWGFL could be hard-pressed to revive the division this season, as it’s by no means certain that the quartet who fought out an artificial campaign as under-16s last term will move to the next level.

Only Southdown and Bexhill United completed their meagre allocation of nine league fixtures, the former winning the first eight of those but failing to achieve perfection when they could only draw their final game at Bexhill.

But they at least had the satisfaction of winning the double, beating the same side 7-1 in the final of the League Cup.

Final table (external site)

*Updated to reflect the likelihood of no relegation from Division 1 East of the South East Counties Women’s League.

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