Sent Her Forward season review – the awards (part one)

Part three of Sent Her Forward’s season review hands out those annual virtual gongs

Action from Old Actonians LKondon Corinthians in the London & SE League Cup final (Photo: Julie Hoare)

There was plenty for supporters of women’s football to cheer in another enthralling season (Photo: Julie Hoare)

Second week of June and we’re very nearly at the end of the season! I make it still one promotion issue to resolve and two outstanding fixtures to either play or award points for, but I can wait no longer – it’s time for the Sent Her Forward end-of-season awards.

Part one – Premier League proves its value
Part two – Crucial titles lost in committee rooms

This is both a pleasurable, rewarding task and a daunting challenge as I try to reflect the quality that I have witnessed in 43 live games of women’s and girls’ football over the past nine months.

Having seen most teams only a handful of times – and some, I’m afraid, not at all – it can never be a reflection of everybody’s performance over the 2014/15 season – more a snapshot of what I have witnessed, with some measure of overall season achievement – particularly by clubs and their managements – interspersed where possible.

So the presence of certain names in my category shortlists – and the absence of others – does not reflect their seasons (or even my view of their seasons) so much as what I have seen from them in anything from a single match to (in the case of some Portsmouth and Brighton players) six or eight games.

As with last year, I have tried to give more weight to players I’ve seen do well several times, but if I have witnessed exceptional one-off performances, those players – or teams – might well make one of the category shortlists.

Part four will feature more category winners – including team and player of the season – and in the final part of my review of the season, I shall produce squads from which I shall select my dream teams of the season for the FAW Premier League and the rest of women’s and girls’ football in the South East.

Best match

Not a surprise to anyone who has read the first parts of my season review, but worthy of a special mention for several reasons.

But first, a word of praise for the game that proved, over the course of 43 matches, to be the second-best I saw… way back in August.

It was already my fourth game of the season, but it was the opening day of the Premier League campaign – one we hoped would be revitalised by the prospect of a play-off nine months later, with promotion to the Super League the ultimate prize.

And day one was to give us a taste of things to come.

While eventual champions Portsmouth were being beaten 7-3 by Cardiff City following the erroneous sending-off of Lucy Quinn, their closest challengers, Brighton, were beginning their quest for the Super League against tiny Copsewood, a close-knit, almost family outfit from Coventry, who had clawed their way up through the ranks to reach the winter pyramid’s top division.

Brighton, with a new manager and half a new team, against Copsewood – an unknown quantity, whose first of many 200-plus-mile round-trips throughout the season took so long that they barely had time to warm up.

It proved a cracking game – possibly not Brighton’s best, but packed full of tantalising glimpses of what was in store for Culver Road regulars as James Marrs’ team gelled instantly, producing some irresistible passing football and ultimately a comfortable 3-1 win.

But Ryan Conneely’s feisty side provided plenty of indications of what their own loyal fans were in for in a challenging season, playing some decent football of their own and never overawed by their classy opponents. The scoreline was probably a fair reflection of the game – but those of us who looked beyond that spotted the signs that Copsewood’s inevitable season of struggle might not, after all, end in tears.

Sent Her Forward match of the season: Worthing Minors 10-2 Burgess Hill 2nds

Action from Worthing Minors v Burgess Hill Town 2nds, Dec 14 2014

The football played by Worthing Minors and Burgess Hill Town belied the poor playing surface

It’s the middle of December, and I’ve already witnessed a few double-figures hidings, with contrasting degrees of entertainment value.

And here’s another. Worthing Minors, already pulling away at the top of Division 1 West of the South East Counties League, at home to Burgess Hill Town’s 2nd team, marooned in lower-mid-table in a division dominated (at this stage) by just three sides.

Minors had already racked up 45 goals in their first nine league games – all of which they had won – and had hit 12 in the League Cup the previous weekend.

But on this occasion, their star striker, Danni Lane, who at that stage had scored in every match in which she had played, had reported ill on the day of the game and was confined to the bench – or what those in grassroots women’s football call a patch of mud.

Moreover, Millie Crowhurst, their talented and influential defender, was away on her travels and their goalkeeping crisis was such that manager Andy Burling’s wife, Sarah, had been forced to don the gloves for her first season of competitive football at the age of 46.

A big home win was surely on the cards, but could the visitors take advantage of Minors’ handicaps to keep the margin respectable?

The result was 10-2 – the runaway leaders’ 10th win in 10 league fixtures – so the answer is probably no.

Entertaining spectacle

But what Geoff Fox’s spirited team did achieve was respectability of performance and pride in their effort.

No, they were never going to win in what Burling later described as one of Minors’ more disappointing performances of the season.

But they played their full part in an entertaining spectacle, fought out in decent spirit on a glue-pot of a pitch, and managed to put two goals past a defence that had conceded only four in total by that stage of the season.

Minors, however, had too much in every department for Hill. Jade Widdows, their midfield playmaker, who was to miss the second half of the season because of her own overseas commitments, was outstanding and helped herself to a hat-trick. But more of her later.

Even the stricken Lane, who came on for a 22-minute cameo, either side of half-time, grabbed two more towards her eventual haul of 33 in 20 matches.

But no matter how lopsided the scoreline, this was a day to celebrate women’s football, and both sides played their full part.

It will be scant consolation to Burgess Hill, who were eventually relegated. But on the day that Minors, who went on to win the league on goal difference, hit 10 in grabbing their 10th win in 10 matches, the pair earned Sent Her Forward‘s only 10/10 match rating all season.

Young player of the season

Well, they’re all young to me, but I’ve put no age limit on this. Instead, I’m just listing the youthful talent that is providing the sport with so much promise.

It’s not just the top clubs, with their academies, centres of excellence and “youth pathways” that are giving youngsters a chance, but of course teenagers who excel at such a high level are always going to stand out.

I could have compiled a list almost as long as that for the player-of-the-year section, but I’ve opted for young players who stood out in games I saw them play – in most of these cases, on more than one occasion.

Coming close to the honour were two left-backs (at least, nominally), who have impressed me immensely.

Jess Mead has made the step up from under-18 football to the Sussex County Women’s Division with aplomb. The diminutive defender with the powerful throw lacks nothing in determination and is building her skills-set by the day. She is one of a host of talented young players who took Lancing to the league title in their very first season in existence.

Mead never shirks a challenge and rarely loses one. Her distribution may still need to be worked on, but the kid is not yet the finished product. When she is she’s going to be some player.

Next season she should be playing in the South East Counties League, where many young players have shone, not least at Worthing Minors, this year’s champions. Minors have one of the most talented attacks around, but their success is based as much on their defence as their forward-minded players.

And in a season where they have missed key defenders for long periods, a lot of credit must go to Katie Burling. Whether at full-back or left-midfield, or even in the centre of the park, Burling exudes enthusiasm and commitment and is surely a role model for many of her team-mates.

Like Mead, she has a sweet left foot – indeed, it is sweeter than that of her younger fellow nominee – but what I like about her (apart from her skill and commitment) is her awareness of the game that is going on around her. She’s effervescent off the field and as bright as a button on it.

Arguably, Eilidh Currie is also a left-back. But in truth, she is a marvellously talented all-rounder. The first time I saw her play was for Portsmouth’s development side at Lewes. She played left-midfield and was virtually unplayable, belying her (then) 16 years with a performance of polish and maturity.

Not surprisingly, the times I have seen her since have been for Portsmouth’s championship-winning senior side, where I’ve rarely seen her put a foot wrong, whether in defence or midfield.

Now 17, she is no longer just a fringe player but very much part of Perry Northeast’s plans at the club – and the confidence he has shown in her (and other youngsters) when he has so much talent at his disposal speaks volumes for her progress this season.

Had I actually seen her play, I’m sure I would have added Charlton’s Charlie Spice to the mix. After impressing for the club’ development side in the South East Counties League, the 17-year-old was catapaulted into the first team at the end of the season, scoring her first Premier League goal in her second substitute appearance.

Sent Her Forward young player of the season: Chloe Evans (Lewes Development Centre)

Action from Lancing v Lewes, March 25 2015

The battle between Chloe Evans and Nicole Webley was one of many highlights when Lancing played Lewes

I had the pleasure of watching Lewes’s under-16 side conquer all before them in 2013/14. Among a host of top-class promising talent I saw was this feisty little striker who played like a playground bully in reverse, dominating players twice her size with strength and power and an eye for goal.

I made a mental note to look out for her last season, when she would be facing no doubt stronger opponents in the Sussex Under-18 division.

The league never materialised, and Evans, like her young team-mates, was thrust into adult football a year or two early as Lewes Development joined the league’s Women’s Division.

Any fears I might have had for her personal playing development disappeared the first time I watched her at this new level.

Martin Perkins’ youngsters faced their first genuinely tough test in their third game in adult football – at Hurstpierpoint, another new side, but consisting of a mixture of youth and experience, of battle-scarred players who knew how to look after themselves.

Evans, a 16-year-old then, was excellent, able not only to look after herself but to cause genuine problems with her pace and power.

A few months later, she and her fellow Lewes babes faced another stiff test, at Rottingdean, the most seasoned of seasoned campaigners with a reputation for toughness and technical talent to match.

Evans stole the show, player of the match in a narrow defeat, and proof that the feisty teenager had what it takes.

The diminutive striker is nobody’s fool and can look after herself at this level. Her pace causes panic, her strength makes her difficult to better, and her attitude is first class. She is an intelligent player – remarkably so for her age. Perhaps her weakness is her unselfishness in front of goal – Sent Her Forward match report

Come the spring, Evans faced a test of a different kind – how to penetrate the tight defence of league leaders (and champions to be) Lancing.

Once again, she was magnificent, and her duels with Nicole Webley and the aforementioned Mead were among the highlights of an entertaining game.

The common denominator in all those games has been not only the young striker’s ability, her pace and her strength, but her wonderful awareness of what is going on around her, her ability to see a simple pass or to drift into the right area to baíl out a team-mate.

I wrote that she had a maturity beyond her years. It’s a terrific asset that I believe will be put to greater tests in the coming 12 months or so.

Manager of the season

With seven or eight leagues – not to mention a similar number of cup competitions – covered by Sent Her Forward on a regular basis, there are always going to be plenty of successful teams, and by definition, successful managers.

Comparing one with another is extremely difficult and means the winner of this award can be no more than a reflection of my personal judgment of that person’s achievement in the context of the circumstances in which they worked.

Last season’s recipient did not even win the league, but James Marrs’ achievements with Gillingham in a variety of competitions were outstanding.

Marrs is in the mix again this season after once again finishing runner-up in the Premier League, this time with Brighton, and steering them to the Sussex Women’s Cup.

So are several more bosses whose teams did not carry off their respective league titles.

Paul Johnson did plenty of celebrating in 2013/14 after his Abbey Rangers were promoted to the South East Counties Division 1 West. His team of many talents didn’t quite make it successive league titles this time around, but they did perform superbly in a division high on quality, finishing third to Worthing Minors and Seahaven Harriers, and also reaching the final of the Chairman’s Cup.

Jason Downer

Jason Downer led Lancing to the league title in the club’s first season in existence

Abbey’s conquerers in that final, Prince of Wales, enjoyed a cracking season, too, finishing runners-up in South East Division 1 East and also the Kent Women’s Plate, making their manager, Mark Kerr, another genuine contender.

Nowhere near champions were Copsewood, the Coventry team mentioned earlier, who were sampling their first – and many thought last – season in the FAW Premier League.

But shorn of key players – including a regular goalkeeper – for much of the season, they defied the odds with a magnificent end to the campaign, featuring four wins in their final five games and a draw with champions-elect Portsmouth, to end the season in mid-table.

How they managed that, nobody but their manager, Ryan Conneely, could know. But whatever it was, it has earned Conneely a deserved place in an auspicious shortlist.

Whether Brian Edwards can describe himself as a championship-winning manager is still open to question. He steered Carshalton Athletic to the brink of a second successive title, only to discover that one of his team’s earlier results is being investigated.

The jury is still out at the time of writing, but whether Carshalton – who also won the London & South East Regional League Cup – eventually lift the title – and/or promotion – his achievements this season also merit a place in the managerial shortlist.

Charlton Athletic enjoyed a magnificent season, even though they finished only third in a superbly competitive Premier League. But they did win three cups, for which Stuart Weston and Jeremy Parsons, who succeeded his former boss midway through the season, deserve immense credit.

One manager who did lift a league title was Jason Downer, whose Lancing side romped away with the Sussex Women’s Division title in their debut season.

After taking Hangleton Rangers to within a whisker of the Under-18 prize the previous season, Downer deserves immense credit for moulding a young side who breezed through their first campaign of adult football, combining an attractive style with the physical attributes needed at that level.

But the winner of this award is a winner in so many ways.

Sent Her Forward manager of the season: Perry Northeast (Portsmouth)

Northeast_qpr_hampton

Perry Northeast’s faith in his players has been reciprocated in their performances for him (Photo: Jordan Hampton)

This season’s was possibly the hardest FAW Premier League title to win, with the incentive of a Super League play-off place encouraging many sides to strengthen their resources on and off the field.

Northeast, who had enjoyed a fine first season as joint-manager with Katie Poore, was determined to do even better in his first solo campaign.

And he moulded not a team, but a squad of players, aged from 16 to probably double that, capable of going toe-to-toe with any opponent, and almost always coming away victorious.

Northeast refused to be overawed by the immense strides made by Brighton following their close-season transformation, believing that his team were more than a match for them.

More importantly, he instilled that belief in his players, too, Pompey doing the double over their south-coast rivals in a league campaign in which they lost only twice, eventually clinching the title in their final game against West Ham.

He achieved it with the bulk of the squad who had done so well the previous season, but this time around he seemed to get more from them. He was not afraid to promote youngsters from the fringes of the senior side or even from the development squad.

And his masterstroke was recruiting former Aston Villa striker Ini Umotong, who rewarded Northeast’s faith with 30 goals across four different competitions (including the Hampshire Women’s Cup, which they retained) – a feat that earned her a place at the World Cup with Nigeria.

Pompey might have been denied that Super League place that so many believed they deserved by an injury-time goal in the play-off final. But there is no denying the enormity of their achievements this season and how galvanised they have been by Northeast, Sent Her Forward‘s deserved manager of the season.

Best individual performance

Outstanding individuals have lifted otherwise average games and earned rewarding victories for accomplished sides.

Maria Wharfe celebrates with goalscorer Caz Rennie as Prince of Wales beat Abbey Rangers in the Chairman's  Cup final (Photo: Julie Hoare)

Maria Wharfe stood out for Prince of Wales in their Chairman’s Cup final win (Photo: Julie Hoare)

Jay Blackie‘s display for Brighton against Copsewood was one such occasion, as was Ellie MacIntyre‘s virtuoso performance for Southdown Under-16s in their 13-0 demolition of Royal Tunbridge Wells.

Caz Hodgson was outstanding on both flanks for Worthing Minors in their crucial title-decider against Seahaven Harriers in April, scoring a superb goal that revealed her awareness as well as technical ability.

And Maria Wharfe was outstanding for Prince of Wales in their Chairman’s Cup final victory over Abbey Rangers a fortnight later.

One of the best individual displays was surely Helen Bashford‘s incredible 75 minutes for Wivelsfield Green against Premier League Brighton, the eventual trophy winners, in the Sussex Women’s Cup.

The long-serving goalkeeper let in eight of Brighton’s nine goals in a comprehensive victory over the South East Counties League side. But in an extraordinary performance, she must have denied her opponents – who included the outstanding Blackie and Ireland international Sophie Perry – on at least as many occasions.

She was absolutely inspired that day in what was probably the best performance of her career – and she even had a little memento of the occasion when her face was shredded by a set of studs after she bravely thwarted yet another attack.

Sent Her Forward individual performance of the season: Jade Widdows (Worthing Minors v Burgess Hill Town 2nds)

Back to that game of the season I mentioned a little earlier for what will surely take some shifting as the best individual performance I have ever witnessed in the women’s game.

Widdows, the talented playmaker at the heart of Worthing Minors’ midfield, had a field day against Burgess Hill, displaying the full gamut of abilities, from speed to passing to dribbling and goalscoring. She grabbed a hat-trick, but she also grabbed my attention.

I know not whether it was an exception or the rule – the brilliant young player spent most of the season studying and honing her football skills in the United States.

But it was unforgettable, and yet another honour for Minors in a magnificent season.

Club of the year

As with last season, I make the distinction between a specific team’s achievements and that of clubs who run more than one side.

That narrows down the list of candidates somewhat – but there were still four outstanding challengers.

Collage of photos of Charlton Athletic's cup-winning side, former manager Stuart Weston and caretaker boss Jeremy Parsons (Photos: CAWFC/Keith Gillard)

Charlton Athletic won the Ryman, Capital and League Cups and finished third in the league under first Stuart Weston and then Jeremy Parsons (Photos: CAWFC/Keith Gillard)

Brighton not only took Portmouth to the wire in the FAW Premier League, but their development side were neck-and-neck with Charlton Athletic for most of the season in the Premier Reserve League, too. They eventually finished second and third in the respective leagues – a terrific achievement when first-team demands alone over the whole season would have been quite significant.

The club’s younger age groups also excelled, with several earning international call-ups as the talent production line gave notice of more success to come.

Portsmouth, too, figure prominently. While the first team were sweeping almost all before them, reaching the Premier League Cup semi-final on top of their other impressive achievements, their development side were stringing together a tremendous season of their own.

Under boss Lee Hurrell, they played some of the most attractive football in the Premier Reserve League, scoring 60 goals on their way to a sixth-place finish in the division of 12 teams, despite losing some of their key players – including Eilidh Currie, Liz O’Callaghan, Chloe Dark and Katie James – to Northeast’s first team.

AFC Wimbledon had a cracking season. Their first team, who ended the previous campaign second-to-bottom with zero points, were transformed and ended a competitive season third. Or possibly second, depending on the outcome of the investigation into Carshalton Athletic.

They could still be promoted to the Premier League’s regional divisions – and they regained the Surrey Women’s Cup for good measure – but even their achievement was overshadowed by that of their development team, who won a league and cup double.

Sent Her Forward club of the season: Charlton Athletic

Who else? The first team won three cups, finished third in a brilliant Premier League and boasted the league’s top scorers, both individually and collectively.

The reserves regained the Premier Reserve League title and their development side were still in with a chance of the South East Counties Division 1 East crown with a couple of weeks of the season left before finishing a creditable third.

Charlton Athletic are a well-run club with an excellent ethos. Their first team will be there or thereabouts again next season as they target that Super League spot.

And if they make it, the talent pool within the club will ensure they have every chance of staying there.

Still to come: more Sent Her Forward end-of-season honours – and those dream teams!

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