Lewes 2 (Spice 8, 59) Southampton Saints 1 (Wilson 44)
Two sides tentatively feeling their way through those first steps towards match readiness each declared themselves satisfied with their first 90 minutes of competitive football in conditions they are unlikely to face too often once the season starts.
Lewes, who will be looking to build on their mid-table finish in last season’s FAW Premier League, edged a decent game against Southampton Saints, who play a division lower, where the emphasis for both sides, inevitably, was on getting to know each other and the patterns of play expected of them rather than results – or even individual performances.
Among the many things manager John Donoghue will have learned from those opening 90 minutes on the club’s new 3G training ground is that some of his key personnel, who have been putting in top-notch performances over the years for him and his predecessor, Jacquie Agnew, are still doing it, and are still likely to form the backbone of the 2015-16 model.
Kelly Newton, a captain by performance and by example, ran the midfield in the first half, when Saints were surprisingly reluctant to get in their esteemed opponents’ faces, before retreating deeper to ensure heads remained calm under rather fiercer pressure in the second period.
Katie McIntyre, a never-say-die, 100-percenter, showed the drive and the awareness – not to mention the technical ability – to raise the game, in baking temperatures on a steaming artificial surface, beyond the comfort zones that most players would have settled for in challenging conditions.
And Kirstie Spice, a player who knows where the goal is, shrugged off at least a hat-trick of glaring misses to emerge the match-winner and reassure Donoghue – and her team-mates – that she has not lost the art of being in the right place at the right time… even if her radar needs working on.
Reassuring as all those aspects will be to the Lewes boss, it’s the new things that he learned that will probably satisfy him more as he looks to build not only a side, but a squad, capable of competing at the other end of an ever-improving Premier League in the coming nine or 10 months.
“I learnt that the squad, in terms of its depth, is good,” he said. “We had five players who weren’t available today who are perceived as, maybe, first-teamers, so I’m really pleased.”
Donoghue said he had demanded flexibility of his players today, taking account of the heat, which is intensified by the pristine artificial surface, as was illustrated during the recent Women’s World Cup in Canada.
“We had a couple of themes that we wanted them to look at that we’ve been working on in training – to get the ball down, and get it at the back and play,” he said. “We knew it was going to be a warm day, and the surface is good for passing, so it’s worthwhile looking at that way of playing.”
But it’s the depth of the squad that he feels will be crucial in the coming campaign. A year ago I watched Lewes perform extremely well against Super League Chelsea’s development side in one of Donoghue’s first games in charge.
The immediate future looked bright, but things didn’t quite turn out that way.
“Unfortunately, from that team that we put out against Chelsea that looked really promising, for various reasons we lost a few players that caused us to have to change what we did, and bring other players in – and maybe promote players sooner than we would have done in an ideal world.”
A year on, Donoghue hopes that the squad that he has assembled will stick together and give the club a chance of developing in a way that it never quite managed last time around.
“In terms of the depth of the squad, it’s better,” he declared. “I’m hoping that this year we’ll start with the players who understand what we want to do – and we’ll keep them.”
Lewes have brought in some new faces, too, including goalkeeper Lauren Dolbear, from Hassocks, Danni Lane, from Worthing Minors, and Lauren Smith, from Seahaven, both of whom have jumped three levels to join the Rookettes, and Nicole Matthews, another attacking midfielder, who was formerly with Chelsea.
And, as with last season, there were opportunities for those coming up within the club’s own ranks to stake their claims for consideration.
Substitutes Kate Donnan, Ellie Ramsauer, Danielle Perrin and goalkeeper Katie Burr, who featured largely for either or both of Lewes’s two development sides last season, all got some game time as Donoghue took an early opportunity to gauge how the youngsters might fit in to his first-team regime.
And he was satisfied with what he saw, particularly from his new signings.
“Some of them have come from lower divisions. Their ability on the pitch was wonderful. You saw Danielle, Lauren out there, who’ve both played [in] divisions lower. They did really well, so I’m really pleased for them.”
He praised Dolbear, who not only did most of what was asked of her in goal but also showed signs of an ability to command her box in the way Michelle Beazley, one of her illustrious predecessors, used to. But with another goalkeeper also currently training with the club, Donoghue says he hasn’t yet made up his mind who will be first choice.
Whoever gets the nod will face pressure not only from their rival but also from Burr, who barely had time to show what she can do today but who has excelled for both the reserves and more youthful second development side.
And that route to the first team is a key element of Lewes’s philosophy. Youngsters who prove themselves not only on the pitch but with their attitudes and application can be sure of an opportunity.
A couple of county league players made it on to the first-team bench last term, and there was movement between the seniors and development squad, too.
Donoghue said: “If they step up and they do what we want them to do, I don’t see any reason why not. I think a lot of the players need to take responsibility themselves. If they need to get fitter, need to get stronger and technically they need to improve certain areas, then we can give them support and advice on how to do it, but they’ve got to get out and do it themselves.”
Adam Lee, Donoghue’s opposite number, is in much the same position, looking to navigate his way through the first weeks of a pre-season that always disappears far too quickly with key players missing and newcomers to bed in.
He, too, pronounced himself happy with his charges’ first outing of the pre-season – and particularly their fitness.
He told Sent Her Forward: “I thought we’d really tail off at the end because we’re not long back. But to be honest, I thought we came on stronger at the end and created a few chances.
Lee felt today was an opportunity to try out some of his players in different positions to cover for absences.
And he feels the result of that experimentation should give them the heart and confidence to progress as Saints seek to build on last season’s fine campaign when they just missed out on promotion from the Premier League’s Division 1 South West after winning the Southampton Cup and reaching the Hampshire Cup final.
“There are still a few missing from holidays. Basically, all our left side was missing, so it was a bit unbalanced today. We tried different formations, players in different positions. It was a bit of trial and error. But on the whole I was really pleased.”
Lee conceded that it took his team a while to settle down – not a new revelation for him. But he was proud at how his new players found their feet, aided by the more experienced heads, who – like at Lewes – look set to form the backbone of the Southampton side in the coming campaign.
He said: “There were two brand new players in there, so it was a bit of mix and match. But it does generally take us a while to get going. But in the last 20 [minutes] I thought we came on really strongly.”
In truth, the trigger point appeared to come at the first drinks break, agreed because of the heat, midway through the first half.
Until that point, Lewes had dominated, taking the game to their Hampshire opponents, who – with Jess Lewry far too isolated up front – had posed negligible threat.
Southampton appeared to have ingested some sort of confidence-builder during the break, eventually summoning up the courage to push up in support of Lewry, with a degree of success, though it still took until the 42nd minute for them to conjure up a shot on goal, which Dolbear miscontrolled, conceding a cheap corner.
Having fallen behind to an early Spice goal, the striker atoning for earlier – and subsequent – misses by slotting past Hannah Haughton following a brilliant break by Lane, Saints shocked Lewes with an equaliser just before the break.
Rachel Wilson, one of their new signings, hit a superb snapshot from 25 yards with the outside of her foot, which rocketed past Dolbear, hit the bar and bounced over the line.
By that stage, the hosts should have been out of sight. Smith, making an instant impact for Lewes on the left flank, surged past a tentative defence and tested Haughton within the first 90 seconds; then seconds later fellow newcomer Lane set up Spice, whose low shot was easily held by the goalkeeper.
With a quarter of an hour gone, Spice lobbed over after nipping in ahead of Kat Littleboy. Then two minutes later, McIntyre, who was having an outstanding half, fired in a low volley which Haughton turned around her near post.
A couple of minutes later Spice found Matthews on the right with a superb ball over the Saints defence, but when the midfielder returned it to her, she was thwarted by a superb tackle.
Claire Capon, effectively a right wing-back, spent most of the first period in Southampton’s half, and was frequently found by former Brighton team-mate Charlie Carter’s arrow-like passes from defence. On one such occasion, the alert Haughton foiled Carter as she bore down on goal.
On 39 minutes, Lane again fed Spice when she might have had a go herself and the number nine missed from two yards.
And as the half drew to a close, the same combination again stretched the Southampton defence, Lane’s cross finding Spice, who controlled the ball well but again lofted her effort over the bar.
Half-time: Lewes 1-1 Southampton Saints
The second half began in much the same vein. Lane tore through Saints left side and again elected to pull back for Spice rather than shoot, with the same result.
The conditions appeared to be draining the players, with only McIntyre and – in patches – Lane showing sustained urgency.
Saints almost made Lewes pay for their profligacy when on 52 minutes Catherine Browning was given far too much time and space on the edge of the box and volleyed into the side netting with Dolbear beaten.
Spice turned provider, sending over a fine cross which Lane just about got her head to but could not direct on target.
The second half was certainly more competitive – and even – than the first. Krystal Whyte showed great awareness to find substitute Carla Perkins in space, but her assault on goal was snuffed out by a comfortable Lewes back line.
Lewes responded just before the hour with a goal as out of the blue as Saints’ equaliser had been – and in very similar circumstances.
Spice, showing no signs of any crisis of confidence after spurning so many opportunities, picked up the ball 30 yards out and fired a superb shot on the turn which struck the same bar as Wilson’s had and bounced down.
Lee, who was running the line at that end, said afterwards he could not tell whether the ball had crossed the line. Nor could the referee, but he gave the goal and Lewes had their winner.
Chances came and went at both ends – Kaye Henton doing well for Saints before blasting over; then Lewes doing likewise after another unselfish pull-back from Lane.
Lewry did brilliantly to create an opening but her shot was blocked, and almost instantly Browning fired in an effort that was well saved by Dolbear.
At the other end, Lane missed a one-on-one after Haughton spread herself to block her effort.
But with Lewry, now better supported, finally causing Lewes problems, Saints looked the more likely scorers, and as the game entered injury time, they strung together the best move of the game – a series of rapid one-touch passes that stretched Lewes – but the onrushing Perkins just failed to reach the resultant cross.
No wonder Lee was pleased. His players, playing their trademark passing game, had given him a base on which to build as they bid to better last season’s fourth-place finish.
He said: “I think the players themselves have learned that they can play in different positions; they can play in different formations. And as I’ve told them before, a lot of it is in the head. It’s not that they can’t do it. Once they start to believe they can do it – which they did towards the end of the game – everything falls into place.”
Rather like Donoghue, who wants a minimum of an improvement on last season and ideally a top-four finish in an increasingly competitive division, Lee would like to see his side pushing for promotion to join the likes of Lewes in the Premier League.
But they will have to do it without the help of former Super League striker Jemma Tewkesbury, who joined Saints towards the end of last season and had an instant impact.
The Dorset-based former Portsmouth and Yeovil Town player is unlikely to reappear in Saints’ colours this season because of the immense travelling involved. “I was lucky to get her in the first place,” Lee admitted. “I think she’ll end up at a more local club, probably playing in a lower league – which is a shame because she’s still got it.”
Sent Her Forward player of the match: Katie McIntyre (Lewes) Her quality stood out
Sent Her Forward match rating: 6/10 Unimportant at this stage of pre-season