Brighton 4 (Blackie 16, D Cooper 28, Somes 63, Barton 83) Forest Green Rovers 0
Premier League runners-up Brighton sent an immediate signal to the rest of the division that they are ready, willing and undoubtedly able to go one better this season with a comfortable first-day win over newcomers Forest Green Rovers.
In what was almost a carbon-copy of last season’s opener, also against a team who had just been promoted, James Marrs’ side hit the ground running with some delightful football, and – much like last year – while they always looked in control, they did not kill off their game opponents until Lucy Somes got their third goal an hour into the encounter.
It was a tough baptism for Forest Green, as it had been for Copsewood last season. But they will take great solace from the knowledge that the Coventry side stayed up, that they have key players still to return – but most of all, from their performance.
They learned some tough first-day lessons from their seasoned opponents, who ran Portsmouth so close in last season’s exciting title chase. And while their fitness levels and organisation were no match for Brighton’s, their individual ability, playing style and team ethic provided plenty of indications that they will be no pushovers at this exalted level.
While they possess some outstanding individuals in defence, collectively they were severely stretched by Brighton’s powerful front-runners and surging support players. Up front, they also have a diamond in Charlotte King, but she suffered from a lack of support as Forest Green’s overrun midfield tried to deal with the passing and movement of some of the best playmakers in the league.
And they were indebted to their goalkeeper, Georgina Macey, for a series of saves that not only kept the score down but deservedly preserved the visitors’ dignity and – hopefully – self-confidence.
And in midfielder Paige Stewart they boasted one of the best players on the pitch.
Ineivtably, it took them a while to adjust to the pace and intensity of the league – not to mention the all-weather playing surface at Brighton’s academy and the heat and humidity.
Brighton were straight into their stride, earning a string of corners in the opening quarter of an hour – and from the fourth of those, they took the lead.
Lucy Somes’ fine flag kick was met by an unmarked Jay Blackie, who made no mistake with her header. Sixteen minutes gone, and Brighton had the first of what promises to be a hatful of goals this season.
Sophie Okey, the visitors’ left-back had already made three crucial challenges by this stage to deny their hosts scoring opportunities, and still the pressure came: wave after wave of intricate attacks lacking nothing but the coup de grace.
Kim Stenning, making her umpteenth debut for Brighton, was denied a goal when her clever first-time shot on the turn was smartly saved by Macey in the Forest Green goal. Then, with 22 minutes gone, Blackie’s shot from 25 yards flew just wide.
Two minutes later, the visitors had their first opportunity when King picked herself up after being fouled just outside the penalty area to land a cute free-kick on the top of the net.
There followed one of the most astonishing 60 seconds or so of this nascent season as centre-back Deanna Cooper took centre stage at both ends of the field.
On 27 minutes she broke up a promising move with another superly timed interception and then surged forward, covering half the pitch before unleashing a shot that forced Macey into more work.
Less than a minute later, Brighton won a free-kick 25 yards out. While Forest Green sorted out their defence, the kick was played short to Cooper, whose powerful first-time shot slipped through the goalkeeper’s hands and trickled over the line to double Brighton’s lead.
Another few seconds and she was back in defence, breaking up another promising combination involving King and Amber Coates.
Jodie Shepherd had to be alert to deny Somes, and then Stewart stopped Kirsty Barton in her tracks before delivering a trademark accurate and perceptive pass to King, in space on the right flank.
As half-time approached, Brighton looked certain to grab a third as Somes, who epitomised the sort of class Forest Green are likely to face most weekends in the Premier League, collected on the edge of the box, nutmegged a defender and shot from 10 yards. But Macey again stood firm and collected the ball in her midriff.
As the game moved into time added on at the end of the first half, Stenning and fellow debutant striker Kate Natkiel found their bearings for the first time, the latter sending over a delicious cross from the right but her partner failing to get a good enough connection to worry Macey.
And with the final meaningful kick of the half, Stenning managed to get her toe to Barton’s ball in from the right but diverted it just wide.
Half-time: Brighton 2-0 Forest Green Rovers
Brighton began the second half as they had the first and could have doubled their lead in the first three minutes. First, Natalie Holbrook almost put through her own goal in trying to clear, and then a minute later, Barton found Blackie with another superbly judged ball, but Natkiel was unable to control her volley from her captain’s cross.
It took another outstanding save from the continually improving Macey to deny Natkiel on 53 minutes, diving full-length to catch the former Watford striker’s effort. Seconds later the same player shot narrowly wide after being fed by Stenning.
Four minutes later, Brighton spurned two more chances. Stenning missed her connection as the ball flew invitingly across the goal, and Somes gathered it, less than 10 yards out, but her shot was brilliantly saved at point-blank range by Macey.
The home side were enjoying their best spell of the match, but still they could not get the goals that Marrs feels could give his side the edge in what promises to be a closely fought promotion campaign.
Natkiel was guilty of a glaring miss from five yards out when the ball dropped at her feet from a ricochet.
On 62 minutes, it was Gurr’s turn to be denied by a point-blank save from Macey following a superb interception from Deanna Cooper.
A minute later Brighton finally got the goal that sealed their opponents’ fate. Somes capitalised on hesitation in the Forest Green defence during a scramble in the box to collect the goal her performance deserved.
The visitors’ forays into the Brighton half were sporadic, partly because of the intense pressure exerted by their opponents and partly because they were physically shattered.
On a rare attack, Ella Hitchcox delivered a superb cross from the right, but her team-mates had failed to keep up with her and the opportunity went begging.
Okey again denied Natkiel with another fine challenge, and then Shepherd blocked Somes’ goal-bound effort.
On 69 minutes, Annie Rolf’s fine senior debut came to an end to deserved applause from her team-mates, Amy Taylor taking her place.
Almost instantly, the defender-cum-striker had the ball in the net, but her brilliant finish was ruled out for offside.
Forest Green won their first corner on 75 minutes, but it foundered on Brighton’s solid defence.
Yet just as it seemed the visitors’ response was wilting in the heat, they conjured up a decent chance from a passing move that was a credit both to their spirit and discipline.
Resisting the urge to pump the ball long to their fading front line, they created some space for Stewart, who sent another exocet to King, this time on the left flank, and the striker’s excellent cross almost fell for substitute Naomi Marshall, but Brighton again managed to clear their lines.
Seven minutes from time, Barton put the icing on birthday girl Gurr’s cake, the left-footed midfielder making ground into the Forest Green area and slipping in a cross which Barton expertly flicked beyond Macey for the fourth.
A four-goal margin was no less than Brighton deserved as they slipped straight back into the sort of cohesive football that so nearly won them the league last season.
And yes, it could have been more as their two new strikers edged along the learning curve that all Marrs’ recruits need to negotiate.
But there were glimmers there to suggest that once they have built up an understanding, the goals that Fliss Gibbons brought them last season before her move to Super League Millwall will come – although the partnership may have to wait a while after Stenning went to hospital suffering from suspected concussion.
Forest Green looked shattered even before the end, but they were made to toil in the heat by Brighton’s relentless passing, and if they can adjust to the pace and intensity, while learning from their errors – of which there were plenty – they should still enjoy the season.
They certainly have plenty of players who do not look out of place at this level.
Brighton: Twelve months ago, Brighton played their first game under first-team head coach James Marrs. They won comfortably, but Marrs insisted there was a long way to go. And there was.
His players very nearly got there, and a year on, encouraged by their bright start to the new campaign, he believes they may well make it over the line this time.
“We looked better as a team today,” he said. “There’s a better feel around the camp. You can’t quite describe it. There was a really good vibe around the camp today.”
No sooner had they got the first game – and first win – out of the way than attention turned to next Sunday, when Brighton travel to potential title rivals Charlton Athletic, who inflicted on them their heaviest defeat of last season as well as knocking them out of the League Cup.
“I can’t wait,” he said. “We cannot wait to get on that pitch and play against them because we owe them big time, and the girls are hungry. As soon as the [final] whistle went, our focus went straight on to that Charlton game.”
Forest Green Rovers: Reserve team manager Greg Simonds was thrown in at the deep end as the Gloucestershire side began life in the top tier of the winter pyramid without three first-choice players – including their captain, Amy Baker – and their manager, Josh Giddins who had arranged his holiday before the FA revealed the date of the opening round of fixtures.
Simonds, thoughtful and virtually silent throughout the 90 minutes, cut a marked contrast with his opposite number, who spent the entire game, as always, imploring his players to go one better, no matter what they had just achieved.
He acknowledged the gulf between the respective sides – which did not surprise him – but felt there was plenty of positive news to deliver to Giddins when he returns.
He said: “Today has been a bit of a baptism of fire, but I think our girls held out well. We showed some inspiration in certain parts of the match. At other times, some silly mistakes cost us dearly, which were jumped on by Brighton’s players.
“We were aware that the standard [of the Premier League] is good. It’s a high quality… I don’t think we embarrassed ourselves today. We showed determination and grit. We were fully expecting the quality of Brighton… a team that has finished second in the table last season.
“I think it is very encouraging that the squad, even though they have lost, have come away with a solid result.”
He acknowledged that Brighton’s fitness levels were probably greater than his team’s. But he added: “That’s something that we will work on, so watch the return – we’ll be there.”
Sent Her Forward player of the match: Deanna Cooper (Brighton) Superb all-round game just pipped her cultured defensive colleague Vicky Ashton-Jones
Star turns: Vicky Ashton-Jones, Charlotte Gurr, Lucy Somes, Kirsty Barton (Brighton); Paige Stewart, Georgina Macey, Charlotte King, Jodie Shepherd and Sophie Okey (Forest Green Rovers)
Sent Her Forward match rating: 7/10 Entertaining game played in a positive spirit