Crawley Wasps Reserves 5 (Martin 43, Smith 45+3, Kendall 61, 64 pen, 79) Lancing 1 (Thaxter 39)
Less than 18 months ago Crawley Wasps’ under-18s and their counterparts from Hangleton Rangers played out an entertaining draw on their way to first and second place in the Sussex County girls’ league.
A lot has happened in the intervening period. Both were promoted to the county’s women’s division, where they flourished, and – along with two other clubs – were promoted again into this season’s South East Counties League, Lancing (who were formed largely from the Hangleton youth side) as champions and Wasps as runners-up.
For much of today’s debut in the regional league, it looked like it was going to be a carbon copy of that April outing, with both sides playing open, entertaining, enterprising football.
But the fortunes of these two fine Sussex clubs – Crawley celebrating their 25th anniversary later this season, Lancing their first – have diverged wildly in recent weeks.
Wasps have attracted a substantial number of new faces, including several from the now disbanded South Park and the return of a couple after breaks from the game, giving manager Simon Pavey a squad of 19 from whom to select today’s team.
Lancing, in contrast, have lost many of the key players who made that transition from Hangleton youngsters to Lancing’s league champions, including their outstanding defenders Nicole Webley and Sophie Tibbs and Hannah Bashir-Eviston and Billie-Jo Cobb, who scored or created so many of their goals.
On top of that, young manager Jason Downer stood down on Monday because of other commitments, leaving the fathers of two of the players to step into the brink to prevent the young side from going under on its first birthday.
In the circumstances, Lancing could have been forgiven if they had blundered their way through the match in a haze.
But, to the great credit of Kevin Thaxter and Pete York, who took up the managerial challenge; to Downer, who had prepared his squad brilliantly, and most of all, to the players themselves, they played a full part in the entertainment before Wasps’ superior fitness and knowhow took a hold after a closely fought first half.
Lancing suffered a bad injury to Chloe York, one of the joint-stand-in managers’ daughters, and then had to endure the final 20 minutes with just 10 players after the same player was shown red with the score at 4-1.
No wonder they capitulated in the end.
The pity was that York’s dismissal, for allegedly abusing the referee after a free-kick went against them, was totally out of keeping with the spirit in which the game was played. But although Thaxter felt it was a turning point, the truth is Lancing were well and truly beaten by that stage.
Beaten – but not broken, though.
It also took some of the glory away from Wasps’ terrific side, marshalled superbly by Zoe Martin, now also their coach, and luxuriating in the talents of Nicholle Smith and the magnificent Emma Kendall.
Returning after seven months out with ankle ligament damage, the midfield playmaker helped herself to a hat-trick, including a penalty, and along with her two experienced team-mates, was joint-architect of what was ultimately an extremely comfortable victory.
The fact that it had not seemed that way in the first half was due in part to Crawley’s profligacy in front of goal and in part to the doughty defending of their opponents, who, in the ever-willing Kayleigh Thaxter, had a constant outlet up front when desperation kicked in.
The immensely talented youngster ploughed a lonely furrow in the first half, yet her positive attitude and persistence earned her the honour of the first goal of the game, six minutes before the scheduled half-time break.
Unfortunately for the visitors, the shock of it merely stung the Wasps into action, and by the time referee John Wilkins blew for half-time, the hosts were in front.
And they never looked back.
Wasps gave early notice of their intent, earning a corner inside the first 10 seconds, and had their first shot within the opening minute.
Lancing responded with the sort of passing movement that has become their trademark, but the interchange between Sophie Bulbeck, Gladys Hedger and Lucia Williamson was cut short by the assistant referee’s flag for offside.
The attacking continued, with Wasps the more threatening, Martin at the heart of every forward thrust, but Lancing well and truly in the game.
However, their positive play was too deep to trouble Wasps unduly, although it took a fine interception by Kelly Barton to halt Williamson after being fed by Bulbeck.
It wasn’t until the ninth minute that they mustered their first shot, Hedger hammering a volley from the right side of the penalty area well over the Crawley bar.
A minute later, Williamson volleyed a superb ball over the defence for Thaxter, but the alert Izzy Lowen in the Crawley goal was out quickly to deny her.
Then it was the turn of her opposite number, Jodie Mills, to brilliantly turn a rasping free-kick over the bar for one of myriad Crawley corners.
It was from another, in the 15th minute, delivered with unerring accuracy by Kendall, that Barton headed just wide before the former almost broke the deadlock with a 40-yard piledriver that rocked the bar.
Three minutes later, York was badly injured in a crunching block tackle, and the game was delayed for eight minutes for treatment.
Alex Deacon replaced her, but it was the other number eight, Kendall, who fired in the next shot when play resumed, although it sailed harmlessly over.
Thaxter then tried a snapshot from the same spot as Hedger had earlier missed, but it was easily held by Lowen.
And then – not for the first time – Georgia Green somehow managed to deny Martin as she was about to meet a low cross, for yet another corner. A couple of minutes later, the same player again thwarted the Crawley player-coach.
And Green made it a hat-trick of blocks to frustrate Martin for a third time.
Then Kendall’s clever ball, intended for Smith on the right wing, was superbly cut out by Jessica Mead.
However, it was not all one-way traffic, and Wasps were indebted to Lowen in the 38th minute when she challenged Williamson, who had been set up by the impressive Bulbeck.
Lancing were not to be denied for long, though, and a minute later they took the lead with a brilliant goal from Thaxter, who did well to shrug off two challenges before arrowing a superb drive from 20 yards past Lowen.
Wasps immediately stepped up a gear, and this time Kendall managed to bypass Mead with another angled ball to Smith, earning yet another corner.
The pressure on the Lancing goal was mounting, but somehow, a combination of errant finishing and spirited defending kept it intact.
Nowhere was that more in evidence than in Mead’s next challenge, on 43 minutes, making up ground from the left flank to somehow prevent Amy Fazackerley, in acres of space, getting in a shot.
Yet seconds later, the pressure finally told, as – inevitably – Martin raced past two challenges into the area and rifled a wonderful diagonal shot past Mills.
It was no more than Crawley deserved, but worse was to come for Lancing as the game entered time added on for York’s injury – ironically, shortly after she re-entered play.
Mills superbly saved Martin’s shot, but Smith rocketed home the follow-up.
Half-time: Crawley Wasps 2-1 Lancing
It was Lancing’s turn to make an immediate impression at the restart, Thaxter latching onto a rebound to lob just wide.
And it was Thaxter again who troubled the Crawley defence a minute later, fending off some half-hearted challenges after being found by Bulbeck and firing straight at the goalkeeper.
Wasps went close to extending their lead, though, in the 54th minute when Mills punched Martin’s angled effort as far as Laura Harding, whose delicate chip sailed just over the bar.
Martin looked certain to grab her second when she latched on to a through ball and ran at Lancing’s increasingly open defence. But once again, Mead raced back to get in the crucial challenge at the expense of a corner – from which Smith shot just over.
The visitors were struggling to get out of their own half as their exhausting first-half defending took its toll, and Wasps were beginning to exploit the gaps that were appearing.
It was no surprise when the home side scored a third, in the 61st minute. Kendall‘s corner from the right came back out to her, and she effortlessly sent the ball back, beyond Mills and into the far corner.
Lancing refused to give up and earned a free-kick 20 yards from the Crawley goal. However, Thaxter’s low kick failed to find the target.
In the 64th minute Wasps finally killed off any hopes the visitors might have harboured of a comeback when they were awarded a penalty for an innocuous-looking challenge in the box.
Kendall dispatched the kick ruthlessly for Crawley’s fourth, and her second.
There was another lengthy stoppage after the indefatigable Mead, who had acquitted herself impressively against the twin threats of Smith and Martin, was struck in the face by a clearance from one of her team-mates.
While she was off the field, Smith squandered another opportunity for Crawley, volleying over from a good position.
Things went from bad to worse for Lancing in the 72nd minute when a clearly frustrated York disputed a free-kick awarded to Crawley just outside her team’s penalty area and was shown a red card by referee Wilkins.
Lancing earned another free-kick from an increasingly rare foray into Crawley territory, but Lowen saved Thaxter’s cross-shot from near the left-hand touchline.
And a few minutes later, the final nail was hammered into their coffin as Kendall was given all the time in the world to pick her spot and send another wonderful shot into the top corner of the net.
There was time for Thaxter to fire another volley straight at Lowen, but there was no further score.
Both sides deserve credit for taking their passing games into the new, higher division, but Lancing have been hit hard by summer departures, and despite a commendable rearguard action, the absence of Tibbs and Webley was evident, especially in the second half.
Equally, without Bashir-Eviston and Cobb, Lancing’s cutting edge was blunted, despite the very best efforts of Thaxter.
Crawley, with an enormous squad at the disposal of their first- and second-team managers, look better equipped to cope with the demands of this division, and in Martin, Kendall and Smith, they had the best three players on the field.
Crawley Wasps: Manager Simon Pavey felt his team should have been out of sight by half-time. “I personally think we were dominant throughout the whole 90 minutes,” he said. They had a little spell. They got a goal, really against the flow of play.
“We should have been 3-0 up at half-time, but the girls were a bit rusty, a bit nervous, and we couldn’t quite finish.”
He added: “We were probably a bit nice in some ways, playing it like we have been the pre-season friendlies, knocking the ball around nicely but just not converting the chances that we had.”
That niceness might yet come back to haunt them at this higher level, where greater physicality – and even intimidation – often become part of the game.
But Pavey dismissed suggestions that his side’s ability should be assessed only once they’ve played a few of the more experienced South East Counties sides.
“[Lancing] won the league and we were runners-up – and we’ve just beaten them 5-1, so that’s a fairly good gauge for me.”
Lancing: Kevin Thaxter, who, with Pete York, has stepped into the breach following Downer’s resignation, rightly took great solace from the players’ performance.
He said: “Jason resigned on Monday, and we were told if no-one took over by yesterday, the team would fold. So Pete and I have taken over until they find another manager.”
It was a challenging start, but he said he was happy to continue after seeing his battlers work so hard – although he admitted: “It’s going to be a struggle.”
Thaxter felt York’s daughter’s red card was a turning point, although they were trailing 4-1 by then. He said: “I haven’t spoken to the referee about it but I understand she said, ‘You are a cheat’, but not to the ref.
John Wilkins clarified his decision after the game, telling Sent Her Forward: “She was sent off for foul and abusive language. The word cheat goes right to the heart like a knife.”
Sent Her Forward player of the match: Zoe Martin (Crawley Wasps) It could have been any of the Wasps’ triumvirate, but Martin’s direct running and clever use of the ball stretched Lancing’s defence until they were run ragged.
Star turns: Emma Kendall, Nicholle Smith, Kelly Barton, Izzy Lowen (Crawley Wasps); Georgia Green, Sophie Bulbeck, Jessica Mead, Kayleigh Thaxter, Lucia Williamson, Holly Marsh, Jodie Mills (Lancing).
Sent Her Forward match rating: 7/10 Open and entertaining, played in great spirit, but marred by red card.