Chichester City 1 (Found pen 48) Swindon Town 1 (Westlake 9)
How sad that just 10 seconds from the end of probably the best match that I have seen at this level, a serious injury deep into stoppage time should overshadow such a terrific game of football.
The match, between two of the best sides in the Premier League’s South West Division 1 had been played in impeccable spirit, with no quarter given or asked, and with an absolute emphasis on flowing football.
But when Amy Found, Chichester’s influential midfielder, lunged into a challenge in an attempt to break up what would surely have been the last attack of a compelling match, she sent Swindon’s Sarah Uzzell flying, and by the time the substitute came back to earth, she was clearly in desperate pain.
Already six minutes into injury time, it was another four before those last 10 seconds could be played and Swindon’s players and officials could get back to their stricken team-mate.
Swindon boss Steve Robertson called Found’s challenge – for which she was booked and penalised – an awful tackle.
Liam Greenfield, his Chichester counterpart, felt it was part of football and insisted it was not malicious.
But it certainly marred what had been an excellent game and overshadowed Chichester’s achievement, not only in bouncing back from their first defeat of the season in midweek, but also in bringing to an end Swindon’s seven-match winning run that had seen them go nine points clear.
It’s clear why the Wiltshire side are in the position they are in: they play good, passing football, can look after themselves physically and are resilient, with an outstanding defence who had to be at their best to thwart the power and pace of Kally Ambler, the astute movement of Tammy Waine and the perseverance and trickery of Jade Widdows, who is surely destined for a rosy future – plus a top-quality goalkeeper.
But Chichester not only matched them but pushed them all the way, probably had the better of the overall chances and thoroughly deserved their equaliser shortly after half-time, from their second penalty in four days.
It was the tonic that Chichester needed so soon after half-time, having gone in one-down in a first half they largely bossed, with Widdows outstanding on the right and Lauren Cheshire, Lucy Challen and Laura Ingram immense at the back.
And while Greenfield argued his team deserved to win, having carved out the better chances, it was a fitting result, with neither of these two enterprising sides really deserving to lose.
After his team’s three-match winning opening to the season came to an end at Southampton on Thursday, today’s game against the runaway league leaders, who were so unlucky not to be promoted last season, was a big test of their character.
And it was clear from the opening couple of minutes that the 1-0 loss to Saints had not dented their confidence, nor compromised their desire to play passing football.
Showing no signs of an inferiority complex against their impressive opponents, they passed the ball patiently from the back until the openings arrived, and within three minutes, the tactic worked to good effect as Ambler, Waine and Jenna Fowlie combined well before Serena Smith stopped them in their tracks with a good tackle.
When Swindon did manage to counter, Alex Hurst making excellent ground from left-back deep into the Chichester half, Cheshire moved swiftly across to halt her in her tracks.
Hurst was impressing in the opening exchanges, and played a superb crossfield ball to Beth Westlake, but this time it was Challen’s turn to cut out the danger with another impeccable challenge.
Despite Chichester’s bright opening, during which they showed the greater cohesion, Swindon looked threatening on the break, and it was they, rather against the run of play, who opened the scoring in the ninth minute.
Abby Picton found Beth Westfield in space inside the box and Swindon’s top scorer finished clinically past Sally Thompson in the Chichester goal.
The goal settled Swindon, who began playing a more fluent game, with Westlake and Michelle Rich at the centre of most of their attacking moves.
But their hosts responded well to the blow of going behind, and in the 13th minute pieced together a fine sequence of their own. Widdows played a superb ball to Ambler, whose control was immaculate. The striker laid it back for Widdows, whose fierce shot forced Levett into a good save with her feet.
After a tentative start, Widdows was starting to cause Swindon real problems down their left. Another clever link-up, this time with Cheshire, earned Chichester a free-kick near the right touchline. Waine almost got her head to Found’s delivery, and Emma Alexandre and Widdows got in shots, but the visitors’ defence once again held firm.
In the 19th minute it was the turn of Chichester’s back line to shine, Challen again getting in a superbly timed tackle to deny Rich as she bore down on goal.
Chichester were in the groove now and earned a string of free-kicks as they attacked in numbers, spreading the ball with neat one- and two-touch football.
After the dangerous Ambler was brought down in full flight on 24 minutes, Found’s kick was headed out as far as Challen. The full-back’s shot was blocked, turning Swindon’s defence into attack in an instant.
Westlake made rapid progress towards the Chichester byeline, but Challen got back to execute another perfectly timed challenge, even winning the goal-kick in the process.
A minute later it was Swindon’s turn to win a free-kick in a dangerous position, but Rich blasted her kick, 25 yards from goal, well over.
Back came the hosts, and Widdows again stretched the Swindon defence before laying back for Found to strike, first-time, just wide.
Then the flame-haired winger somehow engineered space beyond the full-back and sent over a superb cross on the run, which found Jenna Fowlie, but her lobbed volley bounced just wide after clearing Levett.
For all Chichester’s inventiveness and pressure, Swindon’s defence was holding up well, with the outstanding Chenise Austin largely shackling Waine.
On 34 minutes, Swindon summoned another shot, but Hurst’s long-range effort sailed well over the bar.
And when they threatened again, five minutes before half-time, after Ingram slightly underhit her back-pass, Thompson was quickly out of her goal to foil the on-rushing Picton, even managing to dribble round her before clearing.
As half-time approached, Chichester were awarded yet another free-kick by a slightly fussy referee, and Found’s brilliant delivery was once again cleared by the head of the superb Austin.
And in the final chance of the half, Ambler latched on to a terrific through-ball, only to be denied by yet another clean tackle, this time by Hurst.
Half-time: Chichester City 0-1 Swindon Town
If Chichester felt aggrieved to be behind at half-time, they didn’t dwell on it and played a full part in a pulsating opening to the second period.
Firstly, Swindon pieced together a neat passing move, involving Picton, Chyna Collings and Tash Perry, which ended in a shot by Collings straight at Thompson.
Then Widdows carried the ball 50 yards down the right flank before teeing up Ambler, who, once again, was brilliantly stopped by Austin.
But in the 48th minute, Chichester were level – in unexpected fashion, the referee awarding a penalty for hand-ball.
Cheshire, who has had two penalties saved this season – including Thursday’s at Southampton – ceded responsibility to Found, who made no mistake, blasting her spot-kick beyond Levett’s right hand.
Chichester, playing as well as I’ve ever seen them, were in the mood for another goal, and Waine did well to conjure a snapshot volley from a loose bouncing ball, 25 yards out, which cleared the bar.
In an open game, Swindon were showing a more cohesive attacking threat in the second half, and after Challen’s error had set the visitors on another forward foray, the same player got back to make amends.
Moments later, it was her captain, Fowlie, who raced back from the left wing to bolster the defence in the face of increased Swindon pressure.
In the 54th minute Chichester were inches away from a spectacular goal following a flowing move involving Ambler, Cheshire and Widdows, who once again set up Cheshire for a superb cross that Fowlie managed to glance across goal and earn a corner.
Fowlie again was at the centre of the action when she latched on to Cheshire’s long throw and hooked the ball towards the top corner, where Levett took it at full stretch.
On 58 minutes, Waine and Ambler combined well again, the former’s intelligent decoy run freeing up space for her strike partner to run at the defenders before laying it off to Cheshire, whose first-time drive went just wide.
Back came Swindon, and out came Thompson to smother the ball at Picton’s feet.
Swindon made the first of their three changes on the hour, replacing Perry with Sally Butterfield at left-back, where Widdows had caused so much damage.
Three minutes later, the hosts pieced together another passing move, this time down the left, involving Alexandre, Challen and the increasingly effective Fowlie. But once again, the attack foundered on the rock that is Austin.
Swindon were still playing a full part in a match of great skill and immense passion, and earned a series of corners and free-kicks. But nearly all were let down by poor delivery.
However, on 69 minutes, they went close when Westlake’s free-kick flew narrowly over.
Meg Attenborough replaced Rich in the 70th minute, and Chichester immediately renewed their own attacking threat. Ambler was tackled, but the ball ran to Fowlie, who hooked her shot wide.
Challen again denied Westlake, but then the threat turned back to the Swindon goal. Found put Waine through on goal with another pass of vision from her own half. The former Brighton striker fired in a fierce angled shot, but Levett did well to save at full stretch.
From the corner, Waine headed wide at the near post, and the striker was at the centre of Chichester’s next attack, making a fine run down the right before being thwarted by the excellent Hurst.
Swindon made their final change in the 80th minute, Sarah Uzzell replacing Ellie Maynard.
Greenfield still chose not to introduce fresh legs, despite the high tempo of a game played in warm sunshine, just three days after another hard outing at Southampton.
His players found themselves under more pressure down their right flank as Hurst did well to make incisive inroads into the Chichester defence, but Becky Barron got in a crucial challenge, at the expense of a corner.
As the game moved into the final few minutes, Waine had another chance to win it for Chichester after Ambler found her in the inside-left channel. But her shot – although on target – was well held by Levett.
Swindon, now with three players pushing up front, exerted some late pressure, earning a corner, which Found headed clear, and then, after Westlake set her up, Hurst blasted over from 18 yards.
The first minute of injury time was to prove the launch-pad for another 10-minute extension as Ambler went down under a challenge and received lengthy attention to her back.
When play resumed, she was replaced by Shannon Albuery, but with just seconds left, the fateful collision between Uzzell and Found ended in agony, another lengthy stoppage and a visit to the hospital round the corner for the unfortunate Swindon sub.
The injury was to prove the main talking point after the game, with Swindon’s players and officials clearly not happy with Found’s challenge. The combative, but elegant, Chichester midfielder wisely stayed out of the discussions, but both managers had their say.
Swindon boss Steve Robertson was clearly angry about the challenge. “It was an awful tackle,” he said. “[Found] knows what she’s doing. The referee didn’t deal with it properly.”
Liam Greenfield, the Chichester manager, didn’t see it quite the same way. He said: “It was a real shame… because that was one of the best games of football my players will be involved in. Both teams were wanting to play, both teams were up for it. It was passionate.
“That tackle at the end… it was maybe a bit of fatigue. I know Amy really well. She’s not a malicious person. She was never going to go out and think, ‘I’m going to injure somebody’. She’s maybe a bit fatigued, maybe the mind’s gone a little bit, and unfortunately that’s happened.
“It’s football, I’m afraid. It does happen,” added Greenfield, who is still without two of his own top players with long-term injuries. “Amy is not a malicious person, looking to hurt anybody.”
On a more positive note, both managers were happy with their teams’ performances. Robertson felt the draw was a fair result, despite conceding what he called a soft penalty, and Greenfield felt his side deserved all three points on the strength of the quality of chances they created.
Robertson was most pleased with the further evidence that he has a strength in depth now that was missing from their title challenge last season.
“We’ve definitely got the players now who can mix it up with the other teams, and we’re more than happy to defend if we have to defend. Much as we score a lot of goals… we don’t concede too many goals.”
And he refused to be too downbeat after seeing their 100% record fall in their eight league fixture. “There was no pressure with [keeping the record going] at all. We’re trying to get to that 30-point mark as quickly as we can. We’re eight games in now and we’ve 22 points. The quicker we hit that, the better off we’ll be.
“If we can improve on last year, which I think you can tell by the squad size today we have… we’re happy.”
Sent Her Forward player of the match: Chenise Austin (Swindon Town) A host of players in the running for this accolade – not least among the two defences, who were outstanding. But Austin’s tackling, heading and policing of the wily Tammy Waine put her at the front of that queue.
Star turns: Jade Widdows, Laura Ingram, Lauren Cheshire, Sally Thompson, Lucie Challen, Kally Ambler (Chichester City); Beth Westlake, Alex Hurst, Chyna Collings, Robyn Levett (Swindon Town).
Sent Her Forward match rating: 8/10 Probably the best game I’ve seen this season, and certainly the best at this level. Chichester have moved up a notch or two, and held their own against a very fine Swindon, who rightly look favourites to win the league.