Underdogs become play-off favourites in the battle of the Albions

Sent Her Forward previews the game that could make or break champions’ seasons

Brighton and Sporting Club Albion celebrate winning their respective Premier Leagues, 2016 (Photos: Geoff Penn/BHA/SCA)

Brighton and Sporting Club Albion each won their leagues with points to spare (Photos: Geoff Penn/BHA)

For a second time, the cream of England’s Women’s Premier League footballers will do battle for a chance to join the game’s élite in the Super League.

And for a second time, preparation for this crucial fixture which could have such a big impact on people’s futures has been far from perfect.

Last year, Portsmouth were forced to field a 16-year-old goalkeeper after their first- and second-choice ‘keepers were ruled out through suspension and ineligibility.

Twelve months down the line and Portsmouth’s successors as Premier Southern champions, Brighton, find themselves arguably in even more turmoil, having parted company with their captain, star defender and top goalscorer in the wake of the sackings of their manager and head of women’s football.

It’s the last thing Brighton expected as they emerged triumphant from another demanding campaign, losing just two league games and retaining their County Cup on the way.

But it’s a challenge they need to overcome if they are to have a chance of realising their Super League dream. This year, anyway.

One of us will go through and take the glory and one will miss out – Graham Abercrombie, manager, Sporting Club Albion

Standing in their way are Sporting Club Albion, a young side who have exploded on to the scene in the Northern Division, as well as enjoying an excellent run in the FAW Cup while matching Brighton’s success in their own County Cup.

Unlike Brighton, who finished their programme more than a month ago, the other Albion barely registered in the top echelons of their division throughout the campaign, falling further and further behind with their fixtures as their cup runs took their toll.

They ended the season with nine games in four weeks – clinching the title in the eighth of them – and have paid the price with serious injuries to two of their players in the space of a fortnight during that period.

Eleanor Clarke and Natalie Poole, who have made almost 50 appearances between them this season, both suffered knee ligament damage in quick succession as the matches came thick and fast, and are expected to miss the play-off, although Abercrombie does not believe their absence will weaken his team.

“I’ve got absolute faith in the squad,” he told Sent Her Forward.

How they finished

P W D L F A PTS
Brighton & HA 22 17 3 2 58 18 54
Sporting Club Albion 22 17 2 3 55 22 53

For all his confidence, Abercrombie does not believe this final showdown is even necessary.

He thinks there is no need for either side to be put through the wringer for the right to be considered for a Super League place.

“I think both clubs should have the chance to have a go [at the Super League],” he said. “One of us will go through and take the glory and one will miss out.

“There is nowhere in the world of football where a champion has to play off for promotion. It’s only at this particular juncture of the pyramid. It’s bizarre.

“But it is what it is and we will face the fight on the day as it stands. But I just find it such a sad time because one team, one of the champions, will miss out.”

Graham Abercrombie, manager of Sporting Club Albion (Photo: SCA)

Graham Abercrombie set a target of a trophy treble this season and has already won the league and County Cup

Abercrombie is not alone in questioning the need for a play-off to determine whether Premier League champions can be considered for admission to what has proved to be one of the most exclusive clubs in town.

Long before he led Brighton to the title, James Marrs voiced his own contempt for the play-off arrangement, saying last year’s runners-up, Portsmouth, should have been promoted with their conquerers, Sheffield.

He told Sent Her Forward back in August: “How do you look them in the eye and [say] that’s their season done, and you finish on that? If you win the league, you earn the right to go up.”

Strange but true
Last season Sheffield FC beat Portsmouth in the Premier League Cup before playing them in the Premier League play-off

This season Sporting Club Albion beat Brighton in the FAW Cup and the two meet again in the play-off

Despite their emergence as underdogs this season, Sporting Club should start as firm favourites – even disregarding the potential impact of the end-of-season turmoil that engulfed Brighton.

For one thing, there’s the psychological advantage of having beaten their opponents in their FAW Cup encounter at Culver Road earlier this season – as, intriguingly, had Sheffield against Portsmouth before their dramatic last-gasp win in last year’s final.

All they have to do is just look at the table and see what they have done over the season and carry that forward for one more game – George Parris, interim manager, Brighton

This season Sporting Club Albion beat Brighton in the FAW Cup and the two meet again in the play-off

It may not count for much on the day, but I’d be loath to believe any Brighton player who said it was not at least at the back of their mind as they prepare for the rematch.

Abercrombie certainly thinks it will be. He told Sent Her Forward: “I think it counts. Also, the nature of that particular game counts because it gave us a really good lesson.

“We were 3-0 up in 20 minutes and then they pegged it back to 3-3 before we scored the winner very late on. So we learnt a very valuable lesson that day without actually losing, and it’s served us well since that day.

“We took our foot off the pedal, which is understandable – human nature. But we won’t do that ever again, and we haven’t. So yes, it does work in our favour, the fact that we won.

“The fact that we’ve got that win under our belts gives us confidence.”

Just in case the psychological argument for a Sporting Club victory doesn’t hold up, there’s the risk of rustiness.

George Parris, interim manager, Brighton & Hove Albion Women (Photo: Paul Hazlewood/BHA)

George Parris says he has been impressed by the Brighton players’ reaction in the wake of the recent turmoil at the club (Photo: Paul Hazlewood/BHA)

Brighton haven’t played a competitive game since winning the Southern Division title on April 10 – seven weeks before the play-off.

Albion, by contrast, have been playing regularly, catching up on outstanding fixtures, and while there’s the impact of injuries and fatigue from that hectic finishing schedule, there’s also the opportunity to build momentum – something they’ve achieved admirably, winning six and drawing the other two league games since Brighton last played – and bagging the Birmingham County Cup for good measure.

Of course, down South, the hiatus has given Brighton plenty of time to prepare: Marrs, assistant Lee Hayes and players Jay Blackie, Charlotte Gurr and Deanna Cooper all left the club in the week following the title-clinching victory over Tottenham Hotspur, leaving stand-in boss George Parris a good six weeks to settle those who remained and allowing those recovering from injuries precious time to heal.

On the pitch, Parris should have no qualms about the ability of the squad he names being good enough – even without those multi-talented stars, Brighton have excellent players, and it’s likely some of those given an unexpected opportunity will rise to the challenge.

The less quantifiable element is the impact all the upheaval has had on the players left behind; whether their minds are sufficiently focused on the day against a side that will sense any blood and go for the jugular, and whether the divisions caused by events leading up to the sackings and subsequent mini-exodus have healed, with everybody totally confident that everyone else is right behind them.

Leading scorers

Brighton & Hove Albion League Sporting Club Albion League
Charlotte Gurr 24 (31 apps + 2 sub) 14 (21 + 1) Leigh Dugmore 20 (29 + 3) 11 (14 + 1)
Amy Taylor 18 (26 + 5) 11 (19 + 3) Abi Cottam 20 (23 + 3) 10 (19 +2)

Source: Full-Time

Parris, the technical director of Brighton’s centre of excellence, who was thrust in at the deep end with the departures of Marrs and Hayes, believes the players will be too focused on their goal to dwell on recent events.

He told Sent Her Forward: “They have coped very well. It’s the same with all footballers. They are there to play football, and they have come in and have done their work that they have needed to.

“All they have to do is just look at the table and see what they have done over the season and carry that forward for one more game.”

Parris said there was never any question of changing the tactics that had brought Brighton so much success under Marrs, and his main role has been to ensure they continue on the same trajectory that they had been on during the season.

“You’ve got to be confident, with what the girls have achieved this season,” he said. “To get into the play-offs shows how well they have done.

“My job really was to come in and just continue the good work that has been done.”

And despite the immense pressure that such a crucial game inevitably brings – on top of the demands of his “day job”, with the club having been granted one of the FA licences to run a regional talent club, the successor to centres of excellence – Parris says he has enjoyed it.

“It’s obviously a great honour to do something for the club. I’ve taken it on and the girls have responded well to what we are trying to do.”

Strange but true

Last season Portsmouth’s leading goalscorer going into their play-off was former Aston Villa striker Ini Umotong.

This season Sporting Club Albion’s joint-top goalscorer is former Aston Villa striker Abi Cottam

He acknowledges that with all the upheaval at Brighton – together with the big break since the end of their season – their opponents probably start as favourites.

But he pointed out: “But that causes its own problems. Only time will tell. They know they can beat us, so they will be positive about that.

“For us, we got beat, so in the back of our minds we will be wondering whether we will be able to turn that around this time. We will find that out on the day, but I’m happy with what I’ve got at the club.”

Parris has studied footage of Sporting Club’s dramatic cup victory over Brighton and says a club representative has seen them in action, but he has not had a chance to get to any of the Midlanders’ games.

“But in football people can change the way they play,” he points out. “We will give them the ultimate respect that they are due, but it’s more about what we actually do on the day.”

What happens next

Even victory in the controversial play-off will not guarantee a place in the Super League next season. As well as proving their worth on the field, clubs have to prove it off it, satisfying a host of criteria about staffing, finance, coaching infrastructure and playing facilities before being granted a licence.

Brighton went through an initial assessment last season, when they were one of several clubs in with a chance of clinching the Southern division title that Portsmouth eventually won.

And even then they were confident they would be accepted. A year down the line, they will be satisfied that they have put even more of the groundwork in place to ensure a satisfactory outcome, should they win on Sunday – although the loss of key personnel behind that – including Marrs and particularly Doe – may prompt a closer look from the FA.

What the winners can expect – Countdown to the Super League

Sporting Club Albion, who finished the previous season in 10th place, have had far less time to prepare – and Abercrombie says he has left most of that side of things to the team around him while he focused on the hectic end to the playing side of the season.

He said: “We’ve got nine months to prepare, so if there are a few things that aren’t quite right, you’ve got nine months to put it right.

“It’s a little bit tough to take if we do get pulled up on anything that prevents us taking the promotion if we are lucky enough to win the game.

“If we win that play-off game and are not allowed promotion, that will be a poke in the eye for a lot of people, but it certainly won’t distract us in any way. We will just go there to win that game of football.. and prove people wrong once again, with that underdog feeling that we’ve always got.”

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