They did it. Against all the odds, after the club’s spectacular implosion, and without so many of the personnel who had taken them to the brink of greatness, Brighton’s hardy bunch combined talent with tenacity to win the do-or-die play-off against Sporting Club Albion and all-but secure a place in the Super League.
Their 4-2 victory over Albion, the team who had won the Premier League’s Northern Division, confirmed what many had suspected for some time – that Brighton are the best women’s side outside the WSL (and probably better than many within it).
What made today’s success in the play-off of the Premier League’s two divisional champions even more significant is that it was achieved after the club was plunged into turmoil by the sackings of both their manager and head of women’s football and the subsequent departures of their coach, captain and two other key players.
Given that they had not played a match since winning the Southern Division title seven weeks ago, while their opponents – who had already beaten them in the FAW Cup – have been playing right up to the middle of this month – Brighton’s victory, under the guidance of stand-in manager George Parris, is especially creditable.
Parris said earlier in the week that he did not know how his players would respond to the chaos and upset of recent weeks but he was happy with what he had seen from them in training.
Now he knows his hunch was right.
And yet that success was achieved after still more twists, as the interim manager who told Sent Her Forward he had no interest in taking the job full-time – but might now be having second thoughts – left experienced midfielder Lily Agg out not only of his starting line-up but the whole squad.
Agg, who spent two seasons playing for Millwall in WSL2 before rejoining Brighton during the season, did not even travel to Adams Park and was as nonplussed as anyone at her late omission.
But whatever the reasons – and there are a few decisions at the club that could do with a bit more explaining this season – his selections did him proud, eventually making light of the absence of such crucial players who have been central to their Premier League success this season.
No captain Jay Blackie; no Deanna Cooper in central defence and no Charlotte Gurr, who tops the Brighton goalscoring charts.
Yet those who did play – most of whom already had bags of first-team experience – survived a big first-half setback when Sporting took the lead against the run of play, staging an impressive comeback, equalising before half-time and dominating the second period, in which three goals in seven minutes killed off their game opponents.
It takes Brighton to the brink of the FA’s Super League set-up and an even more professional environment. They merely have to satisfy demands relating to structure, resources, facilities and, of course, finance before being granted their licence to thrill in WSL2 next year.
Whatever the feelings among players and staff at the club, they all know that the departed players – plus sacked manager James Marrs and Tracy Doe, the head of female football at the club, together with Lee Hayes, whose coaching services were dispensed with in the messy aftermath – played critical roles in getting Brighton to this point.
That they are not there to enjoy it is down to indisciplines that were thoroughly investigated by their employers, Brighton & Hove Albion FC and punished with dismissals.
The ultimate punishment, though, is that they were not part of Brighton’s big day – and will not be there to capitalise on the inviting opportunity that Super League football at their Lancing headquarters provides.
As Brighton piled on the pressure in the opening minutes without tangible success – and were then hit by a sucker-punch as Sporting took the lead before seizing the initiative – there must have been plenty wondering whether Brighton’s magnificent season was going to end on the same sort of low as that of Portsmouth – their predecessors as champions – last year.
But Kate Natkiel‘s screamer five-minutes before half-time to cancel out Leigh Dugmore‘s 15th-minute header eased the nerves and ultimately proved the turning point.
The Sussex side were dominant for most of the second period and killed off the game with three quick goals midway through the half.
Natkiel kept her head to put Brighton in front with her second; then Sophie Perry curled a superb free-kick into the top corner from just outside the box before setting up Amy Taylor to head home the fourth from her tantalising cross.
Sporting Club, who had played nine games in four weeks at the end of their frenetic campaign, came back strongly in the closing minutes, giving Brighton a slight scare when substitute Karen Clough poked home after a goalmouth scramble.
But few who have watched Premier League football this season will deny Brighton their status as champions of the entire league – and worthy additions to the Super League.
So proud of all the @SCALadies players! Once again against all odds they gave their best, didn’t feel sorry for themselves and never quit!🏆🏆
— Graham Abercrombie (@crombie74) May 29, 2016
All the best to @SCALadies you deserve to be Super League aswell after being league champions! ⚽️👏🏼
— Faye (@flbakes) May 29, 2016
Parris, as calm and dignified as he had been when he spoke to Sent Her Forward four days before the match, praised his side’s character.
“If you were a neutral watching the second half, and you were to say which team hadn’t played for six or seven weeks and which team had played x amount of games in a short period of time, you would have said it was the other way around,” he said.
“The girls showed their quality there, especially in the second half.”
Parris felt the early goal Brighton conceded served as a wake-up call to his side, and he felt Natkiel’s equaliser, just before the break, came at just the right time.
“I said to the girls at half-time we’ve been there before (they fought back from 0-3 to 3-3 before losing to Albion in the FAW Cup); we’ve just got to keep moving the ball and the chances will come, and they obviously did [in the] second half.”
Parris confessed he had not realised Brighton’s second-half salvo of three goals had come in just seven minutes. “I think how quickly they scored killed the game off.”
The former West Ham and Brighton full-back said the players would probably not appreciate the enormity of their achievement for a few days.
And he suggested his own priority after taking a summer break would be working on the transformation at the club of the centre of excellence – of which he is technical director – to one of the FA’s Regional Talent Clubs rather than taking on the women’s team manager role full-time.
He said: “I know WSL2 is a long way off (Brighton’s season won’t start until next spring), so you can never say never, but we’ll wait and see.”
And in case anyone thought it was just a question of turning up to watch the talented side he inherited from the sidelines, Parris showed himself to be a man who could take tough decisions, too, axing the experienced Agg from his matchday squad for the game of a lifetime.
“With the squad I had, I was quite confident in the 16 that I had out,” he said. “There was no real reason behind it. I just thought the 16 that we had would do the job today – and the result proved me correct, so I’m quite pleased with my decision.”
Albion drew praise for the way they took their defeat after leading for most of the first half. And their manager, Graham Abercrombie, exemplified that, taking the time to call Sent Her Forward on his way back from Adams Park.
He praised “clinical” Brighton for taking their chances, although he felt the outcome rested on a couple of key moments during the game.
“Credit to Brighton. We can’t take anything away from them,” he said. “They found another gear.
“We’ve got no excuses, but Abi Cottam (their joint-top goalscorer) picked up a really heavy knock a few minutes before half-time and was only half of what she is capable of in the second half.
“And Leigh Dugmore (the other joint-top scorer) was already coming back from injury and was feeling the side-effects. So we lost two big players at half-time, really.”
Abercrombie also pointed to an incident when they hit the post while leading 1-0 and a goal ruled out for offside just after Albion had pulled back to 2-4.
He said: “The timing [of the run] looked perfect – a classic beat-the-offside trap. If we had made it 3-4 with two minutes to go, we might have done what Brighton did to us [and scored a third quick goal].
“But they scored some fantastic goals. They were good value. They’ve got some good footballers.”
Abercrombie is convinced his young team will learn from the disappointment and become an even better side.
“From the playing side, this team is ready [for the Super League] and they would compete with teams in WSL2. We’ve already beaten Sheffield; we beat Brighton and we have competed with Manchester City (all in the FAW Cup) extremely well.
“Off the field has been very little to do with me, but maybe that needs developing a little bit more. I wouldn’t like to say it was a season too soon… but we will raise our standards at every aspect of this club. Maybe these things happen for a reason.”