Crawley Wasps 1 (Fine 97) Chichester City 7 (Albuery 1, 62, 79; Widdows 5, 7; Foster 56; Cheshire 119)
Two of Sussex’s most ambitious clubs took another step towards the new season in a pre-season friendly with a difference at Ewhurst.
The meeting of Crawley Wasps and one of the teams they are keen to emulate, Chichester City, was initially scheduled as a double-header, with the respective first- and reserve teams doing battle.
But with both shorn of a number of players, the managers agreed to one match, played over four 30-minute periods, using a mixture of senior and development players.
Inevitably, with a mix of personnel on both sides, it produced a staccato game of four “quarters”, with only limited opportunity to gauge how the respective teams were gelling, just a few weeks away from the start of a new season.
But until the intense heat – and tired legs – began to take their toll, there was a decent helping of good football… and plenty of reasons for both sides to be optimistic about the forthcoming campaigns.
Both clubs have their eyes on progress on and off the field this season, with Chichester, pipped to promotion by a very good Swindon Town in South West Division One of the Premier League last season, looking to go one better, and Wasps, who have languished in mid-table for the past few campaigns, looking to mark their 25th anniversary with a top-four finish in the London & South East Regional Women’s League – with the possibility, if results exceed expectations, of a tilt at the title and the chance to play at the level of today’s opponents next season.
With key players missing through injury and holidays, today was not the time to judge their prospects. But they know they will need to strengthen before the new season if they are to achieve their ambition, or get anywhere near it.
Chichester, too, were missing players – including midfielder Jade Widdowson, returning for the new campaign after two seasons out with serious injuries, but who is currently away with England’s beach soccer squad in Portugal.
But Chichester have already made significant strides towards creating the sort of squad they will need to get out of a very tough division – and manager Liam Greenfield has identified the key area.
They’ve lost experienced striker Tammy Waine, who has returned to Lewes, but Cherelle Khassal – who has played at a higher level with Brighton, Portsmouth and Lewes – has moved in the opposite direction. And with Jade Widdows returning to Oaklands after a brief spell at Brighton and the lively Jess Lewry joining from their league rivals Southampton Saints, Chichester’s attacking options are looking extremely bright.
Wasps, who are looking to emulate the likes of Chichester and Lewes, attracting the cream of the local talent to the north of the county, have had far less luck with recruitment so far.
Indeed, with top scorer Rebecca Carter leapfrogging a division to join Lewes and fellow striker Faye Rabson unlikely to feature in many games because of personal commitments, Crawley are arguably weaker than they were at this point last season.
But with the experienced former Lewes assistant manager Dave Cole now fulfilling the same job at Three Bridges, hopes are high of an influx of talented players – and manager Paul Walker is setting his sights high.
Speaking to Sent Her Forward before the game from his holiday in Portugal, Walker said: “We have a strong desire to attract players from the next level up, or even from Premier League South level, to strengthen our current squad and support our ambition to secure promotion to the next level and beyond.”
Judging by what has been going on off the field, it is more than mere talk: Wasps, celebrating their 25th year as a women’s and girls’ club, have secured a substantial sponsorship deal with multi-national business Thales, which Walker says is helping fund “many positive developments to take the club forward”.
Walker has also recruited Cole, who has contacts throughout the world of women’s football and will be expected to deliver fresh personnel to the first-team squad.
Crawley have also brought in Tom Betts, the highly regarded goalkeeping coach, formerly of… yes, you guessed it, Lewes, and physio Sam Piper, complementing a backroom team that already included coaches Martin Firmo and Paul Woodhams.
On the pitch, there is still room for improvement – but crucially, time to make them. And while the final score, over two hours of football with precious little break between sessions, reflected Chichester’s overall superiority, Crawley were by no means battered and found time to show signs of quality in all parts of the pitch that will surely produce positive results against teams nearer their own standard.
With Chichester tending to alternate the 30-minute sessions between first-teamers and reserves, and Wasps making plenty of changes throughout, the game was essentially four mini-matches.
And the most intense competition came in the first two.
Fielding a strong starting XI, Chichester tore into Wasps’ new-look side and were 3-0 up within seven minutes, their irresistible front line of Widdows, Shannon Albuery and Chloe Dowdell striking terror into the Wasps defence.
They took the lead in their first attack when the persistent Dowdell stole the ball off Gemma Villett as she tried to usher it out of play and teed up Albuery for a tap-in.
Chichester doubled their lead in the fifth minute with a beautiful effort. Amy Found received Lauren Cheshire’s short corner and curled in a tantalising cross which Widdows met with an athletic dive, the Crawley defenders watching like statues.
Widdows, who scored nine goals in 13 appearances for Chichester last season before moving to Brighton, grabbed a second two minutes later with a clinical finish into the opposite corner after an unselfish lay-off by the impressive Albuery.
There were plenty of opportunities for more as Found in particular played in all three front-runners time and again with inch-perfect passes beyond Crawley’s shell-shocked defenders.
But with Michelle Ward, especially, finding her feet – and confidence – the visitors were finding it increasingly difficult to break down the Crawley back line.
And when they did, teenage goalkeeper Hope Laker denied them time and again.
Wasps also showed plenty of positive signs as an attacking force, with Suzie Davies prompting, Nicholle Smith and Lauren Callaghan finding space on the flanks, and Roseanne Fine looking increasingly threatening up front.
But Chichester’s defence looked comfortable, paving the way for a new-look XI, packed with development players to take over after half an hour with a 3-0 cushion.
30-min score: Crawley Wasps 0-3 Chichester City
The second period was a much more even affair, with Chichester switching to a back three comprising development trio Lauren Ellis, Skye Gould and Becky Steed.
Gould, in particular, was a commanding presence, blunting a Crawley attack that was seeing more of the ball than in the previous 30 minutes.
They forced five corners in the first 15 minutes of the period, but crucially, failed to make anything of any of them – a shortcoming that will surely cost them in competitive games.
Wasps, with Fine again impressing, enjoyed the bulk of the attacking, but Chichester looked threatening when they did get going, never more so than when 16-year-old Teri Foster combined brilliantly with Widdows and Albuery on the break.
With four minutes of the second period to go, Chichester finally added to their total with an impressive run and explosive shot from best part of 25 yards by Foster.
60-min score: Crawley Wasps 0-4 Chichester City
The final two sessions were played, understandably, at a slower pace, and with more substitutions, the game lost much intensity and cohesion.
Both were dominated by Laker in the Crawley goal, who foiled attack after attack with a variety of saves that prevented the score reaching double figures.
Albuery scored the only goals of the third period, capitalising on a defensive mistake for her second of the match and then sealing her hat-trick with the decisive strike after a corner prompted a scramble in the Crawley box.
Lewry, who played the bulk of the match just behind the strikers, almost capped another slick Chichester move with a deserved goal, following delightful inter-passing between Albuery, Lewry herself and Cheshire, but after a sublime first touch, her shot was too close to Laker, who saved well with her feet.
Wasps reserves Zoe Martin and Charlotte Barnham were beginning to enjoy some quality ball in midfield, but Found was proving an influential figure in the centre of the park, breaking up nascent attacks and launching dangerous counters with her pinpoint passing.
90-min score: 0-6
To Crawley’s credit, their weary players could see past the scoreline, no doubt sensing that they had not suffered the hammering that those opening seven minutes suggested they might.
And they got the goal that their spirit, at least, deserved when Fine finished well to beat Sally Thompson in the Chichester goal.
However, it’s fair to say that Chichester, who by now had taken their foot off the gas, could still have run up a demoralisingly hefty total if it had not been for Laker, who just got better, saving superbly from a Found piledriver and at close range from Widdows.
She was finally beaten again in the penultimate minute when Cheshire, in a more advanced role, finished neatly from the edge of the box.
With a combination of players drawn from four different divisions, it was always going to be difficult to make too much sense of a bizarre four-quarter match.
But what was evident from two hours at Ewhurst was that Chichester City are already well prepared for the crucial season ahead, in which promotion is not only desirable but probably pretty much essential following their near-miss last term.
They are fit, purposeful and already into their stride, with just the rough edges requiring attention.
Even without the injured Kally Ambler and new recruit Khassal, Chichester have a host of attacking options that should be too powerful for most sides in their league.
With Widdowson set to make a welcome return alongside the constantly impressive Found, they also have a commanding presence and a host of passing options in midfield.
And while they have lost Emily Symonds at the back, they still have defensive options.
Crawley also have players returning – Holly Walker, after her own long-term injury, being a key one. And they showed plenty of enterprise as an attacking force, both down the flanks and in the centre, where Fine looks to have stepped up a level.
Their targets, on today’s showing, are probably to tighten the midfield and unearth another regular goalscorer.
But they were by no means embarrassed today and should look forward to the season with cautious optimism.
Dave Cole, Crawley’s new assistant manager: “It’s hard when you go into a side that finished third- or fourth-bottom. They are committed to the club, but it’s picking them up and them buying into it.
“The biggest thing I noticed when I watched them last season was their fitness levels were dropping in the last half an hour. So we’ve worked on that and now they’re getting there. When we played Crystal Palace the other week, we scored in the 89th minute because they had the energy levels.
“There are four or five senior players to come in (from other clubs). But it’s very, very hard to get players to step down to this league. I call the London & South East a ghost league because it’s too good for park players but hard to get Premier League players to step down.
“Our ambitions are to finish in the top four this season, but if you can get promoted, it opens up all sorts of avenues.”
Chichester City manager Liam Greenfield: “We’ve added a few players up front because, having that defensive record that we had (eight league goals conceded in 18 games), we knew there were games that we should have taken more points in, but we struggled to break the deadlock.
“As the season went on, people like Shannon (Albuery) and Chloe Dowdell got better and better. But to add the kind of strikers that we have, hopefully will put a bit more pressure on the players who are playing up there and we’ve got more options off the bench.
“The other thing is keeping them happy, but hopefully, they will realise, ‘We’ve got 22 league games to play – and that’s just league games – and I will get plenty of minutes and it is down to me to show that I deserve those minutes’.
“Last season we wanted to improve on what we did the season before, when we finished third from bottom. Now we say the same thing – we want to improve on where we finished last season, which would mean that we finish top.
“Again, it’s going to be a hard league, but last season we beat everybody in the league bar one team – (champions) Swindon. So hopefully, it will be our season.”
Sent Her Forward player of the match: Hope Laker (Crawley Wasps)
For the second week in a row, a goalkeeper takes the plaudits. Only 18, the recruit from Horsham Sparrows not only excelled with a series of saves in each of the three sessions in which she played, but also commanded her area, barking instructions to her defenders. With Catherine Poleykett also impressing while she was on the pitch, goalkeeper should be the least of Wasps’ worries this season.
Amy Found tends to excel no matter who the opponents. She has dominated midfield contests with Premier League Southern players, and she shines most weeks in her own league. So it was unsurprising that she stood out – literally and metaphorically – against the London & South East Counties side, her superb range of passing made that little bit easier by the time she enjoyed on the ball.
Shannon Albuery gets better every time I see her. She has an eye for goal, can look after herself despite her slight frame, but what particularly impresses me is her unselfishness and awareness of others around her. And that’s an element that fellow striker Jade Widdows seems to be adding to her excellent all-round game. Her pace and power frightened the Wasps defence, but there were many times when she also looked to play in a team-mate – admittedly, not always successfully – which guarantees a nightmare for every defender that Chichester face this season. Skye Gould also impressed at the heart of Chichester’s defence.
For Crawley, Michelle Ward stood up well to the challenge of the visitors’ dynamic strike force, while Roseanne Fine looked an accomplished striker. Suzie Davies, Zoe Martin, Nicholle Smith and Lauren Callaghan also enjoyed impressive spells.
Sent Her Forward match rating: 7/10 A good, open and honest contest between players of different abilities.