Crawley Wasps 3 (Callaghan 36, 55; Davies 77)
Carshalton Athletic 2 (Carmichael 39; Curtis 88)
Crawley Wasps gave another indication that they’ve put the disappointments of recent seasons behind them as they saw off one of their potential promotion rivals in a confident display at their new Oakwood ground.
Wasps, who have endured two mediocre seasons in the London & South East Regional League since their outstanding 2013/14 campaign, when they finished third, had to show their capabilities in every department against a youthful and lively Carshalton Athletic, who harbour hopes of being in the mix come the end of the season.
And they passed the test with flying colours.
There were impressive performances all over the field, from the composure and tenacity of Holly Walker and Hannah Duncan in defence to the inventiveness of their willing front-runners, well served by their midfield playmakers.
The result was pleasing, purposeful football, with every player appearing to know her job and – by and large – delivering.
But they were made to work for their three points by a Carshalton side radically different from the one I saw draw 2-2 at Wasps two years ago.
Harrison Williams, who has taken over the managerial reins from his father, Paul, has assembled a very young squad, full of 16- and 17-year-olds.
They held their own for most of the first half, bouncing back immediately after conceding to cause Crawley’s defence plenty of problems, and then, after being pegged in their own half for much of the second, giving the Wasps a scary final 10 minutes as the hosts eased up rather alarmingly.
Crawley’s squad, too, is a work in progress, with some experienced heads joined by some welcome young faces who did not look out of place in the tier one below the Premier League.
Nicholle Smith and Lauren Callaghan, in particular, gave the visitors plenty of headaches with their speed and skill down the flanks, while Rebekah Dunt was a revelation in her more central attacking role.
Both sides gave early indications of the way they wanted to play, piecing together flowing one-touch moves to progress to the opposite end of the pitch.
Dunt was at the centre of much of the early action and very nearly played in Callaghan with a cute ball behind Rocchane Hall, but the full-back recovered to nick the ball away.
After the sides had exchanged early shots that barely troubled the respective goalkeepers, Suzy Davies fashioned a half-chance, forcing her way into the Carshalton area, but she chose to pass when she might have shot and the opportunity disappeared.
Catherine Poleykett in the Crawley goal was the busier of the two in the early stages, dealing comfortably with Tamara Graham’s fine effort from the left.
Michelle Ward forced Katie Wadsworth into action at the other end with a smart first-time shot which the Carshalton ‘keeper did well to get down to.
But back came the visitors, and it took an excellent recovery by Hannah Duncan to deny substitute Laura Curtis after Graham had threaded a superb pass through the Crawley defence.
Wasps were beginning to get on top, though, with Dunt at the centre of much of their most enterprising moves.
In the 33rd minute, as they ratcheted up the pressure, newcomer Jade Elphick sent Smith away down the right. She beat Jessica Xentsa and cut inside before curling in a left-foot shot that Wadsworth saved.
Two minutes later Wasps strung together the best move of the game so far, Callaghan, Dunt, Gemma Villette and Smith combining superbly to send Duncan away down the right, but her cross was too strong.
Shinih Tuazon immediately came on for her Crawley debut, replacing Villette and prompting a reshuffle. And within seconds Wasps were ahead, courtesy of an outstanding shot by Callaghan.
She stole the ball from Hall and took a couple of steps inside before rifling an unstoppable effort from the best part of 20 yards beyond Wadsworth into the far corner.
Crawley were now in complete control, restricting Carshalton to the occasional breakaway, but it was from their very next one that they equalised.
Breeze Carmichael latched on to a header over the Wasps defence, and with defenders vainly appealing for offside, she managed to reach the ball with her left foot as she fell and looped her shot over Poleykett to make it 1-1.
Almost immediately, Carshalton could have taken the lead, but Poleykett did well to deny the same player as she ran at her.
Crawley lost the impressive Duncan through injury just before half-time, Holly Currier replacing her at right-back.
In the final seconds of the half both sides went close. Smith capped another impressive run with a shot which Wadsworth saved at the second attempt. Then Carmichael went through a static back line again but shot earlier than she needed to have done and Poleykett again saved comfortably.
Half-time: Crawley Wasps 1-1 Carshalton Athletic
If the equaliser had shaken Wasps, they didn’t show it, and they were first out of the blocks after the break, Callaghan doing brilliantly on the left wing before firing in a cross-shot that Tuazon, sliding in at the far post, missed by inches.
It was not until the 50th minute that Wasps won the game’s first corner, and five minutes later they were back in front – and once again it was Callaghan who did the damage.
Tuazon got the slightest – but crucial – touch to a cross from the right and Callaghan nipped in ahead of her marker to tuck the ball into the corner from six yards.
Carshalton made full use of the rolling substitutions as they attempted to strike back immediately, as they had done in the first half.
But for all the tenacity and determination of Curtis up front and the influence of Darcey Edwards in midfield, they were running up against brick walls in the shape of Crawley’s organised and dogged defending, while the pacy Smith and tricky Callaghan were a constant threat at the other end.
With the game approaching the three-quarter mark, the home side were totally dominant, but Carshalton continued to defend with their own brand of doggedness, blocking successive shots from Smith.
On 66 minutes, Smith was given a breather and central midfielder Charlotte Barnham took her place on the right flank, but it was Davies who illuminated proceedings with clever skill on the left-hand side before the visitors again cleared the danger.
Wasps won two free-kicks in threatening positions within a minute. Ward’s first, from 30 yards, was cleared, and her second, from considerably closer, found the goalkeeper.
But a minute later Wasps had a third. Again, a defender was caught napping, this time by Davies, who stepped forward and fired a shot over Wadsworth. The ‘keeper got a hand to it but it was not enough to prevent the ball finding the net.
It was no more than Crawley deserved for their second-half dominance, and it was difficult to see how Carshalton could get back into the game, with less than a quarter of an hour left.
But Wasps were beginning to defend deeper and there was a sense that the tide was beginning to turn again.
Firstly, Gemma Staple took advantage of the extra space to play her way out of defence and send a good ball down the line to Curtis. But again, Wasps stood firm and cleared the danger.
Then, as tempers began to fray, Carshalton won a free-kick just outside the Crawley box, but nothing came of it.
With 84 minutes gone, Natalie Stephens and Josie Porter replaced the menace of Dunt and Tuazon, with Barnham moving into a more accustomed central role.
But it was the visitors who were now in the ascendancy and with two minutes left on the clock, they pulled a goal back. Curtis, of all people, was left far too much time to bring down a high ball and she finished with her customary ruthlessness.
As the game moved into stoppage time and Wasps tried to run down the clock, Barnham and Callaghan were both booked for dissent as they complained about challenges on team-mates.
It was certainly a frustrating finale for the home side, but they clung on for a second successive victory and a share of the early lead in the division.
I didn’t get to see Wasps as much as I would have liked last season, but on the most recent occasion, I was impressed with the way they were trying to play from the back, with movement and pace in support.
But today’s was a significant step on from that: the style was similar, but this time the sorties forward did not rely on one or two key players.
Everybody seemed to understand their role, providing a variety of options when Crawley moved forward, and a formidable defensive shape when on the back foot.
It was more individual lapses that let them down – perhaps dips in concentration. But they did seem to bring their frantic finale upon themselves, opting to defend significantly deeper after going 3-1 ahead and inviting the constant pressure that inevitably told.
Carshalton played their full part in an entertaining game, particularly in the first half when they showed great character to strike back so soon after going behind.
In the second they struggled to get out of their own half until that late rally that oh, so nearly earned them a point.
Paul Walker (Crawley Wasps): We got our just reward
“We worked on a number of things today: the quality of our passing and ball retention, and secondly to ensure that we defended well as a unit and kept the discipline in the midfield. And I think we did that well today.
“We passed the ball well, we kept the ball well. The work rate was where it needed to be and we showed some real quality around the pitch.
“(The first goal) was a poor goal to give away… not necessarily that Hannah (Duncan), our right-back, was a little slow out and played her on. It was the fact that there was no challenge from a kick from the ‘keeper into the centre of our park. There was no challenge in there, which was absolutely unforgivable. We’re straight back under pressure.
“But we sorted it out at half-time and composed ourselves. We came out in the second half with the same level of discipline, we did the things we talked about at half-time, and we got our just reward.
“Again, defensively, it wasn’t the best goal to concede, five minutes from the end. When you’re 3-1 up, you’ve got to make sure that what you don’t start doing is leave big gaps that they can exploit. But the dropping off 10 yards… did invite a little bit of pressure on.
“The majority of it we dealt with well… but it was a poor goal to give away and it meant the last five or eight minutes was a bit frenetic. But we well deserved the victory today.”
Harrison Williams (Carshalton Athletic): We had a number of opportunities to at least take a point
“I’m a little bit disappointed with the result. On the balance of play (in the) first half we conceded a soft, sloppy goal and then did really well to equalise and actually created three or four really good opportunities in the last five, 10 minutes of the first half.
“If we had scored one of those and gone in in the lead at half-time, I think it would have been a different game. Second half, going up the hill, we struggled to get out (of their half) and ultimately we stopped playing our normal passing game. Crawley came after us, they pressed us high up the pitch and stopped us playing.
“We have the ability to be one of the better sides in this league, technically, but we have to be brave and pass the ball – that was my main disappointment with the players today. We’ve got a young side. They’re a good side and they’ll win games this season, but they’ve got to be brave and keep passing the ball.
“A lot of these girls were national champions at five-a-side last year, in the futsal, won the national championships. They’ve won titles and trophies and leagues for fun. But there’s not a lot of senior appearances between them out there – maybe about 30 collectively. But they’re going to have to learn.
“We have to be brave. We weren’t brave; we stopped; passing; we got panicked. We let a couple of mistakes rattle us and we started to go longer. Unfortunately, we’re not going to get in going longer – we’re not that sort of side. We need to play.
“Fair play to Crawley. They did a number on us to play, but we had a number of opportunities to at least take a point from the game, if not win it. And if we want to be competitive in this league, we have to come and win at these places.”
Sent Her Forward player of the match: Lauren Callaghan (Crawley Wasps)
In a game full of contenders, two-goal Callaghan did just enough to take the honour for me. Her first goal was the result of her tenacity and technical skill – it really was a glorious finish. Her second was about her attacking instincts, arriving at just the right time. But throughout the game she gave a decent full-back all sorts of problems, providing a welcome outlet when Wasps were under the cosh and giving her team a psychological edge.
Nicholle Smith did much the same on the other side. Her power and pace are real assets, and she knows when to pass, too. Rebekah Dunt, who has developed and matured immeasurably in the past couple of seasons, was a big asset to Crawley. She might not yet have the killer instinct of regular top scorer Rebecca Carter, who is now at Lewes, but she is not afraid of holding up the ball, running at people or delivering killer passes. She was immense today.
Jade Elphick and Suzy Davies worked well in midfield, while – apart from the odd lapse – the back four performed well, with Hannah Duncan and Michelle Ward once again shining most brightly. Praise, too, for the excellent debut, from the bench, of Shinih Tuazon, who, despite her slight stature, caused bigger and stronger opponents no end of problems with her touch and movement.
For such a young side, Carshalton have many mature players. Holly Nicholls was a constant threat going forwards from midfield, while Breeze Carmichael did a fine job as the most advanced of their attacking players.
Behind her, Darcey Edwards showed some excellent touches, and Laura Curtis was a threat when she came on after 25 minutes. At the back, despite Crawley’s threat down the flanks, Jessica Xentsa in particular acquitted herself well.
Sent Her Forward match rating: 7/10 An open, combative contest that spoke volumes for the league