Cowfold 1 (Dix 58)
Aylesford 2 (Brown 40; Chapman 66)
At the end of a week when the focus has been very much on women’s football finances, today’s round of FA Cup matches brought the pros and cons of running a women’s team into sharp focus.
To some, like Cowfold’s manager, Steve Weller, it’s a potentially expensive distraction, with the excitement of the competition slightly diluted by the costs of hosting a game – and the prospect of some hefty travel bills diminishing any joy from a cup run, which would, in any case, no doubt come to a halt long before the big guns joined the competition.
To others, like the manager of their victorious opponents today, Dwayne Ellis, it’s an opportunity to build momentum – and to cash in with every victory after the FA increased prize money.
But either way, in most cases, every FA Cup tie represents another challenge for hard-working managers and club officials who can only envy the shoestring that so many Premier League teams work on.
FA Cup prize money
Aylesford, struggling at the wrong end of the London & South East Regional Women’s League, one level below the lower of the two Premier League tiers, are finding it hard to play with any consistency, in part due to the difficulty in securing the degree of weekly commitment required for a team looking to make progress in a difficult league.
Today, while their opponents, two tiers below them and missing a key player through injury, named five substitutes. Aylesford had none – and one of their starting XI only just made it to the village recreation ground in time for kick-off.
So it was all the more admirable that they started like an express train and had the stamina to see off Cowfold’s spirited attempt to equalise in the final quarter as they booked their place in the fourth, and final, qualifying round.
The hosts, currently top of the South East Counties Women’s Football League Division One West, barely got a touch in the opening minutes and failed to string together even the most basic of passing moves in a torrid first quarter.
After Alex Witham had hooked wide with less than two minutes gone, the wide player set up a chance for Laura Brown, but the striker’s header was saved by Bex Smallman in the Cowfold goal.
Next to try her luck was defender Claire Williams, who rounded off a fine run with a shot that ran harmlessly wide.
Aylesford won their first corner on seven minutes, after an excellent run and cross from the dangerous Witham, which Smallman parried before pushing the follow-up around the post – and their second a few seconds later, which was cleared.
The home team, at sixes and sevens, had another escape after 13 minutes, when the unmarked Brown volleyed wide after more good work down the right.
Cowfold’s only outlet in the opening stages was the willing running of Stacey Jackson, who certainly tested the Aylesford defence, but with little support, was unable to trouble it unduly.
But after riding out the initial storm, Cowfold began to creep back into the game. While they were still struggling to piece together much in the way of possession, they were beginning to find the impressive Jackson, and inevitably, it was she who gave the visitors their first tense moments.
On 18 minutes she struck a first-time lob, which bounced just wide, and a minute later she forced a fine save by Bronwyn Allen after shrugging off her marker to fire in another lob.
The lively Jackson then almost turned provider, threading a through-ball to Kim Donno, but the alert Allen just got to the ball ahead of her.
With the momentum beginning to shift – and Ellis beginning to rue those early Aylesford misses – Cowfold won their first corner, with 24 minutes gone.
Donno’s kick was cleared by Williams, triggering a break, which was brilliantly halted by Emma Derham.
Still Cowfold attacked, but they spurned another opportunity in the 28th minute after Jackson was tripped as she raced clear. The ensuing free-kick was deflected for another home corner.
Evidently stirred by the let-offs, the London regional side stepped up a gear, with Becks Barr reasserting her earlier grip on midfield. The captain found Witham in a central area, and again she hooked her shot wide – though this time under considerably more pressure from the Cowfold defence than in the earlier incident.
A third hooked effort from Witham only found the safe arms of Smallman – but the warning was there for the home side.
Five minutes from half-time, Cowfold captain Jen Weller, playing in central defence instead of midfield, thwarted Witham three times in half a minute with exceptional interventions.
But from the third of them, which led to a corner, Aylesford took the lead, the flag kick falling to Brown, who poked home.
It was cruel on Cowfold after they had played their way back into the game, but over the half as a whole, probably no more than the visitors had deserved.
Half-time: Cowfold 0-1 Aylesford
Aylesford started the second half much as they had the first, piling pressure on their opponents, with Barr at the heart of most of it.
Her volley was blocked on the line and then her free-kick from just outside the Cowfold penalty area landed on the roof of the net.
But cometh the hour, cometh the woman, and Weller, diminutive in stature but a giant as a competitor, won a header she had no right to get near to puncture Aylesford’s attacking hopes yet again and with it, their momentum.
Moments later, her team were back in the game.
After earning a rare corner, the hosts managed to build a spell of more sustained pressure in the Aylesford half, and on 58 minutes, Amy Dix put them level with a neat finish after an excellent one-two with Jackson.
Two minutes later they could have taken the lead but for Allen, who brilliantly pushed over Jackson’s forceful volley from 20 yards.
Allen came to the rescue again in the 63rd minute, parrying another Jackson effort.
Yet three minutes later, Aylesford struck the decisive, killer blow, Zara Chapman heading in Barr’s corner.
The goal signalled another turn in the tide as Aylesford kept their hosts pinned inside their own half, but for the occasional break, with Chelsea Wallace becoming increasingly influential from midfield.
Three minutes from time, the visitors could have had a third, but Wallace glanced her header from Chapman’s superb cross just wide.
Both sides can be satisfied with their contributions to a decent cup tie. Aylesford’s superior position was reflected in their start and finish to the game, but Cowfold’s resilience in-between, with Weller and Jackson starring at opposite ends of the pitch, suggests they will be no pushovers should they win promotion from Division One West this season.
The Kent side, admittedly shorn of a few players, will need more consistency against the better opponents they face week in, week out. But they showed that when the pressure is eased a little, they can play – and at least convert a few of the many chances they created.
Steve Weller (Cowfold): “I don’t mind a bit of reaction”
“It shows how far we’ve come as a squad. The FA Cup’s a distraction. I know it’s nice this year because the prize money has gone up, but it’s still a distraction. If we’d won, we could have ended up going to somewhere like Stevenage.
“We’re run independently. We’re not supported by the parent club. We pay for the pitch every week when we play. We pay for all our own kit. We’ve been lucky with sponsors, which is nice, but we’re totally self-sufficient.
“[In the FA Cup] you always want to play away because it costs [the home side] £100 for the officials.
“I think we matched them [in the] second half. I was disappointed with the refereeing decisions today [when he failed to award a penalty after a collision between goalkeeper Bronwyn Allen and Stacey Jackson]. Other than that, I thought we worked extremely hard and showed how far we’d come.
“But today was fine. Win or lose, it didn’t matter today. We’re all going down the pub for a drink.
“It needed a word [at half-time]. But I got some back, which I like. I don’t mind a bit of reaction. There’s no point me standing there and issuing orders and nobody is taking any notice. I like it when they bite back and start having a go, because it means they care.
“I’ve got some good players out there – some very clever players. Worthing are obviously going to be our test [in the league]. We’ve beaten them once and we’ve got them again in a month’s time. But we’re well up for it.”
Dwayne Ellis (Aylesford): “We weren’t clinical enough”
“Credit to Cowfold. They’re a good side. They were organised and made us work hard for the win. But we knew we weren’t going to be able to just turn up here and roll them over, and they proved that point.
“They deserved their equaliser, and even at 2-1, they had a couple more chances, so all credit to them, and I’m sure they’ll do well for the season.
“The frustrating thing as a manager is, in the first 25 minutes we did really well, playing good football and creating lots of good chances, but we weren’t clinical enough, really. In the first half, we didn’t kill the game as a tie.
“We did get the goal, but credit to Cowfold – they stuck in and their ‘keeper made a few saves. There were a few blocks near the line. But we know we can be more clinical in front of goal.
“To be honest, [the FA Cup] is probably the most important competition for us. As with most grassroots clubs, the money you get from winning games means everything. I think today it was £500, so we’ve had two wins now, and that’s nearly a grand. To a grassroots team, that’s invaluable.
“We need to be a bit better in the league… but a cup run can only be good, so there’s no complaints from us on that.”
Sent Her Forward player of the match: Jen Weller (Cowfold)
She was on the losing side, but the Cowfold captain was the reason her team remained in contention throughout. Tenacious in the tackle, Weller reads the game well, even in her unaccustomed centre-back role, and she is an inspiration to those around her.
At the other end, Stacey Jackson might not have scored, but she proved just as much of a thorn in Aylesford’s side as Weller. Her pace and power are two attributes that occupied Aylesford’s very decent defence for almost the whole game. No wonder she scores so freely at league level.
Emma Derham also made some crucial challenges and Bex Smallman some valuable stops.
For Aylesford, Alex Witham was instrumental in most of the team’s attacking moves, although her own radar was a little off course. Becks Barr was a leader in midfield, her pinpoint passing and top-class set-pieces often the difference between the teams.
Chelsea Wallace put in a cultured second-half performance, prompting many of the Aylesford attacks, but Claire Williams was a rock in defence and a dynamic force at the other end of the field, while Bronwyn Allen made some excellent saves to keep the scores level before the winning goal.
Sent Her Forward match rating: 6/10 A keenly contested cup tie, with the gulf between the two evident only in the opening exchanges.