Crawley Wasps U15 0
Cuckfield Cosmos Utd U15 9 (Montford 9, 22, 49; Lehkyj 15, 69; Field 23, 76; Smibert 43; Crow 56)
It’s nearly two months since Crawley Wasps’ under-15 girls took the plunge and joined a boys’ league in the hope of presenting their talented players with the sort of challenge other girls’ teams were unable to provide.
It’s been a torrid seven weeks for the squad, who, after taking the lead 44 minutes into their very first match and scoring a consolation late in the game, have not experienced that goalscoring feeling since.
After that creditable 6-2 defeat to Cuckfield Cosmos United on the opening day, Wasps have since lost 17-0, 18-0 and 21-0 to stronger opponents in an environment where their every mistake is punished.
So yesterday’s rematch, against a Cuckfield side who themselves have been soundly beaten in their only two fixtures since, was a chance to measure what progress – if any – Emma Wood’s young side of 13- and 14-year-olds have made.
Looking at the score, not much, it would seem.
But after weeks of barely getting out of their own half, fighting to maintain morale amid 21-goal thrashings, they finally got to spend some quality time in a part of the field that had begun to feel unfamiliar to them.
And if they could have put away one of the half-chances they created in the first 10 minutes, who knows what that could have done to confidence – and the final score?
But it’s not the scoreline that Wood and her assistant, Roy Stannard – who took charge in the manager’s absence yesterday – are looking at.
The bigger picture involves preparing the team for the harder challenges at senior youth and adult football.
And if it’s tangible evidence of progress that they wanted to see, there was enough at Ewhurst playing fields to suggest the young Wasps have come a long way since that 6-2 defeat on September 11.
Their passing philosophy is still intact – though sorely tested in defensive situations.
Going forward, Amy Perry and Ellie Livingstone looked like a partnership again, combining well and actively seeking out each other rather than hitting hopeful passes in each other’s direction.
The biggest obstacle to their endeavours to play out from the back is a lack of time – a precious commodity at the best of times, and one that they are discovering to their cost quickly ebbs away at this more challenging level.
Girls in a boys’ world
On that opening day in sunny September, for all their good intent, they were outpaced when going forward and consequently exhausted when forced into recovery mode.
Yesterday there was little evidence of exhaustion; the batteries are well charged.
Now it’s the speed of reaction and movement from a standing start that is holding Wood’s side back.
That and defensive errors (and I don’t just mean by the defenders) that forced them on to the back foot for too much of this game and presented a Cuckfield side eager for only their second victory of the season with too many opportunities.
The margin of defeat was still substantial – but it was half of what they’ve become used to.
And once their fitness levels have improved still further, they will have the time to play the sort of football their talent deserves for bigger chunks of games.
Last week they were able to measure their progress in a friendly against Chichester City’s high-flying under-16 girls – a full year above Wasps, and scoring goals for fun in their own division – indeed, they beat Wasps’ under-16s 7-0 straight after the Under-15s’ game against Cuckfield yesterday.
Yet Wood’s side triumphed 7-1 when they played them, noting how much quicker to the ball they had become and how much more composed they were on it.
Yesterday was never going to be like that, but in Wood’s absence, Stannard still had some positives to tell his colleague on her return (although the regular chestnut of defensive mistakes remains top of the “to be addressed” list).
Wasps began with positive intent, winning three corners in the first few minutes.
The first was earned by Livingstone, who forced her way through a couple of challenges before forcing goalkeeper Omer Baytar into an early save.
Inevitably, despite Crawley’s bright start, they had to deal with wave after wave of Cosmos attacks, and once again, Eleanor Keegan, their cool, calm, collected captain and talisman, was up to the challenge, making superbly timed tackles and not once resorting to a panicked clearance.
After their bright start, the tide began to turn, and Cosmos began raining in shots on Lauren Graves’ goal.
The first three missed the target, but in the ninth minute they finally made one count, Hugo Montford angling a well-judged shot just inside the far post.
The goal was not enough to puncture Wasps’ spirit, and their best move thus far earned them a fourth corner on 13 minutes, Mollie Popham, Perry and Livingstone combining impressively. But Perry headed the ensuing cross just wide.
Inevitably, the failure to hit the target suffered the maximum punishment, compounded by a defensive mistake that gifted Cuckfield possession. This time it was Kyle Lehkyj who finished confidently.
Shortly after, Cosmos sent on their two substitutes – Conall Smibert and Logan Crow – who had scored all six goals between them in the clubs’ previous encounter.
They quickly earned their own first corner, which was well headed out by Poppy Nicholls, and then Graves was forced into a smart save to keep out Crow’s cross-shot after a trademark loping run down the left.
Two more goals quickly followed, killing off any hope of an unlikely revival from the girls. Montford scored his second with a fine left-foot shot which Graves could only push on to the bar and post before the ball entered the goal.
A minute later the giant Luke Field got his head to Crow’s cross ahead of Graves after an excellent cross by Jacob Worsley-Watts.
The floodgates were certainly partially open, with only Keegan’s excellent positioning and perfectly timed tackling preventing a deluge.
After her shaky start, Graves was also blossoming, making fine stops to keep the score down.
Wasps were still making the occasional foray into Cosmos territory: Popham made a good run down the left, but her low cross only found Baytar.
Then Livingstone found a bit of space and played the ball to Perry, but her shot on the turn went wide, and with it Wasps’ last realistic hope of a goal.
Half-time: Crawley Wasps 0-4 Cuckfield Cosmos United
Wasps put together another neat passing movement shortly after the break, but as with most of their constructive play, it foundered on a lack of bodies in attacking areas.
Inevitably, it was the cue for another Cuckfield goal, Smibert pouncing after Graves had brilliantly parried Crow’s excellent shot on the turn.
Graves made another fine save to deny Crow, but on 49 minutes it was 6-0, Montford bagging his hat-trick after more good work by Crow.
The Wasps goalkeeper was clearly not affected by the barrage of goals going past her, making an excellent double-save to deny Field a second, firstly from his shot and then from his follow-up header.
After a brief respite, Wasps conceded a seventh when Crow got the goal his performance deserved with a calm finish after breaking clear.
On the hour, there was a double let-off for the beleagured Wasps. Graves’ weak kick was seized by Crow, who crossed for Owen Jones, but his header sailed over.
Seconds later, the pacy Crow struck the bar with a long-range shot.
Still the attacks came and still Graves kept them out, saving point-blank from Jones and then combining with a defender to deny Field.
Crow rattled the bar for a second time before Graves kept out Smibert’s volley.
But the pressure was bound to tell, and in the 69th minute Lehkyj scored his second – and Cuckfield’s eighth – with the best of the nine, firing a great strike over Graves from 20 yards.
Field missed when through on goal; then Graves denied him again before doing the same to Crow.
And then, four minutes from time, Field finally got his second, converting Crow’s cross to make it 9-0.
There’s no escaping the fact that Crawley Wasps’ experiment is providing a real test of character as much as football ability for the teenagers.
But the parents I spoke to are right behind Emma Wood’s decision, even as the goals-conceded tally hit the half-century mark from just five games.
The tangible evidence of their improvement tends to come in the friendlies Wood arranges against other girls’ teams between competitive fixtures.
But as long as the girls look beyond the results and focus on the marginal gains they are achieving – such as greater energy levels, more stamina and the ability to make key decisions in a split-second – the experiment can still be regarded as a success, come the end of the season.
Roy Stannard (assistant manager, Crawley Wasps): “They feel as if they have performed better today”
“Two months on, we’ve seen improvements, maybe not in the scores, as yet, but as the girls are starting to realise, when they play the boys [and] they make a mistake, a goal is quite often what happens.
“Today they played a lot more of the football in the opposition’s half, which was good to see. So there are positives. They feel as if they have performed better today. Certainly, the first 20 minutes of the first half they were good.
“They normally tire from lack of fitness in the second half. They didn’t quite so much this week. We’ve just got to work on being 110% all the time. Then we will stop the silly mistakes which lead to goals. That’s the only difference, really. They played well in patches today.”
Gordon Smibert (Cuckfield Cosmos United): “We know what it’s like”
“It’s good to see the boys doing well today. However, I understand how the girls might feel because that’s normally how we feel, week in, week out.
“But it’s great to see they’re still trying to play football. They still try and play a passing game, and they’re a good team. It’s just, I think, the physicality and the speed in the boys’ teams causing them a little bit of difficulty.
“But it will be a good learning curve if they keep their spirits up. We know what it’s like trying to come back, week in, week out, and try to put in a performance.
“The good thing today is we told the boys we didn’t want them to try and do a goal-fest. We wanted them to try and play football. We were a lot happier to see them passing the ball around.
“There were lots of little one-twos, give-and-gos, and that’s how we’ve been trying to get them to play. Against other teams we haven’t had the time to do that.
“Physicality-wise, [the girls] are not scared of a challenge. But I do feel for them a little bit – it’s hard.”
Sent Her Forward player of the match: Logan Crow (Cuckfield Cosmos United)
Crow becomes the first male to win my player-of-the-match, and after failing to award him the honour after he scored four goals in the reverse fixture, it would have been a little churlish not to have done so again this time.
His pace gives him an advantage over most boys’ teams, let alone girls. But he puts it to good use and moved the game up a level when he came on midway through the first half.
He scored one and hit the bar twice and was thwarted more than once by Lauren Graves, who was once again superb in the face of an almost constant onslaught from the Cuckfield boys.
Ellie Livingston and Amy Perry, the only Wasps players to score in the league this season, were much more positive yesterday, combining well and not afraid to take the game to their opponents. Livingstone, in particular, looked the part and could have scored.
Eleanor Keegan continues to stand out. The elegant defender is not fazed by any opponent – she was marking someone a good six-to-eight inches taller than her for most of the game but never shirked a challenge.
The beauty of her game is that half the time, she doesn’t even need to make a challenge, relying on her positional sense and innate reading of the game to make interceptions before the danger develops.
For Cosmos, Kyle Lehkyj looks a decent footballer, scoring two excellently taken goals, while Hugo Montford was a constant attacking menace as he helped himself to one of the easier hat-tricks he’ll ever score. Conall Smibert, who also got on the scoresheet again, helped lift Cosmos when he came on as a first-half substitute with Crow.
Sent Her Forward match rating: 6/10 Both sides tried to play a passing game – and to varying extents, succeeded.