Lancing 4 (Akehurst 20, Cobb 24, Gipson 27, Dack 33)
Haywards Heath & Wivelsfield 0
Just when you think the team have hit rock-bottom, that Wivi spirit shines through yet again and they end up surprising probably even themselves.
No head coach, their captain-cum-manager sidelined by injury and illness, the other half of their long-term management team no longer playing and a number of other players unavailable through injury or medical conditions, it was with some trepidation that the Haywards Heath Eight – plus loyal club secretary Brian Holmwood – turned up at Steyning Town FC for a game which, as the higher-ranked team, they couldn’t win, whatever the result.
Even with a full complement of players, the South East Counties Division One West strugglers – no points from five games – would have had a hard job against Lancing’s irresistible blend of youth and experience, flying high in the Sussex County Women’s League below them, as full of confidence as their opponents were lacking it.
When just eight arrived at the impressive 3G facility – another temporary home for a side nominally based at Sussex FA headquarters – an embarrassment (perhaps for both sides) looked on the cards.
Instead, the opposite was true.
Expectations were lower; the shackles were off. And while Lancing probably found it harder to adapt to facing just eight opponents than Wivi did to playing yet again with a depleted side, a thoroughly entertaining Sussex FA Trophy match ensued.
Expecting no more from the game than 90 minutes of chasing the ball – something on which every Wivi side can be expected to deliver – the visiting octet played with a freedom and team spirit that even by their standards can rarely have been bettered.
Incredibly, from Lancing’s kick-off, Wivi enjoyed the first shot of the game with less than 30 seconds on the clock.
The immensely talented Lauren Amos won the ball in midfield, advanced into territory she could only have dreamed of visiting for most of the afternoon, beat two players and struck the ball straight at goalkeeper Stacey Johnson.
It did not take long for the game to become stretched – Lancing won their first corner after one minute of play, Claire Katoroz meeting the delivery with a header which Haywards Heath goalkeeper Charlie Snow held comfortably.
The effort signalled the start of a Lancing siege on the visitors’ goal. On two minutes Colette Barry shot over from just five yards, albeit from an acute angle.
A minute later, Snow was forced into a rather more demanding save to deny Paris Akehurst from 12 yards.
The traffic was almost entirely one-way, but with Lancing manager Ross Waddington exhorting his players to continue passing the ball around their game opponents – and those opponents playing out of their skins – it was developing into a compelling game (if not contest).
Unlike so many depleted sides in the face of constant attacks, Wivi’s back three were reluctant to just boot the ball back to the onrushing hoards, instead seeking to carve out constructive moves, with possession in the Lancing half a reasonable – if somewhat challenging – goal.
Admittedly, there was little opportunity for that to happen in the opening quarter of an hour, but their endeavours ensured their goal remained unbreached, despite their opponents’ almost total possession.
That it remained goalless for so long was due largely to some heroic defending, particularly by Camilla Chapman and Freya Bowie. who blocked, tackled and chased like their lives depended on it. Which is, to some extent, how Wivi play.
Bowie, a stylish defender, sought to play the ball out of defence at every opportunity, as did the player to her left, Chapman, whose enthusiasm and commitment were today matched by a level of composure I’ve rarely witnessed from her.
With Hattie Betts on the other side of Bowie, following their example, Lancing were certainly not having it all their own way.
With only eight minutes gone, Akehurst tried her luck from 20 yards, but Snow did well to reach the ball just under the bar.
Moments later, the keeper was out in a flash to whip the ball off Cobb’s feet.
On 13 minutes Wivi achieved, for only the second time, that mini-goal when, after superb football from Bowie, captain Andrea Barnard and Amos, they won a throw-in midway inside the Lancing half.
Still the “home” side attacked in numbers; still the visitors denied them.
Akehurst, their tormentor-in-chief, went close when she broke down the right, but her angled shot past Snow just missed the far post.
There followed one of the most outstanding passages of play I have seen from a player facing such daunting numbers – only for her team to pay a high price.
Barnard broke up yet another Lancing attack and made 30 yards with a brilliant dribble in splendid isolation from any team-mate before laying the ball off. However, with support at a premium, Wivi lost the ball, and their hosts broke at speed.
Once again, it was Akehurst who found herself running at the Haywards Heath goal, this time, with no defender close to her, and she finished with aplomb, firing a smart effort beyond Snow into the far corner.
It had taken Lancing 20 minutes to break down their visitors, but it took only four more for them to double their lead, Cobb slotting the ball into the same corner to make it 2-0, moments after Crystal Waite’s 30-yard effort had been pushed on to the bar by Snow.
It might effectively have signalled the end of the tie as a contest, but it certainly did not signal the end of Wivi’s participation.
Straight from the kick-off, they pieced together another aesthetically pleasing passing move, with Barnard inevitably at the heart of it, before the attack petered out in the rarefied environment of the Lancing penalty area.
And a couple of minutes later it was 3-0 as the enterprising Barry put Macey Gipson away for another confident finish.
Lancing hit the bar for the second time in the 32nd minute when Barry marked another fine run down the left with a 20-yard shot that struck the same piece of woodwork.
The fourth goal was not long in coming, though, Rhiannon Dack meeting Barry’s superb left-wing cross with a volley that had just enough power to squeeze through Snow’s grasp and over the line.
Haywards Heath’s forays into Lancing territory were still rare, but from one such adventure, Anna Purnell, whose pace, power and non-stop running had kept the opposition defence on their toes, despite their team’s dominance, managed to eke out a left-foot shot from the edge of the area, which didn’t quite have enough to reach the goal.
Bowie and Chapman continued to repel waves of Lancing attacks, while at the other end Amos was troubling the redoubtable Katoroz with her pace and trickery.
The hosts struck the bar for a third time on 37 minutes, Sophie Bulbeck’s 30-yard effort bouncing just the wrong side of the line for another Wivi let-off.
Haywards Heath responded with a shot of their own – their first on target since those opening seconds.
Amos, again, conjured an opportunity out of nothing, beating two players before shooting from rather too far out, forcing Johnson into nothing more than a routine save.
The spirit was coarsing through the Haywards Heath side, the example set by their magnificent defence copied by their midfield trio of Barnard, Amos and Maddie Tester.
But it was the indefatigable Purnell who created what was to prove to be her side’s best chance to get on the scoresheet, two minutes before the break.
She embarked on a lung-busting run down the left flank, leaving player after player in her wake and forcing a defender into a rushed back-pass.
Johnson reached the ball in time, but her clearance struck Amos and flew just past the post.
There was time for Lancing to hit the woodwork for a fourth time, when Cobb turned brilliantly inside the area, only for her fine shot to strike the post and bounce to safety.
Half-time: Lancing 4-0 Haywards Heath & Wivelsfield
The teams effectively called a halt to the competitive action at half-time, and with the pressure off both teams, the sound of laughter and camaraderie broke out for the remainder of the afternoon as the handful of spectators were treated to the sight of two teams doing what footballers used to do – enjoying just playing.
It’s been a season to forget for Haywards Heath & Wivelsfield, whose recovery from the loss of key players best part of 18 months ago has been severely hampered by a succession of injuries, departures and limited availability that has sorely tested the commitment of the loyal core who have run the club with such passion and enthusiasm.
Having lost head coach Mark Currier early in the season, and goalkeeper Helen Bashford – part of the management team – before the campaign began, it was always going to be a season of survival for the remaining handful of experienced players, now joined by some extremely talented youngsters.
When player-manager Sarah Smart, who had defied doctor’s orders to play this season, was ruled out by a ligament injury, it was always going to be a massive test of commitment for those left standing.
Today they lost a game, bowed out of the Challenge Trophy, but passed that test with flying colours.
I’ve seen more one-sided 11-versus-11 games.
But teams cannot survive on spirit alone, and Wivi’s immediate future, with just eight and nine players turning up for tough fixtures, looks bleak.
Yet, as Holmwood explained afterwards, a couple more players in their severely depleted squad could have made all the difference, not just today but for the rest of the season.
He said: “We have a basic core of committed players, but they’re all going down with injuries. One’s got torn ligaments, one’s had her appendix out, one today was on holiday. The rest of the players have got family commitments or are just not available every week.
“If we had everyone available, we’d have a good side. The spirit is excellent within the club, and the players will fight for each other. But we just haven’t got enough to put out every week to have 11 with substitutes.
“I’ve never had to call games off in all the time I can remember being involved with football. And it hurts because we’ve always been a good club, and I still think we are a good club.
“We’ve got good-quality players. We just need a few more with the commitment. Then we’d be a really strong side again.”
For all Haywards Heath’s impressive efforts, Lancing, back in the Sussex County League after a torrid season in the South East Counties that very much mirrored that of today’s opponents, thoroughly deserved their victory.
They stuck to their passing game, making use of the spaces to carve out opportunity after opportunity. They were tested at times by Wivi, but they emerged deservedly triumphant.
Lancing deserve credit, too, for continuing to take the game seriously, even though they largely overpowered their opponents, and for focusing more on the quality of their football – which at times is most eye-catching – rather than merely racking up a double-figures goal tally.
One felt there were plenty more goals to come, but the sides instead played out a largely uneventful second 45 minutes.
Lancing have a good chance to bounce back into the South East Counties League next season and now are deservedly through to the semi-finals of the Sussex FA Challenge Trophy, where they will meet Montpelier Villa – the only team to beat them so far in the league this term.
Sent Her Forward player of the match: Andrea Barnard (Haywards Heath and Wivelsfield)
This immensely talented 18-year-old belied her tender years to contribute another exemplary midfield performance, more than matching those she was up against, and despite her shortage of team-mates, engineering a number of attacks that a team of just eight players have no right to expect.
She is one of the most promising youngsters I’ve seen in the women’s game in Sussex and is a true leader, even at her age.
Only the consistent brilliance of Barnard prevented Lauren Amos earning my award. She is positive, skilful, full of energy, never gives up and has pace to burn. Moreover, she is an intelligent footballer, making smart runs and always aware of where her team-mates are.
She gave Lancing’s fine defence plenty to think about, as did Anna Purnell, a strong, pacy footballer who can play anywhere on the pitch. She ran willingly for the entire game and used her pace intelligently, making for the spaces down the flanks. Often it’s what she does with the ball after making those runs that let her down. Today she had few such problems.
At the other end of the field, Freya Bowie, another youngster, and Camilla Chapman, hardly a veteran herself, were immense in the face of a constant onslaught from a very good, strong and quick Lancing side. Both acquitted themselves extremely well, as did goalkeeper Charlie Snow, who made a number of crucial saves.
For Lancing, it was an opportunity for their more creative players to show what they could do, and Colette Barry and Paris Akehurst shone most brightly. They worked well together and either or both were at the heart of virtually all their attacking play.
As always, Billie-Jo Cobb posed a massive challenge to opposition defenders and can consider herself unlucky not to have scored more.
Sent Her Forward match rating: 8/10 Who knew a numerical mismatch could produce such an entertaining and good-quality game?