How devastating the irony that on the day that Sent Her Forward celebrates its third birthday I have to report that the team that triggered my love of women’s football has called it a day.
Haywards Heath & Wivelsfield, formerly Wivelsfield Green, have pulled out of the South East Counties Women’s League Division One West – of which they were bottom – because they can no longer field a team.
A combination of injuries, work and family commitments – plus that familiar obstacle, higher education – has conspired to deprive one of Sussex’s most well-established clubs of sufficient personnel to even guarantee starting games, let alone winning them.
They had lost all of their league and cup fixtures this season before the club’s management team decided to withdraw from the league and focus on the future.
It is particularly disappointing because the recently rebuilt Wivi boasted an exciting crop of youngsters, many of whom, I’m convinced, are destined to become major figures in local women’s football.
But pasts and futures are no good without a present, and the nomadic side, who have moved home several times in their existence, between Henfield, Burgess Hill and Wivelsfield Green before moving to Haywards Heath – in another irony, the place where I first saw them play (although they were then the away side) – have been struggling for numbers.
No-one comes out deliberately to lose, but if you come out knowing that you can’t win, or are very unlikely to, it’s going to hit the spirits – Brian Holmwood, club chairman
Quite apart from the fact that sometimes only a handful make midweek training, they have been playing games with only 10, nine and, in their final match, last week, against Lancing, just eight players.
It was not fair on those who continued to turn up, only to head home on the wrong end of another beating every week.
Nor is it fair on those stalwarts who have kept the club going, through thick and thin.
But it is the spirit that the likes of Sarah Smart, Brian Holmwood and Helen Bashford have engendered there that ensures not only that the club lives on, continuing to play friendlies until the end of the campaign, but hopefully, will reappear next season, in the Sussex County League where they began a decade ago.
Holmwood, their club chairman, told Sent Her Forward the decision had been taken to allow those remaining players to regroup and prepare for their rebirth after a combination of factors had plunged them into a playing crisis.
A week ago, as they faced Lancing in what was to be their final competitive game, they lined up in a 3-3-1 formation, shorn of most of their more experienced players, including the hugely influential player-manager Sarah Smart through injury after illness had previously failed to keep her away.
“We have a basic core of committed players, but they’re all going down with injuries,” Holmwood explained. “One’s got torn ligaments, one’s had her appendix out, one was on holiday. The rest of the players have got family commitments or are just not available every week.”
It’s a cry heard up and down the country, as women’s and girls’ teams fall by the wayside almost by the week.
In Wivi’s case, they were rebuilding after the sudden loss of a handful of players to rivals Worthing Minors, including their star striker, Emma Chrimes, whom they never managed adequately to replace.
But the departures, which followed a rift at the club, did allow youngsters an unexpected opportunity in adult football at a still young age – and seemed to bring those left behind closer together.
The likes of Rose Jump, Emily Brocklehurst, Lauren Amos, Ria Banitas, Freya Bowie and Andrea Barnard, their teenage captain, rose magnificently to the challenge. Most are still at the club and would form a promising foundation on which to rebuild next season, if they can be persuaded to remain.
Haywards Heath & Wivelsfield happen to be situated in a catchment area that – judging by the struggles in recent years of neighbouring Hassocks to field sides and the demise of Henfield, and then Burgess Hill Town’s own second string before the season began – cannot sustain more than two or three teams.
Holmwood added before their final fixture last 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.
“We’re only going to end up putting eight, nine out every week. It’s not fair on the players. They’ve given themselves 90 minutes, and there’s only eight or nine of them, and they’re on a hiding to nothing.
“We’re better off, I think, stepping back and regrouping: keeping what we’ve got, adding to it with stronger, more committed players, much as other teams have done. Lancing (their opponents in their final game) were in this position last year, and they’ve come through it.”
Holmwood acknowledged that to have continued as they were doing would have harmed morale.
“They would get demoralised. No-one comes out deliberately to lose, but if you come out knowing that you can’t win, or are very unlikely to, it’s going to hit the spirits. It is going to make you question why you’re doing it, particularly on these cold Sundays.”
He bemoaned Wivi’s luck this season, when the loss of the likes of the talented Jump to university has been compounded by injuries to the experienced Smart and Lindsey Paige, the limited availability of Donna Thomas and George Ellis and the non-availability of key defender Lauren Gardiner and her attacker twin sister Jade.
“I don’t think anything has gone well for us this season. We’ve been very unfortunate with injuries, universities… all of those things have combined to make life very difficult.
“The plan is that we all stay together. We’re going to try to play some friendlies. If not, we’re looking into six-a-sides, so they’re all playing together, and start to recruit new players for next season, with the aim of joining the Sussex County League as Haywards Heath & Wivelsfield.
“The team stays, although we may not be playing league games.
“We are looking to encourage players who have not played for a while to have a run-out with us without having to register.
“I can understand the pressure the players felt when turning out with only eight or nine, but it is still a sad day for me.”
The present Haywards Heath & Wivelsfield began life as Henfield Ladies in 2006/7, playing in what was then Division Two of the Sussex County Women and Girls League.
Two years later, they came under the wing of Burgess Hill Town, winning promotion in their third season as AFC Burgess Hill Town, to the South East Counties Women’s League.
With their parent club withdrawing support for a women’s side, they were soon on the move again, this time to the nearby village of Wivelsfield Green, where, on a mud-heap of a recreation ground pitch, they forged a high-class team and a spirit that, it seems, might never be totally broken.
It was as Wivi that I first saw them play, on November 18 2012, when they beat fierce local rivals, the then Haywards Heath Seconds (now, ironically, Burgess Hill Town), 4-2 at the Hanbury Stadium. Donna Cox (as she was then) scored twice, and classy captain Leigh Farley and record goalscorer Emma Chrimes once each.
Injury wrecked the immensely talented and incredibly committed Farley’s playing career at Wivi, although she continued to coach when circumstances allowed, also having a spell as manager.
Chrimes continued to pile in the goals until she, her partner Kim, whom she married last year, brilliant defender Katie Lambert and one or two others, left for Worthing.
It felt doubly ironic that after watching Wivi’s final game as a competitive side, I learned confirmation of their demise a week later, on a day when I was watching that Worthing team.