Goal-crazy Oakwood on verge of county league title

Action from Oakwood v Lancing, Dec 11 2016 (Photo: Sent Her Forward)Oakwood 8 (Page 13, 20, 78, 85; Green 15, 18, 48, 90)
Lancing 0

Rampant Oakwood hit eight for the second week in a row as they all but clinched the Sussex county league before Christmas with an emphatic demolition of their only realistic rivals for the title.

Goal machines Jade Page and Emma Green scored four each as they steamrollered a decent Lancing side, who had begun the season with high expectations of an immediate return to South East Counties football.

Four goals in seven first-half minutes killed off the visitors – but to their credit, it did not kill off the game, as Ross Waddington’s talented side showed an exemplary attitude, refusing to retreat into their shells after the first-half blitz, even though it left them open to more punishment from two of the most lethal finishers in the county.

But the young Oakwood team, comprised largely of the Crawley Town under-16 side who over the past two seasons have been competing in a girls’ league, play with a confidence that comes with winning every week – they’ve only dropped two points all season, in a draw at Lancing – and with a technique and awareness that belie their young age.

Green, at 25 the elder stateswoman of the side, helped herself to one of the best hat-tricks I’ve been privileged to witness – including a sumptuous volley over the goalkeeper from 35 yards, a devastating strike that went in off the bar and a marvelously composed finish from one of the myriad one-on-ones that her exciting team created.

Green’s strike partner, Page, 18, squandered a number of chances, but she matched Green’s haul of four goals, taking her tally for the season to 30 – an outstanding achievement from just 13 games.

But while Green and Page continue to hog the goalscoring limelight, the depth and quality of Trevor Warren’s squad is there for all to see, and there were top-class performances all over the field, not least in an almost impregnable defence, which has been just as key to Oakwood’s success this season as their front line.

Once again, captain Sarah Killick-Bird was immaculate, as were the various personnel who joined her at the back as Warren rang the changes in his star-studded squad – in particular, Abi Knight, Killick-Bird’s sister, Ellie, and goalkeeper Danni Cutler, whose value to the side through the confidence and stability she brings is hard to overstate.

The sun shines over the dugouts at Oakwood FC, Dec 11 2016 (Photo: Sent Her Forward)Having beaten third-placed Montpelier Villas 8-1 last week, Oakwood were determined to pick up where they had left off and forced three corners in the opening four minutes as they slipped effortlessly into their passing game.

Green’s early shot had been beaten away by Lancing’s soon-to-be-very busy goalkeeper, Stacey Johnson. Then Ellie Kinloch headed away the first of Chloe Higham’s corners before Johnson comfortably gathered a much weaker effort by Green.

After a momentary Lancing foray into the Oakwood half, the pressure was back on the visitors’ defence, and Johnson had to be out quickly on seven minutes to beat Page to a clever through-ball that – not for the last time – split the visitors’ back line.

Ellie Killick-Bird, who, along with Green, had missed Oakwood’s recent Sussex FA Trophy exit at the hands of South East Counties league side Worthing, was beginning to show her team-mates what they had been missing.

And she very nearly set up an opening goal inside the first 10 minutes when she brought down a drop-kick from Cutler with a superb first touch before moving into the Lancing half and threading an incisive ball into the path of Page, who just failed to reach it.

The defender-cum-midfielder continued to dominate the game, and another good pass almost let in Page again, but Sophie Bulbeck stayed with her and was happy to give away Oakwood’s fifth corner inside the first 11 minutes.

A free-kick in midfield in the 13th minute gave Lancing the chance to catch their breath and put Oakwood’s defence under pressure for the first time in the game.

Action from Oakwood v Lancing, Dec 11 2016 (Photo: Sent Her Forward)But the hosts eventually cleared and broke at speed. Page, Tayla Hill and Higham exchanged passes at pace to undo the Lancing defence, and Page, in space on the right, sent over a cross that floated over Johnson and into the top corner to put Oakwood 1-0 up.

It triggered an awesome spell of incisive attacking from Oakwood, and the goals came at a pace as breathless as the game – and the Lancing defence.

Green broke down the left, but opted to try to play in Page when she could have shot.

But moments later, with just 15 minutes gone, the attacking midfielder lit up an already top-class match with a wonder goal.

Johnson, sold short by a backpass, cleared hurriedly, but Green, some 35 yards from goal, looked up, met the clearance on the volley and sent the ball back over the stranded ‘keeper and into the net to make it 2-0.

Three minutes later, Green displayed another aspect of her wide skill set, taking a through-ball that should have been cut out in her stride and coolly slotting past the exposed Johnson for 3-0.

On 20 minutes another defensive mistake let in Page down the right, and her angled shot took the slightest of deflections on its way past Johnson.

Action from Oakwood v Lancing, Dec 11 2016 (Photo: Sent Her Forward)The goal burst had Lancing reeling, but to their credit, they continued to try to play in their own goal machine, Billie-Jo Cobb, behind Oakwood’s miserly defence.

But on the rare occasions they succeeded in bypassing them, goalkeeper Cutler was out like a flash to clear any danger.

Warren made use of his full complement of substitutes, making regular changes throughout the game. He began by introducing the fresh legs of Lauren Tyler and Amber Whenham midway through the half.

Still the chances came. Page, with just the ‘keeper to beat, fired wide, and moments later was again denied by Johnson, who stood up to her as the teenager tried to shoot beyond her.

It was not until the 31st minute that Lancing had their first meaningful shot. Inevitably, it came from Cobb, who skipped past a challenge before firing just over from the edge of the box.

But back at the other end, it took an excellent tackle by Bulbeck to stop Tyler after she had been put through by another exquisite pass from Green.

Then Green herself was denied by a crucial stop from Charlotte Royston before Bulbeck again came to the rescue when she intercepted a wonderfully perceptive pass by Whenham to Higham, who had assumed Page’s front-runner role.

It was exhibition stuff from a side full of confidence after eight wins in nine league games, and Knight showed outrageous skills to intercept a ball after it had gone over her head, with the back of her heel as almost everything they tried came off.

Half-time: Oakwood 4-0 Lancing

It would have been easy for Waddington to have instructed his players to shut up shop and limit the damage after the break, but his team opted to aim for the improbable and seek the breakthrough that might just bring them back into the game.

Switching to three at the back, they flooded the Oakwood half with more bodies than at any stage in the first period, but their plan was thwarted within three minutes of the restart, when Oakwood broke quickly and went 5-0 up through Green‘s rocket of a shot from the left angle of the penalty area, which hit the underside of the bar on its way in.

It was an outstanding hat-trick for Oakwood’s star player, whose three goals summed up her range of skills – perception and technique for the first, composure for the second and an impeccable strike for the third, all three stemming from the sky-high confidence of a player at the top of her game.

Still Lancing refused to throw in the towel, and in Cobb they had a player ready to take the fight to her opponents.

But while she endured a largely frustrating time, attempting to latch on to hopeful balls that were more often than not overhit or brilliantly cut out, she never once stopped running, chasing and moving into smart positions.

In the three years I’ve been watching the teenager, she has blossomed from a reliable goalscorer into a quality all-rounder, with the strength and pace to worry players much more experienced than her.

Action from Oakwood v Lancing, Dec 11 2016 (Photo: Sent her Forward)But she was cursing herself midway through  the second half when she spurned two opportunities within a minute.

Jade Dancaster did well to deny her an initial scoring chance after another through-ball, but the striker seized on a weak clearance to get in a shot that went well wide.

Moments later, she threw herself at a cross from the left but failed to get enough on the ball to direct it on target.

On 78 minutes Page secured her own hat-trick, tapping home after Ellie Killick-Bird’s thunderous shot had come down off the bar.

And on 85 minutes she had her fourth after her initial shot, from Green’s unselfish pass, hit the post.

Bulbeck prevented her getting a repeat when she brilliantly denied her after Green had again played her through, but as the game reached 90 minutes, Green rounded off the scoring with her own fourth of the game – this time nothing more than a tap-in.

Verdict

Oakwood have now scored 75 goals and conceded just five in nine league matches, and have opened up a nine-point lead over Lancing – still their closest competitors – but have played a game more.

The absence of Claire Katoroz in defence cost Lancing dearly, and it took them the whole of the first half to come to terms with Oakwood’s marauding front-runners.

But much as they stuck to their task, playing a fuller part, in a very good game, than the scoreline might suggest, they were outclassed by an extremely talented young side that have the footballing world at their feet.

Oakwood shone all over the pitch, and with each goal-fest that notches up another win, their confidence grows and their play moves to yet another level.

It’s no shame to lose heavily to this side – and even less of one when the losing team, head and shoulders above most in the division, play with such a positive attitude and generous spirit.

Action from Oakwood v Lancing, Dec 11 2016 (Photo: Sent Her Forward)Reaction

Trevor Warren (Oakwood): “Almost a perfect team performance”

“We have two games against Horsham, a game against Worthing Town and a game against Pagham, three of which are at home. The only other game we’ve got is Lancing away. That win puts us now nine [points] clear of Lancing, and maybe more against Montpelier, although they might have some games in hand.

“But we would have to lose three of those last five games to not win the league, so yes, I think that’s it sewn up in style.

“If we’d had that team available against Worthing [in the Sussex FA Trophy], we would have beaten them.

“That was almost a perfect team performance. I had players on the bench that I really didn’t think were going to get a game today but actually played in positions that weren’t their normal positions.

The good thing about Emma [Green] is that she gets into the younger players. A lot of our players are very young, and I think they listen more to other players. When I tell them, it’s a bit like their dad telling them to do something. They’re kids at the end of the day.

“So it is nice when you get a senior player that wants to chip in with, ‘you’re doing well’, or ‘this is what you could be doing better’. And they do listen to her.”

Ross Waddington: “A bad day at the office”

Action from Oakwood v Lancing, Dec 11 2016 (Photo: Sent Her Forward)“It was frustrating. The first goal was a cross that’s gone straight in. Then the second – it could have gone 10 yards over. Then you’re chasing the game.

“I don’t know why we chose to kick the way we kicked (after winning the toss). Up the slope, onto the sun. We made it hard for ourselves.

“We went [to] three at the back in the second half to try to claw something back. I thought if we scored next, we would. I’ve been involved in games like that before where you have a poor first half; then you score and everyone gets their confidence back.

“But we didn’t score and then heads started dropping. You can’t blame anyone for that. But they kept going.

“But it wasn’t to be. It wasn’t to be our day. Some of the girls are carrying a bug. The whole squad’s had it. We weren’t sharp enough today.

“We’ve got a game in hand, and we’ve got to play them one more time, but unless they slip up…  This was a bad day at the office – one to forget quickly.”

Emma Green and Jade Page, Oakwood (Photo: Emma Green)

Emma Green (left) and Jade Page hit it off on and off the pitch (Photo: Emma Green)

Bonus points

Oakwood’s goal heroes have struck up an uncanny relationship on the pitch – but they’re just as close off it, and that sums up the family-type spirit that suffuses the entire squad.

Green joined the former Crawley Town in the close-season, having played previously for local rivals Crawley Wasps.

She was excited about the potential of the bunch of teenagers she was about to join – and their wonderful season is paying back her faith in them – with interest.

She told Sent Her Forward: “It’s a really good team to play for. Everyone’s very happy. Everyone gets on. There’s no ‘she’s better than her’.

“Everyone plays in different positions. It’s good competition. It’s good.”

Of her own form – Green has scored 19 in 10 league and cup appearances for Oakwood – she said: “It’s about not worrying about what the other girls are thinking. You’ve got the confidence just to have a shot. The girls all work together.

“It’s about making the decision when to pass, when not to pass, when to shoot… and with a good team around you, look at the result.”

Page is quick to pay tribute to the contribution of someone who has become not only her mentor but her friend, too.

“Last year I had no-one there. The way I play, I don’t get it at [my] feet, ever. Emma does that, so she’s like my play-off partner,” she told Sent Her Forward.

Page is a predator, a typical goalscorer who is not afraid to miss, confident that she will score the next one – which she invariably does. “I do get annoyed, but at the end of the day, that’s life.”

She added: “If you remember back to the Worthing game (which Oakwood lost 2-1, with Green absent, and Page failed to score), they relied on me. We got annoyed a little bit, and I could say I was missing Emma. If she had been there alongside me…”

Page doesn’t finish the sentence, but she doesn’t need to.

She does her finishing on the pitch.

Sent Her Forward player of the match: Emma Green (Oakwood)

As is usually the case when I watch Oakwood, there were plenty of candidates for the accolade, but Green deservedly gets the honours this time after scoring an outstanding hat-trick. Already a class player, she has taken a step down to the Sussex County Women and Girls League this season to help others, and she is thriving.

She reads the game well, always making herself available to team-mates in trouble. She’s an excellent striker of the ball and – a real bonus – she can kick with both feet. But unlike many 20-plus-goals-a-year players, her first thought is to find team-mates rather than try ambitious efforts herself.

Yet when she does have a go, the results are usually spectacular. Green is a wonderful role model.

Action from Oakwood v Lancing, Dec 11 2016 (Photo: Sent Her Forward)Key contributions

Perhaps surprisingly in such a big win, Oakwood’s defence stood out. Danni Cutler did everything asked of her in goal, her experience as an outfield player enabling her to read the game and snuff out danger before it has arisen.

Sarah Killick-Bird is an exceptional footballer, who also reads the game well but has height, strength and pace to burn, making her nigh-on impossible to get the better of. And her younger sister, Ellie, showed today what a talented player she is, combining excellent defence with purposeful creativity. Abi Knight was once again magnificent, too.

Jade Page‘s value to the side is seen in the goal stats – 25 of the team’s 75 league goals, 30 in all competitions, in just 11 starts and one appearance from the bench.

When it comes to strikers, Billie-Jo Cobb can consider herself unlucky to be on the wrong end of such a crushing defeat. Her efforts did not deserve to go unrewarded, and while she got little change out of an outstanding defence, her stock rose significantly today.

Nicola Harrison set an excellent example, too, when she was thrown into the fray, her side already well behind. She also runs all day and caused plenty of problems for the Oakwood midfield, while Sophie Bulbeck continues to impress every time I see her play.

Without her – and some decent interventions from Holly Marsh – Oakwood’s tally would have been well into double figures.

Sent Her Forward match rating: 8/10 Such one-sided scorelines rarely make good games. The quality and effort on both sides today ensured this one did.

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