Cowfold 2 (Weller pen 35; Worsfold OG 68)
Worthing 3 (Langridge 11; Worsfold 40; Robinson pen 43)
Two of the best grassroots teams in the South East put on a cup classic of which the county FA can be extremely proud in their Sussex Challenge Trophy semi-final.
Worthing, who lead Division One West of the South East Counties League, survived a first-half onslaught from title rivals Cowfold, through a mixture of defensive commitment, profligate finishing and some brilliant goalkeeping, and emerged victorious thanks to the creative and organisational quality that runs right the way through their own immensely talented side.
The victory, on their own 3G pitch after “home” team Cowfold’s was ruled unplayable, took them to the first of potentially three cup finals in a season where more silverware looks inevitable.
They are due to meet the same opponents – whose manager, Steve Weller, has more or less written off their chances of overhauling Worthing in the league – in the same stage of the League Cup in two weeks’ time.
And this Thursday they travel to Premier League title-chasers Charlton Athletic for their Ryman Cup semi-final, which their manager, Andy Burling, concedes is likely to be more for the experience than realistic trophy hopes.
The third of four scheduled meetings between the sides produced an entertaining match notable for the teams’ contrasting styles – Worthing playing a patient, close-passing game and their opponents adopting a more direct – but equally skilful – attacking approach that frightened the life out of the league leaders.
After surviving a couple of early warnings from Cowfold’s pacy front pair Stacey Jackson and Emily Hale, Worthing fashioned the first attempt on goal when Pippa Langridge skilfully beat Kim Donno down the right wing and cut the ball back for midfielder Hannah Hewlett, who screwed her shot wide.
Cowfold responded with a couple of shots within a minute. Firstly, with five minutes on the clock, Jackson just failed to get a good enough connection on a pass from the right and poked the ball just wide.
And then the 18-goal striker again failed to find the target after combining well with Mel Bramley.
On seven minutes, Worthing earned their first corner after a superb sweeping move involving Brooke Marshall, Megan McCreadie and Hewlett.
Jackson headed Naomi Robinson’s pinpoint corner back to her, but the Worthing captain’s dangerous follow-up cross came to nothing when referee Paul Preston ruled that goalkeeper Bex Smallman had been fouled.
Cowfold responded with a trademark move. Hale played a brilliant ball into the path of Jackson, but Maddy Emmerton covered well to block the striker’s progress.
In the ninth minute, they won a free-kick on the left, but Lisa Derham could not get enough power behind her header and goalkeeper Angharad Hills easily gathered.
Two minutes later Worthing were in front, thanks to the individual brilliance of Langridge, who reached a 50-50 ball first, again outpaced Donno and finished nonchalantly in the far corner.
The goal briefly settled Worthing, whose defence had struggled to deal with Cowfold’s quick and accurate long passes to the pacy Jackson, Hale and Bramley, and Worthing captain Naomi Robinson began controlling midfield with a mixture of tenacity and composed passing.
With 14 minutes gone, Cowfold won a corner, which fell invitingly for Emma Derham, but her shot was well blocked by the impressive Marshall.
And it was the defender who again thwarted the dangerous Jackson after another long pass had caught out the Worthing defence.
On 20 minutes, Hills denied the nominal hosts an equaliser when she superbly finger-tipped Hale’s shot away for a corner after Bramley had beaten Katie Burling down the right and sent over another accurate cross.
Two minutes later, it was Smallman’s turn to excel when she denied Ella Whitcomb after good play by Robinson.
Moments later, Langridge had the chance to add to her tally after an excellent run from deep by Hewlett, but she fired well wide.
Marshall again demonstrated her value to the Worthing defence when she smartly halted Amy Dix as she looked to break into the penalty area after making a brilliant turn.
An equaliser looked likely as Cowfold stepped up the pressure, and Kim Chrimes made a number of brave blocks to prevent them progressing into the danger zone.
Then at the other end Chrimes showed her attacking instincts, breaking out of defence and beating two players before teeing up Robinson, whose shot from 20 yards landed on the roof of Smallman’s net.
The match was developing into a riveting contest, and Cowfold should have been level on 33 minutes when Lisa Derham, inside the Worthing penalty area, chipped a cross to Bramley, whose header was creeping just inside the post when Hills surpassed her earlier effort, diving low to her left to push the ball to safety.
The save only delayed the inevitable, though, as Marshall mistimed her challenge in the box in the 34th minute and brought down the lethal Jackson as she chased a long free-kick from deep inside the Cowfold half. Weller stepped up to finally beat Hills and restore parity.
The Cowfold strike force continued to cause chaos among the Worthing defenders, who were making far too many errors. Yet their own attackers looked equally threatening when they broke.
And five minutes before half-time, they retook the lead with a goal that deserved to win any game, Worsfold capping a neat move with a cracker from 35 yards that soared into the roof of the net.
It was so nearly three moments later when Smallman somehow kept out Hewlett’s shot and Chrimes’ attempted follow-up.
From the ensuing corner, Hewlett was left holding her head in her hands after her effort was cleared off the line.
The next goal was going to be crucial – and so it proved to be, as Weller brought down Worsfold in the box and Robinson converted the penalty with aplomb.
Half-time: Cowfold 1-3 Worthing
The two-goal cushion enabled Burling to tighten up for the second half, pushing Robinson into an advanced role but packing the midfield and defence.
Yet once again they had goalkeeper Hills to thank as she brilliantly denied Bramley in the 47th minute as the striker advanced on goal and, moments later, stood up to Jackson as she attempted to put away Bramley’s cross after she had robbed Emmerton.
Cowfold were finding their preferred route to goal more elusive as Worthing crowded them out, but as they approached the hour mark, Hale did well to win a corner on the left, and then Bramley shot just wide after good passing between Emma Derham and Jackson.
On 63 minutes, Burling decided to give a run-out to some of his squad players, replacing Whitcomb with Ashleigh Kirby and goalkeeping heroine Hills with Lani Smith.
The menacing Bramley put Worthing’s defence under more pressure with a surging run down the right, but as she approached the penalty box, she opted to try to play in Jackson instead of going it alone, and the striker was unable to reach her pass.
Then Bramley put Emma Derham clear down the same flank, but her cross was cut out.
The alert Smith was looking just as comfortable as Hills, racing from her line to foil Cowfold’s front-runners and distributing well.
But on 68 minutes she was to make a howler that brought the Mid Sussex side right back into the cup tie.
Bramley’s poor cross was easily cut out by Worsfold, but as the ball rebounded back to Smith, she panicked, appearing not to realise that she could pick the ball up, and it trickled agonisingly over the line for Cowfold’s second.
Back came Worthing, but Langridge failed to make good contact with Worsfold’s cross, and they had to settle for a corner.
Then Robinson’s free-kick found its way to Worsfold, who fired wide.
Burling began ringing the changes more regularly as he attempted to keep his side fresh for the inevitable onslaught of the final 15 minutes – but significantly, he kept faith with Smith, whose goalkeeping remained sound as she attempted to put the moment of madness behind her.
While Worthing were dealing much better with the central threat of Jackson, Emma Derham was causing havoc down their left flank, and in the 74th minute, after being fed by Jackson, she hit a cross on the run, only for Smith to take it comfortably.
With eight minutes remaining, Jackson left the field with cramp, and with her probably Cowfold’s hopes of taking the tie into extra-time.
Leigh Anne Jordan took her place and immediately gave the Worthing defence something new to think about, but when Smith confidently plucked Hales’ cross-shot out of the air, it signalled Cowfold’s final real opportunity.
Jodi Ward came on for Langridge and could have put the tie out of reach with her first touch. But her first-time prod at Robinson’s pass was well kept out by Smallman.
Both sides have excelled in the South East Counties League this season.
Worthing’s squad has been overhauled after losing some key players but signing a host of newcomers.
Cowfold’s is largely as it has been over the past couple of seasons, as they have made their way from the Sussex County League to the brink of the South East Counties Premier.
Their styles are different but made for an entertaining encounter on Worthing FC’s artificial surface – which Weller and his team dislike intensely.
But they showed no signs of trepidation as their front-runners scared the league leaders early on, and they put together some smart moves of their own as they attempted to claw their way back into the tie.
But after overcoming that panicky first half-hour, Worthing had just too much for them, with Robinson, Worsfold, Hewlett and Whitcomb dominating the midfield for much of the game.
Yet had it not been for the excellence of goalkeeper Hills, it could well have been Cowfold facing county league Lancing in March’s final, and not Worthing.
Steve Weller (Cowfold): “A really good advert for women’s football”
“We probably had more chances than they did. We had two on the goal line, which just needed a tap-in. I was very impressed today with us – and [Worthing].
“They can be physical sometimes, but I don’t think they were today. I think both teams played some nice football. I thought it was a really good advert for women’s football.
“As much as I hate this pitch, I thought the skill levels were raised today – us and them.
“We did a warm-up with the ball, so we had 10 minutes where they were kicking and passing – and if we had won, we’d have to play the final on an artificial pitch, anyway.
“I was surprised when they changed the ‘keeper because she was having a good game. I thought it might work against them.
“I think we were perhaps capable of taking them to extra-time, but they just about deserved it today, I think.
“I never mind losing to a better side.”
Andy Burling (Worthing): “Massive credit to Cowfold – they were absolutely brilliant”
“It was one of the closest games I’ve ever played. That was such an exciting game – from a neutral point of view, probably one of the best games of the season so far.
“I want to give massive credit to [Cowfold]. I thought they were absolutely brilliant. They put us under so much pressure, but a little bit of class at the end just showed.
“We didn’t want to commit forward [in the second half]. We knew how good they are going forward and we didn’t want to be caught on the break. They have very, very fast players, so we had to cope with that.
“We have got good strength in depth now, so we can bring players on who are actually going to contribute.
“The reason I brought [Lani Smith, the goalkeeper] on is that they were doing a lot of over-the-top balls, and she’s very quick coming off the line, unlike [Angharad Hills], who stays on her line. I thought maybe she could act as a sweeper, which she did at times, but the one on the line just crept in, didn’t it?
“I think she got a bit confused with herself and didn’t realise [that she could pick up the loose ball]. I felt so sorry for her.
“We’ve got Milford here in a couple of weeks. Milford are the third-strongest team in the league, and they can still win [the league title], but it’s ours to lose.
“Out of the two cups that we’re in, this is the one that I want to win most. This would be our third time winning it. I’ve still got the trophy (which they won, as Worthing Minors, last year) at home, and I want to keep it.
“The Ryman Cup (at Charlton) – that’s experience. That’s a step too far for us. I think Charlton away is going to be a learning curve.”
Sent Her Forward player of the match: Angharad Hills (Worthing)
Five-star performances all over the plastic pitch – but nowhere better than in the Worthing goal. While both managers might have felt Worthing deserved to win, the fact is that without Hills’ brilliance, they would not have done so.
She made a string of vital – yet understated – saves, getting down low on both sides to push away goalbound efforts. Hills is a daunting figure in the opposition goal, but despite Lani Smith’s lapse when she replaced her for the final 30 minutes, the understudy continues to keep Hills on her toes – which can only be good for Andy Burling and Worthing.
From Worthing, take your pick. Everybody played a part, but special mention goes to Brooke Marshall, who was outstanding in defence, despite conceding a penalty, Gemma Worsfold, Hannah Hewlett and Naomi Robinson in midfield, and Pippa Langridge, who in the first half in particular was Worthing’s most dangerous player.
Cowfold’s goalkeeper, Bex Smallman, also had a fine game, despite being beaten three times, and Kim Donno in defence and captain Jen Weller, just about everywhere, were impressive, as was Emma Derham down the right flank.
But their biggest threat came from their front trio of Stacey Jackson, Emily Hale and Mel Bramley, who frightened the life out of their treble-chasing opponents.
Sent Her Forward match rating: 8/10 A really good, exciting and compelling cup tie which was in the balance until the final few minutes.