Brighton play their first competitive match as a Super League team when they visit the home of FA Cup giant-killers Sutton United to take on AFC Wimbledon in the women’s version of the tournament on Sunday.
The Premier League champions, who earned promotion to WSL 2 by beating the northern division winners, Sporting Club Albion, in a play-off in May, have had a long lay-off, with the new Super League campaign yet to start.
Their opponents, in contrast, are halfway through their season, challenging for promotion to the division Brighton have just left.
* Sent Her Forward will bring you an exclusive, in-depth look ahead to Brighton’s step into the Super League this weekend, with interviews with interim manager George Parris and the head of women’s football, Kirsty Hulland.
Brighton’s Super League era begins the following weekend, when they visit London Bees in the first ever FA WSL spring series fixture.
But first, they have Sunday’s visit to Gander Green Lane, home of Sutton United, whose men dumped Leeds United out of the FA Cup fourth round last weekend.
Brighton’s interim manager, George Parris, is conscious that at the corresponding stage of the women’s FA Cup last season, Brighton – then a leading Premier League club – hammered Oxford United, who had only just begun preparations for the new Super League season, 10-0.
While a similar result on Sunday is pretty unlikely, the former Brighton and West Ham defender is aware of the need to take their opponents seriously.
“You’ve got to be conscious of that,” he told Sent Her Forward. “We understand that and we’ve got to make sure that we perform to the best of our ability.
“Because it’s our first game, we will be rusty, but we’ve just got to try to perform to the level that we know that we can.”
Many of Brighton’s players have spent a few months during the WSL off-season with Premier League sides Portsmouth, Lewes and Gillingham – moves that have been mutually beneficial to those teams and the likes of Kate Natkiel, Charley Boswell, Kirsty Barton, Vicky Ashton-Jones and Amy Taylor.
But Sunday’s FA Cup third-round tie against Wimbledon will give interim manager George Parris his first opportunity to see how his talented squad – boosted by some top-class Super League signings – are gelling in competitive football before they kick off the spring series at London Bees on February 11.
He said: “For us, especially with a new squad and a new group, you’re getting more games together. So we’re not taking this game lightly and we will be looking to win it.
“At this stage, we can’t really afford to say, OK, this is the FA Cup; we’re playing Wimbledon; we’re going to play x, y and z. I’m going to play the strongest side that I can physically put out there.”
That means new signings Emma Byrne, Alessia Russo, Laura Rafferty and Jenna Legg are in contention for their competitive debuts, while several Brighton players nursing minor injuries, along with longer-term casualty goalkeeper Faye Baker, will not be considered.
‘Underdog tag suits us’
Wimbledon, who play in South East Division One of the Premier League – two tiers below WSL 2 – have risen rapidly through the ranks in recent years and are more than holding their own in a highly competitive league, where they have come up against the likes of Taylor and Ashton-Jones at Gillingham.
Following promotion as the unbeaten champions of the London Regional League last season, Chris Lyons’ team have made a good start to life in the Premier League set-up, impressing many on their rise to third, with just three defeats from their opening 13 games.
They currently lie just two points behind leaders MK Dons, although the two favourites, Cambridge United and Gillingham, have several games in hand.
Striker Caroline Bisson sounded confident enough of pulling off what would be a major shock against Brighton when she spoke to the club website.
Bisson, who is returning from a lengthy break for injury, said: “I believe we have every chance of getting the result we want. Being the underdogs suits us. We are up for the challenge.
“We will focus on playing our game and make sure Brighton know they have been in a game.”
The match at Gander Green Lane, which kicks off at 2pm, is, would you believe it, free.
*Other FA Cup ties scheduled this weekend include Blackburn Rovers v Tottenham Hotspur; Charlton Athletic v Sheffield FC and West Bromwich Albion v Lewes.