Brighton 1 (Thomas 32)
Oxford United 1 (Gane 67)
Super League football finally came to Brighton best part of a year after the city’s team of many talents booked their place in the big time – and it looks as though they are there for the long haul.
The side who romped to the Premier League Southern title last season before beating Sporting Club Albion in a play-off to reach the promised land last May were uncharacteristically – though perhaps understandably – nervous in the opening quarter of only their second WSL spring series match.
But after taking the lead, slightly against the run of play, the Brighton of old began slowly to return and those expressions of slight anguish among another bumper Culver Road crowd once again turned into smiles of content.
It’s still early days for this squad, managed temporarily by technical director George Parris, shorn of three of last season’s superstars but bolstered by some shrewd close-season signings.
But in the middle third of an absorbing – and at times most entertaining – game against an Oxford United side a million miles from the unprepared collection who were thrashed on the same ground just over a year ago, the free-flowing, quick-passing game that became their trademark under previous boss James Marrs came flowing back.
And with youngsters like Bronwen Thomas, Hollie Olding and Ellie Dorey breaking into – or on the verge of – the starting XI, it seems likely that their new manager – whoever he or she might be – will have a competitive squad to pick from by the time the Super League proper begins in August.
It was a big day for the club, on and off the field, with 253 people passing through the turnstiles, paying an eye-watering £10-per-adult for entry to what Oxford manager Andy Cook described as a slightly more competitive extended pre-season.
But as they continue to wipe away the rustiness and develop more as a team, much as they did in two seasons under previous manager James Marrs, Culver Road will again become an attractive place to watch women’s football.
The match itself ebbed and flowed, with both sides enjoying periods in the ascendancy and both riding their luck, with Oxford’s lethal striker Ini Umotong having a goal disallowed in the first five minutes and striking the post late on, while Brighton, who failed to cash in on their periods on top, had a decent penalty appeal turned down.
The home side enjoyed the bulk of the possession in the first few minutes, Oxford content to let them string passes together in their own half and then use Umotong’s pace to put their defence under pressure – a tactic that it took Brighton best part of the game to counter.
Indeed, the pace and power of last season’s joint-top scorer in WSL 2 rattled Brighton’s central-defensive pairing of Charlotte Young and the normally unflappable Vicky Ashton-Jones during the early exchanges.
The Nigeria international striker almost intercepted goalkeeper Emma Byrne’s casual attempt to find Ashton-Jones after just two minutes and then forced the experienced Republic of Ireland goalkeeper into another nervy clearance which went straight to Lauren Haynes, but the Oxford captain’s shot was deflected wide.
The visitors thought they had taken the lead from the resulting corner in the fifth minute. Byrne misjudged the flight of Ellie Noble’s kick, and when the ball came back across her goal, Umotong knocked it in at the far post, but the referee had blown for a foul.
Brighton’s early composure was seeping away, and when Sophie Perry was dispossessed on halfway, Ella Franklin-Fraiture made quick progress down the right before being halted by a familiar, well-judged Ashton-Jones tackle.
Oxford were beginning to step up the pressure, and they forced two corners in quick succession in the eighth minute.
Byrne punched – though not decisively – to relieve the pressure temporarily from the first, but the second was cleared more easily.
Then came two yellow cards in as many minutes for infringements at opposite ends of the misdemeanours scale.
First, Emily Donovan was booked when she blocked Byrne’s kick from hand, and then Brighton’s Young was given similar punishment for hauling down Umotong as she bore down on goal once again following a mistake by the otherwise impressive Laura Rafferty, who, with Kirsty Barton and Bronwen Thomas, were the pick of Brighton’s players in the first half.
Thomas, 17, who joins her Wales international squad colleagues this week to take part in the Cyprus Cup, showed confidence and composure beyond her years, always demanding the ball and prepared to take on her marker down the wing.
Franklin-Fraiture did well to stop her on one such adventure in the 12th minute as she threatened to get away, and moments later Ellie Noble got in a shot at the other end after Ashton-Jones had again thwarted Umotong.
Brighton’s first chance came on 15 minutes when Jenna Legg played in Kate Natkiel, but the attacking midfielder’s shot lacked power and rolled through to Oxford keeper Demi Lambourne.
Natkiel’s next effort had the power but not the accuracy as she let fly from 20 yards after Barton had cleverly played her in.
Brighton strung together a move right out of the Premier League-winning season on 24 minutes, making slick progress from right-back to left wing, courtesy of some superb passing between Lucy Somes, Barton, Natkiel and Thomas.
But the teenager’s shot was blocked, as was Barton’s follow-up effort – brilliantly, by Rosie Lane.
Brighton were now playing with more confidence as the game opened up.
In the 27th minute, Oxford conjured up another opportunity when the ever-dangerous Umotong collected a free-kick and turned smartly in the area, shooting across the goal. Byrne chose not to go for it and the ball was hacked away by a defender’s boot for the visitors’ fourth corner of the half.
Byrne again struggled under Noble’s fine kick, but Oxford were unable to capitalise, and moments later it was Brighton’s turn to threaten as Alessia Russo found Thomas, but the winger chose to cut inside and ran into trouble, eventually conceding a foul.
Somes put Natkiel away down the right, but Riva Casley brilliantly blocked her progress as Oxford restricted Brighton largely to half-chances.
And then, on 32 minutes, the home side scored the first goal of the Super League era at Culver Road from a well-worked move.
Somes made progress down the right and played a neat ball inside to Natkiel, just outside the area. She cleverly dummied before helping the ball on to Thomas on the left. The winger’s right-foot effort took a slight deflection on its way past Lambourne.
The goal lifted Brighton and less than a minute later, Thomas tried her luck again from a similar angle but a bit further out, but her effort sailed just over.
Russo tried her luck from 25 yards after turning smartly and creating a little space, but immediately back came Oxford.
Umotong brilliantly pulled down Franklin-Fraiture’s perceptive chip into the box, delaying her shot until a space opened up, but fired her strike just over the bar.
Ashton-Jones again came to Brighton’s rescue as Rafferty played her into trouble with a casual back-pass that instead found Umotong, but the defender – who was enjoying a commanding half after a shaky start – once again prevailed.
Brighton were now on top, and shortly before half-time they strung together a superb passing move involving Ashton-Jones, Barton, Thomas and Perry. When Barton received the return pass, she fed Natkiel, whose low shot was fumbled by Lambourne, who recovered to reach the rebound just before Russo.
But the hosts could not afford to drop their guard. Back came Oxford, Umotong playing in Evie Gane down the left, but the 16-year-old was thwarted by a superb tackle by Young at the expense of Oxford’s fifth corner of the half.
Lane met Noble’s kick with a firm header, but it was well taken under the bar by Byrne, who this time had decided not to come out for the cross.
As the half moved into stoppage time, there were chances at both ends.
Umotong headed straight at Byrne and then, in the last action of the half, Rafferty played a clever ball between two defenders for Russo, but Lambourne again reached the ball first.
Half-time: Brighton 1-0 Oxford United
Brighton started the second half considerably more animated than they did the first, hunting the ball in packs and putting the sort of pressure on Oxford’s defence that their opponents had on them 45 minutes earlier.
Somes conceded another cheap yellow card for failing to move away as Oxford looked to take a quick free-kick.
Then Rafferty found Natkiel, who slid a smart long ball between two defenders to set up Somes, but she was halted in her tracks by an offside flag.
The home side were stepping up the pressure as they sought the second goal that might kill off their determined opponents.
On 54 minutes Somes brilliantly turned left-back Jess Frampton and played a neat pass to the overlapping Legg. Her cross found Thomas, but Lambourne blocked her effort.
Moments later Perry clipped a free-kick from 30 yards into the goalkeeper’s arms before Oxford mounted their first real attack of the second half – and they were left feeling aggrieved as Young appeared to bring down Umotong, in full flight, in an almost carbon-copy of the first-half incident that earned the centre-back a yellow card.
But this time the referee did not even award a free-kick.
Barton, who had stood out when Brighton were under siege, was now dictating much of the play and she sent Somes away down the right with a superb 40-yard pass. But the winger, with no support arriving, chose to shoot and the ball ended up the wrong side of the side-netting.
Oxford made a rare venture into Brighton territory when Franklin-Fraiture’s cross from the right found Umotong. The striker’s header reached Noble, who fired wide.
At the other end, Casley again came to the rescue as Rafferty put Somes away. Then Legg and Natkiel combined to feed Russo, but the midfielder-cum-striker could not control the ball in front of goal and the chance went begging.
The hosts continued to ratchet up the pressure, and on 65 minutes they appealed for a penalty after Somes went down, rather easily, under a challenge after being set up by Rafferty following a fine run down the right by Legg.
The move did at least give Brighton their first corner – 65 minutes into the game – but from Perry’s kick, Young shot well wide.
Yet, in a reversal of the first half action, Oxford pulled themselves level two minutes later with a goal worthy of the Super League stage.
Umotong was inevitably at the heart of the build-up, and when the ball found its way to Gane, on the left-hand corner of the box, she stepped inside before sending a delicate chip over Byrne and into the top corner.
It was a sublime goal, of which any player at any level would have been proud. But for a 16-year-old making her first-team debut, it was particularly special and was reward for her inspired – and inspiring – performance.
On 68 minutes Umotong tried another shot on the turn, but it was comfortably taken by Byrne.
Brighton won their second corner in the 73rd minute after the increasingly influential Legg again got away down the right and whipped over a cross that was blocked.
But Lambourne punched clear Perry’s flag kick.
Immediately, Oxford broke, Umotong once again at the centre of proceedings, and she set up Emily Donovan, whose shot was well saved by Byrne.
With a quarter of an hour left, Parris sent on striker Amy Taylor for Somes. Taylor played through the centre and Russo moved to the right flank.
Natkiel did well to make ground down the right and sent over a cross which was only half-cleared. When the ball came back to her, she again found the side-netting.
In the 79th minute Oxford almost grabbed the clincher. Umotong again turned brilliantly and lashed a left-foot shot that struck the far post and bounced into Byrne’s arms.
Brighton made their second change on 83 minutes, bringing on another teenager, Hollie Olding, for the injured Barton.
And with her first touch she brought a fine full-stretch save from Lambourne to earn her side their third corner.
Then Rafferty’s clever back-heel played in Taylor, who looked to be held in the area, but again the referee saw nothing wrong.
There was a flurry of action from the substitutes’ benches in the 88th minute, Brighton’s Ellie Dorey replacing goalscorer Thomas and Oxford’s Sophie Baker and Amber Roberts both joining the fray.
And like Olding, Roberts had an instant impact, hitting a right-foot shot that Byrne smartly turned around the post.
Oxford were ending the game as they had begun it, putting Brighton’s defence under pressure. And it took an excellent last-gasp tackle by Young to deny Umotong the chance of a winner in the second minute of injury time.
Two 1-1 draws against two of the sides who finished in the lower reaches of WSL 2 last season are probably a reasonable return for George Parris and his Super League newcomers.
Yet the reality is both their opponents – London Bees, whom they visited on the opening day of the spring series, and Oxford – are much-improved from the sides who struggled most of last season.
Today’s draw was a fair reflection of a game that ebbed and flowed, producing some good football and a host of misplaced passes.
But more than anything, it was another opportunity for Brighton to find their feet and gauge what they need to do to survive in the Super League – and there were plenty of indications that they are already doing just that.
George Parris (Brighton): “The first 20 minutes were like a cup tie. We didn’t settle”
“The result was disappointing, but actually I thought we played quite well. It’s progress. I’m satisfied with the performance – we moved the ball a lot quicker and better today, so I’m happy with that.
“The first 15, 20 minutes were like a cup tie. We just didn’t settle for various reasons. But once we got the ball, we settled down again and we passed and moved the ball.
“Bronwen (Thomas) is a decent player – an international. With the internationals we’ve got in our set-up, it means that when everyone’s fit and raring to go, we’ll be looking to play them.
“Charley (Boswell) is still injured. She’s been out for a few weeks now and she’ll probably be out for another few weeks. [But] I’m happy with the squad. We’ve only got nine games (in the spring series), so I’m happy with the squad I’ve got.”
Andy Cook (Oxford United): “We’ve got to be hard to beat”
“It’s been a bit of a whirlwind since [his appointment as manager on Thursday] was announced. I’ve known for a little while, and my players have known, but it’s been a bit of a whirlwind trying to get things sorted.
“I know Lauren (Haynes) from my time at Arsenal, but I’ve done my homework on a few of the girls and spoken to a few people who know some of the players, and I’ve watched most of the games from last season when I’ve been given the footage from the guys at Oxford, so I know a little bit about most of the players.
“Hopefully, it was shown today with the performance we had. We said to the girls before the game that we’ve got to be hard to beat. Looking at the results that Oxford had the last few seasons, we need to get more points than we have done, so if we can make ourselves hard to beat and then try and get… we had four or five good chances at the end.
“If we can build on that, I think we’ll be in a good place come September.
“For me the spring series is an opportunity for me to see what the players offer and equally to see what else is happening around the league, so we can bring some players in and also see what the opposition are like.
“It’s pretty much a long pre-season, but a competitive one, which is good for us.
“I’ve not seen Evie (Gane) train at all. I’ve just been told about her. So I said we’ll start with her and she did brilliantly. The goal was fantastic. It was a great finish.
“Ella (Franklin Fraiture), once we moved her into the middle of the pitch, and Emily Donovan had a great game. There were a lot of positives. You could go through the team.”
Sent Her Forward player of the match: Ini Umotong (Oxford United)
My heart tells me Evie Gane. The 16-year-old Oxford debutant looked as comfortable as anyone on the pitch and capped a fine performance with a gem of a goal.
But my notebook tells me Umotong. The Nigeria striker’s ablility is no longer a secret following her Premier League-winning experience at Portsmouth two seasons back and an astonishing first season in the Super League, which she ended as joint-top scorer with 13 of her side’s 20 goals in a difficult campaign.
As valuable as her ability and nose for goal, though, is the impact she has on the opposition. Brighton had one of the best defences in the country last season, and yet time and again they were forced into uncharacteristic errors every time the powerful striker got near them.
To their credit, they adapted their game and just about managed to deny her a second goal of the season. But Umotong created opportunities throughout the game – often for team-mates, sometimes for herself – and she was very unlucky to see her left-footed volley cannon back off the post and into the goalkeeper’s arms when it looked like she had scored what surely would have been the winner.
Gane was outstanding on her debut, while team-mates Ella Franklin-Fraiture and Ellie Noble also had fine games. Riva Casley and Rosie Lane repeatedly thwarted Brighton attacks when the hosts were at their most threatening.
Brighton’s standout player was Kirsty Barton, who – even when her side were struggling – never hid and always looked to do something positive. She is competitive and acutely aware of what is going on around her. Her passing was way above that of most other players on the pitch – particularly during Brighton’s difficult start.
Lucy Somes also performed close to her high levels of the last couple of seasons, testing Oxford down their left flank time and again, particularly in the second half. Vicky Ashton-Jones was another who recovered well after an uncertain start.
Like her compatriot, Gane, Bronwen Thomas is a teenager going places. Like Gane, she took her goal well – from almost an identical position – and like Gane, the significance of the occasion never got to her. She looked for the ball, made herself available for passes and enjoyed a productive first half down the left flank.
Special mentions for Laura Rafferty, who stepped forward into a defensive midfield role where she looked comfortable in patches as the game swung Brighton’s way, and for Jenna Legg, who got forward much more in the second half, performing the role carried out with such aplomb by the injured Charley Boswell last season.
Sent Her Forward match rating: 7/10 Plenty of decent football in a competitive, open game.