Sussex County FA Women’s Cup final
Brighton 5 (Russo 7, 52; Natkiel 9; Somes 12; Olding 88)
Crawley Wasps 1 (Davies 41)
Same teams, different personnel; same result but a world of difference in the performance.
Brighton retained the Sussex FA Cup – their third success in a row and 10th in the last 13 seasons – beating underdogs Crawley Wasps 5-1, as they did last year – but the super-charged Super League team, now playing among the women’s game’s élite, did not have it all their own way.
George Parris’s strong side, boasting many of the team that won the Premier League last season, won the game in the first 12 minutes, hammering three goals past shell-shocked goalkeeper Marie Gillstroem, even though the London and South East Regional League side had enjoyed their fair share of possession in those opening exchanges.
But contrary to many people’s expectations, Wasps did not crumble and the much-anticipated flood of goals, which could have embarrassed the club and shattered the confidence of the players, did not happen.
That it did not was in no small way due to Wasps’ resilience and temperament as they refused to be overawed by the Super League side’s slick passing and pacy movement, fighting their way back into the match and – inspired by the brilliant Faye Rabson – grabbing a considerable consolation before half-time with the goal of the game.
But the three-tier divide between Wasps, at the top end of regional football, and Brighton, who now have professionals among their ranks, was, inevitably, too great, and the Crawley side go down as gallant losers rather than great giant-killers.
Three goals in five minutes
Rabson’s pace down the left caused immediate problems for Brighton, but it took only seven minutes for them to go in front, Alessia Russo rounding the keeper and slotting home after a brilliant pass from Lucy Somes.
Rabson did respond with Wasps’ first shot a minute later following an astute pass by Naomi Cole, but her effort lacked the power to trouble Leah Samain in the Brighton goal.
And by the ninth minute it was 2-0 as another through-ball caught out the Crawley centre-backs and Natkiel had the time and space to pick her spot.
Two became three in the 12th minute when Somes clipped an absolute beauty beyond Gillstroem into the top corner.
The Super League side, who included a handful of youngsters in a strong XI, were full of confidence, playing crisp, one-touch passing all over the pitch – including in their own penalty area.
On 16 minutes it could have been four when Russo chased a lost cause – and not only won it but delivered a superb cross for Somes, who somehow missed the target from a few yards out.
Brighton were dominant, but Wasps were hanging in there. They kept their shape and won back their composure, piecing together a delightful move of a dozen passes – albeit forced back by Brighton’s tenacity into their own area, where Gillstroem ended the sequence with a clearance that found touch.
Wasps conjured up their first meaningful shot on 23 minutes when Rabson turned brilliantly and slipped a clever pass to Cole. The former Lewes and Millwall midfielder was forced a little wide but still managed a shot from 15 yards, which sailed wide.
Brighton captain Sophie Perry tried her luck from 20 yards at the other end but hit it straight at Gillstroem. Then Natalie Taylor poked an effort just wide.
Although the reigning Premier League champions were enjoying the majority of the possession, Rabson’s pace and trickery was keeping their defence on their toes, and Charlotte Young had to use all her experience and nous to usher the ball into touch after Cole sent the striker away on 30 minutes.
Brighton frequently tried the same tactic that had been so successful in the opening minutes, trying to set Russo away between Wasps’ central-defensive pairing of Niamh Stephenson and Holly Walker, but time and again she was foiled by an offside flag.
When Russo did get an opportunity in the Crawley area she miskicked in front of goal as Wasps, having ridden their luck, sensed an opportunity to get back into the game.
On 34 minutes they won a free-kick on the edge of the Brighton box, but Cole fired over the bar.
Four minutes later it looked for all the world that the holders should have had a penalty when Natkiel appeared to be brought down, but referee Stephen Dedman thought otherwise.
Brighton paid a heavy price for the decision when on 41 minutes Rabson collected the ball on the left and embarked on a marvellous run that took her past three players before she changed direction and cut across the edge of the Brighton box, tricking her way past another two defenders before laying the ball back for Suzanne Davies, who rifled a gem of a shot into the top corner to make it 3-1.
It was a stunning strike, but Rabson’s run had been even more spectacular. The goal would not have been out of place at the highest level of the game.
In the final action of the first half, Rabson again did well before finding Roseanne Fine, but her pass into the path of Davies just eluded Wasps’ scorer.
Half-time: Brighton 3-1 Crawley Wasps
Wasps, whose own title hopes had finally been extinguished in a disappointing defeat on Sunday, had proved they were determined not to surrender in such meek fashion a second time and went into the dressing room for their half-time break with an immense amount of credit in the bank.
Brighton, though, had the added bonus of a comfortable lead – and a host of talent, energy and ability still to come – in theirs.
They made the first of a raft of substitutions at the break, introducing Laura Rafferty and Sara Tubby for Young and Somes.
Wasps took up where they had left off at half-time, earning a free-kick within 60 seconds of the restart, and going so close to narrowing the gap.
Cole hit the kick fiercely but Samain dived to her right to pull off an impressive save and hand Crawley their first corner of the game.
Almost immediately, Brighton were back in the hunt. Russo robbed Stephenson and – as she had done in the opening stages of the first half – Walker made an immaculate tackle to deny the striker.
And on 52 minutes Brighton surely put the game out of sight with a slightly fortunate fourth goal. Hollie Olding’s shot took a ricochet, wrong-footing the Crawley defence and landing conveniently for Russo, in space in the area, and the youngster made no mistake.
Yet Wasps refused to give in, and Holly Turbill earned them their second corner on 54 minutes.
Cole’s kick was cleared back to her and the midfielder lofted a dangerous high cross back into the packed penalty area. The ball was cleared as far as Fine, on the edge of the Brighton area, and she unleashed a venomous shot which Samain somehow saved with another spectacular dive, this time to her left.
Cole’s flag kick was knocked behind for another, which was met by Walker, but she could not direct her header on target.
More changes in personnel followed as both sides made use of rolling substitutions.
Kirsty Barton came on for Natalie Taylor, and with her first touch she found Natkiel, who turned brilliantly inside the box and fired a fierce effort against the bar.
Nicholle Smith and Lauren Callaghan joined the fray for Wasps, replacing goalscorer Davies and Michelle Ward, the left-back.
Amy Taylor came on for Olding as Brighton’s interim manager, George Parris, continued to ring the changes.
Wasps’ Danielle Boyd came on for Jade Elphick to add more firepower, and Rafferty had to be at her best to foil Turbill as she threatened the Brighton goal.
But for all their gallant efforts, it was Brighton’s Barton who was beginning to pull the strings in midfield as the cup holders looked to add some gloss to the already convincing scoreline.
Yet Wasps were far from done, and went close twice in as many minutes midway through the second half.
Fine brought another save from Samain after good work by Smith. Then Smith herself shot just wide of the far post after turning smartly.
But back came Brighton, and Natkiel showed the Crawley defence a clean pair of heels before shooting just beyond the far post.
Then on 71 minutes, Gillstroem had to be alert to deny Jenna Legg after Amelia Ritchie had sent an excellent ball down the line.
With a quarter of an hour to go Wasps lost their midfield playmaker, Cole, with what looked like a hamstring injury, Rebekah Dunt taking her place.
For Brighton, Young returned to take over from Vicky Ashton-Jones, who had barely put a foot wrong all night.
On 79 minutes Brighton had another good opportunity to add to their goal tally, Amy Taylor breaking through and, as Gillstroem came out of her area, the defender-turned-striker chipped her but the ball sailed over the bar, too.
Olding returned to the action for Natkiel and Wasps’ Davies did likewise for Fine.
And it was Olding who secured the game’s final goal in the 88th minute when she hit the fifth after good work by Amy Taylor.
There was one final chance as Legg made her way through a sea of challenges into the Crawley area, but she blasted over and Brighton had to settle for the same scoreline as last season, against the same opponents.
There is no doubting Brighton deserved the victory – they were certainly a few goals superior, through fitness and ability but not, I would suggest, attitude, where Paul Walker’s talented team matched the heart and mental toughness that every Brighton side shows as a matter of course.
Despite the obvious gulf – and the stunning start – Wasps never capitulated and played a significant role in a decent final, played in a howling, swirling wind.
Parris’s side, who have been without a game for a couple of weeks and have played just four competitive matches since winning promotion to FAWSL 2 last May, were impressive, supremely fit and worthy winners.
But Wasps’ second defeat in four days at the headquarters of Sussex FA could not have been more different, and they head into their League Cup semi-final filled with confidence rather than trepidation.
George Parris (Brighton): “It made sense to get more game time”
“I thought we played quite well. The only thing I would say is that if we had been a tad more ruthless we could have got a few more goals.
“We kept trying to play (after the early goals) and I was pleased with how we played. That was our first game for a few weeks, and we haven’t got a game this Sunday, either.
“If the [rearranged Super League spring series match against Doncaster Rovers Belles] had been this Sunday, it would have been a completely different line-up.
“We’re still a new side, so it just made sense to get more game time. It helped us that it was roll-on, roll-off [substitutions], as well, so we utilised all the squad.”
Paul Walker (Crawley Wasps): “Some teams would have crumbled”
“I couldn’t be prouder of my players. It was a super performance against a very, very strong Brighton side. It was a shame for us that we conceded three early goals.
“It took us a little time to get used to the pace of the Brighton players. Then we had 25 minutes where we really did execute the game plan that we set out before the game, which was to try to compress the space, get [Brighton] to play wide, frustrate them and then nick the ball when there was a mistake.
“We had a game plan, as well, in terms of our offensive play, centring around Roseanne (Fine) and her pace, and particularly around Faye Rabson, who I thought was absolutely outstanding today.
“She is getting somewhere back to her best for Wasps, which is absolutely terrific.
“We came in at half-time [at] 3-1. The tails were up. We actually felt that we could really have a go at it and we would be competitive in the second half. With the wind behind us, at 3-2 it would really have made it a game out there.
“Some teams would have absolutely crumbled at 3-0. I think a lot of people in the crowd would have thought, ‘Oh, here we go’. Last year we would not have been anywhere near as resilient as we are today, with the squad that we’ve got.”
Sent Her Forward player of the match: Faye Rabson (Crawley Wasps)
What a joy to see the speedy striker back to her best, torturing a top-class defence with her pace and skill.
Rabson caused no end of problems for the right side of Brighton’s highly rated defence, which has conceded just two goals in three spring-series games, and her run to set up Suzanne Davies’s wonderful consolation goal alone deserved the player-of-the-match accolade.
If Rabson continues to make progress after her lengthy spell away from the game after having a baby, she could help carry Wasps to new heights.
Behind her, Naomi Cole appeared to enjoy her renewed challenge against Super League opposition, for ever making herself available in midfield and posing a danger from set-pieces. Holly Walker and her fellow defenders were given a tough time by Brighton’s pacy attackers, but she distinguished herself with two wonderfully timed tackles in particular at the start of each half.
And Suzanne Davies may never strike the ball as well as she did for her spectacular goal shortly before half-time.
Brighton were outstanding in every position, with young goalkeeper Leah Samain helping preserve their lead with two outstanding diving saves, high to her right and then her left.
Amelia Ritchie, Charlotte Young and Vicky Ashton-Jones were largely comfortable at the back, and when Rabson in particular stepped it up a gear, they adapted as required. Kirsty Barton performed a marvellous 30-minute cameo, with a range of tip-top passes.
But pick of the Brighton side was probably Alessia Russo, who gave Crawley’s defence no end of headaches, and if she had been able to time her runs a little better she might well have had a hat-trick.
Sent Her Forward match rating: 7/10 Both sides contributed to a fast-flowing cup final, full of good football, despite the difficult conditions.