Lewes 3 (Bridges 3, 84; Heather 42)
C&K Basildon 0
Lewes ground out a thoroughly satisfying, if unspectacular, victory over mid-table rivals C&K Basildon to keep alive their hopes of a top-half finish in the Premier League.
In a feisty – and sometimes fiery – battle between well-matched teams looking to gain the advantage in their shared quest to win the “league within a league”, John Donoghue’s players never looked like surrendering their early advantage.
Once again, their success was due in no small part to the pinpoint accuracy of their corner kicks, but on this occasion it was not the deadly right boot of Katie McIntyre that did the damage but the metronomic left of Rachel Palmer.
The full-back, who is having a tremendous season, earned two assists after delivering marvellous set-pieces from the right flag, sparking panic among the Basildon defence at both ends of the match – and in-between, for that matter.
With just three minutes gone, goalkeeper Nikita Runnacles could only parry Palmer’s wickedly swerving kick and Georgia Bridges won the race to nod home.
Six minutes from the end, another Palmer inswinger bounced in front of a host of players and Bridges again appeared to get the decisive touch.
In-between, substitute Sian Heather finished smartly after taking advantage of lax defending to put Lewes well on their way even before half-time.
In a swirling wind, the game was never going to be a cracker, and frankly, it was the feisty midfield battles – featuring some of the Premier League’s top players – that caught the eye.
Jay Blackie and Stacey Little, for the visitors, and Leeta Rutherford, Katie McIntyre and Kelly Newton, for the home team, refused to cede an inch in their contests, which showed off their pedigrees but also their mean streaks.
The home side started the game on the front foot and took an early lead from their first corner on three minutes. Palmer’s mesmeric delivery caught Runnacles in two minds, and it was as much as she could do to keep the ball from going straight in.
But Bridges reacted most quickly to the loose ball, nodding home from a foot out.
They could have been two up inside six minutes when Rebecca Carter was sent away down the left. She crossed low, into the six-yard box, but Danni Lane was unable to get a touch that would surely have diverted it past Runnacles.
Instead, the ball ran out to the right flank, where Rutherford collected it and chipped another dangerous cross into the six-yard box, where again, no-one was able to get a touch and the ball rebounded off the far post to safety.
Rutherford, who began her time at Lewes in defence, was relishing her midfield battles with Little and Blackie, the former Brighton captain, who was playing only her third game for Basildon.
Neither side was able to keep the ball for long, perhaps because of the unpredictable wind, but maybe because of the tenacity of the midfield challenges.
But Lewes were certainly enjoying the better possession in the opening quarter-of-an-hour.
Basildon captain Zoe Rushen was leading by example, showing some neat flicks and clever skill to try to release team-mates, but not everybody seemed to be on the same wavelength, while in contrast, Lewes’ defenders were developing a good understanding.
The visitors’ first effort on goal came after 20 minutes, courtesy of Angela Addison, who engineered a bit of room on the edge of the box before shooting, but it was taken easily by Lewes ‘keeper Lauren Dolbear.
Lewes won their second corner a minute later, and again Palmer’s delivery was spot-on, but this time Basildon got it away without too many scares.
In the 25th minute, Rutherford, playing in an advanced role, volleyed a well-judged pass to Carter, who hooked a cross over her head towards McIntyre, but the ball was just cleared in time.
The Essex side responded positively, Little robbing McIntyre and making good ground down the right touchline. But Addison was unable to reach her angled cross.
While Rutherford, Blackie and Little were exchanging more than mere pleasantries in midfield, much of Lewes’ physical focus was on Rushen, who was looking increasingly key to Basildon’s chances, Newton twice bowling her to the ground in quick succession.
But her side’s threat was sporadic – and too isolated – with Amy Nash joining in with the smart flicked passes but the willing Sara Sinclair again unable to reach the ball.
Lewes made a change with just 36 minutes gone when Heather replaced the ailing Lane.
Almost immediately, Basildon had a scoring chance, but Dolbear did well to push Rushen’s snapshot from 10 yards around the post for the visitors’ first corner.
Newton dealt with the kick a little more comfortably than Basildon had at the other end, getting valuable distance with her header.
On 39 minutes Basildon had another free-kick, best part of 40 yards out, which was scrambled clear.
But three minutes later they fell further behind. Basildon lost the ball deep in their own half and Heather waltzed through, unchallenged, slotting neatly past Runnacles to make it 2-0.
Almost immediately, the visitors responded, Donahue rapping the bar with her free-kick from near the right touchline, with Dolbear rooted to the ground.
Half-time: Lewes 2-0 C&K Basildon
It could have been three soon after half-time when another clever Rutherford flick found Heather, who shrugged off her marker before shooting. But she was foiled by Runnacles’ brilliant reactions from point-blank range, and Lewes had to settle for another corner.
This time, the right-footed McIntyre took the kick from the left, and again Runnacles struggled to deal with it before falling on the ball to claim it.
Heather picked up a needless yellow card for kicking the ball away after being harshly penalised as Basildon finally stepped up the pressure.
And Donahue joined in with the clever flicks to get away from Newton, who had to resort to pulling her shirt to stop the midfielder getting away.
Blackie got her head to Nash’s free-kick but Dolbear gathered – and then received a kick in the back from Blackie for her troubles. Blackie received the game’s second yellow card.
Basildon were certainly enjoying more of the ball – in more vital areas – in the second half, and they managed another shot on goal when Addison laid the ball off for Sinclair on 60 minutes, but the striker’s shot sailed wide.
It signalled time for manager Steve Tilson to use the first of his two available substitutes, attacking midfielder Lily Mellors replacing right-back Kerry Stimson.
For all their improvement, the visitors could not get a grip on the game, and Lewes still looked dangerous.
They won a cheap corner on 62 minutes, but McIntyre’s cross was well headed away by Hannah Porter at the near post.
Basildon broke through Addison, but Claire Capon’s challenge slowed her progress and Waine completed the defensive masterclass with a lovely bit of skill.
They won yet another free-kick on 65 minutes, but Nash’s cross was safely gathered by the commanding Dolbear.
They won a rare corner on 74 minutes, as they finally managed a period of sustained pressure on the Lewes goal, but Nash’s kick was cleared.
Basildon’s second substitute, Karissa Rodney, replaced Nash for the last quarter of an hour as the Essex side strived to get something out of the game.
But it took another excellent intervention from Danica Revell to deny Bridges an opportunity as she latched on to a beautiful ball down the line from McIntyre.
The hosts almost carved out another opportunity moments later when Bridges did brilliantly to trick her way past Mellors and found Carter in the box. But the striker’s shot on the turn was blocked.
As Basildon stepped it up, Dolbear came to the rescue for Lewes, keeping out Rushen’s fierce free-kick with a spectacular leap to her left and a strong arm to push the ball around the post.
And the goalkeeper then got a vital touch to divert the corner kick away from a waiting Basildon player.
The home side proved better at corners in the challenging conditions, and in the 84th minute, another gem from Palmer killed off the visitors.
The left-back’s identikit delivery appeared to get the slightest touch on its way from Bridges and it bounced off Blackie on the line into the goal.
Fliss Love replaced the excellent Waine for the last three minutes, with Palmer switching to centre-back and Hayley West, another substitute, going to left-back.
But the game was over by then and Lewes leapfrogged their opponents to sit slap-bang in the middle of the 11-team Premier League Southern division.
Not a game for the purists, but a wholehearted team performance from Lewes, who dominated most of the match. Some of the midfield confrontations were eye-watering, but it was the home side’s defence that impressed the most, denying Basildon much of a sniff on goal.
At the other end, Lewes were clinical, thanks largely to the consistently high quality of corners from McIntyre and Palmer.
John Donaghue (Lewes): “There were some proper midfielders in there”
“We knew that they were going to be very competitive. That’s how they are. You’ve got to compete physically in games. You prepare how you want to play but you have to be a bit silly not to identify their best players.
“There were some proper midfielders in there weren’t there? I think the physical contest probably stopped the fluidity, but what can you do? As a manager you want everything. I’d rather we win that side of things first of all.
“We’ve had more clean sheets this season. The goals against are hugely reduced. And when you can then score a couple and you are harder to break down, it frustrates the opposition.
“A wonderful save from Lauren [Dolbear] from the free-kick. That was going in. But none against. None against last week, as well. We scored three this week.
“We’ve now got a consistency in terms of [the fact that] we’re playing games. We’ve also got to realise that sometimes the league isn’t truly balanced. You play a load of one [set of] teams at the beginning of the season and then a load of others at the end.
“You don’t play all the teams before Christmas and then all of them again afterwards. We’ve got [Basildon] to play again; we’ve got West Ham to play again. We’ve played a lot of the teams that you would consider in the top [group] early in the season, so until the season pans out, you don’t know.
“But we are more consistent in terms of the games we’ve played, and we’ve been able to be more consistent with the selections, as well.
“The same teams are fighting for the top spots, and you expected Palace, with the support they’re getting, to be where they are (fifth). But we’re again hopefully finishing the season on a positive note. We’ve won eight, lost three and drawn one of our last 12 games.
“That’s not a bad run.”
Steve Tilson (C&K Basildon): “We never got going”
“I was disappointed today, on the strength of the last two games, where we beat Cardiff and drew with Palace last week and played ever so well. Today we didn’t quite turn up.
“That’s nothing to the detriment of Lewes because I thought they worked hard and competed more than us. But we never got going. We just didn’t get going today, which was a shame.
“Our aim is to try to finish in the top six, probably the same as Lewes. And we’ve still got games to be able to do that, but we won’t do that if we play the way we did today.
“For sure, we’re not going to get relegated, and again [this season] we’ve competed with sides in our league that have got a bigger name and probably find it a lot easier to attract players. So from that point of view, we’ve done ever so well.
“We’ve got to the final of the Essex Cup, which we should do, and again we’re in or around the top of that second league within a league. So [I’m] pleased with the way the season’s gone but disappointed with today.
“We conceded three really poor goals – two from corners, which we should have avoided, and the second one… we gave it away on the edge of our box and we let [Sian Heather] run through.
“So we’re disappointed in the goals we conceded… but we didn’t create enough up the other end to give them too much of a problem.”
Sent Her Forward player of the match: Rebecca Carter (Lewes)
No one player stood out in an excellent team performance from Lewes, but striker Carter’s role, as a lone front-runner, is a demanding one, which often can go unnoticed.
In her first season in the Premier League, the former Crawley Wasps striker has averaged a goal every other game, but she has developed as a player.
Blessed with searing pace, which Lewes’s passing midfielders look to exploit at every opportunity, Carter is increasingly taking up better positions, timing her runs to create more impact, and – vitally for a team that relies on cohesion and togetherness – playing an invaluable role tracking back, closing down opponents and often initiating attacks from deep.
Carter gets the nod from a string of other contenders. Rachel Palmer is having the season of her life, performing consistently in defence and setting up attacks with her measured passing. She is lethal from free-kicks and today it was her corner-kicking that helped win the game for Lewes.
Katie McIntyre was a rock in midfield, tenacious as always and more than capable of standing up for herself amid the fiery goings-on around her, while at the back Tammy Waine continues not only to belie her age but to provide masterclasses in how to defend as much with your brain as your body.
Claire Capon and Rebecca Thompson also contributed to Lewes’s miserly defence, while Lauren Dolbear preserved Lewes’s 2-0 lead when they came under pressure late in the game – a crucial passage of play.
While C&K Basildon might not have hit the heights of recent performances, they possessed individuals who, with the right support, could have got something out of the game. Zoe Rushen was especially impressive, while Amy Nash and Sara Sinclair also posed problems for their hosts, and a couple of timely interventions by Danica Revell prevented an even heavier defeat.
Sent Her Forward match rating: 5/10 In all honesty, it was not a game for the purists, but it was competitive, honest and won by the better side on the day.
* For the second home game running, Lewes are donating the gate proceeds to charity. While the Mother’s Day attendance of just over 150 was half last week’s record crowd, it means hundreds of pounds for Brighton Oasis Project.