Burgess Hill Town 3 (Wheatley 2; Chapman (pen) 45+4; McFadden 74)
Worthing 2 (Carter 25; Whitcomb 66)
With the league won, promotion secured and another trophy in the cabinet to boot – plus an unexpected bonus cup in the home side’s locker – Burgess Hill Town and Worthing could have been forgiven for playing out a lethargic, meaningless final game of the season.
But while the standard wasn’t always at its highest, there were plenty of sparks flying about at Leyland Park as Burgess Hill celebrated a second famous victory in a week, defeating the league champions just seven days after winning the Chairman’s Cup in dramatic fashion.
It rounded off a successful season of stabilisation for Hill, whose manager, Mark Bishop, had described today’s fixture as his cup final, following last season’s relegation from the South East Counties League’s Premier Division.
He set a pre-season target of fourth – which they achieved comfortably, ultimately finishing just four points behind Worthing, who secured the league title weeks ago.
For the visitors, who also won the Sussex FA Challenge Trophy before crashing to Premier Division champions Parkwood Rangers in last Sunday’s League Cup final, this was a game they could have done without – and it showed in the early exchanges, edged by their busier, more committed hosts.
But as tempers frayed and a sense of injustice grew, Worthing played their full part in a feisty affair, twice coming from behind, but perhaps ultimately undone by their preoccupation with the opposition’s approach rather than focusing on their own irresistible passing game.
Burgess Hill unsettled the champions, and despite the best efforts of Worthing’s captain, Naomi Robinson – a frequent target on her return to Leylands Park, where she used to play for the opposition – the visitors never quite found the cohesion that had served them so well this season.
They fell behind in virtually the first attack of the match, Keeley Wheatley, back to her best after an injury-plagued year or so, finishing with aplomb after a superb pass by Jess Gray had bisected Worthing’s central defenders.
The visitors responded with a neat move down the right on three minutes, Robinson finding Pippa Langridge in space, but her cross was blocked for the game’s first corner, which came to nothing.
Both sides were opting for long, high balls into the channels in the opening skirmishes, partly because Worthing’s central pair, Brooke Marshall and Millie Crowhurst – on her return after a lengthy period out of the country – were given no time on the ball by the energetic Wheatley.
But in the ninth minute, signs of the more familiar Worthing resurfaced. Emily Cook did well to beat her opponent and send full-back Kim Chrimes away down the right. But her high cross drifted just over the bar.
Worthing won their second corner on 11 minutes, but goalkeeper Ella Bates palmed Robinson’s dangerous kick away from goal, setting up a rapid counter-attack.
Wheatley latched on to the through-ball, just about shrugging off the attentions of Marshall, but her volley flew inches wide of the post.
Chrimes was proving a useful outlet for Worthing down the right, and in the 14th minute she again forged down the flank, shaking off two challenges, but overran the ball, which rolled harmlessly away for a goal-kick.
For all their bright start, Burgess Hill were not carving out many clear chances, and – Wheatley’s early goal apart – goalkeeper Angharrad Hills was forced into action for the first time on 20 minutes when she comfortably fielded Gray’s effort from 35 yards.
It took a smart intervention by Marshall to deny Wheatley another shot on goal, moments later, and then she made an even better double stop on 24 minutes to halt Shannon McFadden in the Worthing area.
Yet within seconds, Worthing were level. Robinson’s corner was cleared off the line but came out to captain Steph Carter, who cleverly hooked the ball home from 25 yards.
The visitors were now enjoying the bulk of possession, while never looking entirely comfortable when Burgess Hill broke.
Robinson was beginning to flourish against her former side, collecting a clever ball from Katie Burling and playing a superb one-two with Cook before running out of options in the face of the close attentions of her markers, who denied her the opportunity to shoot with her favoured right foot.
Burgess Hill won their first corner in the 32nd minute, but their appeals for a penalty from the ensuing cross were waved away.
The temperature was rising, and the referee spoke to Hill’s McFadden and Worthing’s Carter after a clash.
Four minutes before half-time the game was illuminated by a piece of wonderful skill as Chapman looked certain to score after being put through, only to find her chip over Hills superbly hooked off the line by the recovering Marshall, who had the composure to control a ball she had no right even to reach before clearing.
Yet Chapman did not have long to wait for her goal as the home side regained the lead in first-half stoppage time. Wheatley chased another through-ball, reaching it just ahead of Hills, whose momentum bundled the striker over for a hotly disputed – but cast-iron – penalty.
After several minutes’ delay for treatment to the goalkeeper, who injured her hand in the challenge, Chapman stepped up to send her the wrong way.
Half-time: Burgess Hill Town 2-1 Worthing
Worthing began the second half clearly fired up after conceding that second goal, attacking with purpose down the right flank. On the second such occasion, Cook shot into the side-netting.
Burgess Hill responded, McFadden breaking into Worthing territory before squaring for Lottie Pollendine, a second-half substitute for Wheatley, whose effort from 25 yards went just over.
The opening stages of the half were an improvement on the first, with both sides attacking with rather more cohesion and intensity than in the opening 45 minutes.
Langridge, much as Wheatley had done for Burgess Hill in the first half, was hassling the home defence, forcing them into early clearances, while Robinson was enjoying quality possession in midfield.
But they squandered a great opportunity to draw level on 54 minutes.
Robinson delivered a superb free-kick from the right, and Langridge, unchallenged surged forward to meet it, but her glancing header flew well wide.
Worthing created the next chance, too, in the 57th minute, when Langridge superbly flicked a pass on for the impressive Abi Mason, but Bates rushed from her area to foil her at the third attempt.
Whitcomb, who was recovering from tonsillitis, immediately returned to the action, having been rested midway through the first half, and almost immediately her side had another opportunity to draw level.
Bates picked up a pass back, presenting Worthing with an indirect free-kick just inside the Burgess Hill box. It was played short to Robinson, but she could only hammer her shot into the advancing wall, and the danger was again averted.
The champions sensed an equaliser, and just after the hour, it took another terrific stop, this time by Jess Saunders, to thwart another attack after Robinson had set Abi Mason away.
Still Worthing piled on the pressure, winning their sixth corner of the game, which was immediately followed by the seventh.
Finally, in the 66th minute, the breakthrough came.
Hannah Harvey, who had been immense in the Burgess Hill defence, thwarted yet another marauding Chrimes run down the right, but as the ball was played back out to the wing, Langridge delivered a superb cross to the near post, where it was met by Whitcomb, less than 10 minutes after her return to the action, whose header had too much power for Bates.
The home side, who had been under the cosh for much of the second half, enjoyed a brief respite, McFadden winning a corner after beating Crowhurst for pace.
Gray’s kick was put behind for another corner, and this time her cross was headed home by McFadden to restore Burgess Hill’s lead with 15 minutes to play.
On 78 minutes, it took another immaculate tackle from the superb Marshall to deny Sadie Ashby a shot at goal, and from Gray’s corner Pollendine headed just over in an almost carbon-copy of McFadden’s goal.
As the game entered its final stages, Worthing took back the initiative, winning three corners in quick succession, but Burgess Hill’s defiant defence – with Harvey outstanding – held out, and the final effort typified how the game had gone, the influential Robinson trying her luck from 35 yards but the ball bouncing harmlessly into Bates’ hands.
As dead rubbers go, this was not bad. Worthing sewed up the Division One West title ages ago, and after their second cup final last week, they had little to gain from their farewell game in the division.
Burgess Hill, too, knew they would be finishing fourth, and having lifted the Chairman’s Cup at Maidstone United’s ground last weekend, there was little incentive for them to push too hard, either.
But clearly buoyed by Sunday’s success, they enjoyed a good afternoon, pushing their illustrious opponents hard and taking the majority of their chances.
It took some robust challenges – and by all accounts, even harsher words – to needle Worthing into action, but while they did enough to have got something out of the game, they will know that the edge that has taken them so far this season was not there.
If they can build on the quality squad that they have, they should comfortably hold their own in the division vacated just over a year ago by their opponents.
Mark Bishop (Burgess Hill Town): “This was my cup final”
“Fourth was always our aim. The confidence was low after getting relegated last season, so the aim was not to put too much pressure on them. Give them a little target of fourth; finishing higher would have been great. Getting to the cup final was just that little bit of icing on top.
“The last two months, they’ve slowly turned it around, we’ve used a few players in different positions, and it’s been looking good.
“Today was going to be the test. This was my cup final. Last week was [the players’] reward for all the hard work they’ve put in this season, all their togetherness. They’ve worked really hard, and that was their little reward.
“It was a great day. We put in a lot of effort, got a coach sorted out, did breakfast in the morning. We made it really special for them. They realised that if you put the hard work in, there is a reward at the end.
“But it is no good winning things and then not using it as a springboard to push on. Today was a test: are they motivated again to get going after a cup final?
“I would definitely like to at least be in the top two next season.
“I’m hoping that one or two of the local under-16 teams are going to come on board under the banner of Burgess Hill, and either have an under-18s or another team in the Sussex [County League], more as a development instead of having it for players who can’t make the first team.”
Andy Burling (Worthing): “We’ve got a lot to learn”
“This was the last thing we wanted to happen today. It was a very physical game.
“Did we show team spirit? I don’t think so. There wasn’t really enough fight out there. We knew it was going to be a physical game. We just didn’t match them physically.
“They may have turned up and just thought it was going to happen. It was a team we have beaten before and they thought it was going to happen. It hasn’t happened today.
“I think we’ve achieved [our targets] and more. If anybody had said to us at the start of the season, this was what would happen, I think we would have bitten their hands off.
“We’ve had a fantastic season. We were without some key players (midfielders Gemma Worsfold and Hannah Hewlett), as well, today.
“The one thing we haven’t had in the seasons I’ve been doing this… over the last four or five seasons, we’ve struggled so much to get a regular team, and now we’ve got a regular 12, 13, 14 players training week in, week out. It makes such a difference.
“We’ve put a recruiting team together… we’ve got new players coming on Thursday night for training, so it’s looking really good.
“We’ve got a lot to learn (after losing 6-0 to Premier Division champions Parkwood Rangers in the League Cup final last week). Positionally, as well as tactically – I think I’ve got a lot to learn. I’m up against some very good coaches and managers, so it’s not just about the playing – it’s about me, as well.
“It’s going to be a tough league, but we’ll give it a go.”
Sent Her Forward player of the match: Brooke Marshall (Worthing)
One of the unsung heroes of a very talented side, Marshall never gives less than 100% – but she is also an elegant and effective footballer.
She would have won my award today on the back of her overall defensive performance, even if she had not made an absolutely sensational goal-line clearance, appearing from nowhere to keep a goalbound effort out, getting to her feet and clearing the danger.
Marshall is every bit as responsible for Worthing’s wonderful, trophy-winning season as their goalscorers and goalkeeper.
In impressive defensive displays by both teams, there were plenty of contenders for this accolade. Hayley Nash and Mica Saunders were impressive for Burgess Hill, but their performances were eclipsed by Hannah Harvey, who was outstanding in the centre of defence, tackling, intercepting and heading as though her life depended on it.
Ahead of them, Penny Gittins was as stylish as ever, while Shannon McFadden and Jade Chapman troubled Worthing’s defensive midfielders. Up front Keeley Wheatley had a superb first half before being withdrawn.
Worthing’s key player was in midfield, where Naomi Robinson deserves special praise, not only for her characteristically fine performance but also for having the wisdom to persuade her team-mates to focus on their football when events were threatening to get out of hand – even though she appeared to be the principal target.
And Abi Mason again showed her class up-front in Worthing’s new formation.
Sent Her Forward match rating: 6/10 Not bad… but it was the end of their season, after all.