Brighton 3 (Natkiel 21; Owen OG 31; Russo 86)
Sheffield FC 1 (Ward pen 90+2)
Brighton cruised through their final spring-series match with by far their best performance of the competition, proving to themselves as much as anyone else that they are more than capable of surviving in Super League football, come the start of the season proper in September.
They dominated from start to finish, totally overwhelming a disjointed Sheffield in the first half before their defence was given the chance to shine in the second as Zoe Johnson’s young side stepped up their game and finally gave the hosts something to think about.
In front of a healthy – but far-from-record-breaking – attendance of 1,279 at the Amex, Brighton put together their most impressive and cohesive display at this level, draining the visitors with their sharp passing, swift movement and incessant pressing.
After they raced into a 2-0 first-half lead, Johnson switched tactics, providing the isolated Hannah Cain with desperately needed support. But Brighton managed to keep a more attack-minded Sheffield at bay without sacrificing too much in the way of creativity.
When Alessia Russo put the home side 3-0 up four minutes from time with the team’s second spectacular goal of the game, it was no more than they – and the lively Russo in particular – deserved.
But in a final twist, goalkeeper Faye Baker was introduced for her first taste of Super League football after a lengthy injury lay-off, just in time to face a stoppage-time penalty.
But there were to be no fairy-tale heroics from the Londoner, whose memories of her Super League bow will be bittersweet, to say the least.
Brighton showed they meant business from the off, causing Sheffield immediate problems down their right flank through Sophie Perry and Lucy Somes.
They earned an early free-kick on the left touchline, but Perry’s kick was headed away by Danielle Cox.
Then Somes did brilliantly to beat her marker along the byeline before pulling the ball back to Perry, but the Brighton captain’s cross was also headed clear and Russo failed to connect properly as it fell to her.
The visitors were seeing little of the ball – and touching it even less – but when Hannah Cain got away, Emma Byrne was out quickly to deny her.
Russo, who has proved a top-class signing for Brighton, took advantage of slack marking to make strides towards the Sheffield box before shooting wide, with only five minutes gone.
The hosts were off-target again two minutes later when the lively Somes and Perry played a one-two before the Ireland international curled her effort just beyond the far post.
Sheffield had barely broken into Brighton territory, but it took a fine tackle by Charlotte Young, on eight minutes, to deny Cain a shooting chance.
Somes cleverly made room for another shot from distance but her low effort was easily gathered by goalkeeper Juliana Draycott.
Moments later Kirsty Barton, who was having another storming first half, played a sublime ball to Perry, and as the ball ran loose, the midfielder regained possession with a superb tackle, setting up Laura Rafferty for a shot, but again it missed the target.
In the 13th minute Brighton had a gilt-edged opportunity to grab the goal that would have reflected their superiority.
Somes played a ball down the line to Kate Natkiel, and as Draycott came out, she squared for Russo, but with a single defender to beat, she fired just wide.
The chances were piling up. Bronwen Thomas, who began the game as Brighton’s leading scorer in the spring series, shot well wide while off balance.
But then Sheffield finally mustered their first effort with 16 minutes gone. Rafferty was caught in possession; then Vicky Ashton-Jones slipped, letting in Rhema Lord-Mears, but she, too, shot wide when she might have done better.
Finally, on 21 minutes, the breakthrough came – in spectacular style.
Thomas found Russo on the right. The attacker did brilliantly, shrugging off Carla Ward and delivering a peach of a cross which Natkiel met with a sumptuous angled volley from 10 yards that gave Draycott no chance.
It was just reward for a team who had played some excellent football and befitting of the occasion in front of their biggest crowd of the season.
In the 26th minute, Perry tried her luck with a free-kick 25 yards out, but she curled the ball straight to Draycott.
Four minutes later, from an identical position, she chose to cross. Her delivery was superb, forcing Sarah Jackson to head over her own bar for the first corner of the game.
Again, Perry’s delivery was spot-on, and with Young hurtling towards the ball, Kenedy Owen appeared to head into her own goal to make it 2-0.
Johnson pushed Owen and Suzanne Davies further forward to support Cain, and suddenly Sheffield were enjoying better possession in more dangerous areas.
They won a free-kick on 39 minutes, which Ashton-Jones cleared, but they were not to keep Brighton quiet for long.
Natkiel found Perry, who curled another effort from 20 yards straight at Draycott.
Sheffield won – and wasted – another free-kick deep into Brighton territory; then Byrne dealt comfortably with a long-range shot.
But fittingly, it was the home side who ended the half in the ascendancy, earning their second corner in stoppage time. But this time Perry’s kick was cleared and the referee blew for half-time.
Half-time: Brighton 2-0 Sheffield FC
Johnson made two changes at the break, introducing Natasha Flint and Katie Anderson for Lord-Mears and Owen.
And it was the away side who made the brighter start to the second half.
Cain made a good run through the Brighton midfield; then Davies played a neat ball wide to set up another Sheffield attack. But neither came to anything.
Then Russo gave the visitors a reminder of the hosts’ potency, turning cleverly and then leaving two defenders for dead before sending over a low cross straight into Draycott’s hands.
On 52 minutes Natkiel and Thomas worked another neat one-two down the right, but the former’s cross was cut out.
Russo again stretched the Sheffield defence moments later, bearing down on goal with defenders appealing vainly for offside.
The striker was forced wide, but still managed to get in a shot which whistled across goal with nobody there to get a touch.
Natkiel and Thomas combined again down the right, but Natkiel again failed to find a Brighton shirt.
On 56 minutes Rafferty fired a superb pass to the dangerous Natkiel, who did well to hold off the challenge of Jackson, but although her shot was on target, Draycott held it well at the near post.
It was Jackson who denied Russo two minutes later with a brilliant tackle after Perry broke free down the left and sent over a terrific low cross.
While Sheffield appeared to have no cutting edge, they were certainly enjoying more possession than in the first period, and they had an opportunity to test the Brighton defence when they won a free-kick 30 yards out in a central position in the 58th minute.
Ward somehow managed to keep Owen’s kick in play beyond the far post, but the referee blew for an infringement.
Back at the other end Brighton won their third corner – but first of the half – in the 60th minute. Russo met Perry’s kick but her header dropped just past the far post.
Sheffield threatened momentarily when Brighton struggled to clear Davies’ ball into the box, but the home side survived.
And then on 65 minutes Hannah Dale surpassed Jackson’s superb tackle with an impeccably timed sliding effort in her own area to deny Thomas a certain goalscoring opportunity after a good pass from Natkiel.
It took a decent tackle by Brighton’s Rafferty to prevent a break by Anderson before the home side put together the move of the match on 69 minutes.
Thomas found Russo with a clever pass, and the striker turned smartly to leave Cox for dead before unleashing a left-foot shot that Draycott brilliantly parried and then grabbed at the second attempt.
Cain tried her luck from 25 yards, but her effort barely had the power to reach Byrne.
But at the other end, Natkiel nearly made it three in the 71st minute when, after collecting the ball from Russo, who had held it up well, she let fly, only to see Draycott turn the ball over the bar.
This time Perry’s corner-kick delivery was off and the ball flew harmlessly into the side-netting.
Sheffield made their final substitution in the 73rd minute, replacing Davies with Chloe Dixon, who quickly made an impact, firing an exocet pass to the right wing.
From the cross, Ward’s shot was deflected behind for Sheffield’s first corner of the match.
Byrne caught the cross and immediately cleared for Somes, who was being denied much ball following Sheffield’s half-time changes, to chase. But Holly Housley raced across to clear the danger.
On 77 minutes Charley Boswell came on after her own injury battle for her first taste of Super League football, replacing Thomas.
Cox came to the visitors’ rescue in the 80th minute when, facing her own goal, she somehow diverted Russo’s cross past her own post with Somes ready to pounce.
From the ensuing corner, Russo’s header was cleared off the line by Housley.
Brighton sent on Ellie Dorey for Somes, and almost immediately the other Brighton substitute, Boswell, combined well with Natkiel before sending over a dangerous cross that was cleared.
With four minutes to go and Brighton’s goal still hardly threatened, the home side hit three in a match for the first time in their nine spring-series games.
During a sustained spell of Brighton pressure, Russo picked up the ball close to the angle of the penalty area. She took a couple of steps forward and unleashed a piledriver into the far corner to put the result beyond doubt.
There was still time for Byrne to preserve Brighton’s clean sheet with a superb reaction stop from Dale after a clever ball from Anderson.
And then moments later, the goalkeeper denied the hard-working Cain.
With time running out, Parris prepared to introduce goalkeeper Baker for her first taste of Super League action, but with no stop in play, the crowd favourite cut a frustrated figure on the sidelines.
Her chance finally came two minutes into injury time – but not in the way she might have expected – or wanted.
Dixon did well to get away down the right and was finally halted inside the box by a combination of Perry and Dorey. Referee Damith Bandara decided the challenge was unfair and awarded Sheffield a penalty – the cue for Byrne to stride off and hand over the goalkeeping mantle to Baker.
If she had dreamt of a last-minute penalty save on her return, she was to receive a rude awakening as Ward sent her the wrong way with the last kick of the match.
After a steady start to the spring series and a couple of biggish defeats in the middle of the campaign, Brighton have finished in style, holding the much-fancied Doncaster Rovers Belles to a goalless draw and then disposing clinically of Sheffield – the only other side to earn a Super League place through promotion from the Premier League – to finish a creditable sixth in the 10-team second division.
Today everything clicked, and their crisp passing was rewarded with the goals that had previously been so lacking (only five in eight matches before this fixture).
Sheffield were well beaten by half-time, but did themselves – and their manager – some credit with a vastly improved second-half display.
But the Super League’s two newest sides know they need reinforcements before the first WSL winter league begins in September.
George Parris (Brighton): “It takes a while to gel”
“That topped it all today. That attacking prowess I’ve been talking about all spring series was in evidence today. The only thing was, I suppose possibly we could have got one or two more, and it’s obviously disappointing that that penalty was awarded.
“But [it was] a good day at the office.
“It takes a while for a squad of players to gel. We’ve had one or two injuries, so that’s for the girls to take away now and think over the summer… that’s what could be achieved.
“By winning today we’ve moved up a couple of places, and that’s important. It always looks a bit rosier when you’re a little bit higher than down the bottom. So that’s pleasing.
“The league was quite tight. Obviously, Everton have won it and they’re certainly the best team that we’ve played.
“I just feel the girls can take heart from what they’ve done the whole season and reflect on that in the summer.
“We’ll certainly get some new players in because we haven’t got enough players. We haven’t [yet] got our [permanent] manager in place, so if the [player] decisions are made in the next couple of weeks, certainly I’ll have quite a major input into it.
“But the main thing is to try and put things in place for whoever comes in next. Where are we? That’s a great question.
“We’re getting closer, but we’re not over the line yet.
(Regarding Faye Baker’s introduction in injury time) “The ball didn’t go out of play for ages, and if we didn’t do [the substitution after the penalty was awarded] she wouldn’t have got on because we didn’t restart.
“I don’t know if she’ll be pleased with that or not. I’ll wait and see when I go in [the dressing room].”
Zoe Johnson (Sheffield): “It’s not the end of the world”
“We said to the girls, go out and enjoy it – it’s not going to define our series. It’s not going to define us, moving forward.
“But yes, we’ve not had a great spring series at all. All the staff, all the players are disappointed. We’re just happy that it’s not particularly the end of the world – it’s only been the spring series.
“We’ve got an extremely young squad out there. We’re missing five, six, seven key players. The spring series is about seeing whether players are good enough to step up, trying a few new things, and that’s what we’ve done.
“It’s not worked out how I wanted it to. But we’ve got a long pre-season now where we can work hard and try and put things right.
“Hopefully, we’ve got some new signings coming in. We’ll sit down over the next couple of months, reflect and hopefully, bring in some stronger key players, and perhaps the key players who have not been available today, hopefully, get them back in pre-season, and we’ll start to rebuild that way.
“We said last season, every single game has been tight. We’ve had a couple of games where we’ve been dominated, but other than that, over the last 18 months, every game has been 1-0, 1-1, 2-1. For me it’s the more competitive league in women’s football – WSL2. It’s hard to pick who’s going to win them.
“You see some of the top teams dropping points: [Doncaster] Belles, Everton, dropping points. You see those sort of results happening in this league and I think it’s only good for the women’s game.
“[Brighton] have got a great squad there. They’ve got some good youth, good experience who have been there and done what we’ve done and come through.
“They’ve played in those bigger games. Their training facilities, by all accounts, are absolutely second to none. I’ve got no doubt, the way Brighton have been set up and organised… we knew we’d come here and have a real strong test, and all credit to Brighton – what a fantastic achievement for them.
“And I think, moving forward, they’ve got a fantastic future in the women’s game.”
Sent Her Forward player of the match: Alessia Russo (Brighton)
So many to choose from as Brighton finally hit the form that they had threatened sporadically in previous games. Vicky Ashton-Jones was a class act at the back. Laura Rafferty and Kirsty Barton were tigers in midfield. And Kate Natkiel was born to play in the Super League, such is her impact on games.
Sophie Perry and Lucy Somes ran riot down the Sheffield right in the first half before being reined in a little by Sheffield’s tactical changes.
But Russo, along with Bronwen Thomas, has been consistently impressive in this series, and the former Chelsea starlet – still only 18 – was magnificent again today.
She is deceptively strong, has pace and is not afraid to take players on. While she finished the series as Brighton’s joint-top scorer, with three goals in seven games, she has squandered her fair share of chances.
But, like all top attacking players, she does not let it get to her and rounded off her fine spring series with another lethal strike from outside the box.
It was a tough day for Sheffield, who barely got a look-in before they were 2-0 down. But Sarah Jackson, Holly Housley and Hannah Dale made some excellent interventions to prevent an even bigger margin of defeat, while Hannah Cain battled tirelessly up front.
There were some good touches, too, from Suzanne Davies and substitute Chloe Dixon, but their team were distinctly second-best today.
Sent Her Forward match rating: 8/10 A brilliant one-sided first half and enthralling, far more even, second.