Crawley Wasps 1 (Rabson 2)
Portsmouth 5 (R Tonks 32; Albuery 38; Bell 56; Panting 60; Stephens 63)
Portsmouth’s agonisingly long period of transition following the break-up of their championship-winning side might finally be almost at an end.
Manager Jay Sadler, their second boss in the 12 months or so since Perry Northeast stood down after taking Pompey to the brink of the Super League, has been ringing the changes, both on and off the field, with a new team of backroom staff as well as a host of new – and mainly young – players.
Consequently, their results took a dive last term, and the team finished closer to the bottom than the top for the first time in most people’s memory.
But while there are still a couple of significant new additions to announce, it was a much more settled Portsmouth that eased to an ultimately convincing – but never easy – win over a Crawley Wasps side two tiers lower than them but who are determined to join the élite in super-quick time after missing out on promotion themselves last season.
They, too, can be happy with their progress as they focus on winning the London and South East Regional League that is the gateway to the Premier League.
They took the game to their opponents in the opening stages, taking the lead with their first attack of note before Pompey’s passing game finally clicked and they snatched the lead before half-time.
But more significantly, Crawley eschewed the temptation to resort to panic-football and dominated the early stages of the second half, too, before they ran out of steam after being stretched by their Premier League opponents’ patient passing game.
The result was an entertaining pre-season encounter that looked more like a league game than a friendly, with plenty of competitive challenges and a pleasing aesthetic quality to the football.
Wasps rocked the visitors with a goal in the second minute following incisive passing between midfielders Naomi Cole and Toni Smith, the latter feeding the lethal Faye Rabson, who made no mistake one-on-one with the goalkeeper.
Cole, the former Lewes and Millwall midfielder, was running the game from the centre of the park in the opening minutes, looking to play incisive balls beyond defenders for the willing Rabson and wingers Danielle Boyd and Lauren Callaghan.
Portsmouth, who had scored 19 goals in two previous friendlies against lower-league opposition, were struggling to get their passing going, denied room and time by Wasps’ eager midfield.
The hosts could have been two up after just four minutes after more slick passing. Suzy Davies dispossessed Rachel Panting and sent Rabson away down the left. Her low cross was met first-time by Smith, but goalkeeper Emily Paines saved brilliantly at point-blank range.
Wasps continued to dominate, with Paines denying Smith and the rebound blasted over the bar. Then Paines again came to the rescue after Boyd had sent Rabson away with a neat volleyed pass.
But it took an immaculate tackle by the splendid Holly Walker on 10 minutes to prevent an equaliser after Nadine Bazan had been put in on goal by the stylish Lauren Peck.
The resulting corner led to another, which again caused consternation in the Crawley box, Walker twice blocking efforts as the visitors began to scent an equaliser.
And Wasps goalkeeper Frankie Gibbs had to be at her best to fingertip Panting’s close-range effort around the post.
Panting was beginning to prove a thorn in Crawley’s left side, with striker Kayleigh Tonks and Shannon Albuery, slightly deeper, proving a handful for Wasps’ central-defensive pairing of Walker and Niamh Stephenson.
But Wasps were still good value for their early lead, and Cole made an audacious attempt to double the margin when she tried to chip Paines from 35 yards, only to clear the bar.
On 26 minutes, it was Peck’s turn to come to the rescue, denying the busy Smith, before the game began to swing the other way.
The dangerous Panting went close for Portsmouth on 29 minutes, controlling a pass before beating Wasps left-back Michelle Ward and firing in a low left-foot shot, which Gibbs did well to save at her near post.
And finally, in the 32nd minute, they were level, the Crawley defence caught out by a through-ball, which Kayleigh Tonks reached first and poked beyond Gibbs.
The goal failed to rattle Wasps, even though they were coming under more sustained pressure, and the watching assistant manager, Dave Cole, standing in for first-team boss Paul Walker, will have been delighted to see Ward, Callaghan and Walker play themselves out of trouble in the left-back position with neat, patient football.
But Pompey were moving into the ascendancy, and Walker had to use her experience – and strength – to ease Tonks off the ball as she looked to shoot after being played in by the excellent Peck.
A second goal was coming, and it was almost a carbon-copy of the first, with Wasps’ flat-footed defence appealing for offside as Albuery latched on to another precise through-ball and finished neatly on 38 minutes.
There were minor scares at both ends in the closing minutes of the half, but the hosts will have felt a little disappointed to reach the interval behind after such an enterprising opening.
Half-time: Crawley Wasps 1-2 Portsmouth
The tide had turned in the final third of the first half, with Portsmouth’s game finally falling into place. The opening exchanges of the second half would tell Cole and his team a lot about their character.
And the early signs were promising, with substitute Roseanne Fine making excellent progress down the left flank before sending over a terrific cross on the run, which Paines held comfortably above her head.
One of Portsmouth’s two half-time substitutes, Rebecca Bell, also made her presence felt early on, combining well with Panting before Albuery sent over a cross from the right which Panting volleyed just over.
Wasps came close to an equaliser on 54 minutes when Rabson held off Rebekah Tonks, captaining Portsmouth on her final appearance before moving to the United States, and found Fine on the left wing.
The striker delivered another superb left-footed cross, which eluded Rabson by inches.
But it was the visitors who grabbed what proved to be a crucial goal, in the 56th minute.
Eilidh Currie, Portsmouth’s other half-time substitute, played a wonderful ball from midfield to Bazan, overlapping down the left. Her cross was dispatched clinically by Bell to make it 3-1.
The goal was a cue for Portsmouth to step up a gear, and they earned another corner on 57 minutes after delightful passing between Ellie Kirby, Carla Perkins and Bell.
From the flag-kick, Currie’s shot was deflected for another, but Wasps survived the immediate danger.
But not for long.
On the hour mark Panting got the goal her performance deserved, latching on to Currie’s pass after the midfielder had made a good interception to break up a Crawley attack, and make it 4-1.
The corners came thick and fast, with Currie’s in particular, in-swinging from the right, causing extreme difficulty for the Wasps defenders.
And in the 63rd minute, she made one count, leading to the most spectacular of some very fine goals.
Her goal-bound exocet delivery was punched out from under the bar by Gibbs, straight to Natasha Stephens, who volleyed home with superb technique.
Still the spirited Wasps hit back, and it took a good double block by Currie to protect Portsmouth’s four-goal lead.
Rabson continued to give Pompey headaches, and it took an illegal challenge to prevent her breaking away on 66 minutes.
Cole’s inch-perfect free-kick found Nicholle Smith, another Wasps substitute, unmarked, but her first touch let her down and the danger passed.
Smith had another chance in the 71st minute when yet another impeccable cross from the superb Fine found the substitute. But she was unable to produce power or accuracy from her volley.
For all Wasps’ admirable effort, Portsmouth were well in control, with Currie conducting proceedings from midfield, tenacious in the tackle and stretching the Crawley side with her long and short passing.
With Rabson substituted, Wasps were denied an outlet that would have relieved some of the Portsmouth pressure, and most of the final minutes were played deep in Wasps territory, with their set-piece defending given a severe examination by Currie’s pinpoint delivery.
Scorelines count for little in pre-season friendlies – especially in matches between sides separated by a couple of divisions.
But there is no doubt Portsmouth will have derived yet more confidence from another decent win ahead of their biggest pre-season test next Sunday against Millwall.
They showed character in bouncing back from going behind so early, and they deserve credit for persisting with a passing game that just would not work for them in the opening half-hour.
And manager Sadler will surely have been especially pleased with new signing Panting’s sharpness and Currie’s composed second-half performance in midfield.
Wasps manager Walker, who missed the game through other commitments, and his assistant, Cole, will have been cheered that for large portions of the encounter, their team stood up to everything Portsmouth could throw at them and flagged only in the final 10 minutes or so.
Rabson’s value to their style of play is patently clear, but there was plenty of hope for the challenge ahead elsewhere on the pitch.
Dave Cole (Crawley Wasps): “If you make mistakes against these sides, they’re going to punish you”
“Playing teams like this is going to test you – and it did. In three weeks’ time, we’ll all be coming from the same hymn sheet: I think you’re fit enough; you think you’re fit enough. But I wouldn’t say it was all down to fitness today.
“We’re trying to incorporate different things this year, and some of the girls are still bedding in. For about 30, 35 minutes, you’d have to be pleased. We said umpteen times last year when we played teams from above, if you make mistakes against these sides, they’re going to punish you. And unfortunately that’s been our undoing today.
“Portsmouth probably scored one or two proper goals, but we’ve probably gifted them three.
“I’m not a defensive person. All my sides are quite attacking, but obviously, I’m still aware that you have to be defending at times.
“We’re lucky that we have some girls who have played at [Portsmouth’s] level, so they understand. But it’s getting into the other girls that transference between the attacking and defending – sometimes they’re getting caught and it’s bypassed them, and all of a sudden they’re 20 yards out of place.
“The club was never ready to go up to [the Premier League] last year… but if we’re up there, it will look as though we’re trying to do things right. So let’s see how it goes.
“These girls are working hard. We’re still trying to tune a few of the girls into the strength and conditioning [extra sessions begun this season]. But they are buying into it.
“I just want to put everything in place so that it’s an easy transition going up.
“I’m not going to shout that we’re going to do this or we’re going to do that. What I want is for when we get to the FA Cup, we’re the side that no-one wants to play because we’re going to be that potential banana skin.”
Jay Sadler (Portsmouth): “We’re a bit of a dark horse”
“It’s testament to the girls that they needed to be problem-solving after going behind. You have to solve the problem on the pitch, as a team, and they dug in well and found the answers.
“You’ve either got the fire in your belly to want to fight, or you haven’t. It’s testament to their characters, and the girls we’ve brought in – the mentality of the group.
“There was some great interplay. It’s what we’ve been working on. We’re trying to play football. We’re a ball-possession team. We want to look after the ball.
“We’ve chosen games so that the girls can get their confidence back [after a difficult season], to get us minutes, to get us playing with each other and integrating the new signings – because we’ve made quite a few. Obviously, the test will come next week (against Millwall), when we’ll see where we’re at.
“But we’re at a good level right now – though we’ve still got a lot of work to do. I’m very happy with the fitness levels. Some girls played 90 minutes today and showed they could press ’til the end. But I think next week is going to be the test.
“We’ve got a couple of new signings, who are going to be announced soon. Two – maybe three. And then we’ve also got girls coming back – Shannon [Sievwright], Katie [James], Gemma [Hillier]. And [goalkeeper] Michelle Beazley, as well.
“But the group all fight for each other. They know they’ve got competition. They all want to compete with each other, but they also want to play with each other. That’s the ethos we’re trying to bring back to the team.
“Last season we built the foundations… This year we’re shaping it up as our squad. I think we’re a bit of a dark horse this season. Just watch this space.”
Sent Her Forward player of the match: Rachel Panting (Portsmouth, 8/10)
One of a host of new signings brought to the club over the summer, Panting was a constant threat down both flanks, with pace and directness, as well as awareness of those around her.
Had Eilidh Currie (8) played the first half as well, she may well have pipped Panting to the post. She was superb in midfield, orchestrating virtually every Portsmouth attack with an excellent range of short and long passing. She was also a major threat with her delivery at corners.
Kayleigh Tonks (7) was impressive up front for Portsmouth, and Nadine Bazan (7) remains one of the team’s most consistent performers. The contribution of goalkeeper Emily Paines (7) should not be overlooked, either.
Naomi Cole (7) enjoyed a wonderful first half in which she played the sort of playmaker role that Currie did for her opponents in the second. Faye Rabson (7) was a threat throughout the hour or so that she played – and her absence for the closing stages was noticeable.
Holly Walker (7) was impressive in defence and would not be out of place in the Premier League, while Roseanne Fine (7) was outstanding when she came on. Only an apparent lack of match fitness blunted her impact. Suzy Davies (6) and Toni Smith (6) also shone at times in midfield, while Frankie Gibbs (7) looks to be another top goalkeeper in a long line of them at the club.
Sent Her Forward match rating: 7/10 Competitive, but with plenty of skill on display in a meaningful friendly.