Chichester City 0
Watford 2 (Nuttall 41; Cudone 67)
Two teams who, a few months ago were two divisions apart, continued their pre-season journeys in a no-holds-barred clash at Oaklands Park that should leave both managers satisfied with how preparations are progressing.
Watford are looking to consolidate their position in the Super League’s second division as manager Keith Boanas continues his transformation of the perennial strugglers, while Chichester City will be hoping for a similar sort of achievement a division lower following their promotion to the Premier League Southern last term.
Both sides are still only part-way through their pre-season schedules, with Watford’s first winter Super League season still a month away.
But there was nothing but total commitment from every player as the two sides tested their development so far, still shorn of some key players.
Watford were without, among others, England under-19 star Rinsola Babajide, while Chichester trio Hollie Wride – a former Watford player – Emma Alexandre and goalkeeper Sadie Wilson-Blakely had to sit out the contest through injury.
Moreover, Chichester were without their new manager, Matt Wright, who is fulfilling a charity commitment in Africa, leaving goalkeeping coach Paul Dowdell to oversee proceedings in the company of new coach Aaron Lucas and development squad boss Sam Morton.
And Dowdell will have plenty of positives to report back to Wright following a friendly in which they were forced to cope with more pressure than they probably encountered in the whole of last season, yet still emerged with their dignity and self-respect – if not their goal – still intact.
The visitors dominated the early skirmishes, winning two corners in the first couple of minutes, but apart from a slight communications mix-up between stand-in goalkeeper Poppy Shine and Lauren Cheshire, the home side escaped without too much of a scare.
Charlotte Kerr, playing almost as an auxiliary winger in the opening stages, was beginning to run the show, with great composure on the ball and fine pass selection, while Chichester captain Charley Wilson-Blakely was embroiled in a fascinating battle with the Watford defenders – sometimes all at once.
On six minutes, it took an excellent tackle from Tiff Taylor, playing at centre-back, to halt Watford captain Anneka Nuttall’s progress through midfield.
A minute later came their first opportunity, as Jess Lewry was penalised for a foul just outside the area, but Kerr’s free-kick cleared the mass of yellow shirts lined up at the far post.
The visitors continued to pile on the pressure, with only the briefest of respites for Chichester.
On 10 minutes, Lucie Challen timed her tackle to perfection, at the expense of another Watford corner, and when Kerr’s kick was cleared as far as Danielle Puddefoot, the midfielder shot over.
A couple of minutes later, Chichester created their first chance, again from a free-kick. But although Jess Lewry got part of her head to Kerrie Ryan’s cross, she could not direct it on goal.
Shine, looking nervous in goal in the early stages, but no less vocal to her defence, will have felt her confidence increase after doing well to palm a high ball off the head of Puddefoot.
Then she dealt comfortably with Leah Cudone’s scuffed shot, under pressure from Taylor.
Shine’s roller-coaster afternoon took another slight dip when she hit a goal-kick straight to Cudone, but the striker could only return the favour, and the goalkeeper again collected easily.
Watford carved out another opportunity in the 17th minute when a cross from the right found Simona Petkova, who was given far too much time just inside the box. But she could not keep her effort on target.
Cherelle Khassal, whose pace was giving Watford plenty to think about, found herself playing a slightly deeper role against the Super League side, and twice she came to the rescue with excellent blocks in the left-back position.
And then Challen, the real left-back, made an even better tackle to deny Nuttall as she broke clear.
The impressive Kerr outmuscled winger Chloe Dowdell and played a perceptive pass into the path of Adekite Fatuga-Dada on the left. But the winger’s cross was blocked.
When Chichester were able to get it forward, Wilson-Blakely was doing a magnificent job of keeping hold of the ball until help arrived, and after shrugging off three robust challenges in the 23rd minute, she was felled by the fourth to earn her side another free-kick and valuable respite.
Moments later, back at the other end, Taylor fashioned another fine tackle before finding Ryan, who in turn found Laura Ingram, who cleared.
Despite Watford’s pressure, Shine had had few saves to make, although she was given a sharp reminder of her opponents’ threat in the 25th minute when Petkova fired a fine drive just beyond the far post after excellent work down the right by Nuttall.
Watford’s corner count was mounting, reflecting their dominance, but Chichester were coping admirably, Lewry the latest to show composure and skill in a tight defensive situation, freeing Khassal, who brilliantly turned Vicky Neal before finding Wilson-Blakely, who teed up Ryan, who won the hosts’ first corner after 32 minutes of play.
But the otherwise impressive Challen wasted the opportunity, curling her kick into the side-netting.
Then Fatuga-Dada worked her way in from the left touchline for Watford, but struck her shot straight at Shine.
On 35 minutes the visitors came the closest thus far to a goal, Lilli Maple firing just wide, beyond Shine’s sprawling dive, after Ingram had been played into trouble.
Two minutes later Kerr delivered another free-kick from the Watford left, 20 yards from goal. Her almost identical delivery to her early effort proved slightly more accurate, and Puddefoot appeared to be pushed as she attempted to meet the cross. But referee Chris White saw no infringement.
In a rare foray upfield Cheshire tried a speculative high half-volley, but it was easily held by Watford’s on-loan goalkeeper Fran Kitching.
Just as it looked as though Chichester were going to hold out until half-time, the visitors grabbed the goal their play deserved.
Nuttall latched on to a mistake by Taylor in the 41st minute to fire an excellent angled shot beyond Shine.
Half-time: Chichester City 0-1 Watford
Both sides could be pleased with the first half, Watford’s incessant pressing and patient build-up giving them the upper hand, with only an absence of accurate shooting a blot on their copybook, while Chichester’s defence had largely dealt comfortably with their opponents’ threat, with Khassal and Wilson-Blakely in particular giving the Watford defence plenty to think about.
The visitors almost doubled their lead within three minutes of the restart after good inter-passing between Nuttall and Tyra Poole enabling them to make quick progress down the right.
The ball fell to Cherelle Albert, a half-time substitute for Watford, who bulldozed through two challenges before unleashing a shot which Shine did brilliantly to save at point-blank range with her foot.
On 50 minutes the scores could have been level but for Jo Fletcher, another half-time substitute, who pulled off a marvellous double save to deny Lewry and Khassal, following excellent work down the left by the latter and Wilson-Blakely.
Khassal’s cross found Lewry in space in the box, but she almost had too much time as she fired straight at Fletcher, who parried her fierce effort before saving Khassal’s follow-up.
Normal service was soon resumed, with Watford earning their first corner of the half – and their seventh in all – on 53 minutes.
It came to nothing, and as Chichester broke, they were halted by a foul, but the resulting free-kick failed to trouble the Watford defence.
Albert was making a big difference, bringing an edge to Watford’s attacking play. And she was unlucky not to extend her team’s lead in the 59th minute when her shot, following another corner, was cleared off the line by the brilliant Challen.
Three minutes later, it was Shine’s turn to deny the electric Albert, keeping out the striker’s fierce shot with a fine diving save.
With just over an hour gone, Ellis Bloomfield, another of Chichester’s acquisitions from local league rivals Portsmouth, entered the fray in place of Gemma Simmonds, one of several of her former Pompey team-mates.
Albert was so close to the goal her performance deserved on 66 minutes when her superb shot from best part of 35 yards struck the underside of the bar and was cleared.
It merely delayed the inevitable by 60 seconds, Cudone converting a low cross by Albert with a neat first touch into the corner to make it 2-0.
Cudone could have had another a couple of minutes later after racing on to a long ball, but Shine brilliantly kept out her volley at her near post.
Both sides were making use of the rolling substitutes, but the change in the 75th minute had special significance, defender Gracie White, who was helping Chichester’s under-16s to league and cup success just a few months ago, replacing Cheshire at right-back for the final quarter of an hour.
Most of the home side’s sporadic threat came from free-kicks earned by the indefatigable Wilson-Blakely, the former Portsmouth goal machine, who proved she would have no problem hacking it at Super League level, given the chance.
Her strength and trickery gave Watford’s defenders as tough a test as they are likely to face in the coming months, and only a lack of support as her side came more and more under the cosh prevented Boanas’s side from a more stern examination in front of goal.
Watford racked up corners number 10, 11 and 12, but still they could not find goal number three – though Petkova came close from the last of them, heading agonisingly wide.
A couple of neat tackles from White and another stonking one from Challen lit up the final couple of minutes before the referee brought a decent, hard-fought friendly to a close.
Newly promoted Chichester had a perfect chance to test their Premier League credentials against a Watford side which, while not at full strength, featured many of the players who had finished eighth out of 10 in the recent WSL spring series.
Unfortunately, the Sussex side were not at full strength, either, and a two-goal defeat will probably represent a decent result to them as they prepare for their Premier League bow against C&K Basildon in two weeks’ time.
Their defence was sorely tested but largely coped; the midfield were given little time to pick out their attacking players, but of those, Khassal and Wilson-Blakely in particular did enough to suggest they will be a force to be reckoned with at their new level.
Watford still have plenty of time to fine-tune, but their wholehearted endeavours in hot conditions, with effective pressing and a potent attacking threat of their own, offer hope that they can improve on their miserable finishes of seventh, bottom and bottom again in their three Super League campaigns to date.
Paul Dowdell (Chichester City): “We’re about three weeks behind everyone else”
“When Liam (Greenfield) left us when he did, it left us a little bit tight for time. Then not having a manager; then quickly getting Matt (Wright) in and him saying where he was going [charity fundraising in Africa]… we’re probably about three weeks behind in the training.
“I think we’re about three weeks behind everyone else, fitness-wise, which the last 15 minutes certainly showed. We’re not far off. We tried a slightly different system. Matt would like us to try two different systems – today and Thursday, when we’ve got Brighton.
“Today it was mainly trying to keep things tight, with a certain shape, because the games we’ve got this year are going to be a little bit tougher. But I thought we kept the shape remarkably well. It was very pleasing.
“When we were 1-0 down we had that chance. If we make it 1-1 it’s a completely different game.
“Fitness is a big key. [Watford] shift the ball a lot quicker. They press very well. The Premier League teams will probably all have different systems, but they will be very keyed up on those systems.
“I think we can look after ourselves. We’ve got one or two smaller girls, but I think they can look after themselves, as we’ve seen. So physically, I don’t think we’ve got too much of a problem. Height-wise might be different – we’ve got a few smaller players. But I think we’ll be OK.
“[We had] three very big players out. We’re hoping Sadie (Wilson-Blakely) will be back for the first [league] game. Emma [Alexandre] might miss the first game. And then Hollie [Wride]… she’s hopefully having a scan this week.
“Poppy [Shine] was tremendous – a 17-year-old girl who, up to now, hasn’t played a lot of football. She’s had half a season with the development side, but she’s come on in leaps and bounds.
“We’ve known Tiff [Taylor]’s quality from the first moment she came training. Then you’ve got Ellis [Bloomfield], who is another great player. So we’re really pleased with the squad we’ve got.
“Gracie [White] and Loulou [Robson, another 16-year-old] will be in and around the first-team squad all season, training-wise. And we’ll try to get them in when we can. [White] did exceptionally well.”
Keith Boanas (Watford): “We controlled play”
“It was our third pre-season friendly, so we’re looking to build each game, and I felt this would probably be the toughest test of the three we’ve played so far.
“We weren’t overly impressive in the first half of the last two games, but considering we’re not at full strength, I thought we controlled play for the most part, and we’ve just talked about being calmer on the ball and being switched on from the start of the game, which we certainly weren’t in the first two that we played.
“We’re not looking at a lot of team shape in pre-season training. It’s more fitness-oriented, so we’re actually using [the games] as training sessions.
“I’m definitely happy with the fitness for this stage of the [pre-]season. We’ve had to temper it a little bit because it’s such a long time until the season starts, so we’re working on what’s called periodisation training, which is a gradual increase, day-to-day, week-to-week, with the aim of peaking come the season.
“But they are working hard. The strength-and-conditioning session each week is a really tough session. But they are being given the chance to recover properly, as well.
“With the personnel out there today I was quite pleased.
“We’re still looking at a couple more [players]. We didn’t get all of the targets that we were hoping for – mainly due to logistics; not because they didn’t want to come and play for us. It’s really a problem for some of the players we were targeting to travel from where they live.
“So we missed out on a couple of our targets, but we also got a couple that we didn’t [expect]. We weren’t expecting Fran [Kitching], but I know the goalkeeping coach at Chelsea quite well, and when he offered her to us, it was a no-brainer.
“To have her and Fletch (Jo Fletcher) – you saw the great save that Fletch made in the second half – that combination of a really potentially great youngster and an experienced England player, I think is great competition. And you’d trust either one of them to start the game.
“We’ve got some great pace to utilise and a really solid midfield. I thought today Lilli Maple in particular showed her strengths, back from injuries last year.
“So we’re not desperate but we’re still looking at one or two others.”
Sent Her Forward player of the match: Charley Wilson-Blakely (Chichester City, 9/10)
There were three contenders for my award. Charlotte Kerr (8) had a particularly fine first half, prompting and cajoling, all neat play and fine passing; Cherelle Albert (8) was terrific for Watford after joining as a half-time substitute, posing an attacking threat that Chichester found difficult to deal with.
But Wilson-Blakely was outstanding throughout, often fighting a lone battle against accomplished defenders, but displaying a level of control, strength and skill that will not always be matched at her opponents’ level in the coming season.
Danielle Puddefoot (7) was a constant threat from midfield, as was her captain Anneka Nuttall (7). Lilli Maple (8) was poise and endeavour personified as she largely bossed the midfield.
Chichester’s left-back, Lucie Challen (9) was outstanding – her pace and tackling (not to mention goal-line clearance) at a level that would not have been out of place in the Super League, let alone Premier League Southern.
Tiff Taylor (7) and Jess Lewry (8) impressed in central defence and central midfield respectively, while Cherelle Khassal (8) will surely be responsible for a host of goals and assists against lesser opponents than Watford in the Prem.
A word, too, for 17-year-old development squad goalkeeper Poppy Shine (7), who overcame a nervy start to pull off some impressive – and crucial – saves, and never lacked the confidence to bark instructions to her defence.
Sent Her Forward match rating: 7/10 Not bad at all a friendly: combative, with no little skill.