Sussex County League ensures that goals no longer make such a difference

Sent Her Forward Sussex grassroots preview

Jade Gardiner shoots during Haywards Heath & Wivelsfield's game at Crawley Wasps Reserves, Oct 3 2015 (Photo: Dave Burt)

Too many goals are driving out the weaker teams, according to the Sussex County League (Photo: Dave Burt)

The Sussex County League has scrapped goal difference this season, leaving continental-style head-to-head statistics to determine the positions of sides level on points.

The radical change – being piloted in the Women’s Division (rebranded the Sussex Women’s League) this season – was agreed by the league in response to an FA invitation for innovative ideas, in the hope that it will deter stronger teams from going for the jugular and racking up double-figure scorelines against weaker sides.

Administrators also hope the reduced prospect of a heavy defeat will deter teams from pulling out of fixtures – a constant blight, not only on the county league but grassroots competitions around the country.

A potential consequence of the radical measure is the risk that titles might be decided by an isolated couple of results rather than a more reliable measure of teams’ performance over an entire season. Even goals scored in games between the tied teams will not be taken into account.

There’s also an argument that wiping out the incentive for scoring goals – a fundamental tenet of the game – might take the competitive edge off some matches as players treat them as little more than training exercises.

The league says it has received no objections from clubs to the proposals, which will be reviewed during and at the end of the season, and it believes the potential benefits outweigh the risks.


Season kick-offs
London and South East Regional Women’s League – began on August 20
South East Counties Women’s Football League – September 3
Sussex County Women and Girls Football League – September 10


Competitions secretary Paul Preston told Sent Her Forward: “I have been wanting to address the difference in ability at county league level within the same division – and to find a fairer way of determining champions – for a number of seasons.

The example given in an article by Preston on the SCWGFL website considers two sides tied at the end of the season.

In the two league meetings between the pair, Team A beat Team B 3-1 and drew 2-2, thereby collecting four points to Team B’s one.

On that basis, Team A would be declared champions.

If sides are level on points, even after considering the head-to-head, a play-off match would be arranged, although it’s unclear what would happen if there was a three-way tie.

I’m not sure my strikers will be happy but it’s something we will adapt to – Joe McTiffen, manager, Saltdean United

Had the arrangement been in place in the Women’s Division last season, the decider would not have been required, as Oakwood won the league by 10 points from Lancing – with a goal difference of 103 compared with Lancing’s 26.

Lancing's Ellie Kinloch shoots against Oakwood at Storrington FC, Nov 6 2016 (Photo: Sent Her Forward)

Oakwood won the Sussex County League by a mile last season, but if they had been level on points with Lancing, there would have been a play-off under the new rules

However, had the two sides been level on points and their head-to-head results been taken into account instead of goal difference, there would have been a play-off, as both teams picked up four points from their three league encounters – with Oakwood beating Lancing 8-0, losing 1-0 and drawing 3-3.

In fact, a title decider has not been needed in any of the past 12 seasons of the SCWGFL Women’s Division, and even when two sides did finish level on points in the Under-18 Division – in 2013/14 – the champions were determined in a play-off, as goal difference is not taken into account at youth level.

Everyone plays the sport for fun and enjoyment but also with a competitive attitude, and I think it is key not to take that out of players – Jason Downer, manager, Worthing United

Preston points out there were 10 or more goals between teams in more than 10% of last season’s Women’s Division fixtures – which in reality was just five games in a league of only six teams.

All five were against the same side – Worthing Town Reserves – who, inevitably, finished bottom.

Preston also expects teams in the lower regions of the league to more readily fulfil their fixtures – notably, it is games against the leading sides that tend to get postponed, with the top teams usually being handed the points by default rather than through their deeds on the pitch.

And he anticipates more liberal use of better teams’ entire squads now that they are no longer motivated by scoring more goals against minnows than their title rivals, when they might be tempted to leave their stronger players on for longer.

‘Great idea’

Among clubs who are likely to be affected by the new rule are newcomers Saltdean United and Worthing United, both of whom have substantial squads, which feature a number of players who have played at a higher level.

Saltdean boss Joe McTiffen told Sent Her Forward he welcomed the change.

He said: “With the level we are playing at, I think it’s a great idea, as the main aim is participation. However, for higher leagues I don’t think it will work.

“It’s important to play all of our leagues games and from what I have heard, this wasn’t happening in previous seasons. It’s never nice having a heavy defeat, or even beating someone comfortably.

“I’m not sure my strikers will be happy but it’s something we will adapt to and try and ensure we beat the teams in and around us.”

Limiting injuries

Worthing United boss Jason Downer backed his fellow manager’s view. “I am fortunate to have a big, strong squad, so personally, I am more than happy with no goal difference to decide the league,” he said.

“This will mean less pressure on having to play key players for a full 90 minutes and [instead] focus on using every squad member in certain games, limiting potential injuries and allowing us to develop each and every player during the season.”

He added: “This will also give us more of a focus to work on things in matches that we may be winning comfortably rather than just focusing on smashing home as many goals as possible.

“But having said that, I wouldn’t want to encourage my team not to score if the right opportunities came.

“Everyone plays the sport for fun and enjoyment but also with a competitive attitude, and I think it is key not to take that out of players – although I do agree with the league that this should encourage teams to help teams with less players to play games rather than forfeiting fixtures.”

Big wins in the Sussex County League

Results with margins of 10 goals or more in the Women’s Division in 2016-17

Worthing Town Res 0-10 Lancing Oakwood 16-0 Worthing Town Res
Oakwood 12-0 Worthing Town Res Worthing Town Res 0-20 Oakwood
Lancing 10-0 Worthing Town Res  (Out of a total of 45 scheduled fixtures)

Preston says the feedback – requested by the FA – midway through the season and again at the end, will determine whether the pilot is scrapped, extended or made permanent.

“If we see an increase in unfulfilled matches this season, it may be a pointer that the pilot isn’t working. If the clubs don’t see any benefit, then I’m more than happy to pull the plug on it.”

The arguments

League competitions secretary Paul Preston responds to some of the doubts thrown up by the plan.

Fewer postponements

“We’ve seen teams withdraw [from individual matches and ultimately the league], fed up with being heavily defeated week on week, duck out of matches from one week to the next.”

Fairer 

“If Good Team 1 win 10-0 or more versus Bad Team 1 and then next week Good Team 2 play Bad Team 1 and bad team 1 duck out of the game because they are away and know they’ll get a beating… so Good Team 2 get the same three points (by default) but are 10+ goals behind Good Team 1, it doesn’t seem to be a fair way to determine the champions.

“This is the same system used in La Liga, and if the best teams in the world are happy with this, why not apply it to local football? If there are two teams dominating one division, would they rather have a title decided in the matches versus their peers as opposed to the number of goals they scored because one week a team could play a game and the next week either withdraw or not have the opportunity to get the same amount of goals?”

Competitiveness

“I think it will actually improve competitiveness – but within the teams themselves, as it gives all squad players the opportunity to impress the manager and get more game time than they may normally get, so giving the manager more options in selecting their best XI.

“What is the purpose of teams winning by 15-0 plus? Does this improve the quality [or] match-day experience for either team? If the negative impact is a team withdrawing [from the league], then anything we can do to avoid this can surely be a good thing.

“The purpose of the league is to get as many players/teams participating, and if there is anything we can do to encourage this and educate clubs as best we can, then we have an obligation to do so.”

Under-17 competition

Action from Crawley Wasps v Hangleton Rangers U18 April 20 2014 Photo: Dave Burt

Hangleton Rangers and Crawley Wasps shone in the Sussex Under-18 Division a few years ago, but now there will be competition at under-17 level (Photo: Dave Burt)

The Sussex league has also introduced another significant change this season, doing away with its Under-18 Division in favour of an under-17 league.

Preston argues that having a two-year age band rather than the three at under-18 level should provide “a stronger pathway” from junior to adult football in that there is a steadier progression from under-16 level to adult leagues rather than risking a leap from youth football straight into under-18 or even adult competition.

“The smaller age window would hopefully see under-16 teams go to under-17 as a natural progression and then go the following season to open-age, so supporting the division if we have teams progressing up the pyramid every season as opposed to having teams stay at under-18 for two seasons and deferring their progression for a further season,” Preston explained.

The under-18 division has traditionally suffered from the dearth of players at that age group, when work, college and university commitments compete for their attention and time.

The league was scrapped altogether in 2014-15 and 2015-16, forcing some Sussex sides to switch to the Surrey County League and another – Portsmouth – to return to their home county competition.

The division was reintroduced last season, although only four teams took part.

And while there were initially four sides scheduled to compete in this season’s new under-17 competition, that has now been reduced to three.

Sussex County Women and Girls Football League

Preston has also clarified the oft-misunderstood (including by me) perception of promotion from the Sussex County League.

The SCWGFL Women’s Division and SECWFL Division Ones East and West are actually in the same tier of the women’s football pyramid, even though most regard a move from the former to the latter as a step up.

Promotion from the county league would be to the SECWFL’s Premier Division, which is generally regarded as a considerable step up.

Preston explained: “The FA have always regarded the county leagues and SECWFL D1W as the same tier, and we had this confirmed in April/May. But clubs… think they have been promoted… to the SECWFL D1 set-up when actually, it is a transfer, sideways step.

He said the Sussex County League had never stopped teams wanting to progress through the pyramid, but it does seem that perceptions have caused the Sussex set-up to take second place to the regional one, with generally fewer teams participating in what, in my experience, has been a lower level of football, regardless of its official ranking in the pyramid.

However, that could all change this season, with the Women’s Sussex League boasting several sides who look as though they would easily hold their own in the regional league.

The aforementioned Saltdean United and Worthing United boast squads that would be the envy of many teams in this season’s SECWFL Division One West.

Action from Worthing Minors v Seahaven Harriers, April 12 2015

Many players from the former Seahaven, runners-up in the South East Counties League just a few years ago, will feature in the Sussex League for Newhaven

The former include former Millwall and Bexhill United striker Casey Sands, the talented Dayna Kingshott, who has returned from the US, and a host of players from Lewes’s development and foundation squads.

Worthing United include former Brighton development goalkeeper Molly Towers, her former team-mate Annie Rolf, goal ace Emma Chrimes and the experienced former Lewes and Worthing Minors player Steph Carter.

Both sides are likely to be hit by university commitments for much of the season, though.

Making a welcome return to the local leagues are Newhaven, whose squad includes a number of players who figured in the old Seahaven side who rose to prominence in the South East Counties League a couple of seasons ago.

They include Lauren Smith, whose goals helped Seahaven to go so close to winning the Division One West title in 2014-15, when they lost out on goal difference to Worthing Minors.

The division – the healthiest looking for years – also features the development sides of AFC Varndeanians (comprising largely Lancing’s title-winning under-18s of last season) and Crawley Wasps (last year’s under-16s).

It also includes Horsham Sparrows and Montpelier Villa – both of whom now have a season in the division under their belts – and Worthing Town, whose first team have dropped out of the South East Counties League.

Full Women’s Sussex Division line-up:

AFC Varndeanians Pagham
Crawley Wasps 3rd Rustington Raiders
Horsham Sparrows Saltdean United
Montpelier Villa Worthing Town
Newhaven Worthing United

South East Counties Women’s  Football League

Indisputably above the Sussex County League in the football pyramid is the SECWFL’s Premier Division, which is just two levels below the Premier League entry point.

And for one of the division’s newcomers – recently promoted Worthing – preparation has not exactly been ideal.

With the new season just weeks away, a dispute at the club prompted Andy Burling to resign as manager, and several of the players who helped the club win promotion have followed him to new neighbours Worthing United.

Worthing have appointed a new coach and are currently seeking a new manager, with Cameron Morrison, first-team coach of the club’s men’s side, taking the reins temporarily.

The core of last season’s promotion winners remains, though, and the squad still looks pretty strong, even for the higher level.

Among their fellow Sussex sides are Bexhill United, who had a storming season last time, finishing second, just a point behind champions Parkwood Rangers.

Chichester City‘s development side, who came third last season, Crawley Wasps Reserves, Eastbourne and Hassocks also feature in the 10-team league.

South East Counties Women’s Football League Premier Division

Ashford Hassocks
Bexhill U Herne Bay
Chichester City Development Kent Football United
Crawley Wasps Reserves Meridian
Eastbourne Worthing

Division One West features three Surrey sides and nine from Sussex, with Cowfold, Milford & Witley and Burgess Hill Town – who all finished within three points of each other behind Worthing – looking to better their fine campaigns.

Cowfold, though, will have to cope without their talisman, Jen Weller, and Mel Bramley, who both announced their retirements in the summer.

Also in the West division are a vastly changed Lewes Foundation, who, after seeing many of their squad move to Saltdean United, have secured youthful reinforcements as the team continues to serve as a young feeder side for the Premier League club and their development squad.

Speaking of young squads, Worthing-based Oakwood, who took the Sussex League by storm in their first campaign under their new name, have kept most of their squad of talented teenagers, but have lost their own talisman, Emma Green, who has moved to AFC Wimbledon.

Division One West

AFC Varndeanians Dorking Wanderers
Bexhill U Reserves Lewes Foundation
Burgess Hill Town Milford & Witley
Carshalton Athletic Dev Oakwood
Cowfold

London & South East Women’s Football League

The battle to follow the likes of Crystal Palace, AFC Wimbledon and Leyton Orient into the FA Women’s Premier League set-up has already begun, with one of last season’s front-runners, Crawley Wasps, enjoying a good start.

Paul Walker’s team, who have been unyielding in their determination to seal the one promotion place this season, have won both their opening fixtures, both against newly-promoted opposition.

They face stiff competition from London Kent Football United – a club born out of a collaboration between London Corinthians, who finished second to Orient last term, and Kent Football United, who will continue to run a side in the South East Counties League following their promotion to the Premier Division last season.

Carshalton Athletic, Eastbourne Town, Aylesford, Camden Town, Fulham FC Foundation and Watford Development (now AFC Watford) remain in the division.

And they are joined by newcomers AFC Phoenix and Parkwood Rangers, who were both promoted but have earned praise during their opening games at this level.

London & South East Regional Women’s Football League

AFC Phoenix Crawley Wasps
AFC Watford Eastbourne Town
Aylesford Fulham FC Found
Camden Town
London Kent Football United
Carshalton Athletic Parkwood Rangers
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