Burgess Hill Town 1 (Ashby 89)
AFC Varndeanians 2 (Perilli-Gardener 51, 53)
They’re one of Sussex’s newest teams – or maybe they’re not. They’re certainly in a new division. But AFC Varndeanians are certainly not in the mood to play the part of nervous debutants on the bigger stage.
And they continued their bright start to life in the South East Counties League with their first victory – a hard-fought 2-1 success in a feisty, scrappy, wind-affected game at Burgess Hill Town.
Brighton-based Varndeanians are fielding two women’s sides this season, comprising largely the squad of Lancing, whose first team lost the backing of the men’s club at the end of a season in which they finished second in the Sussex County League, plus the players who won them the Under-18 division last term.
The two leagues agreed to let Varndeanians’ seniors play in Division One West of the South East Counties League, where Lancing would have been competing, and they have made an encouraging start, having drawn 3-3 in their league opener last week against Lewes Foundation before today’s very first victory under the Varndeanians name.
But they were given a scare, as Burgess Hill mounted a late recovery, pulling back one goal and denied an equaliser by a combination of brave goalkeeping and profligate finishing.
In fact, the home side could have been leading by two or three goals at half-time but for the same reasons – inadequacies in front of goal and some brilliant saves by the outstanding Ashley Macey in the Varndeanians goal.
Macey made an excellent save early in the game, somehow keeping out a rocket from Jess Gray that was destined for the top right-hand corner, and another on the stroke of half-time, when she dived full-length to keep out a low drive from Sadie Ashby.
But she also rode her luck, snatching the ball off the toes of Town striker Charley Law after completely missing a cross, and then gratefully collecting a rebound off defender Beth Garner, who cleared a superb Gray corner off the line.
In the end it was a sharply taken double in the space of two second-half minutes from the impressive Isabella Perilli-Gardener that proved the difference in a game more notable for the number of stoppages than quality football.
The opening quarter of an hour was scrappy – with both sides unable to hold on to the ball and struggling to judge both the wind and bounce of the ball – and was illuminated only by Macey’s tremendous save, high to her left, to keep out Gray’s pile-driver.
Ellie Kinloch tried a sighter from 30 yards for the visitors, and then they went a little closer when Billie-Jo Cobb hit an angled cross-shot from near the corner flag that rolled right across the goalmouth.
But it was the hosts who had the clearest chance to take the lead, on 19 minutes, when Macey failed to hold a cross from the right and the ball fell for Law, six yards out. But the goalkeeper redeemed herself by whipping the ball off the striker’s toes as she was about to shoot.
Amid the chaos Varndeanians right-back Elizabeth Ogden was an oasis of calm, tackling cleanly and showing a composure on the ball thus far unmatched by any other player.
But it was a Burgess Hill defender who had to show alertness to foil the visitors on 24 minutes after Kinloch robbed Gray in midfield and very nearly found Cobb. Only smart intervention by Hannah Harvey averted the danger.
Jasmine Somerville almost created a chance for the home side moments later, delivering an excellent cross from the right, but the alert Ogden cleared the danger.
Varndeanians had another let-off on 25 minutes when the impressive Gray delivered another superb, inswinging corner that was stopped on the line by Garner, the ball bouncing into grateful goalkeeper Macey’s hands.
Burgess Hill were struggling to make inroads into Varndeanians’ well-organised defence, with Law, playing as a lone striker in the absence of the injured Keeley Wheatley, largely isolated.
But whenever the hosts did manage to break through, Ogden was invariably there to quell the danger.
The visitors’ defence was strengthened still further on 32 minutes when Claire Katoroz was brought on at left-back, with Olivia L’Etang moving further forward.
Defences were on top, and on 37 minutes it took Garner’s long outstretched leg to deny Law a shooting chance after excellent work by Sophia Pittounikos.
Law and Somerville swapped roles, and when the former sent over an inviting cross into the penalty area from the right, it was the latter’s turn to feel isolated and she was unable to keep hold of the ball under pressure from Varndeanians defenders.
Although Perilli-Gardener was beginning to flourish in midfield for the visitors, Burgess Hill were enjoying the better of the latter stages of the half.
And on the stroke of half-time they went so close to snatching a lead they arguably deserved when Ashby’s low drive from outside the box was once again kept out by the superb Macey, making light of her diminutive stature to divert a ball she looked unlikely to reach.
Half-time: Burgess Hill Town 0-0 AFC Varndeanians
The Brighton side began the second half on the front foot, substitute Kelly Humphrey making a trademark penetrating run down the right and sending over a good cross that was eventually cleared.
And on 49 minutes they so nearly took the lead.
Humphrey again caused the home defence problems before finding Cobb, who unleashed a superb shot that was heading for the top corner before stand-in goalkeeper Shannon McFadden somehow not only reached the ball but managed to tip it around the post for Varndeanians’ first corner of the game.
It was a bright start to the half by the visitors, and a goal looked to be on the cards.
And sure enough, two came in the space of as many minutes, turning the game on its head.
On 51 minutes Perilli-Gardener, who, like Humphrey, had also begun the match on the bench, ploughed through two half-hearted challenges, and when the ball fell kindly for her, she made no mistake from close range.
Her second, on 53 minutes, was a marvellous effort. Picking the ball up about 25 yards out, she curled a powerful shot over the stranded McFadden to make it 2-0.
Varndeanians were now well on top, and confidence was high. When they won a free-kick a good 35 yards from goal, in a central position, Kinloch, who was becoming increasingly influential in midfield, fancied her chances, and her on-target effort was taken at the second attempt by McFadden.
Despite being under more pressure, Burgess Hill refused to buckle, and as the game reached the hour mark they suddenly pieced together a slick passing move, from goalkeeper McFadden to Micah Saunders, to Katie Harding and back to Saunders, halted only by a crunching tackle from Kinloch – who else? – as Harding threatened to get away at the other end.
From their first corner of the half, Hill immediately earned another as Gray’s superb first-time volley struck a defender and flew behind the goal.
With Burgess Hill chasing the game but finding their feet, and Varndeanians still fancying a third, the game became more open – although it was also becoming tetchier.
Katoroz, at the back for Varndeanians, was having a magnificent time, winning every tackle and rarely wasting a pass.
But Burgess Hill were their own worst enemies when it came to spurning opportunities.
On 70 minutes Harding missed a gilt-edged chance when she was found with a deep cross to the far post. But the substitute hit her shot horribly wide with just the goalkeeper to beat.
Five minutes later it was Varndeanians’ turn to squander an opportunity.
The hard-working Cobb landed an impeccable cross on Pilgrim’s foot, but the striker, who scored twice against Lewes last week, could not control the ball and it was whipped away from her with the goal at her mercy.
As the game moved into the final 15 minutes, Jade Chapman tried her luck for Burgess Hill, turning brilliantly and catching the ball on the volley, but it sailed harmlessly wide.
The home side strung together another pleasing passing move, giving a glimpse of what might have been had they settled into their possession play much earlier, carrying the ball from the right-back position to the left wing in a series of neat passes instigated by Chloe Cressey’s fine tackle deep in her own half.
Burgess Hill’s corner count was stacking up, but each kick enabled Varndeanians to break dangerously.
In-between, the impressive Macey continued to deny the home side, diving bravely at the feet of Harding after more good work from Pittounikos.
With the foul count mounting and the referee’s whistle the most commonly heard sound at Leylands Park, Burgess Hill suddenly found a way back into the game with another neat passing move.
As the game approached 90 minutes, Hayley Nash and Pittounikos twice exchanged passes, the former laying the ball off for Sadie Ashby, who made no mistake from close range.
Tempers continued to flare, but Hill continued to attack, chasing an equaliser deep into time added on. But Nash blasted over from point-blank range after Macey again enjoyed a let-off after dropping the ball in a collision, from which she needed several minutes’ attention.
In a surreal finale to the match, Burgess Hill goalkeeper McFadden – normally an outfield player – had the last effort of the game, firing wide from 25 yards in the 99th minute.
Had she been there earlier in the game, who knows what the result might have been?
This was no oil painting of a match – in fact, with the final moments of a 100-minute game being played in torrential rain, it was more of an abstract watercolour.
Both sides can – and will – play much better this season.
But there was no shortage of effort or commitment on either side as the experienced home team, spending their second season in Division One West following relegation, and the league newcomers – albeit featuring some individuals with a fair few miles on their football clocks – largely cancelled each other out.
The first half was pretty forgettable, save for the wonder-show by Varndeanians goalkeeper Ashley Macey, and the second sprang to life after the rejuvenated away side stunned Burgess Hill with two goals in two minutes, courtesy of the talented Isabella Perilli-Gardener.
Both teams can look after themselves, physically and verbally. But on the rare occasions they let their football do the talking, a proper match threatened to break out.
But regardless of today’s outcome, neither side should need to worry about looking over their shoulders at this stage of the season.
Mark Bishop (Burgess Hill Town): “We’re missing a striker”
“We just didn’t settle down today. We struggled to get the ball on the floor. They’re a physical team. The girls were moaning about the physicality, but I thought it was a good old rough-and-tumble game.
“There wasn’t much decent football played. It was scrappy. We’re missing one or two players, but I’m not making excuses. We know we can do better.
“The plan was to come out at a high tempo and hit them hard. I think probably we came out a little too quick and we just weren’t thinking. We were making silly mistakes, rushing the passes. And if we weren’t rushing our passes, we were just putting our boot through it and hoping for the best.
“We had a mad five minutes and conceded two silly goals. But we’re missing a striker. We’re missing someone like Keeley (Wheatley, who is injured). We know how she plays, where to put the ball. We’re trying different people out, but they’re not strikers.
“Keeley badly damaged the tissues round her ankle. She’s still on crutches at the moment… if I’m hopeful [she could be back in] January. But do we rush her back? We’ve got to play it by ear. We’re looking [for replacements]. The word’s out.
“We slowly, but surely, stepped it up a little bit, but I thought their ‘keeper was player of the match. I thought she was an outstanding ‘keeper. She pulled off a couple of great saves in the first half that you don’t expect to see at this level.
“But we had the chances to win it. They had a few chances. The last 15 minutes we camped in their box, and I think that’s where frustration from them crept in.”
Georgia Green (assistant manager, AFC Varndeanians): “You can only improve from here”
“I think we played really well. They fought the whole game. The second half was a bit messy. I think some of our players got a bit tired. But they still all put in 100%.
“In the second half, the ground got a bit wet and the ball started to slip around a bit more, so it was harder to judge. The first half, we needed to get used to start playing the game again.
“You can only improve from here. The new players are fitting in and it’s working really well. Issie [Perilli] is a new player. She scored the two goals. I think it’s only upwards from here.
“We’re looking to consolidate this season and maybe push on next season. That’s [manager Ross Waddington’s] plan. Having to move clubs, we’re starting all over again. We lost half the (Lancing) team. Half the team went or retired, and we had to build again.
“The team is getting a lot stronger as a group, definitely starting to bond.”
Sent Her Forward player of the match: Ellie Kinloch (AFC Varndeanians, 7/10)
The midfielder is a tough customer, and sometimes overdoes it a bit, but she was a key figure in her side’s first victory as a new club.
Tough in the tackle, she uses her body strength well to hold off challenges, and her powerful strikes are invaluable, both to launch attacks and to fire in shots at goal.
Her growing influence on the game, combined with the invention and creativity of substitutes Kelly Humphrey (7) and Isabella Perilli-Gardener (7), helped keep her side ahead after the double strike early in the second half.
Defender Claire Katoroz (7) – another substitute – brought calm and composure to the left side of defence, while Elizabeth Ogden (7) did a similar job on the other flank. And of course, behind them, Ashley Macey (7) had a cracking game in goal, riding her luck on occasion, but probably saving her side from defeat.
Jess Gray (7) had an excellent game for Burgess Hill, and her midfield battle with Kinloch was one of the highlights of the game. After a shaky start, Charley Law (6) had a decent game up front for the home side, especially when she was moved to a wider position.
The aggressive Sophia Pittounikos (6) also showed some good touches, particularly going forward, and for many of their team-mates, there were some fine moments but too much inconsistency.
Sent Her Forward match rating: 5/10 Not one that will live long in the memory, but full of commitment and endeavour.