Chichester City 1 (Tucker 19)
Lewes 2 (McIntyre 35; Carter 53)
Lewes’s red-hot winning streak continued as Rebecca Carter’s third goal in four games helped them to yet another single-goal Premier League victory that lifts them to the giddy heights of second.
After three 1-0 home successes in a row, John Donoghue’s side took their winning form away with them, coming from a goal behind to beat their Sussex neighbours in a feisty derby at Oaklands Park.
Without ever hitting the heights of their midweek win over much-fancied Crystal Palace, Lewes withstood their neighbours’ early pressure before calmly finding their way back into the game and then killing off the league newcomers with an increasingly dominant display.
With Palace and Gillingham not in league action, Lewes took advantage to climb two places in a league that’s already looking like Charlton’s to lose – the Londoners have already built up a five-point cushion after taking maximum points from their opening six games.
But Lewes are well and truly in the chasing pack after stringing together a five-game unbeaten league run following their opening-day 6-1 hammering by the league leaders.
Carter finished off a neat move to seal the win after Katie McIntyre’s superb solo goal had cancelled out Chloe Tucker’s stunning first-half free-kick.
They know there’s still nearly three-quarters of the season to go, but the confidence and belief that suffused Lewes’s performance suggest that nobody should take them lightly this season.
John Donoghue’s revitalised side, boosted by a decent budget from their equality-conscious board, are beginning to repay the faith their paymasters are showing in them.
His strong squad can now withstand disruptions from injuries, as they demonstrated in the absence of Sarah Kempson, who damaged a leg muscle against Palace, and defender Tammy Waine, who sat out the second half after taking a heavy kick on the foot.
With the likes of Rachel Palmer and Claire Johnson, regulars last season, to come in and former Brighton trio Faye Baker, Amy Taylor and Charlotte Owen also starting on the bench, it’s not only in the squad budget that Donoghue has an abundance of riches.
In a physical encounter, illuminated by occasional passages of skill, Lewes showed a patience and strength of character that comes from a team that is beginning to get used to winning – and increasingly features proven winners.
For Chichester boss Matt Wright, however, the defeat – and uncharacteristically flat performance – are a cue to reflect and regroup after an eventful start to life one tier away from the Super League.
Wright, who stood down as club chairman to take back the managerial reigns after Liam Greenwood’s shock resignation in July, struggled to explain the day’s events and felt he should shoulder a share of the blame.
In all honesty, his side – who still managed to hit the woodwork twice – looked slightly jaded in what was their third game in a week, whereas Lewes, who also played three times, never looked unduly concerned – even when they were struggling to establish a foothold in the match – and demonstrated a degree of faith in their own ability to dig themselves out of trouble once Tucker had put Chichester ahead.
In fact, the home side were the brighter of the two for most of the first half, with Charley Wilson-Blakely and Cherelle Khassal testing the visitors’ back three with their pace, power, persistence and clever runs.
Lewes’s best outlet was Vicky Carleton, whose own lightning pace kept Laura Ingram occupied in her own half for much of the opening stages. But the winger, back from international duty with Northern Ireland, seemed to be singled out for particularly robust attention.
Chichester, who had gone close through a speculative effort from Cherelle Khassal after seven minutes, were foiled by a fine double save from goalkeeper Leah Samain on 16 minutes.
Khassal’s pace took her clear of Rebecca Thompson and her shot from the edge of the area was superbly kept out by the diving Samain, fresh from keeping three clean sheets in a row.
The striker was given an extraordinary amount of time to retrieve the ball without challenge before laying it back to Jenna Fowlie, whose powerful effort was again stopped by the keeper.
Chichester were just about finding their rhythm in a game that had been rather bitty thus far, and in the 19th minute they took the lead in spectacular fashion.
They were awarded a disputed free-kick 25 yards from goal, for a challenge on Wilson-Blakely. Centre-back Tucker stepped up to rocket an unstoppable shot into the top-right corner, beyond Samain’s reach.
It was the first goal Lewes had conceded in four games, and they found themselves under the cosh as Chichester, looking for a second, forced their first corner.
Lewes suffered a setback on 26 minutes when defender Waine came off worse in a 50-50 challenge with Wilson-Blakely. The former Chichester player received lengthy treatment before resuming, rather gingerly, and clearly handicapped by the injury.
The home side were growing in confidence, and just occasionally, their fast-flowing game came together as they pressed higher up the field, denying Lewes time to play their way out of defence.
But their Sussex neighbours never panicked, biding their time, apparently confident in their ability to get back into the game.
They won their second corner on 30 minutes, but when the ball fell to Kelly Newton, she screwed her left-foot shot wide.
Wilson-Blakely suffered a similar fate at the other end when she tried her luck with a first-time effort from 20 yards.
The former Portsmouth striker was giving Lewes’s defence a severe test, her sublime first touch buying her that extra second, her pace sorely testing her markers and her strength on the ball providing opportunities for team-mates.
But Lewes were growing into the game, with Carleton leading by example. When Fowlie did well to fashion a shooting chance for herself on 33 minutes, the winger threw herself in the way of her effort.
Moments later, play had switched to the other end as Lewes won another corner. McIntyre’s trademark superb delivery eluded everybody in the six-yard box, including goalkeeper Charley Wilson-Blakeley, who felt she was impeded.
The visitors did not have long to wait for the equaliser, though – and it was another class moment in a match that had yet to burst into life.
McIntyre latched on to the ball after good work by Avilla Bergin and Lane and forced her way through a couple of tackles before finishing calmly past Wilson-Blakeley on 35 minutes.
The goal reflected the turning tide, and Lewes threatened again two minutes later when Lane, who was involved in a tough tussle with Chichester right-back Lauren Cheshire, got the better of her opponent, but her cross was blocked.
Then Carleton tried her luck from 20 yards with the outside of her foot, but the ball flew straight at Wilson-Blakely.
Wilson-Blakely the striker had a chance to put Chichester back in front five minutes before half-time, but her header, from a cross from the right, struck the base of the post.
The centre-forward was at the heart of all that was good about the home team, and in the space of a few seconds she was thwarted first by Thompson’s excellent tackle and then Samain’s alertness after Wilson-Blakely had taken advantage of hesitation between Thompson and Waine.
As the first half entered stoppage time, Lane switched the ball on to her right foot and sent over an enticing cross, but McIntyre was unable to control it instantly, and Chichester cleared.
There was still time for Waine to collect a needless yellow card for pulling back the elusive Wilson-Blakely when there was plenty of cover behind her.
And then, in the last action of the half, Chichester again hit the woodwork when Samain tipped another spectacular Tucker free-kick – this time from best part of 40 yards – on to the bar, only for Kerrie Ryan, following up, to blast over from six yards.
Half-time: Chichester City 1-1 Lewes
While the home side had enjoyed the better chances in the first half, Lewes had begun to fight their way back into contention, and their equaliser, 10 minutes before the break, would provide a test of Chichester’s character as they continue to come to terms with football at the higher level.
Palmer replaced Waine at the break and she was immediately put under pressure as Khassal latched on to an excellent first-time through-ball from Ryan. The speedy striker skipped past Palmer and Thompson but screwed her shot wide.
Lewes won two corners in the 49th minute – the first headed clear and the second punched away by Wilson-Blakely, allowing her wife, Charley, to launch a counter-attack, eventually thwarted after a 60-yard run.
The direct opposition of two of the game’s quickest and most creative talents – Lane and Cheshire – did neither side any favours, with their strength and pace largely cancelling each other out.
But on 50 minutes Cheshire finally made it into Lewes territory, playing a superb exchange with the impressive Fowlie before finding Wilson-Blakeley with a well-judged cross, but the striker headed wide.
It took a perfectly timed tackle by Leeta Rutherford to halt Khassal, and moments later her side were in front with a well-worked goal.
On 53 minutes Rutherford played a wonderful diagonal ball into the path of Lane, who forced her way past Cheshire and managed to keep the ball in before pulling it back for the perfectly placed Carter to tap home.
It was the second time the pair, who were playing regional football less than three years ago, had combined to score in the past week – and in-between Lane got on the score sheet herself.
Johnson replaced Carleton, who after her bright first-half display had become much more subdued. And almost immediately Lewes could have had a third.
McIntyre’s driven free-kick from 30 yards was parried by Wilson-Blakely, and as Carter followed-up, the goalkeeper again blocked.
Ryan countered with a long-range effort for Chichester, but her shot was just wide.
The attacking Jade Widdows, in her second spell at Oaklands, replaced midfielder Gemma Simmonds as the home team chased an equaliser.
But Lewes’s midfield were now in control, with McIntyre and Newton exerting a vice-like grip on the engine room, depriving Wilson-Blakely and Khassal of the service they are used to – and had enjoyed for much of the game.
And when they did get a look-in, Darcey James, growing in confidence as well as stature, was usually there with a header or well-timed tackle to thwart the dangerous strikers.
Chichester had another opportunity when they won a free-kick not too much farther out than from where Tucker had hit the bar in the first half.
But this time her fierce kick went miles over.
In the 75th minute Amy Taylor replaced Carter in the Lewes attack and the former Brighton player immediately showed her impressive ability to keep hold of the ball despite the keen attentions of Chichester City’s defenders.
Widdows headed another dangerous McIntyre corner clear, and then James showed her heading prowess in the other penalty area to foil another Chichester attack.
The home side were now struggling to keep meaningful possession as Lewes turned the screw with a disciplined display.
Lane, who had switched to the right flank, brilliantly turned Ingram to get away and her low cross from the byeline was put behind for a corner.
Newton was shown a yellow card for what appeared to be an innocuous challenge before, from the resulting free-kick, Tucker forced another save from Samain, who also denied Widdows as she followed up.
With the game well into stoppage time, McIntyre and Johnson combined to halt another impressive run by Wilson-Blakeley, who was becoming increasingly isolated.
And fittingly, in the final action of the game, James again headed clear as Wilson-Blakely chased another through-ball.
Lewes are on a roll at the moment and just don’t seem to be able to stop winning. They were far from their best today, but manager John Donoghue will have been delighted that his team played their way through a rocky patch in the first half to end up dominating the game.
Their defence has been magnificent this season – conceding just two goals in five league games since their opening-day defeat at Charlton.
Where Waine and Thompson have previously shone, today James stepped up to provide a strong and effective barrier against Chichester’s lively forwards.
And while before today their entire team had scored fewer league goals than Wilson-Blakely had for Chichester on her own, they are still doing just enough to overcome the opposition and add to their points tally – which now stands at 13 from six games.
Chichester have already proved they can hold their own in the Premier League’s top division following their promotion in the spring.
But they were nowhere near their best today, starting well enough but struggling to find any rhythm against a well-organised Lewes.
Providing they keep faith, they will have no problems establishing themselves in the division – which was surely their aim at the start of the campaign.
Matt Wright (Chichester City): “I think I made some poor decisions”
“I think we can compete when we play the right football, but I don’t think we did today, and I don’t think that’s the girls’ fault. I think it’s my fault, as well.
“There was a lack of guidance today, and I hold my hands up to that. I think I made some poor decisions, and I don’t think it’s helped the team out. But at the same time… there’s 11 players on the pitch and some of them haven’t pulled their weight today, so we need to react to that, as well.
“We’ve got to reflect upon it and maybe look at the changes that were made. I find it hard to put my finger on it at the moment.
“I’m happy that we can compete at this level – we’ve got the players and the personnel to do it. Our hand is being forced every week by injuries – players in and out, and we just cannot get a consistent squad out of it.
“I think when we settle with our injuries we’ll settle as a team. But that was disappointing today. Really disappointing.
“The beauty of last season [under previous manager Liam Greenfield] was, we were relatively injury-free, so players could come in and out as Liam saw fit, whereas this season, I’m having to make decisions based on who’s injured and who’s not and who’s not match-fit.
“But you’ve got to take credit from what the girls have done. A lot of people didn’t think we’d compete at this level, and we’re already up and running.
“Today was a blip, hopefully, but we’ll move on from that.
“We had a bit of a hangover (after Tuesday’s draw with Portsmouth), but credit to John [Donoghue]: Lewes were just better organised than us today. And that’s why I’m taking responsibility. They were better organised, better disciplined and they worked better as units, whereas you could see that we were struggling a little to get our rhythm.
“We maybe isolated our strikers a little bit today. We had a different centre-back in, with Emma [Alexandre] out injured. Chloe [Tucker] and Tiff [Taylor] are both great, but you just lost a little bit of direction from the back.
“And the middle of the park was different again today. We seem to play a different pair every week in there, trying to find the right balance. This is where a pre-season would have been of benefit, because I’m not sure we’ve yet found the right formula.
“But we’ll keep trying and we’ll get there.”
John Donoghue (Lewes): “We’re looking to get into the top three”
“Yes, [Chichester] should have scored a couple more, but if you get enough bodies around, you make the initial save, you give yourself a chance. You hope that initial bit of pressure makes them miss the next one.
“I’m not saying we deserved to win or not. I’m just saying if you can get more bodies around the ball, more people in the way to affect the ball, then hopefully, you get that opportunity for them to miss the target, or it deflects wide…
“The belief is there. But… we need to have more of those spells where we do play some good football. It’s that belief, going ‘I’ve got to get it and I’ve got to do it’. Sometimes we drift back into, ‘Let’s hold it, let’s play it long.
“We almost played to their strengths a bit. We gave it long – and high – and said, ‘Go on, you tall players at the back – head it back down our throats. We had to stop doing that. We had spells where we stopped doing it – we pass it and there’s good interchange – and then we go back to it again.
“We’ve got to try to draw it out of them, that consistency.
“We’re hard to beat. That was probably the most chances we’ve given away for the last five games – and even those were few. They weren’t from teams breaking us apart. It was a free-kick; another free-kick saved, or a longer shot. They’re not from people dancing around us.
“So they believe we’ve got that solidity. We need to make sure we say, ‘Well, let’s have the ball more so we’re giving it to [the opposition] less.
“We’ve got flexibility. We changed the shape. The girls do that quite fluidly now – there’s no questions about how do we change when we go from a back three to a back four, or two up top or diamond in midfield. A lot of those seeds were sown over the last couple of seasons.
“I’d say we’d look to get into that top three. I think there’s a couple of sides that are probably ahead of us in terms of their goalscoring, their creation of opportunities.
“If we could add that, you’d say yes, there might be that chance, but I think there’s still a couple of teams ahead of us.”
Sent Her Forward player of the match: Darcey James (Lewes) 7/10
There were few standout individuals in a game where Chichester struggled to play their usual flowing, pacy game and Lewes’s strengths were their team organisation.
But James, who flits between right-back and one of three central defenders, had an awesome task in trying to shackle the mercurial Charley Wilson-Blakely and the nippy Cherelle Khassal.
And after a difficult start, in which the Chichester strike pair threatened to puncture the Lewes defence almost at will, she rose to the challenge – literally. As well as some meaty tackles, her heading under pressure in the second half was outstanding.
Katie McIntyre (7) once again was a titan in midfield, combining tenacious tackling and composed, intelligent passing. She took her goal superbly and is also one of the most consistent corner-takers in the game. Kelly Newton (6) remains a steadying influence alongside her.
Vicki Carleton (6) was outstanding in the first half before one tough challenge too many seemed to take its toll on the player, who flew back from international duty with Northern Ireland during the week.
Once again Leah Samain (7), who forced her way into the side when last season’s regular goalkeeper, Lauren Dolbear, was away and is now under pressure from the arrival of the experienced Faye Baker, did her prospects of keeping the jersey no harm with a couple of outstanding saves.
Chloe Tucker (7) performed admirably for Chichester at the back and scored a superb goal from a long-range free-kick – very nearly scoring a second from even farther out.
Charley Wilson-Blakely (7) is an immense asset for the team – no defender leaves the field anything other than exhausted after playing against her. And Jess Lewry (6) played some delightful balls and put in some crunching challenges in a slightly inconsistent performance in midfield, while Jenna Fowlie (6) barely put a foot wrong on the right wing.
Sent Her Forward match rating: 6/10 An honest local derby played in a decent spirit. But both teams know they can play better.