Brighton 3 (Gibbons 8; Umotong 26; Buet pen 85)
Durham 2 (Hepple 45, 58)
Brighton showed two sides to their character, shrugging off the twin setbacks of surrendering a two-goal lead and having their goalkeeper sent off to clinch a valuable and significant victory over Durham and give new boss Hope Powell a winning start.
They showed as much grit in a sometimes torrid second half as they had class in a scintillating first to come out top in a clash of two fine teams to make it successive wins in their maiden Super League campaign.
Durham can feel hard done-by after pulling themselves back into the game after a difficult first 45 minutes, but the home side deserve immense credit for withstanding their second-half barrage and going on to regain the lead despite playing the last half-hour with just 10 players.
Powell declared herself “really chuffed” with both the performance and result but said she was particularly happy for the players, who she said were delighted with their victory.
In a game full of passion, action and some exceptional skill, Brighton put together one of the most impressive 45 minutes of football I have ever seen from them in the first half, bamboozling a fine Durham side with their pace, passing and movement.
Assured in defence – bar one glaring blip right on half-time – dominant in midfield and lethal up front, they tore into a two-goal lead within the first half-hour – Ini Umotong scoring a stunning second – only to surrender the initiative moments before the break with sloppy defending, which put Durham right back in the match.
The visitors, inevitably, emerged after the interval a different side, putting their hosts under constant pressure and inflicting a double hammer-blow just before the hour when goalkeeper Lucy Gillett was sent off after bringing down Nicki Gears in full flight, and Beth Hepple extracted maximum revenge from the resulting free-kick.
But Powell’s team kept their nerve, returned to their footballing roots, which had temporarily eluded them in that difficult third quarter, and saw out the game like the true professionals that they now are.
Durham made the first incisive break, through Gears, who was to prove a willing outlet for the visitors down the left. Her cross reached Emily Roberts, but the ball was cleared.
And almost immediately, Brighton threatened. Umotong muscled her way past Kathryn Hill, but her next touch let her down and goalkeeper Helen Alderson was able to reach the loose ball first.
Brighton were beginning to find their rhythm, and in the fourth minute it took a wonderful tackle from Ellie Christon to deny the lively Fliss Gibbons as she latched on to a clever ball from Kate Natkiel, the ball appearing to strike the defender’s hand as she slid, but the referee saw no infringement.
Durham were unable to clear their lines, though, and Gibbons headed for the byeline, from where she sent over a superb cross, which Alderson just got to ahead of Umotong.
The Brighton strike pair were already causing havoc in the Durham back three, with their pace and power and almost telepathic understanding, even so early in the season.
And on seven minutes it was Umotong again who powered her way down the right to collect another intelligent through-ball – this time from Bronwen Thomas – again tormenting Hill before pulling the ball back into the area. But this time Durham were able to clear their lines.
Moments later it was Natkiel’s turn to deliver the inch-perfect ball behind the defender for Thomas, but again the Durham defence dealt capably with the cross.
In the eighth minute Natkiel struck a decent low shot after good inter-passing in midfield, but Alderson made a straightforward save.
Brighton were in full flow, and the goal they had been threatening came moments later.
Natkiel, who had made a magnificent start, was again the architect, threading a pass between Hill and Sarah Wilson to find Gibbons, who made her way into the area before beating Alderson with a neat, calm, left-foot finish.
Scorer became saviour seconds later as Gibbons raced back to make a saving tackle after Durham broke in numbers straight from the restart.
But the goal stung the visitors into life, and they won the game’s first corner on 11 minutes – quickly followed by the second and third as Brighton’s twin strike threat of Gibbons and Umotong took it in turns to win aerial duels in defence at the expense of more corners.
From the third, the Nigeria international twice won headers, but when the ball fell to Roberts, she could not get a clean strike and the ball trickled through to Gillett.
As has become a characteristic of Brighton, their defenders, all comfortable on the ball, continued to play the ball out from the back, occasionally too riskily – something that was to come back to haunt them later in the half.
With the home side still on the back foot following Durham’s response to going behind, they had a narrow escape in the 18th minute when the dangerous Gears again got away down the left after Vicky Ashton-Jones missed her kick, and Zoe Ness was just unable to connect with the winger’s superb cross.
Brighton hit back and won their first corner of the contest on 19 minutes. Natkiel played another superb ball behind a defender for Gibbons, who found Umotong, but the striker took far too long and the ball was cleared behind.
They won another on 22 minutes, but Gibbons put her kick into the side-netting.
Despite that mini-spell of Durham pressure, Brighton were looking comfortable, particularly in midfield, where Natkiel and Kirsty Barton were excelling, with the insurance of the industrious Dani Buet behind them.
On 23 minutes, Barton showed her class, with a deft flick around an opponent before collecting her own pass on the other side of the bewildered player.
In the 24th minute, Durham won a free-kick 30 yards out. But Gillett took Hepple’s kick well, almost off the head of Hill.
And it was from a free-kick in an almost identical position that Brighton extended their lead in the 26th minute – and what a terrific goal it was.
Sophie Perry delivered a trademark curling cross towards Umotong, who, with her back to goal, hooked a volley from behind her into the top corner of Alderson’s net.
It was a stunning effort that highlighted the striker’s constantly improving technique, which, harnessed to her pace and strength, has made her one of the English game’s top talents.
Fern Whelan, one of several Brighton players making their home debuts, timed her challenge to perfection to thwart another break by Gears down the Durham left.
But her good work was almost undone on 32 minutes when Gillett’s poor clearance was collected by Rachel Lee, whose shot was deflected for a corner.
Two minutes later Gibbons, who had switched flanks with Thomas, went close following another flowing Brighton move involving Barton and Natkiel, the striker cutting inside and curling a left-foot shot just past the far post.
The home side’s football was slick and irresistible, and in the 37th minute Umotong once again shook off the attentions of three players, left a fourth for dead and crossed, only for the action to be halted for an offside flag.
Durham were still second-best but looked threatening on their occasional forays into Brighton territory, and five minutes from the break Lee sent a clever ball to Hepple on the right wing. The talented midfielder nutmegged Whelan and sent over a low cross, which Gillett took in front of on-rushing Durham strikers.
The game looked all but won for Brighton as the action entered stoppage time. But in a moment of madness, the home side presented their opponents with a lifeline.
Rafferty’s short free-kick just a few yards outside her own penalty area put Barton in trouble, and the alert Hepple capitalised, striding forward and shooting past the stranded Gillett.
Half-time: Brighton 2-1 Durham
It was a stupid goal to give away, handing the momentum to a Durham side, who, for all their endeavours, had looked a beaten team.
They were always going to rip into Brighton – who replaced Thomas with Aileen Whelan at the break – from the restart – and they did… with devastating consequences.
Almost immediately, Roberts sent Ness clear down the left and was inches away from her team-mate’s cross.
Seconds later, Ness crossed again, but Roberts could not bundle the ball over the line.
In the 49th minute Umotong again showed her superb technique, racing on to a long ball and not only keeping it in but somehow sending over a dangerous cross that Durham cleared.
A minute later it was Durham’s turn to pile on the pressure. Hepple robbed Buet and found Ness, whose first-time shot on the turn was easily taken by Gillett.
The goalkeeper had a more demanding challenge in the 51st minute when, after hesitating, she somehow managed to smother Ness’s effort after the striker was put through by Gears.
Durham were in total control, with the ball rarely leaving the Brighton half, and on 53 minutes the deftest of headers by Ashton-Jones was enough to deny Durham a chance after Lee so nearly found Ness with another fine through-ball.
Durham captain Sarah Wilson was booked in the 54th minute after bringing down Gibbons just outside the box, and Alderson saved Perry’s free-kick with her feet.
Powell immediately sent on Bethan Roe for Ashton-Jones as Perry prepared to take the Brighton corner, which was met by Umotong, but her downward header was saved by Alderson.
It was still an isolated spell in the Durham half for the home team, and soon it was back to normal as the visitors piled forward again.
As Gears chased another through-ball, Barton and Gillett suffered a crucial breakdown in communication, and the goalkeeper brought the attacker down just inches outside the penalty area.
After talking to his assistant, referee Barrie Small showed Gillett a red card, prompting a shake-up of personnel by the Brighton head coach.
Powell withdrew the dangerous Umotong to enable reserve goalkeeper Chloe Sansom to come on for her competitive Brighton debut.
But her first task was to pick the ball out of the net after Hepple‘s superb 58th-minute free-kick cleared the Brighton wall and sailed into the top corner, beyond the goalkeeper’s flailing reach.
If Brighton’s defensive error just before half-time had allowed Durham back into the match, this was a potentially game-changing moment.
Durham had the momentum – and now the equaliser. Brighton had half an hour to play with just 10 players; they had used up all their substitutes – and had sacrificed Umotong.
Aileen Whelan was now at the head of Brighton’s attacking trio, with Gibbons and Natkiel just behind her.
Rafferty followed her opposite number into the referee’s book for a foul as Brighton rolled up their sleeves for a rather different battle from the one they had fought in the first half.
And slowly their first-half passing game started to return. Barton sent Aileen Whelan away – though it came to nothing – and then the striker brilliantly made room for herself near the left touchline, sending over a dangerous cross, which was headed clear.
On 69 minutes they could have been back in front when Buet let fly from 35 yards, only to see her strike cannon off the Durham bar.
Durham sent on Caroline Dixon for Ellie Christon as the visitors scented victory.
And moments later they, too, had hit the woodwork, Gears’ cross from the right striking the top of the bar before bouncing behind for a goal-kick.
On 71 minutes it was Durham who went close to taking the lead. Hepple’s corner was met by Wilson’s head and found Roberts, who knocked it just past the post.
At the other end, they had Alderson to thank when she somehow kept out Buet’s fierce effort from point-blank range.
Then, on 77 minutes, it was Brighton’s reserve ‘keeper’s turn to shine, saving brilliantly at Hepple’s feet to deny her a hat-trick after being put through by Ness.
Durham made their last two substitutions on 78 minutes, bringing on Abi Cottam for Roberts and Nicola Worthington for Laura Briggs.
The game had lost much of the first-half sparkle and looked to be heading for a draw when Brighton suddenly conjured up another attack.
Gibbons, who had run herself into the ground, somehow found the energy to latch on to another pass into the Durham area in the 85th minute and was halted by a clumsy challenge by Dixon.
The referee awarded a spot-kick and Buet, who had been a rare plus during a tricky second half for Brighton, stepped up to send Alderson the wrong way and restore the home side’s lead.
It was the cue for more Brighton pressure, although Gibbons’ effort from 25 yards was no trouble for the goalkeeper.
But on 89 minutes the impressive Wilson had to be alert to cut out another through-ball destined for Natkiel.
Hill’s 25-yarder four minutes into stoppage time was the final action of the game and Brighton celebrated successive victories in FAWSL 2 and a share of the early lead in the division.
This was a significant win for Super League newcomers Brighton against a side who will surely be in the shake-up at the end of the season.
The fluency with which the home team performed in the first half was a joy to watch – but also an ominous warning to the rest of the division that Brighton can more than hold their own against tough opposition.
The second half illustrated the doggedness and strength of character that will surely stand them in good stead as they endure the ups and downs of a long, hard season.
Hope Powell’s team of many new faces is a force to be reckoned with – and an entertaining one at that.
But Durham showed enough – not least during their second-half recovery – to suggest that their own trajectory is still an upward one.
After finishing sixth and seventh in their first two seasons in the Super League Durham ended fourth in the last summer campaign and fifth in the interim spring series.
In Beth Hepple and Zoe Ness, they boast two players of immense ability and influence. And whatever inquests manager Lee Sanders conducts on the 350-mile journey home, none of them will have been into his players’ character.
Hope Powell (Brighton head coach): “You have to make those quick decisions”
“It was tough. They’re a good side, Durham – a lot stronger than we are physically. But I think we showed really good character, especially when we went a player down – very resilient.
“Going forward, I think that will hold us in good stead – to know that we can be a player down and come back and win the game. So that’s really encouraging.
“And [the players] are obviously delighted.
“When you lose a player quite early on… to sustain that competitiveness for the rest of the half really showed character, so I’m really pleased – and more importantly, they are. I’m really chuffed for them.
“We knew as the game went on [Ini Umotong, who made way for substitute goalkeeper Chloe Sansom after Lucy Gillett was sent off] would probably fatigue, and I need to look at players. I need to give everybody a go.
“You have to make those quick decisions, and that was my decision. Thankfully, today it came off.
“They tried to play. They did that last week. That’s credit to Amy (Merricks, her assistant, who guided the team to victory over Aston Villa last week). She did really well in terms of the prepping, and I think today we just built on that and tried to play the way we want to play.
“But [the] resilience, that competitiveness with 10 players was the most pleasing part.
“It was nice to be on the bench again. It’s nice to work with the team. The difference [from managing England] is that it comes thick and fast, so that’s going to be interesting – two games in a week sometime.
“We’ve got Millwall, then we’ve got Yeovil midweek. But it’s nice to work with a group of players and work with staff who all want to go forward and move in the same direction.”
Abi Cottam (Durham striker): “There should be a bit of fire in our bellies after this result”
“It was a very disappointing day for us. We should have made more of [their numerical advantage]. When you’re playing against 10 men there’s always that danger, but we definitely should have made more of it.
“Brighton were a really good team – much improved from when I last saw them – and they played really well. But we weren’t up to scratch today.
“I wasn’t in [the changing room] at half-time, but I think definitely there’s been a few words. We know what we can achieve, but we started slow. Whether it’s the travelling, whatever it is, we need to not let it happen again.
“But yes, the second half was much better.
“I don’t think it’s any excuse for what happened today, but it can be harder to play against 10 because you feel that desperation to score, especially as we were drawing. I think it becomes a little bit more stressful.
“The pressure was on, but we should at least have had a draw. But you’re vulnerable to that counter-attack in that position.
“I think the journey definitely has an effect. We like to come down the day before and split [the journey] up a little bit, but it’s still a long way. You’re up early again and then we still had to travel an hour to come here. It has an effect but it shouldn’t have the effect that it has done.
“Last week… we didn’t play as well as we could have done. I think we will be much improved next week. We’ve now got something to prove and there should be a bit of fire in our bellies after this result.”
Sent Her Forward player of the match: Fliss Gibbons (Brighton, 9/10)
This was a magnificent all-round team performance, but it was the energetic start provided by Gibbons and Ini Umotong that – almost – killed off Durham before half-time.
Gibbons, in her second spell at the club following time with Millwall and Gillingham, was unplayable in the first half, her pace, power and persistence making her a constant attacking threat, but with the engine to get back and defend when required, too.
Understandably, both strikers flagged a little in the second half, but Gibbons found a second wind to earn the penalty that ultimately won her side the game.
Umotong (9) ran her close – a magnificent presence in both boxes – and might well have taken the player-of-the-match accolade had she not been sacrificed after Gillett’s sending-off.
Brighton’s midfield was awesome, in the first half especially, where Kate Natkiel (8), Kirsty Barton (8) and Danni Buet (8) were all outstanding. And Fern Whelan(8) was the pick of a very impressive defence.
Durham’s main threat came from the attack-minded duo Beth Hepple (8) and Zoe Ness (8) and the superb Nicki Gears (8), who gave Vicky Ashton-Jones – a fine defender – a tough time.
The contributions of Rachel Lee (7) and Sarah Wilson (7) were also valuable – though not quite enough, as it turned out.
Sent Her Forward match rating: 9/10 This was a cracking contest between two teams I’d expect to be near the top of the league at the end of the season.