Chichester City 3 (Lewry 17; Wride 40, 57 pen)
Cardiff City 3 (Evan-Watkins 7; Williams 16; Isaac 74)
Two teams going through testing times showed the sort of spirit and resilience that will undoubtedly see them through as the Cities of Chichester and Cardiff fought out an enthralling 3-3 draw at Oaklands Park.
The hosts, finding their feet following their promotion last May, bounced back from 2-0 down in little more than a quarter of an hour to be level by half-time before taking the lead in the second half.
But Cardiff, full of inexperience following a mass exodus in the summer, showed their own true grit in forcing an equaliser to take a share of the points.
There were contrasting emotions in the two camps on the final whistle: Cardiff, without their manager today and with only one substitute, were delighted and relieved with their point, despite having surrendered that early two-goal advantage, while Chichester’s players and management were downcast.
You’d have thought they’d lost from the reactions of some of the players, and from manager Matt Wright, who derived little consolation from their impressive comeback.
Yet defeat would have been harsh on either team, who were both totally committed, managing to show some impressive skill on a tricky pitch and enough character to fill a soap opera.
The impressive Daisy Evan-Watkins gave the visitors an early lead, wrong-footing Sadie Wilson-Blakely with a cross-shot, before captain Cori Williams added a second with less than a quarter of an hour gone.
But Chichester responded immediately, through Jess Lewry before substitute Hollie Wride transformed the game with a free-kick and penalty either side of half-time, setting up a pulsating finale, during which Kelly Isaac bundled in Cardiff’s equaliser.
Both sides made bright starts, with Chichester managing the first shot – Cherelle Khassal finding the side-netting after good work by Lewry – and winning the first corner of the game.
But it was the visitors who went in front through a freak goal from the lively Evan-Watkins, whose lofted cross-shot from the left touchline deceived Wilson-Blakely and sailed into the top corner to give Cardiff a seventh-minute lead.
They threatened again on 15 minutes, but Wilson-Blakely just reached Isaac’s through-ball ahead of Chloe O’Connar after fine inter-play involving Ffion Llewellyn and Williams.
But they did not have long to wait to extend their lead.
The increasingly influential Isaac threaded a smart through-ball to O’Connar, whose cross was forced in, among a sea of bodies, by Williams for her 17th goal of the season.
Cardiff had seized the initiative, but out of nowhere, Chichester responded with a goal just a minute later that was to prove invaluable in the context of the game.
Emma Alexandre sent Lewry through behind the Cardiff defence, and the attacking midfielder kept her head to finish neatly beyond Estelle Randell in the visitors’ goal.
It brought Chichester back into the game, but it did not stem the waves of pressure being exerted by Cardiff’s positive and enterprising side.
Alexandre brilliantly blocked Williams as she sensed a sniff of goal and then beat her in her own penalty area before clearing.
The home side then went close when Lauren Cheshire fed Jade Widdows, whose low cross was nearly turned in by Cardiff defender Llewellyn, but Randell spared her blushes – and her side’s fortunes.
And then Wilson-Blakely kept Chichester in the match, saving well with her feet on 25 minutes to deny Ella Powell after she had outpaced Laura Ingram.
Three minutes later it was Cardiff’s goalkeeper’s turn to excel, parrying Cheshire’s powerful shot one-handed after Khassal and Widdows had set her up.
Moments later the disappointment was doubled when Lewry thought she had scored again, only to discover she had been flagged for offside.
The game was hotting up, with both sides trying to make the most of a muddy surface, and Wilson-Blakely again had to come to Chichester’s rescue on 30 minutes, acrobatically keeping out O’Connar’s excellent hooked effort.
In the 33rd minute Randell was again called into action, brilliantly denying Khassal following a superb first-time pass from the increasingly effective Lewry.
Chichester were forced into an early change when Hollie Wride came on for the struggling Chloe Tucker, but it was to prove a blessing for the Sussex side.
After Cheshire had done well to shepherd a dangerous cross from Zoe Atkins back to her goalkeeper, Chichester broke and were handed the opportunity to pull level in the 40th minute.
Becky Barron’s through-ball caught Randell in two minds, and as she rushed towards the ball, she slid out of her area, handling in the process.
Referee Chris White immediately awarded the free-kick but after consulting with his assistant, showed the goalkeeper a yellow card rather than red.
Wride made her pay, though, side-footing her free-kick into the corner, via a deflection off the wall.
After finding themselves in all sorts of trouble after just 16 minutes, the comeback was complete, and Chichester went in at the break level.
Half-time: Chichester City 2-2 Cardiff City
O’Connar followed her goalkeeper into the referee’s book soon after the restart for what appeared to be a hack at an opponent.
The tide was beginning to turn as the home side were becoming as dominant as Cardiff had for a good chunk of the first half.
Alexandre was imperious at the back and Wride was beginning to control midfield.
But on 57 minutes it took a fine stop by Tiffany Taylor, who had had a difficult first 45 minutes, to halt Williams after an excellent pass from Powell.
Back came Chichester, and as Khassal broke into the Cardiff box she was brought down. Referee White immediately gave a penalty and fittingly, it was Wride, who had done so much to pull her side back into the game, who stepped up to calmly slot her spot-kick into the corner.
In little more than 40 minutes, Chichester had gone from 2-0 down to 3-2 up, and they were buoyant.
After Wilson-Blakeley had saved a free-kick from O’Connar above her head, Barron so nearly set the dangerous Khassal away again with a delicate chip.
Yet as the game moved into the final quarter, there was a sense that the home side might need another goal to be sure of the points.
Powell threatened in a one-on-one with the goalkeeper, but Wilson-Blakely came out on top, and the Cardiff player was injured in the process and had to be replaced by Shannon Greenway, the visitors’ only substitute.
Then on 74 minutes, Chichester’s good work was undermined as Williams found Atkins, who crossed to the back post, where Isaac bundled home the equaliser.
Alexandre again came to the rescue after Isaac put Williams away on 81 minutes, and moments later Cardiff pieced together another good move, Kate Bennett doing well on the ball and then finding the enterprising Williams.
The striker laid the ball back for O’Connar, but she screwed her shot well wide.
Five minutes from time, Wilson-Blakely again saved her side, racing out of her penalty area to tackle Williams, who had somehow shaken off a couple of challenges from an otherwise strong Chichester defence.
But the referee ruled that the goalkeeper had fouled Williams and awarded a free-kick 25 yards from goal.
Evan-Watkins, who had had a quieter second half in a generally deeper role for Cardiff, wasted the chance, firing her kick straight at Wilson-Blakely.
Chichester responded, earning another corner, which Wride sent straight into the side-netting.
Then on 87 minutes the home side won a free-kick of their own 40 yards out. But Barron hit it straight to Randell.
Teenager Alex Collighan came on for Widdows as Chichester looked to regain the lead, but although they applied most of the pressure in the closing stages, they could not find the winner.
These two sides are in the relative safety of mid-table, and there was little to choose between them over the course of 90 minutes of fluctuating fortunes.
Cardiff began the stronger and at 2-0 looked certainties to secure only their fourth victory of the season.
But by the time Chichester had overturned the deficit and taken the lead themselves, few would have bet against them.
But they never quite shrugged off the spirited young Welsh side, and their equaliser was not entirely surprising.
Matt Wright (Chichester City): “The girls are gutted”
“I’m very disappointed with the result, although we did play very well in phases. Credit to Cardiff for scoring those goals, but we weren’t good enough in those first 15 minutes.
“It’s hard when you come from two goals down; you get yourself 3-2 up, and it’s positive, and you conceded a sucker blow for 3-3.
“But there are lots of positives to take from today. We did look better than we have done for a while in areas, playing on quite a heavy pitch.
“But we wanted the three points… and we didn’t get them.”
“We felt we could win today. We wanted to take three points from this game, so no, I wouldn’t have been happy with a draw, even at 2-0 down.
“The girls are gutted. Some of them, most of them, you could say all of them have worked their socks off out there today to get the result. A point has added to our total, which is still exceeding expectations.
“But really, on days like today, similar to [against] QPR (when they also drew), in my opinion, over those two games we should have taken six points, looking at the performances, and we’ve come out with two. And that’s just not good enough.
“We’ve got a great team. I wouldn’t change this team for anything in this league. We’ve got a great team spirit. The girls work hard for each other. When we’re two-down we don’t think the game is over. We know we can get back into games – and that is against any opposition. We showed that last week against Palace.
“(Top scorer) Charley [Wilson-Blakely] is out for some time; Chloe Tucker is now out. You’ve got players out there who are playing with injuries.
“We’re looking to bring a couple of players in over the next seven days, if we can. But it’s hard because in this league, at this level, everyone’s got money apart from us.”
Emily Poole (Cardiff City): “The work rate from the girls was outstanding”
The Wales youth international, who is currently injured, was alongside lone substitute Shannon Greenway in the Cardiff dugout, with manager Gary Green and his coaching team away.
“Gary had a lot to do with today. We had spoken to him several times. He had a lot to do with the team talk. He was here in spirit. We knew exactly what he wanted from us, and for most of the game we did really well, we did what he wanted.
“We played a midweek game, and I think that meant we were a bit more awake than usual in the first 10 or 15 minutes, but we did let it get away from us towards the end of the first half.
“But [in the] second half, we did well. We rectified it. We brought it back to 3-3 and the work rate from the girls in the last 10 or 15 minutes was outstanding – last-ditch tackles, recovery runs, everything… excellent.
“It was a real blow conceding those two goals. We probably should have been a bit tighter, probably a bit more defensive after we scored the two. There was no real need for us to go bombing, especially towards the end of the first half.
“We were unfortunate with the second [goal]. Things like that happen in football. But the first goal was a bit of quality from them and a lack of quality from us. But second half, we rectified those mistakes, and overall I thought it was a great performance.
“We got the equaliser, and in the last 10 minutes I saw players work like I’ve never seen them work before. I thought it was great.
“We had a couple of retirements this year. We had a couple of players go to WSL, which is obviously a big loss for us. But a lot of players in the squad are really young, and I think we’ve all stepped up pretty well, and every game for us is a massive learning curve.
“But I think we showed in games like this today that we can compete and we’ll learn from those two goals – those two mistakes. But other than that, [it was] a pretty good performance.”
Sent Her Forward player of the match: Hollie Wride (Chichester City, 9/10)
The midfielder, who has been beset by injuries, played only the final hour of the game, but what an impact she had.
She added steel and guile to central midfield, wresting the initiative from a previously dominant Cardiff, and reducing the supply line to the dangerous Cori Williams.
She also scored two fine goals from dead-ball kicks.
Behind her (but in terms of performance, only just) was Emma Alexandre (9), who was simply magnificent in central defence. She limited Williams’ impact, using her familiar strength, but also showed the silkier side to her game with some composed play, even in her own penalty area.
Jess Lewry (7) had a terrific first half, providing the ammunition for the willing Cherelle Khassal and Jade Widdows, although she faded after the break. Sadie Wilson-Blakely (7) made some crucial saves, while Widdows (7) was a real menace up front.
But a special mention for Tiffany Taylor (7), who I thought had a difficult first 45 minutes but grew in confidence – and impact – alongside Alexandre after the break.
Cardiff could have been out of sight in the early stages, thanks in no small part to the wonderful contribution of Daisy Evan-Watkins (8) on the left flank. She gave the tough and pacy Lauren Cheshire a real run for her money, and contributed far more than just her slightly flukey goal.
Chloe O’Connar (8) was also impressive throughout, as were Kelly Isaac (8) and Cori Williams (7), who gave Alexandre and Taylor a challenging 90 minutes.
Sent Her Forward match rating: (7/10) It wasn’t an easy pitch to play football on, but both sides enjoyed periods of dominance, conjuring up some entertaining moments.