Worthing United 3 (Akehurst 27, 62; Thaxter 83)
Horsham Sparrows 1 (Sandle 13)
It was back to the football routine at long last after what felt like an endless winter break for Sussex County League title chasers Worthing United and strugglers Horsham Sparrows, but their respective performances were anything but routine as they eased their way gingerly into the new year.
Hosting the team they hammered by a club-record 11-0 earlier in the season, Jason Downer’s impressive squad were probably expecting more of the same in the return contest at the Robert Albon Memorial Ground but were given a bit of a fright by a well-organised, committed Horsham side who refused to cede the initiative against their high-flying opponents until Worthing’s third killed them off in the dying minutes.
Horsham’s bright and tenacious start surprised – and possibly rattled – Worthing, so when the impressive Abbie Sandle put the visitors ahead, it was hardly a massive shock.
But Worthing, who barely got out of second gear in the match, gradually pieced together their passing game on a sometimes slippery, sometimes sticky, muddy pitch, and Paris Akehurst’s equaliser before half-time proved crucial.
With the howling, icy wind behind them in the second half, the hosts eventually dominated, as they might have expected to have from the start, Horsham barely managing to breach the halfway line after the break.
And another Akehurst strike plus a goal from substitute Kayleigh Thaxter earned Worthing a comfortable – if unspectacular – victory that keeps them in title contention – albeit very much in the slipstream of runaway leaders Newhaven.
Horsham, bottom of the table, with just a solitary win from a tough first half of the season, began brightly, earning the game’s first corner kick in only the second minute.
The home side responded with the first shot of the game, Steph Carter controlling Katie Burling’s superb pass, turning and firing inches wide.
But the county league strugglers were in the mood for it, and attackers Lucy Miller and Charlotte Wardell gave Worthing’s back four a testing start to the new year.
Then Phoebe Allan and Becky Geraghty-Shewan combined well down the left, but Allan’s fine cross was cut out at the near post by Carter’s superb recovery tackle.
On nine minutes there was a big warning for the high-flyers when Sandle raced on to a through-ball, with the Worthing defence appealing for offside, but her fierce shot was parried and then collected at the second attempt by goalkeeper Molly Towers.
Four minutes later, they showed they had failed to heed that warning as Sandle again picked her way through a disorganised defence and fired an unstoppable shot that Towers could only help into the net to put the Sparrows ahead.
Worthing finally managed to string together a few passes. Akehurst found Melissa Knight, who fed Carter, who was thwarted by a crunching tackle by Alice Navarro as the midfielder was about to pull the trigger.
They had a chance to draw level on 16 minutes when they were awarded a free-kick on the edge of the Horsham box. But Jordan Lucas’s effort was well saved down low by goalkeeper Harriet Light.
Nevertheless, Worthing were beginning to find their feet on the tricky surface, playing into a biting wind.
On 20 minutes they won their first corner after Nicole Webley had very nearly played Akehurst in, her sublime chip hitting the striker on the back, enabling Horsham to clear.
The short corner found its way to Burling, whose snap-shot was well saved.
At last, the home side’s football began to flow – though, given the conditions (and no doubt the five-week lay-off), rather slowly.
Carter, at the heart of most of her side’s positivity, found Akehurst with a magnificent ball. Akehurst played it to Faye Charles, making her return after a long injury lay-off.
And after more interplay between Lucas and Webley, Charles fired in a shot, which was well-blocked by Horsham’s determined defence.
On 23 minutes the home side won only their second corner after Light brilliantly saved Akehurst’s shot when the striker probably should have done better.
Moments later Webley found Charles with another sublime pass, but the striker’s shot from distance was easily saved.
The momentum was now with Worthing and on 27 minutes they equalised when more intelligent movement by Akehurst paid off as she collected a through-ball and slotted past Light.
With the balance of the game swinging the way of the home side, the goal presented Horsham with a test of mental – as well as physical – strength.
They responded well, only a well-timed intervention by Charlotte Royston halting another venture down the left flank, and then winning their second corner on the half-hour.
Sandle’s kick failed to clear the first defender, but when it came back to her she sent a searching cross into the penalty area, but the attack came to an end when the referee blew for offside.
Light again came to Horsham’s rescue a few moments later when she denied Franci Heasman after she was put through on goal.
But with six minutes to go to half-time Sparrows won two more corners in quick succession.
Sandle’s excellent first effort was headed behind for another, and her second was well claimed by Towers.
Sparrows had responded well to the spell of Worthing pressure that had led to the equaliser and were very much still in the game.
But with the prospect of facing that daunting wind in the second half, they could have done with a second goal in the closing minutes of the first.
They made another marauding break down the left, Sandle feeding Allan with another cute pass. But substitute Stacey Johnson came to the rescue with a fine tackle.
Sparrows won a fifth corner a minute before half-time, which Geraghty-Shewan met on the volley, but her effort was cleared behind by Towers, and for once, Sandle wasted the corner.
The half ended with one final Worthing United attack. Almost inevitably, Carter was involved, playing in Akehurst with another searching ball, but she was denied the opportunity of a second goal by the combined efforts of three Horsham defenders.
Half-time: Worthing United 1-1 Horsham Sparrows
Now facing the howling gale, Horsham looked likely to limit their ambition. Sandle, who had shone in midfield, stepped back into her more familiar central-defensive role.
But the visitors moved straight into the attack from the restart, Rebecca Goodman getting in an early shot, which was easily held by Towers.
At the other end, Carter’s looping effort sailed just wide of the far post before the Worthing playmaker was given an ideal chance to put her side in front when they were awarded a rather harsh free-kick for hand-ball 20 yards from goal.
But Carter blasted her left-foot effort well over the bar.
In the 54th minute, Webley, who had been so influential in midfield, volleyed over from the edge of the penalty area, and then Worthing won only their third corner, which Carter sent straight out of play.
With the wind helping them keep up the pressure, Worthing won another free-kick in a central position.
This time captain Lucas took the kick, but the result was similar – if even slightly higher over the bar.
The game, already suffering because of the conditions, became even bittier as play was halted for a succession of injuries.
But when it did get going again, the hosts took full advantage.
Horsham’s besieged defenders failed to clear their lines, and when the ball fell to Akehurst, her underhit shot somehow squirmed under the otherwise impeccable Light to put Worthing 2-1 ahead.
In the 65th minute Webley collected Burling’s pass and sent another excellent ball through to Thaxter. But the substitute’s first touch was not good enough and the ball went through to Light.
Much as Horsham had done in the first half, most of Worthing’s wind-assisted attacks were coming down the left flank, but substitute right-back Francesca Froughi was proving a tough obstacle to overcome, anticipating well and using the ball intelligently.
At the other end, Johnson, who had come on late in the first half, was impressing on the few occasions Horsham were able to set foot in the Worthing half.
The pressure was now incessant and the corner count mounted.
But still Horsham held firm against their third-placed opponents.
Thaxter shot wide when she had plenty of time to settle herself and the same player almost latched on to a superb pass from Johnson, but the wind carried the ball away from her.
Lucas found Carter in the area with a free-kick from the touchline, but the midfielder could only help the ball on to Light.
Moments later, the game was won.
The imperious Webley found Thaxter on 83 minutes as the Horsham defence tired and it was third time lucky for the substitute, who kept her head and guided the ball beyond Light.
Game, gallant Sparrows finally looked a beaten team – illustrated perfectly from the restart as they gave the ball away straight from the kick-off.
Thaxter could have had her second when she was found, with plenty of time to steady herself, in the Horsham area. But she chose to shoot early and Light inevitably saved.
Worthing won a third free-kick of the half on the edge of the Horsham box on 87 minutes. Webley became the third different midfielder to try her luck, and her kick was the pick of the trio, flying just over.
Then she fired just wide from the edge of the box after good work from Carter, and the final meaningful effort came from an inspired Johnson, who went on another run from deep before unleashing an effort that flew straight at the goalkeeper.
Worthing United’s win was both expected and necessary. Virtually the entire division stands between them and their opponents, but Worthing still have work to do if they are to catch Newhaven and second-placed Saltdean United.
But with neither side having played since December 3, the players were inevitably a little rusty – and the muddy pitch and biting wind didn’t help.
Yet Horsham played above their station and after a first half in which they fully deserved to be level, they staged an admirable – if ultimately unsuccessful – rearguard action in the second, when they faced effectively 12 opponents as the wind grew ever-stronger.
While the hosts left the pitch rather disappointed with their efforts, they should bear in mind the mitigating factors. They still managed to play some fine football against game opponents, and in Steph Carter and Nicole Webley have two of the finest midfielders in the Sussex League.
Jason Downer (manager, Worthing United): “They know we’ve got to be better than that”
“In fairness to Horsham, they played some good football to start with. I think they shocked [us] from when we played them previously. But our levels were nowhere near what they should be and what we expect of them.
“But first game back – we just move on after the win. We knew [Horsham] had some extra players in. They had three subs today, as well. But the way they played was a lot different from what they’ve done before. They’ve progressed a lot.
“We’ve got to go back and start working on our fitness and our passing. Our touch was awful today. We’ve played on a lot worse [pitches] and a lot better. It was windy… but they know we’ve got to be better than that.”
Matt McIntyre (manager, Horsham Sparrows): “We knew it would be tough”
“Conditions were very tricky with the wind. But they held up well. [I was] very pleased with the first-half performance, and we battled all the way through the game.
“The wind strongly helped us in the first half, which maybe contributed to the half-time score. But second half, we knew it would be tough. But battling against a very good Worthing team and a strong wind kept us in defence.
“[Abbie Sandle]’s traditional position is at centre-back. She does like to venture forward at times, but [she was returned to centre-back in the second half] just to shore up the defence.
“The last time we played [Worthing] it was 11-0. It was tough coming into this game. But we were very pleased at half-time and 3-1 is a very good score.”
Sent Her Forward player of the match: Nicole Webley (Worthing United, 8/10)
It really was hard to separate Webley and Steph Carter (8), who controlled the midfield and were key figures in Worthing’s victory.
At opposite ends of the experience scale, both were calm heads, always looking to carry their team forward after breaking up opposition attacks.
Webley, who hardly put a foot wrong all game, hurt Horsham with her strong, forceful runs and good close control.
Carter continues to lead by example and is a phenomenally consistent performer. Her intelligent – and accurate – passing are a feature of her game, even if her shooting radar was slightly off today,
Paris Akehurst (7) was a constant thorn in the side of the Sparrows defence. She is quick and moves intelligently. She scored two and could have had four. Like many forwards, her awareness of others in better positions could do with improvement.
Charlotte Royston (7) was outstanding in Worthing United’s defence, reading the game well, and thwarting umpteen Horsham attacks with her strong tackling, while on the other flank, Katie Burling (7) was equally impressive, often in a more advanced role in the second half.
Substitutes Kayleigh Thaxter (7) and especially Stacey Johnson (7) brought fresh legs and strength to the Worthing cause.
For Horsham, their standout player was goalkeeper Harriet Light (7), who kept the score down – and her team in the game – with a series of first-half saves. She should have done better with Worthing’s second, but her contribution was excellent.
Abbie Sandle (7) also underlined what a fine young talent she is with a commanding first-half performance in midfield before switching to the back four as Worthing laid siege to the Horsham goal after the break.
In spells, Lucy Miller (6) and Phoebe Allan (6) brought an attacking threat, while Fran Froughi (7) was superb in the face of the Worthing onslaught in the second half.
Sent Her Forward match rating: 6/10 Given the conditions, both sides contributed to a decent match.