Saltdean United 4 (2) (Butcher 10; Sands 30, 85; Evans 81)
Steyning Town 1 (0) (Donno 63)
Two FA Cup debutants exemplified the ethos of the competition with an entertaining match, played in the best of spirits, in dreadful conditions at rain-lashed Saltdean.
Formed just over a year ago, Saltdean United are technically the older club, but Steyning Town – effectively the Cowfold squad of the past few seasons (they even played in the same kit) – are in many ways the more established… and certainly the older squad.
Yet they gave their bright, ambitious, young hosts a scare, constantly denying them the space to play out from the back, and often playing the better football.
It was not until substitute Chloe Evans put Saltdean 3-1 ahead 10 minutes from time that the outcome became inevitable, and the eventual 4-1 margin reflected less the nature of the match than the home side’s superior fitness – plus a belated return to their trademark composed passing game when the match was already won.
Steve Weller’s experienced squad, who have re-formed at Steyning over the summer, fielded a bare 11 players – one of whom was playing competitively for the first time and two of whom – Melissa Bramley and Jen Weller – had come out of retirement to ensure the game went ahead.
Weller, in fact, the former Cowfold captain and midfield enforcer, donned the goalkeeping gloves, and despite two errors that both led to goals, performed admirably.
But it was in midfield where Steyning shone, with Leigh-Anne Jordan and newcomer Nicole Wyke dictating play for much of the game.
It was the visitors, who will take the old Cowfold’s place in Division One West of the South East Counties League next season, who enjoyed the best of the opening minutes, playing almost exclusively in the Saltdean half as they allowed their hosts little or no time on the ball.
Yet it was Saltdean, promoted in their first season from the Sussex County League to the division above Steyning, who had the first shot – Casey Sands’ lofted effort well held by Weller – and, as the momentum shifted, took the lead on 10 minutes through Henna Butcher, who calmly slotted home after Emily Towner’s clever back-heel had set up an attack.
It signalled a spell of pressure from the home side, during which Weller saved her side repeatedly, pushing Sands’ fierce effort on to the post before gathering the follow-up, and then racing out of her area to thwart the same player after she had been put through by one of an inordinate number of long balls played by Saltdean’s midfield during the game.
The keeper then denied Ellie Smith in a one-on-one but allowed a long-range shot by the threatening Sands to slip through her grass to leave Steyning 2-0 down after just half an hour.
Saltdean enjoyed marginally the better of the first half but struggled to come to terms with the greasy pitch, which proved their undoing time and again as they opted for over-ambitious passing, whereas Steyning moved the ball around quickly and with more accuracy.
If Joe McTiffen’s side were at all apprehensive about the outcome, despite the two-goal cushion, their confidence was dealt a major blow midway through the second half when Steyning played their way back into the contest with a well-taken goal by Kim Donno, who turned neatly and shot accurately beyond the reach of goalkeeper Emily Hounsell.
It signalled another shift in momentum as Steyning – still pressing way up the pitch – sensed they could snatch a victory, and despite a series of substitutions by McTiffen, who has such riches at his disposal, it was the away side who looked more likely to get the next goal.
Evans was one of those introduced from the bench, and she began to wrest back control of the midfield, where Jordan and Wyke were excelling.
And fittingly, it was her goal that finally killed off Steyning – a brilliant turn and a composed finish making it 3-1.
Another misjudgement by Weller in the dying moments enabled Sands to put a gloss on the scoreline – but credit to their manager, who was not prepared to gloss over what he saw as deficiencies in Saltdean’s performance.
Joe McTiffen told Sent Her Forward: “Firstly, credit to Steyning. I wasn’t happy because I don’t think we played the way we normally do. It was the basics, really. We were giving the ball away in sloppy areas. We weren’t playing the ball the way we were facing.
“Steyning came at us and pressed us in the right areas. Yes, the weather did play a part, but I think we were sloppy, to be honest. It was the same for both teams.”
“Second half was slightly better and I think fitness told in the end – and obviously, the substitutions, as well. But it’s the FA Cup. It’s good to get through to the next round. But we’ve got a lot to learn.”
Steyning boss Steve Weller may have seen his side lose their first competitive match, but he was probably the happier of the two managers after his side matched their higher-ranked opponents for much of the game.
He said: “We wanted to give them a game. We let them down and didn’t play the friendly (that had been arranged). I thought at 2-1 (down) we looked the better side.
“I’m really chuffed for my girls. We came here with no illusions. I wouldn’t have wanted extra-time and penalties. The girls didn’t deserve that. I don’t think anybody in the ground probably did.”
Weller called upon his wife, Jen, and Mel Bramley, both of whom retired two seasons ago as he struggled to come to terms with what has become a familiar problem for his teams.
“We moved (to Steyning) to try and attract more players because nobody knows where Cowfold is. But we haven’t really attracted too many,” he admitted. “We’ve picked up one or two, but we’ve still got the same backbone. We’ve still got the same philosophy. We play for fun. If we win, we win.”
But he was thrilled with how his battling 11 came so close to causing a cup upset. “[Saltdean] are young and fit, but they missed their playmaker today – Naomi [Robinson]. She brings people into the game, which they didn’t have today.
“At 2-1 they were rattled and they didn’t seem to have a strong head on the park to lift them back up. But credit to them. They got two more goals.”
Saltdean visit Abbey Rangers, another side from the tier below them, in the first qualifying round next Sunday.
Sent Her Forward player of the match: Nicole Wyke (Steyning Town)
Wyke, making her debut, was at the heart of everything positive about Steyning. She broke up opposition attacks, distributed well and showed good skill on the ball.
She formed an impressive central midfield partnership with Leigh-Anne Jordan, who was outstanding just in front of the defence.
Behind them, Emma Derham performed magnificently against Saltdean’s impressive front-runners, while Jen Weller made a series of crucial saves in goal.
Speaking of front-runners, Henna Butcher and Casey Sands did well in spells for the home team, while Emily Towner – all elegance and composure – and Georgina Charlesworth – a picture of commitment – stood out in midfield.
Defensively, Lily Smith was solid, but Chloe Evans looked the class act that she is when she came off the bench to give Saltdean the impetus they needed to see off Steyning’s second-half challenge.
Match rating: 7/10