Long leads by example to keep Phoenix rising

Action from Worthing v Phoenix Sports, Oct 7 2018 (Photo: Sent Her Forward)Worthing (0) 0
Phoenix Sports (0) 2 (C Long 50; Necker 56)

Premier Division newcomers Phoenix Sports blunted Worthing’s bright start to the season with a fully deserved victory at Woodside Road, enabling them to leapfrog their opponents in the South East Counties Women’s Football League.

Two goals in six minutes early in the second half killed off a disappointing Worthing, who – despite Gemma Worsfold’s late consolation – rarely looked like converting their second-half possession into goals.

Phoenix, who had won, drawn and lost their first three fixtures in their maiden Premier Division campaign, were the slicker passing side for most of the game, and in Mika Keen had a forward who struck fear into the Worthing defence.

Yet for all Phoenix’s build-up play – frequently involving passes into the left-winger’s path – Worthing looked the more threatening on the handful of occasions they were able to attack in a first half that was largely bereft of noteworthy incidents – save for the hosts hitting the post in the second minute and their opponents doing the same 23 minutes later, along with a superb save by Worthing’s debutant goalkeeper Elinor Adie from Jemma Witchlow’s goalbound shot.

With the experienced Charlotte Long pulling the strings for Phoenix in midfield, Worthing struggled to retain possession for long enough to provide their attacking trio of Dani Leogue, Sophie Humphrey and Bianca Pilgrim with sufficient quality ball to test the south Londoners’ solid defence.

Action from Worthing v Phoenix Sports, Oct 7 2018 (Photo: Sent Her Forward)Keen began the second half as brightly as she had the first, as Phoenix resumed after the break on the front foot.

And they took a deserved lead on 50 minutes through Long, who reacted first to a ricochet in the box to poke home.

They could have had a second two minutes later when Keen played a superb ball to put Eloise Necker through on goal, but for the umpteenth time in the game, the elegant Brooke Marshall was on hand to make a crucial block.

Although Long headed the resulting corner over, Phoenix did not have to wait long to make the game safe.

Necker capitalised on just about the only mistake Marshall made all afternoon, swapped passes with Keen and blasted her return ball high into the net, with barely a challenge to contend with.

Action from Worthing v Phoenix Sports, Oct 7 2018 (Photo: Sent Her Forward)The goal stung Worthing, who stepped up their game – and pressure on the Phoenix defence, but rarely their goal.

And they pieced together their best move of the match on 61 minutes before Worsfold shot just wide.

Adie made another decent save, from Grace Laverick, to deny Phoenix a third, but despite having the lion’s share of possession, Worthing rarely looked like breaching that tight opposition back line, in which Shania Mogridge looked especially strong.

But Worthing forced a series of free-kicks and corners late in the game and finally got their consolation goal when, after Witchlow had headed a clever Worsfold free-kick off the line, Phoenix goalkeeper Ciara Tighe was unable to keep out the midfielder’s near-identical effort in the 89th minute.

In a frenetic period of close to 10 minutes of stoppage time, Phoenix held out pretty comfortably and rise above their opponents into third place ahead of next week’s rematch in Bexleyheath.

Action from Worthing v Phoenix Sports, Oct 7 2018 (Photo: Sent Her Forward)Phoenix manager Mark Norman was ecstatic with his team’s performance as well as the result. He told Sent Her Forward: “Every week is difficult because you can play really well one day and still lose – and a lot of the girls are still quite young. We’ve got two 16-year-olds, a 17-year-old, and sometimes the naïvete is there to see.

“However, we’re working hard every week to teach them the right thing, and today they’ve got their rewards. We’ve come off the back of a midweek [Bostik] Cup game that we lost on penalties, and last week there was a 7-5 thriller (which Phoenix lost to Ashford).

“But having seen them on the training ground and the way they react, you know it’s within them… and to come to these facilities today and, I think, outplay Worthing, certainly in the second half, I’m very proud of them.”

Norman’s team noticeably tried at most opportunities to play from the back, although they also looked to use the pace of Keen with quick balls into the channels on occasion.

Norman said: “We all watch the telly. We all see what the professionals are doing, and I like to think if you play it from the back, you’ve got more chance of keeping the ball. Every week at training we will always do drills that are all about maintaining possession.”

Norman himself had a far-from-quiet game on the touchline, barking instructions to his team from first minute to 99th, and at one point giving referee Mark Lidbetter both barrels after a couple of decisions went against his side – an outburst that earned him a lecture from the official, and which, to his credit, Norman never repeated.

He said: “It’s the way I played football and it’s the way I choose to manage. I like to think that… I can act as that 12th player, and I think if I show that much passion and so much desire, then it’s no wonder that the girls are prepared to give that back on the football pitch.”

Action from Worthing v Phoenix Sports, Oct 7 2018 (Photo: Sent Her Forward)Worthing boss Karl Davy, by contrast, oozes calm and was determined to remain level-headed and not let one setback spoil what has been a decent start to the season.

He told Sent Her Forward: “I don’t think we played too badly. The first one dropped in our box and they got the bit of luck you sometimes need in football. But I think we had the better opportunities. I just don’t think we put the ball away when we needed to.

“I think we kept the ball well throughout the match. We played from side to side, we stretched them. We got the ball in behind in the first half, and I think, come the second half, it changed. We didn’t change the game plan. I just think the mentality changed slightly.

“The season’s not done. You’ve got to take it a game at a time. It’s one of those games that’s a bummer to lose. It’s one that we’ll look back at and see where we could have done slightly better.

“But I don’t think it was bad. Our season’s still there and it’s still early. We’re only three games in.”

Davey, whose club have been seeking an extra goalkeeper all season, was forced to give a debut to Elinor Adie, who also plays for Montpelier Villa in the Sussex county league. He said: “In the first half she kept us in the loop. She’s done really well. I’ll be speaking to her afterwards.”

Sent Her Forward player of the match: Charlotte Long (Phoenix Sports)

The former Gillingham midfielder is still a youngster but she was a mature head in the centre of the park for Phoenix, tackling, passing and cajoling her team-mates in an exemplary performance in the engine room.

Mika Keen was also excellent, starting both halves with energy and determination that made her a handful for right-back Solene Declas.

Phoenix’s own right-back Shania Mogridge was a vision of efficiency in defence, contributing immensely to a sound defensive performance in which they held out for 89 minutes.

Speaking of defenders, Brooke Marshall was excellent for Worthing, blocking shot after shot and distributing the ball more elegantly and thoughtfully than most of those around her as they came under pressure from Phoenix’s front-runners.

Sam Mee was the pick of the Worthing midfield, in which the normally excellent Hannah Hewlett and Gemma Worsfold were unusually subdued.

Sent Her Forward match rating: 4/10 Sorry. It wasn’t pretty and was very bitty. But it was played in a good spirit, with plenty of meaty challenges – and no malicious ones.

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