Sussex Challenge Cup semi-final
Crawley Wasps (0) 1 (Young 77)
Chichester City (1) 2 (Taylor 9; Lewry (pen) 83)
All-conquering Crawley Wasps lost their 100% record in cruel fashion – to a hotly disputed late penalty, just minutes after they had got themselves back into the match – to crash out of the Sussex Women’s Challenge Cup and miss out on the final for the first time in four seasons.
Sussex’s team of the moment, who had won all 19 of their competitive matches this term, were far from at their best after two exhausting cup battles against higher opposition already this month.
But they somehow clawed their way back into a tough cup semi against National League Southern Premier leaders Chichester City – a team they had already knocked out of the FA Women’s Cup in December – before succumbing to an 83rd-minute penalty that angered even Wasps’ normally calm manager Paul Walker.
But Chichester were good value for their victory, marginally the better side for most of a contest that was noticeably hard-fought, given the potential prizes at stake elsewhere for the two pace-setters in their respective divisions.
But both sides wanted the county cup – Wasps having been beaten finalists in each of the past three years, and Chichester looking to regain a trophy they won in 2014 before surrendering it back to Brighton the following season.
And it showed in a match that was a little short on quality and composure but which featured endeavour, commitment and mighty challenges by the bucketful.
Wasps made a bright start, with their lively wingers, Sian Heather and Faye Rabson causing early problems down the flanks.
But it was the visitors who took the lead with less than 10 minutes played, thanks to uncharacteristically hesitant Crawley defending, Tiff Taylor capitalising on Wasps’ failure to clear the first corner of the match.
Chichester, who were more than happy to match Wasps’ physicality, took control of the game, with Molly Clark bossing the midfield and Helen Ogle proving a powerful threat down the left.
But it was in defence where they shone – Wasps’ attacking trio of Heather, Rabson and Kemina Webber were finding it increasingly difficult to get any change out of their opponents’ outstanding back four of Lauren Cheshire, Tammy Waine, Laura Ingram and Taylor.
Becky Barron displayed a rare piece of magic on 27 minutes when she put Tash Stephens through behind the Crawley defence. But not for the last time, Darcey James was on hand to cover.
Wasps responded with a rare attack. Cole robbed Lauren Clark and found Megan Stow on the right. But her hard, low shot was well dealt with by goalkeeper Lauren Dolbear at her near post.
The corner tally was mounting, but unusually for two teams with such talented dead-ball kickers, there was not too much to trouble either defence.
From one, earned by Stow’s superb first-time ball to Rabson, Chichester counter-attacked quickly, but Ogle just failed to find Stephens, with Wasps momentarily outnumbered.
But the half ended with no further score – and not too many occasions when a goal looked likely.
Wasps had struggled to piece together any passing moves against a Chichester side who marked tight and were extremely well-organised at the back.
But shortly after the restart, they threatened after good work by Rachel Palmer, Cole and Stow, whose venture into the Chichester box was halted by another interception by Waine, who grew in class and stature as the game went on.
Heather shot tamely from 25 yards, and a little later failed to hit the target after teeing up her own opportunity with precious little support from team-mates.
With Ingram and Waine shining at the back, there appeared to be no way through for a slightly off-key Crawley, but on the hour they for once attacked in numbers, only to be thwarted by an offside flag.
Even then, with the whistle having blown, they couldn’t put the ball into the Chichester net, and it looked as though it really wasn’t going to be their day.
Rabson broke on 71 minutes, but her low cross-shot just eluded Heather at the far post.
But then came the surprise lifeline.
Heather was fouled 25 yards from goal and Cole, who had had a disappointing afternoon, struck her free-kick superbly. The ball hit the left-hand post and as it bounced across goal, defender Young reacted the fastest and stooped to nod home the equaliser.
There were 13 minutes (plus added-on time) to find a winner before the prospect of yet more extra-time for the Crawley players, following last week’s epic League Cup win at Plymouth Argyle.
And suddenly the game sprang into life.
Substitute Arianna Fleischmann was inches away from Heather’s cross-shot; then Dolbear made a fine save with her legs to deny Rabson after she raced through on goal.
But then the momentum was back with the visitors, who out of the blue, on 82 minutes, won a penalty for an apparent foul on Stephens.
After a lengthy delay as Wasps players disputed the decision, Jess Lewry, another substitute, calmly sent Frankie Gibbs the wrong way to take Chichester into their first county cup final for four years.
Stephens, who was a constant menace for Chichester, forced Gibbs into a diving save before Wasps carved out two injury-time chances from free-kicks.
From Cole’s cross, Waine once again headed clear. Then, in the sixth minute of additional time, Palmer’s curling effort was comfortably saved by Dolbear.
And that was that.
Crawley Wasps, the runaway leaders of South East Division One of the FAW National League, had been beaten for the first time this season – last tasting defeat in the London and South East Counties League Cup final last May.
Chichester, themselves enjoying a magnificent season in the next division up, had edged another hard-fought contest, recording their 14th victory in 18 league and cup games this season – and they still lead the National League by two points.
‘We worked a bit harder’
Former manager and chairman Matt Wright, who suddenly found himself back in the dugout in the absence of the sick Aaron Smith and Lee Hurrell, who had a prior commitment, was bubbling with delight after seeing his temporary charges carry out his instructions to the letter.
He told Sent Her Forward: “I told them to play together as a team, with a bit of pride for the badge, and work hard.
“It’s the Sussex Cup – the last cup competition we’re in [this season]. Crawley are a fantastic side. They should be in our division, and it was never going to be easy today. But we just worked a bit harder than we did last time we met them and dug in.”
He did not think there was any extra motivation after Chichester were knocked out of the FA Women’s Cup by Wasps earlier in the season.
“We just wanted to prove that we are a team and can work hard together,” he said. “It was brilliant. They really dug deep.
“Yes, we obviously wanted to beat Crawley, but they thoroughly deserved their win last time we played them. So there’s no grumble from us there. And today it was a tight game.”
With Chichester still hanging on to a two-point lead at the top of the league, but having played two games more than second-placed Coventry United, the management team could have been forgiven for resting a few bodies today.
But Smith named a strong XI, fortified by substitutes Cherelle Khassal, Gemma Simmonds and match-winner Lewry. And Wright said: “We want to win every game we go into. It doesn’t matter what game it is.
“Smithy gave me the team, gave me the formation and then trusted me to work with them.”
‘Arsenal tie won’t make us lose focus’
For once, Wasps boss Paul Walker had to explain away a defeat – but he refused to hide behind the team’s epic adventure in Plymouth a week ago, or the mouthwatering prospect of a home FA Women’s Cup tie against 14-times winners Arsenal in a fortnight’s time.
Crawley beat Argyle – another National League Southern Premier side – 5-3 after extra-time following one of their longest journeys as a team, and only a week after winning at Coventry United – yet another club from the tier above.
Walker told Sent Her Forward: “We’ve had a series of very tough games. We try and prepare the players as well as we can. But I think there were a number of factors in the game today.
“[Chichester] battled very, very hard today, had a good game plan, and as a club we wish them well in the final. They are a super club and played a good game today.
“I’m very proud of the players, in terms of the way they battled back in that second half. I think they got on top of the game… and it felt like it was a matter of time.
“But the biggest disappointment for me was the decision for the penalty. It’s always telling when you don’t get any players at all appealing for a penalty, and I don’t know why [the referee] decided to give that. He must have seen something that nobody else did.
“I was very disappointed with that, and I think it has taken the edge off what was a very good contest that could have gone either way.
“I felt we were on the verge of getting a grip of that game. I think it’s a very poor decision.”
Walker insisted that neither the fourth-round FAW Cup tie against Arsenal at Wasps’ Oakwood ground on February 3 nor the backlog of league fixtures as a result of their amazing cup successes this season was affecting the team’s focus.
He said: “Success brings challenges, doesn’t it? And I know the girls are thoroughly enjoying the success they’re having in the cup runs they’re having.
“Next week (when they play Leyton Orient in their first league fixture for nine weeks) our priority and focus will be back on what is the most important thing for us this season, which is to secure that promotion.
“Our players are not professional by status, but they’re professional by their application and their focus. So I don’t think [the Arsenal game] will be an issue.
“It certainly wasn’t an issue for today’s game. There will be no problem at all focusing on that Orient game next weekend.”
Sent Her Forward player of the match: Molly Clark (Chichester City)
The two cup clashes between these Sussex rivals have featured a number of fine individual contests, not least in the centre of midfield, where Molly Clark and Naomi Cole – two former Super League footballers – found themselves in direct combat.
Today was Clark’s day, without a doubt. She was the fulcrum, turning defence into attack, dictating play and providing a constant danger with her dead-ball kicking – precisely the role her opposite number plays for Wasps week in, week out.
Today, Cole’s passing was a little out, though as always, her commitment was indisputable. Her superb free-kick led to Wasps’ goal, but it was Clark’s time to shine today.
In truth, though, it was Chichester’s defence that held the key. Lauren Cheshire, Tiff Taylor, and particularly Laura Ingram and the ageless Tammy Waine were outstanding, playing together as a unit and snuffing out virtually every half-chance that came Wasps’ way.
Behind them, Lauren Dolbear made a couple of vital saves, while at the other end, Tash Stephens gave the home side plenty of problems.
It was another defender who stood out for Wasps. Darcey James, cool and composed, always there with a timely intervention and rarely a wasted pass, did not deserve to be on the losing side.
Charlotte Young and Rachel Palmer also barely put a foot wrong in the face of a lively threat from Chichester City’s attack.
Sent Her Forward match rating: 6/10 It was all-action, full of commitment. Just a little short of composure.