Crawley Wasps’ Arsenal adventure leaves the whole town buzzing

Action from Crawley Wasps v Arsenal, Feb 3 2019 (Photo: Dave Burt)

Wasps never stopped competing and drew praise from Arsenal boss Joe Montemurro (Photo: Dave Burt)

FA Women’s Cup 4th Round

Crawley Wasps (0) 0
Arsenal (2) 4 (Little 17; Grant 43, 76, 85)

Any lingering question marks about whether Crawley Wasps deserve a place alongside Brighton, Lewes and Chichester City as one of Sussex’s élite women’s football clubs were answered this afternoon as they demonstrated on and off the pitch their right to be regarded as a major club.

On the field they were comfortably beaten – though not embarrassed – by a shadow Arsenal side that was still good enough to seal a place in the fifth round of the FA Cup while generally in third gear.

Off it, they celebrated a massive victory that could have significant ramifications for their future development as a top-level team.

Wasps, a club run solely by volunteers, with no men’s club to back them or share the burden, created a welcoming, spectacularly successful event at the home they rent from Oakwood FC, obliterating their own attendance record and attracting twice the crowd that had watched Super League Brighton lose to Manchester United a few miles up the road an hour or two earlier.

No fewer than 1,550 saw them give Arsenal a game, refusing to pack 10 or 11 players behind the ball and resisting the opportunity to kick their illustrious opponents – the latest iteration of a trophy-laden side who have won the competition a record 14 times – off the park.

Instead they saw a hard-working talented bunch of players – not individuals, but a team – stand up to Arsenal and be counted.

They attempted to play the ball out of defence at every opportunity, conscious of the folly of hoofing it back to opponents who never surrender possession easily – something other underdogs might do well to heed.

And it cost them the opening goal when, on 17 minutes, they gave the ball away on the edge of their own penalty area, leaving Katie McCabe to tee up captain Kim Little to fire home.

But while they may not have had too much of the ball, they were superbly organised throughout, from back to front, with each player doing everything asked of them by manager Paul Walker and his coaching staff.

A temporary stand used at Oakwood FC for Crawley Wasps' FA Cup tie against Arsenal, Feb 3 2019 (Photo: Sent Her Forward)

Wasps hired a temporary stand for their big FA Cup tie

And they almost held out with that single-goal deficit until half-time, only to be undone by a wonderful piece of skill, two minutes before the break, by the excellent Katrine Veje, who raced past Niamh Stephenson down the left and crossed for 16-year-old Ruby Grant to apply a clinical finish.

Walker revealed after the match that his players still felt they were in the game at half-time and targeted an early strike in the second half to unsettle their opponents.

It wasn’t to be – and indeed they were indebted to a string of excellent saves by goalkeeper Frankie Gibbs to keep them in the game before Grant put Arsenal out of sight with two late goals for an impressive hat-trick.

But every single player came off the pitch beaming from ear to ear after not only ensuring the Super League superstars knew they had been in a game but resisting many a temptation to resort to desperate measures as Arsenal’s superior fitness became increasingly evident.

Their performance drew praise from Arsenal boss Joe Montemurro, who was equally impressed by the club’s efforts off the pitch.

And of course, from Wasps’ own management team.

Walker said: “I’m immensely proud of the performance of the ladies today. They came up against an absolutely top side in Arsenal, but I’d be very surprised if anybody thought there were four levels of difference in the quality of those squads.”

He acknowledged: “There were times when we didn’t see a lot of the ball, but the discipline that we showed to keep the shape, close the space down and make it difficult for Arsenal in periods of the game, for me was admirable.”

Ruby Grant in action for Arsenal at Crawley Wasps, Feb 3 2019 (Photo: James Boyes)

Star billing (Photo: James Boyes)

Highlights

Arsenal dominated possession throughout the match, although Wasps managed the first shot – an effort from the hard-working Megan Stow that was easily blocked following good work between Ariana Fleischman and Sian Heather.

Arsenal won the first of a regular supply of corners a minute later, but were generally unable to threaten Wasps’ resolute defence from set-pieces.

The visitors took a deserved lead on 17 minutes when Katie McCabe capitalised on careless play in Wasps’ own box to tee up captain Kim Little.

Stow and particularly Jenny Drury worked hard in midfield to ensure Arsenal never enjoyed time and space on the ball, but the Super League professionals’ superior fitness kept them one step ahead throughout.

Wasps won their first corner on 25 minutes, but Rachel Palmer’s cross was cleared.

For all the tenacity of Naomi Cole, Drury and Stow, Arsenal’s senior players, Little and Danielle van de Donk, were running midfield, treating the cup tie as an exercise in keep-ball.

Some of the classiest touches, though, came from Heather, who not only performed as Wasps’ rather lonely spearhead up front but featured heavily in build-up play.

And her sublime flick to Fleischman, midway through the first half, was one of the highlights, although the promising move broke down quickly as the rocket-powered Veje gave the winger a 10-yard standing start and still got back to dispossess her.

At the other end, the twin peaks of Charlotte Young and Darcey James were doing their best to repel any Arsenal aerial raids, but the visitors were largely restricted to long-range shooting opportunities – which, in true Arsenal fashion, they generally resisted in favour of intricate build-up play.

Just as it seemed Wasps would see out the half just one goal behind, Arsenal struck again, through teenager Grant, after a superb run and cross from Veje.

Little, who had been the pick of the midfield battle in the opening half, was rested at the break, and England defender Leah Williamson replaced her.

Gibbs had to save well from the dangerous Veja on 48 minutes to deny Arsenal what would probably have been a killer third.

And she did even better five minutes later, diving low to her left to keep out another angled drive from Veja after Williamson had robbed Drury.

Wasps somehow escaped from a goalmouth scramble from the ensuing corner before Van de Donk shot just over from 18 yards.

Arsenal made their two remaining substitutions on the hour mark, Amelia Hazard replacing Van de Donk and another youngster, Ana-Catherine Albuquerque, taking the place of McCabe.

But arguably, it was Wasps’ replacement, Kemina Webber who came on for Fleischman, who had a bigger impact on the game.

Heather moved out wide to accommodate the striker, and her pace and power immediately gave Arsenal’s defence problems they had previously not encountered.

Shortly after, young defender Ellie Russell replaced Drury, who had understandably faded after such a rip-roaring start, and Young moved into midfield.

Hazard spurned a chance to put the game out of sight on 69 minutes when her first-time effort from 15 yards ballooned over the bar after she was set up, inevitably, by Veje.

But the miss made little difference, as Grant seized on another defensive mistake and angled a shot past Gibbs for Arsenal’s third.

Wasps won a second corner on 78 minutes thanks to Webber’s determination, and another followed immediately, neither especially troubling the Arsenal defence.

However, a corner at the other end forced another almighty goal-line scramble, but again the Wasps’ goal survived.

Grant looked to have got her hat-trick in the 81st minute, but her superb strike from outside the area hit the bar.

And then came Wasps’ best opportunity – a double opportunity, in fact. Rabson’s pace put her through on goal, but Sari van Veenendaal spread herself, and the striker’s placed effort struck the goalkeeper’s foot and bounced away.

And when the ball arrived at Heather’s feet, the striker could only shoot wide.

Melissa Filis tested Gibbs from long range, but the ‘keeper was up to the task. However, she could do nothing when Grant was left alone in the area and powered home her third from close range.

Wasps brought on Suzy Davies for an injury-time cameo, but it was the 14-times FA Cup winners who head for the fifth round while Wasps began to count the benefits of the biggest day in their history.

Verdict

Maybe not a walk in the park, but it really was quite comfortable for a young Arsenal side showing seven changes from their 3-0 win at Reading in the Super League last weekend.

Yet it was not the massacre that maybe some might have feared.

Kim Little and Danielle Van de Donk ran midfield in the first half, but they rarely managed to pull apart an exceptionally disciplined Wasps side who deserve immense respect for their willingness to continue passing their way out of defence.

Invariably, it was the final ball that let them down – final balls on which they would probably have capitalised most times in National League South East Division One, which they head with a 100% record.

But against a team of full-time pros, three leagues higher, there was just not enough pace or energy to turn promising moves into dangerous ones.

With their development squad leading their own league and a new third team having just won the Sussex Under-18 league, Wasps have a great future ahead of them.

The only immediate danger is any feelings of anti-climax after 14 of their players just experienced what will, for many, be the sporting highlight of their careers.

The managers’ views:

Crawley Wasps manager Paul Walker before his team's FA Cup tie against Arsenal, Feb 3 2019 (Photo: Sent Her Forward)

Paul Walker took time out from running a football team to chat to supporters and sponsors

Wasps boss Paul Walker has been smiling at post-match interviews all season. And no wonder, given his team’s excellent form.

Today’s 4-0 defeat, which ensured respectability and dignity, was only their second all season – the other came a few weeks ago when National League South leaders Chichester City beat them in the Sussex County Cup.

Walker, who spent time before and after the game talking to fans – old and new – and club sponsors, who have been invaluable to Wasps’ inexorable rise, was clearly a proud man as he spoke to a collection of women’s football media instead of, well, just me.

He told us: “We know the quality of Arsenal. We knew how they would play. What we were absolutely focused on was, when we were out of possession of the ball, to be disciplined and to try and stop Arsenal getting into patterns of play that we knew they would work on.

“And we did that quite successfully, but when you’re playing against that quality, it’s not going to be fool-proof.

We felt there was still an opportunity – Paul Walker, manager, Crawley Wasps

“We talked about when we got on the ball, the importance of keeping that ball and not giving it away cheaply, because we knew we wouldn’t have a bulk of the possession today. We knew we’d probably have to play our way into the game at the start – and I think we did.

“But the key thing for us was to compete physically, as well. They’re professionals; they’re very strong. We needed to match that or get somewhere close to that and not let them dominate at the level that they perhaps could have done.”

He revealed: “Half-time was interesting because the ladies came in 2-0 (down) at half-time, really quite inspired, believing that if in the first 10 minutes of that second half, we could be brave and we could go out firing strongly and try to put a little bit of doubt… we felt there was still an opportunity.

“But [Arsenal] showed that quality in that second half, again, and it was challenging to get the level of possession that we wanted.”

Crawley Wasps v Arsenal match programme, Feb 3 2019 (Photo: Sent Her Forward)

Crawley Wasps even produced a superb programme for the match

Walker was equally enthusiastic about the achievements off the pitch.

Almost all at the club wanted to play Arsenal at their home ground rather than attract a potentially bigger crowd at neighbouring Crawley Town, who hosted the other fourth-round tie involving a Sussex club, between Brighton and Manchester United.

It proved the right decision. Well over 1,000 were at Oakwood long before the start, making use of a temporary stand behind one of the goals and packing behind the fencing around the other three sides.

And many more arrived after having watched Brighton’s game to swell the final attendance to a sell-out 1,550 – not only double that of their Sussex neighbours but 600 higher than attended FA Women’s Championship side Lewes’s Continental Tyres Cup match against the same opponents earlier this season.

Hordes of volunteers have worked behind the scenes over the past couple of weeks, ensuring an eminently playable pitch, despite recent snow and last night’s heavy frost.

Parking and travel arrangements seemed largely to work. Metrobus was secured as a matchday sponsor, and crucially, hundreds of people who had never seen Wasps play before – perhaps never seen a women’s football match before – turned up to glimpse the potential that this ambitious, well-run club have.

It’s an achievement not lost on Walker’s opposite number, Joe Montemurro, who, as always, was magnanimous in his assessment of the game and the occasion.

He told Sent Her Forward: “You have to respect every team that you play against, and Crawley have done an amazing job here today. They’ve hosted a fantastic day.

“It was a good opportunity for us to play a lot of the young girls and freshen up some players. It was a good, professional performance.”

Montemurro, who has steered Arsenal to second in the Super League, a point behind leaders Manchester City with a game in hand, despite a catalogue of injuries to key players, said the plan had always been to field plenty of the club’s youngsters for the cup tie against a team 33 places and two divisions below them.

He said: “We pencilled in this game a while back on who we’d start to recuperate, what the minutes (played) were and who needed what.

“It was a good opportunity for us to put a lot of the young girls in and give them an opportunity to understand our style and the way we play.

You could see why they are on top of the ladder in their league – Joe Montemurro, Arsenal manager

“Obviously, with the amount of injuries, we’re going to be calling upon them in the last half of the season, so they need to understand the way we play.

“They were professional. They kept things simple and they stuck to their guns. And all credit to Crawley. They came out and resisted for a while, played some good football. You could see why they are on top of the ladder in their league.

“I can only judge on today’s events, but look at the amazing crowd that’s come out; look at the amazing hospitality that they’ve shown today.

“It’s a club that’s definitely growing, and it’s a club that’s definitely on the map, and I wish them all the best. It’s clubs like these that are needed in women’s football.”

As for his own, he can finally see some light at the end of the tunnel after an injury nightmare as his team bid to shrug off the challenges of Manchester City, Chelsea and Birmingham City to regain the Super League title.

He said: “We’ve got to a very good point where we know we can control now when players are coming back and when players are recovering and recuperating, so at the moment we’re in a good space, and we’ve actually got some long-term injuries coming back over the next two or three weeks, which is fantastic. So the run home should be exciting.”

Sent Her Forward player of the match: Katrine Veja (Arsenal)

The winger was superb, at the heart of most of her side’s best attacking moves. Her pace gave her a big advantage over right-back Niamh Stephenson and her crossing was a constant threat.

She assisted directly in two goals and was denied a couple herself by goalkeeper Frankie Gibbs.

Kim Little had an excellent half before being rested ahead of Arsenal’s Continental Tyres Cup clash with Manchester United this week.

Danielle van de Donk also shone in midfield, while Ruby Grant showed what a clinical finisher she can be with a fine hat-trick.

Jenny Drury ran herself into the ground for Wasps in midfield, and made some crucial tackles to deny Arsenal an early breakthrough.

Sian Heather was excellent in her front role, unafraid to take on her illustrious opponents, while Charlotte Young, one of the most laid-back defenders in the game, refused to allow Super League superstars to ruffle her feathers too often – although her determination to play the right way did cost her side possession in dangerous areas a couple of times.

Alongside her Darcey James made a couple of crucial clearances, and goalkeeper Frankie Gibbs’ excellent second-half saves kept the score to morale-boosting levels.

Kemina Webber‘s whirlwind 30-minute cameo left one wondering what might have been had she started the game.

Sent Her Forward match rating: 7/10 Plenty of good football, though the result was never in doubt.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.