It was billed as “just another game” by both sides in the build up but fans who descended upon Lancing FC on Thursday evening to see Brighton and Hove Albion WFC welcome Gills Ladies, were treated to a game with an extra bit of bite to the standard FA WPL fixture.
Following a mass exodus during pre-season, a newly formed Gills side came face to face with five former team-mates in their opposition’s starting eleven and manager James Marrs as they made the long trip from Kent.
Simon Ratcliffe welcomed Danni Farmer and Natalie Crinean to his starting eleven from Gills win over Ebbsfleet. There were changes at the back too with Sophie Brown coming in at right back for the unavailable Lauren Phillips.
The visitors showed their nerves from the start, with a nervy kick off being immediately intercepted by the sharp former Gill Fliss Gibbons.
Brighton thus came out of the blocks much quicker and pressed from the off to open the game’s account. The Seagulls looked very comfortable in their new home at Lancing and were passing the ball with composure and intensity testing Gills across the pitch.
Gills marshaled in defence by the outstanding Sokhara Goodhall and youngster Emma Michelmore stood firms to the Brighton onslaught.
Courtney Shanley was called into action to deny Amy Green before Deanna Cooper made a galloping run straight through the Gills midfield, launching a long range shot that went wide.
Brighton should have been one up when some great work down the left exposed Gills frailties. An in swinging cross found the Brighton attacker at the far post but they failed to convert blasting the ball off target.
Gills finally begun to accumulate some possession, Ashlee Hincks produced an outstanding pass to find Farmer who looked to whip a ball in to test Brighton’s back three but the effort was easily gather by Gillingham Ladies record holder Faye Baker in the Brighton goal.
Brighton took a deserved lead as Kirsty Barton was given time and space on the edge of the box to pick her spot and place the ball past the outstretched Shanly.
It took time for Gills to grow some confidence to respond to Brighton, as they struggled to string attacking movements together. Emma Tune and Charlotte Long engaged in a fierce battle with Barton and ex Gills captain Jay Blackie in central midfield and begun to support Gills’ attacking trio more as their composure on the ball increased.
Gills still struggled to test Baker with Cooper cementing the Brighton back three together, making it very difficult for Gills to get much respite.
Gills skipper Lauren Williams did manage to expose Brighton with a clever pass cutting the home defence into two and providing Hincks the opportunity to run in on goal, but Albion’s organised defensive shape paid dividends as the Gills attacker was blocked from making a shot.
Gills were in with another opportunity to collect an equaliser as Hincks slid past the out-rushing Baker into the path of a smart Farmer pass, but Cooper was on hand to sweep for Brighton.
As the first half petered out, Brighton went in with a slender 1-0 advantage which should have been more had they converted more of their chances and maximised their possession .
Gills Ladies were given the chance to re-group at the break and came out considerably more confident than the team who opened the game.
Brighton showed a more patient approach to try and break down Gills to double their lead. Michelmore was called into action to support Williams in thwarting Yasmin Poole who made several tricky runs alongside Gibbons to give the Gills back four plenty to deal with.
Gillingham had their best opportunity on the counter as Hincks drove forward to feed Keogh who launched a shot to test Baker who pushed the ball to safety.
And Brighton were ruthless in their counter-attack, stinging any form of momentum Gills had built to go down the other end and add to their tally.
The in-form Gibbons calmly slotted the ball past Shanley and could have sealed a brace just moments later had it not been for a fingertip save from the Gills keeper.
Brighton upped their tempo and got a third thanks to a fine solo goal. The Brighton attacker was able to turn in the area to smash the ball past Shanly. .
Brighton illustrated their strength and depth with three substitutions who added extra charge to the home side’s attacking threat. One such sub, Charlotte Owen was denied both by Shanley and the post as Gillingham were spared.
To their credit, Gillingham Ladies didn’t stop fighting for a way back into the game and were given a consolation to reward their efforts. Hincks showed great vision once again to pick out a pass to Crinean, whose strengh and ability to hold up play caused more issues for Brighton in the second half, squeezed her way past her two defenders to perfectly lob the ball over Baker.
Hincks looked dangerous for Gills and her turn of speed forced Brighton to do their best pieces of defending over the 90 minutes. Gills top striker pressed the home side’s defence and was able to get a shot on goal which Baker efficiently parried but a tired Gills side were unable to capitalise and put the re-bound in.
A good insight of the competitive league the FA WPL will be this season, the game was interspersed with physical challenges as both side’s fought hard.
Unfortunately for Gills this went a step too far after 90 minutes when Long reacted poorly to a bad challenge and was dismissed from the field of play.
Brighton were excellent value for their win but Simon Ratcliffe and his staff will be pleased with the way their side acquitted themselves against the league title favourites and got through a tough trip to Lancing.
There’s no rest for the Gills who have two days to recover before their inaugural game at Priestfield Stadium.
Buoyed by marked improvements since their season opener, Gillingham Ladies will be looking to gather their first league points against Keynsham Ladies in front of a good home crowd who’ve been invited to attend the game for free.
Kick off for Gills’ housewarming at the home of Kent football is 2pm. All fans are welcome for free.
Gillingham Ladies: Courtney Shanly, Sophie Brown, Sokhara Goodhall, Emma Michelmore, Lauren Williams(c), Emma Tune, Charlotte Long, Danni Farmer (Kayleigh Galvin), Natalie Crinean, Ashlee Hincks, Jade Keogh,
Subs: Imogen Alabaster, Megan Carroll, Emily Lyons, Bonnie Long