There was no trophy for Crawley Wasps but they won numerous admirers after a fine performance against Brighton and Hove Albion in the Sussex FA Challenge Cup final.
While the 5-1 scoreline may seem emphatic on paper, Wasps had been 4-0 down at half-time and yet more than held their own after the break against a side destined for the Women’s Super League next season.
In front of 282 fans at Culver Road, Lancing, Wasps were also responsible for the best goal of the night – a 30-yard strike from Rebecca Carter – and the best save, as Colleen Donovan palmed away a shot headed for the top corner.
With containment in mind initially, Wasps boss Paul Walker opted for a 4-5-1 formation. Catherine Poleykett started in goal, with Natalie Stephenson, skipper Hannah Duncan, Gemma Villette and Michelle Ward in front of her.
Former Lewes striker Faye Rabson played out wide, with Sarah Roberts, Jade Simmons, Suzanne Davies and Aston Worsfold making up a combative five across the midfield and Carter working hard on her own up front.
Albion fielded five of the first-team squad that currently sit top of the FA Women’s Premier League. But it was 16-year-old Bronwen Thomas who did the most damage with a well-taken hat-trick, breaking Wasps’ resistance after 16 minutes.
Brighton had already had the ball in the net a couple of times, denied by the linesman’s flag on both occasions, and had struck the woodwork, before Premier League regular Kate Natkiel slipped in Thomas for the opener.
Another first-teamer, Lucy Somes, then crossed for Ellie Dorey to net Albion’s second before Natkiel again set up Thomas for the third goal. The teenager completed her treble five minutes before half-time.
With two quality goalkeepers on their books, Wasps opted to replace Poleykett at the break and give Donovan a chance, while a tactical tweak saw Rabson join Carter up front to pose Brighton more problems.
The change worked, as Wasps won the ball higher up the park and made Brighton work harder for every opportunity – and when they had efforts on goal, Donovan dealt with them.
Eight minutes from time came the reward. Carter picked up a loose ball and, spotting keeper Nina Wilson off her line, clipped a fine effort over her head, to rapturous cheers.
Albion may have had the last word, when Kim Stenning added a fifth goal late on, but to draw the half was just reward for 45 minutes of hard graft.
Afterwards, Walker said: “I think we did ourselves proud. In the second half we were tactically a lot sharper.
“At 4-0, the game was gone from us so we had to refocus at half-time and try and get back to some of the tactical play we’d worked on before the game.
“We’ve got an excellent squad at Wasps and our challenge in the league is to bring that performance out consistently.”
Walker added he hoped reaching the final would raise the profile of the club, whose reserves and under-14s have also reached their County Cup finals.
He said: “What I hope it has done is showcase our footballing ability, which should help us attract new players, and make us more attractive to sponsors as we go into our 25-year anniversary.
“I hope it also gives the current squad a real confidence in their ability to perform at that level.”
Crawley Wasps: Poleykett (Donovan 46); Stephenson (Tibble 54), Duncan, Villette, Ward; Rabson, Worsfold (Dunt 78), Davies, Simmons, Roberts; Carter. Subs not used: Walker, Tubb.