Brighton & Hove Albion will be playing in WSL 2 next season after beating Sporting Club Albion 4-2 in the FAWPL play-off on Sunday.
An early strike from Leigh Dugmore had put Brighton on the back-foot, but a Kate Natkiel goal late in the first half saw them go into the break all square.
The second-half then saw the Seagulls run riot. Natkiel bagged herself a brace as Sophie Perry and Amy Taylor both found the scoresheet in stylish fashion as the Southern division side emerged victorious.
Setting the scene
Coming into the final, both teams were in form - the same good form they had boasted all season long.
Sporting only tasted league defeat three times; away to Stoke City, Blackburn Rovers, and their promotion-rivals, Preston North End. In a season punctuate with waterlogged pitches, postponements and a flirtation with the FA Women's Cup, the Baggies were some way behind leaders Preston, but with fixtures piling up.
If having to play nine fixtures in just 30 days fazed the Midlands side you wouldn’t know it, with them only dropping two points in a draw with Huddersfield Town in the home-straight. Game after game, they gained ground on Preston who’d long since finished their season, and champion status was earned with a resounding 4-1 win over Bradford City with a game still left to play.
Just like their Northern counterparts, Brighton had barely put a foot wrong all season, back-to-back defeats to Cardiff City and Queens Park Rangers the only black marks on their record. Just like Sporting, Brighton had shown strong form all season but weren’t going it alone, battling with Charlton Athletic all the way to the top. The Sussex club eventually finished two points clear of the Addicks.
The two sides had already faced off this season in a pulsating FA Cup fifth round clash; Sporting three goals up within the first 20 minutes and taking a 3-1 advantage in at the break. The second-half saw Albion play like a team possessed, Charley Boswell bringing the two sides level at 3-3 with less than ten minutes to play but, with extra-time looming, Abigail Cottam found a moment of magic to give the Baggies the win and passage into the quarter finals.
An even start
The opening exchanges saw chances for both but neither could capitalise on their chances; Cottam heading over the bar for Sporting and Taylor only finding Rebecca Thomas with an early effort. First blood went to the Baggies, Brighton unable to fully clear a corner and Dugmore with a deft flick of the neck muscles to head over Faye Baker - 15 minutes played and Sporting with the advantage.
The Seagulls looked to restore parity immediately, Taylor heading just wide for her side after being fed by Perry, the two linking up well all afternoon. Brighton had their tails up as they hunted for an equaliser, the Baggies seeing little of the ball but Cottam was always a willing runner, looking to break behind a thin backline whenever Albion squandered possession.
Late in the first half, Sporting were getting back into the game. Hazzana Parnell won a free kick just outside the box and Kelly Darby was given a free header that flashed wide. With five minutes of the first half to play though, Natkiel let one fly from 30 yards, digging the ball out and lifting it over a helpless Thomas in goal. The Seagulls had a deserved equaliser to take into the break.
All eyes on the prize
The Baggies started the second half brighter but, as in the first, struggled to convert their chances - Trina Greaves seeing her effort roll inches wide of the post, then Dugmore with a header that was comfortably wide before Paige Crossman's shot straight at Baker.
The pendulum swung in Brighton’s favour on the hour mark, with the Seagulls seeing more of the ball as Taylor poked an effort wide of the post and Thomas sent Hollie Olding’s effort out for a corner. Natkiel eventually gave them the lead with her second of the day after Darby’s clearance ricocheted off off of Taylor and into her path, running into the box with the ball on her toe and slotting past an on-rushing Thomas.
Brighton ahead for the first time in the match and with all the momentum, Natkiel was on the prowl once again, stopped just short of the box after a heavy challenge from Dugmore. Irish international Perry then curled the dead-ball up and over the wall before finding the near top-corner, with a finish worthy of the occasion making it 3-1.
Sporting were running out of steam as the Seagulls moved up through the gears, Perry ghosting past her marker on the left before picking out Taylor on the spot, the striker with a swooping header into the far corner. Two goals in two minutes for the Sussex club and with just 15 left to play, their promotion was as good as guaranteed and they were not letting up on the pressure for a moment, continuing to attack in numbers.
Substitute Karen Clough gave Sporting the faintest glimmer of hope two minutes from time after poking past Baker as the ball pinged around in the box.
Suddenly, it was all hands to the pumps for Brighton. Sporting were digging deep and throwing everything they could at their opposition, Stephanie Smith looking to add a quick-fire second but only able to find the top of the net with her looping header. Not giving up without a fight, the Midlands’ club didn’t relent and found the back of the net for a third time but, to their dismay, the goal immediately ruled out for offside.
Brighton worthy champions then, with Taylor’s goal a sucker-punch to Sporting who were running on fumes by then.
The play-off victors will now have to prove they can fulfil the various WSL requirements before they can officially call themselves a WSL team.