Despite a gutsy performance, Southampton FC Women suffered a losing start to 2023 and a first Championship defeat in ten matches after being narrowly beaten 1-0 by Lewes at St Mary’s Stadium.
Saints were much the better team throughout the match and created plenty of chances, but, in the few instances they had in front of goal, Lewes were clinical and earned all three points through Emily Kraft’s header in the 37th minute.
Southampton came into the game looking to stretch their unbeaten league run into double-figures, while Lewes looked to build on their own recent good form following a 5-0 drubbing of London Bees in the FA Cup last weekend.
Enjoying their first match back at St Mary’s in nearly a month, Saints looked surprisingly sharp in the opening stages, keeping possession well and getting up the pitch with relative ease to the audible discontent of Lewes Head Coach Scott Booth.
Courtesy of their fast start, a first shooting opportunity arose in the 13th minute when Georgie Freeland stepped inside from the left wing, bending her right-footed effort goalward and almost over the head of goalkeeper Sophie Whitehouse via a hefty deflection.
From the resulting corner, Saints worked the ball back cleverly to Lucia Kendall who whipped in a sumptuous ball toward the far post, but she was denied an assist through some brave defending from the away side, who managed to get a block on the ball before hacking to safety.
More heroics were required shortly after in the 25th minute when Katie Wilkinson stole the ball in the middle of the park and set flying full-back Ella Morris through on goal with an excellent pass, the defender taking a touch before firing her effort across goal from an increasingly tight angle, forcing Whitehouse into an impressive fingertip stop.
Saints continued to dominate in all areas as the game grew beyond 30, with Lewes clearly struggling to match their intensity. All that was missing for the home side now was a goal.
Trying to haul her side ahead, Paula Howells registered a first attempt on target for the away side in the 33rd minute, trying her luck from distance with a driven shot which ultimately caused Kayla Rendell little concern.
However, the same couldn’t be said for Kraft’s header four minutes later, the defender towering at the far post to meet an in-swinging corner which headed goalward with power, evading the gloves of Rendell from close range and propelling her side into a shock lead firmly against the run of play.
In the eight minutes that followed the goal leading into half-time, Saints found themselves on the receiving end of further bad news as Megan Collett was forced off through injury, Megan Wynne taking her place.
The winger almost had an immediate impact though, her floated effort from the right flank moments before referee Stacey Pearson’s whistle landing just a few inches wide of Whitehouse’s far post, to the relief of the goalkeeper and all those draped in dark green.
This is already the third time Southampton have contested Lewes this season, with both previous matches resulting in draws. Reflecting on the opening 45 minutes of today’s encounter, a similar result in the chilly January sunshine seemed plausible.
Headed into the second period, Saints started brightly as they looked to level proceedings.
A first opportunity to do so came almost instantly courtesy of Alice Griffiths’s driving run from deep midfield, the Welshwoman taking on and skilfully beating two players before feeding Sophia Pharoah with a reserved pass which she subsequently flicked behind her and into the path of teammate Wilkinson, but her eventual effort was bravely blocked by the onrushing Whitehouse, who read the situation well.
The 52nd minute told a similar tale, more brilliant work from Griffiths saw her drive into the box and set up Pharoah to shoot, but Whitehouse was alive once again to make another crucial save with her right-foot this time, denying Saints’ number 12 from a tough angle.
After a lively start, the game reduced to a simmer until the 75th minute when Rendell was called into action to save Kraft’s header from close proximity following an in-swinging set-piece. With 15 minutes left to play, Saints looked to step on the gas.
Substitute Ella Pusey would be the next to test Whitehouse, her instinctive snap-shot from just inside the area forcing the goalkeeper down low to dig the ball out from her right post. Another superb stop to add to the ever-growing list.
Next in line was Laura Raffety on 84 minutes, but the defender couldn’t direct her volley from considerable distance on target. Wynne also tried her luck shortly after, but her far-post blast lacked control and flew harmlessly wide as the minutes continued to tick by.
Frequent stoppages in play were to thank for nine minutes of injury time at the end of the match, perhaps offering a lifeline for the hosts and their unbeaten streak in the league.
A left-sided free-kick from just outside the box in the dying embers may have offered a route back into the game, but Kendall couldn’t keep her strike down to the despair of the 2,000-strong home support, who couldn’t believe their side were going to come away from St Mary’s empty handed after such a hearty performance.