A performance full of endeavour and determination was rewarded for VCD Athletic during a terrific clash with Ebbsfleet at the Gallagher Stadium on Sunday.
Ralitsa Nedeva’s excellent first-half strike was the difference between the teams but VCD, inspired by a player-of-the-match display at centre-back from captain Sacha Stewart, more than deserved their victory.
VCD manager Ian Biggam said: “The girls have been working really hard for years to get where they are today and this is the accumulation of all their hard work and effort.
“I’m absolutely buzzing and so proud of them.
“It wasn’t always the best football but they worked hard. I know they can play better but to win against a JPL team means they’ve done really well.
“There were a couple of chances to score a second, they put me through it in that regard.”
On captain fantastic Stewart, he added: “She’s a super captain. She’s got everything and embodies everything I want from my caption - skill, encouragement, enthusiasm and love of the game. And she’s also a really lovely person as well.”
Stewart was simply magnificent. In fact, you’ll be hard pushed to find a better individual performance during any of the 25 county cup finals this season.
Her reading of the game was impeccable, she made countless interceptions, tackles and blocks - and even found time in the second half to turn provider for a chance that should have seen VCD double their lead.
And when Stewart wasn’t taking on the lead role, she encouraged her team-mates and applauded every time one of them stepped up to the mark.
VCD had the best of the early exchanges, with Deborah Ogunbiyi also catching the eye early on with her determination in the tackle and silky skills on the ball.
After 10 minutes, Ogunbiyi picked out Esme Alaneme but her first touch took her wide and the subsequent shot lacked enough power.
The breakthrough came on 22 minutes, Stewart’s quickly taken free-kick picked out Taylor Mannerings before the ball found its way to Nedeva, who burst through and fired in a brilliant goal from 20 yards.
Ogunbiyi then fed Nedeva but fine defending from Ebbsfleet’s Sofia Newton thwarted the danger. Then Ogunbiyi won the ball in midfield and picked out Alaneme who shot over before Nedeva forced a good save from keeper Kaelyn Ransley before half-time.
The danger for VCD was could they repeat their showing in the second half. Ebbsfleet were much improved and they forced their opponents to defend deeper and deeper.
An equaliser looked inevitable straight after half-time. Keeper Sophie Brown parried out Tishe Olunloyo’s shot and the rebound fell perfectly for Deborah Lanipeken. But, somehow, Brown managed to produce a stunning point-blank save to divert her effort over the bar.
Fleet’s Priya Thapa shot over the bar before there was nearly an own goal as Ava Killaly’s free-kick was fortunately headed behind for a corner by a defender.
At the other end, VCD’s attacks were on the break. But they were nearly devastating.
Alaneme flicked the ball over the last defender and somehow worked her way into the area before firing wide. Then Ogunbiyi’s excellent one-two on the edge of the box opened up space for a shot, which keeper Ransley did well to save.
Stewart won the ball in defence, strode into midfield and sent Nedeva clear but, having got to the ball ahead of the onrushing Ransley, she lost her footing and was unable to double VCD’s lead.
Ebbsfleet continued to press, prompted by the excellent Sasha Newton and Sophie O’Neill. Two Killaly corners nearly produced an equaliser late on and when a late penalty appeal for handball was waved away, they knew it was not going to be their day.
Ebbsfleet: Kaelyn Ransley, Amelie Wilder, Sofia Newton, Darcey Forbes, Chloe Vaughan, Aimee Gore, Tishe Olunloyo, Priya Thapa, Sasha Newton, Deborah Lanipeken, Zara King, Aimee Luck, Sophie O’Neill, Ava Killaly, Karis Lovett, Harley Goddard.
VCD: Sophie Brown, Lara Lynch, Eloise Panton, Kira Bogan, Abigail Biggam, Esme Alaneme, Ava Gibson, Deborah Ogunbiyi, Taylor Mannerings, Cristabel Lazellari, Sacha Stewart, Lily Bondeau, Ralitsa Nedeva, Micha Forysiak, Bianca Onuoha, Maisie Taylor.
Referee: Amy Quinell.