Manchester United fought hard and finally earned progress to the FA Cup semi-finals, securing a win in East Sussex. Victory came at a price, though, with them losing Lisa Naalsund and Maria Thorisdóttir to injury in a game where Scott Booth’s Championship side battled valiantly in front of a buoyant record crowd of 2,801.
“That was the plan, to make it tough,” Booth said. “We competed every step of the way with them and I’m proud of the players.”
The Manchester United head coach, Marc Skinner, said: “We were OK, we needed to be better. I don’t think we performed as well as we can but I want to give credit to the fans, to Lewes, for everything, they were fully at the races.”
Skinner put out a strong squad laced with international stars, displaying the respect worthy of any team that have reached a major cup quarter‑final. Lewes may be a comparatively small club, but on the pitch they are far closer to the Women’s Super League title contenders than perhaps many would believe.
That played out in the first half, with “little Lewes” well organised against United. The Rooks caused them problems too, with Nat Johnson’s cross met by Kirsty Barton at the back post but her shot was well blocked. Moments later the ball fizzed around the United box before falling enticingly for Amelia Hazard, who shot wide.
Those brief moments in the ascendancy were short-lived, and United punished Lewes’s profligacy in front of goal a minute later. Ona Batlle sent a cross towards Alessia Russo but, thanks to a slice of bad luck, Rhian Cleverly’s attempted clearance squeezed past Sophie Whitehouse into her own net.
The Lewes captain fell to the floor clutching her face in frustration. Rather than collapse, though, having conceded in the eighth minute, Lewes stood firm for the remainder of the half.
The Dripping Pan was sold out and the atmosphere around the ground was electric. Visiting the Pan is a unique experience, with hospitality beach huts overlooking the pitch, banked grass between the stands of the sunken pitch and, more significantly, progressive signage to match the progressive values of the fan-owned club.
Manchester United as a club dwarf Lewes. Yet, it is Lewes who pay their men’s and women’s teams equally, Lewes that provide the same facilities to its men’s and women’s teams, Lewes whose players wore T‑shirts with unevenly weighted scales on the back to highlight unequal FA Cup prize money, and Lewes that display a banner across one side of the pitch which reads “equality is a rising tide that lifts all boats”.
The players, too, have taken to heart the message of equality, composing an open letter to the chair of the government’s review of women’s football, Karen Carney, over the difference in prize money for teams competing in the men’s FA Cup and the women’s competition.
Skinner praised the equality drive: “I’m a big believer in that. I’m a big believer in action and we need to keep championing that. As people, as players, we need to give back to the game to help it grow.
“What Lewes are doing and their fight for equality, I think we’re at a club that can make a difference at Man United and we’re trying to do that … I don’t think it will be long before we get to equity and equality, but we’ve still got a way to go.”
It took United until the 68th minute to double their lead. The half‑time substitute Ella Toone fed Batlle wide on the right and the full‑back sent a cross in for Vilde Bøe Risa to head in.
It could have been a sucker-punch to a tiring Lewes. But they battled on and, three minutes later, reduced the deficit with Ellie Mason bearing down on Mary Earps forcing her to send the ball dipping to Emily Kraft, who lashed it back over the United goalkeeper and in.
United sealed the victory late on, though, with Nikita Parris racing free on the left before slotting beyond Whitehouse and walking away with her finger to her lips, shushing the raucous Lewes crowd.