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Gillingham 1 Havant & Waterlooville 0
Gillingham retained their Premier League place with a 1-0 win over Havant & Waterlooville in the Southern play-off final at Cheshunt.
Danni Farmer clinched victory for the Gills who were pushed all the way by Hawks in a tense encounter. The Premier League team generally created the better chances but were unable to find a way past a resolute defence and goalkeeper until Farmer took a pass from sub Laura Jeffrey and drove an unstoppable 25-yard shot into the top corner of Sadie Blakeley's goal.
Hawks, who had hit the woodwork early on, were able to exert pressure throughout, especially from set pieces, but Gills defended well and saw the match out, helped late on by the sending off of Hawks' Charley Wilson.
It was clear that any expectations of a comfortable win for the higher ranked club were misplaced as Havant settled quickly. A deep fifth minute corner drifted on to the bar and away and Stacie Murray went close with a header from another Becki Bath delivery. Natalie Crinean's powerful runs were dangerous for Gills and Deanna Cooper was outstanding in midfield as the Kent side sought to impose themselves.
Hawks continued to threaten however and in the 20th minute a free kick was met by a Kaylee Schumann Edwards header, forcing a good save from Gills keeper Katie Duffy. Lauren Phillips was lively throughout for Gills and twice went close to giving them the lead around the half hour as the Premier club began to dominate towards the break.
Crinean was just wide from the edge of the area and Leah Jones shot into the side netting after a long run down the left wing as Gills finished the first half the stronger.
Havant & Waterlooville were forced into a reshuffle as central defender and skipper Laura Oakes was unable to continue after the break, having taken a bad knock in the early minutes. Despite losing their defensive lynchpin, the Hawks defended well with Kim Hier, Lauren Cheshire, Bath and Jenna Fowlie frustrating Gills' attempts to break through.
Hawks' Chloe Ranger had a free kick well saved by Duffy as the match continued on a knife edge. The clearest chance so far fell to Gills Phillips on 64 minutes, after a break by Crinean had left her with an open goal eight yards out. However, a scuffed shot allowed Fowlie to clear off the line.
Hawks' relief at this let off was short lived, as Farmer's 66th minute super strike gave Blakeley no chance and Gills were ahead. Hawks nearly equalised as a Murray pass sent Wilson clear but she was crowded out.
Gills looked for the killer second goal, Farmer hitting the post from a free kick and Cooper shooting just wide. However, Hawks were still dangerous, Duffy again doing well to tip over a Schumann-Edwards header from a corner on 85 minutes. Hawks frustration was compounded when Wilson was dismissed for dissent as the match drifted into added time. Jeffrey went very close to sealng Gills' status from15 yards but the final whistle brought joy and relief for Ian Varley's team.
Havant & Waterlooville gave their all in an attempt to win a fourth promotion in the five years of their existence but it was Gillingham who gained the chance to enjoy a second year in the Premier League.
Gillingham: Katie Duffy, Whitney Judd, Amy Taylor, Deanna Cooper, Sarah Jones, Sian Cheedy, Leah Jones, Vicky Ashton-Jones, Natalie Crinean, Danni Farmer, Lauren Phillips. Subs: Jodie Mugford, Laura Jeffery, Charlotte Abbott, Amy Russ.
Havant & Waterlooville: Sadie Blakeley, Kim Hier, Lauren Cheshire, Becki Bath, Laura Oakes, Kaylee Schumann-Edwards, Chloe Ranger, Stacie Murray, Jess Lewry, Charley Wilson, Jenna Fowlie. Subs: Lizzie Laws, Nieshia Boel, Yzzy Taylor.
(Report by Patrick Higgins)
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