This afternoon sees both of the Scottish Women’s Premier League Cup Semi-Finals take place at Forthbank Stadium in Stirling. Ben Gilby hears from Glasgow City’s Hayley Lauder, Spartans’ Katherine Smart, Celtic’s Jodie Bartle, and Hibernian’s Amy Muir along with the four head coaches.
Above: The Scottish Women’s Premier League Cup – the trophy that today’s four semi-finalists are all aiming for. Photo: Scottish Women’s Football
GLASGOW CITY v SPARTANS (12:00pm)
Glasgow City’s new head coach Eileen Gleeson was excited at the prospect of potentially leading her club to a place in a cup final at the end of her first week in the role.
“It’ll be great to hit the ground running and have a first game as a semi-final. It means a great deal to the club to reach a cup final and win a cup final. We need to compete and win these games.
“I’ve been involved in football for many years. Glasgow City are a league title-winning club and I expect the cup to be a similar target.
“Walking straight into a semi-final makes me thankful. Other people have got us here and I’m very grateful for them doing that. I’m hugely excited for it and my first game. I’ve watched the 9-0 game against Spartans and it has no bearing on Sunday’s game. I saw them against Celtic when they scored two goals and got a great draw. They are high energy with a good press and good in transitional moments. We are hugely respectful and know that a cup mentality can bring something very different.
“It’s huge that I have players here who are very experienced. They can really drive the club’s identity and what we are about. I am all about promoting intensity but I know that it is already here.”
Gleeson concluded by identifying what she wants to achieve in the long term with the club: “Everybody has seen that Glasgow City can play a lovely style of football and be assertive in the press and that is something I want to continue. Understanding the game is a big philosophy for me – reacting to different things in different ways.
“It’s huge having the other semi-final after ours at the same venue as it is a chance to watch other teams. Our main target is winning on Sunday.”
Glasgow City and Scotland offensive star Hayley Lauder spoke of her team’s determination to make the final and earn some silverware.
“It’s a massive game for us, it’s a competition that we haven’t won for some time (City last won the trophy in 2015) and we want to be competing in these competitions – that is part of being a Glasgow City player.
“We had a big win (9-0) against Spartans in the SWPL1 this season, but anything can happen in Cup games. We need to take this as a one-off and respect the opponent.
“Hibs have had a stranglehold on this competition, but when you are a Glasgow City player, winning is what you want to be doing but this cup has evaded us for quite a few years. It is a massive game on Sunday, and we hope it will put us in a position from winning it. We don’t shy away from that.”
In terms of the specifics about the opposition, Lauder has huge respect for Spartans.
“They’ve had an up and down season, but they are a great club, I love what they are all about. We’ve got massive respect for them, they have given us some tough games over the years. The result earlier this season goes out the window, it’s a cup game, a one-off.
“Potentially being in a cup final is massive. Before the pandemic, we saw the Scottish Cup Final at Tynecastle and it was incredible. We want to be part of it and be there. Hopefully tomorrow we can get there and be a part of it.”
Lauder then spoke about her feelings about playing for new head coach Eileen Gleeson. “It’s massive and brings a bit of freshness and new ideas in. We had Scott (Booth) for six years and this is a start of a new era. The players are all buzzing to get going and what a week to start it off with a semi-final.”
Spartans manager Debbi McCulloch was hugely excited by the prospect of the semi-final. “It’s a great occasion. Cup journeys in the past have always provided fantastic memories and there is no reason why Sunday can’t be the same. We’re looking forward to it and our feet are on the ground, trying to work as hard as we can to prepare as well as we can. It’s different from the league, we have nothing to lose and we can approach it in a professional manner and give it our all.
“We want to give our fans something to sing and shout about. We are hoping to bring our youth teams along and get our men’s team supporters along. During the pandemic, we were the only team from Spartans playing and the men’s supporters came along.”
Despite the club’s last game against Glasgow City ending in a 9-0 reverse, McCulloch was clear that this time will be different. “We won’t dwell on what happened last time. It was not like us. Everyone was bitterly disappointed by the result and performance. We took a step back and pressed re-set. I think that can help us, but we’re under no illusions that it will be tough. The girls will be up for the challenge and we will give it everything. When we do that we can be a very tough team to beat. We may not have scored as many goals as we would have liked recently, but we’ve been working on that. If we can get things right, then we have a chance to pull it off on Sunday.
“We sat down as a team after that Glasgow City defeat. We asked the players to sit back and identify where we needed to improve and step up. It’s important that we look at our strengths though. We know we can perform better than that, but we needed to see how to implement that.
“The Celtic performance (when Spartans drew 2-2) is the benchmark performance for me. I want to see us replicate that every week. It’s difficult to replicate it though. We’ve made some tweaks to our strength and conditioning to give us the extra yard and extra percentage.
“We have a good dressing room full of great people and talented people. When you get a result like we had against Glasgow City you need people to come together and that’s what happened for the Celtic game. Despite the fact that we have been consistently drawing (Spartans’ league record consists of five draws and one win from nine games), our performances have been there. It’s about getting the balance right.
“Plenty of our players have beaten Glasgow City in the past, so we need to take that on. It suits us being underdogs and gives us extra motivation to put in a solid performance. It gives us a bit of extra juice to provide an entertaining game, give everything, and don’t leave anything out there.”
McCulloch also emphasized that whilst she knows that Glasgow City’s players will be eager to impress a new head coach, she is more interested in her own team.
“They will want to impress her. I don’t think they are a team that are ever complacent. They have a great mix of experience and youth. We are not focusing on them too much though, it’s about us for me.”
Spartans midfielder Katherine Smart “Somebody has to win on Sunday, it’s a one-off. We have to make sure we get our balance right between making sure our defence is nice and tight but also taking chances when they come as it will only need one ball in the net to win.
“Glasgow City have been champions for 14 years for a reason. They have multiple players with international experience and younger ones coming in with enthusiasm and energy. The management and how they are run is extremely well organized. We need to look at the weaknesses we can find and exploit them.
“It’s a semi-final, being played at a lovely stadium and you can get all your friends and family there. We have supporters coming week in and week out but the energy round semi-finals is so much more and we need to take that now to help us.”
Smart recognized that her teammates have something to prove after the heavy defeat to City in the league, but she feels that Spartans are a different side now: “As Debbi said, we stripped everything back after that result and analyzed everything and the errors that were made. The next day in training we did everything possible to make sure those errors were not repeated. There has been a big improvement defensively since then.
“We have a 24 hour period rule when we can think about things for 24 hours and then move on from it. We know that we are a good team and we can pass the ball well and hurt teams. We are focusing on our own strengths and knowing our roles in the game. If everyone carries out their role to the best of their abilities we can win.”
With Spartans now moving to semi-pro status, Smart sees this semi-final spot as the beginning of a new era for the club. “With the league continually developing, you have to develop too or you get left behind. We are very lucky at Spartans that everyone around us at the club supports you and they want us to be at the top end and they are doing what they can to make sure we do it.
“It gives the players more responsibility. Expectations are higher as a result. We have to give everything we can in our job now. The club are fantastic in their support and in moving us in the right direction.”
CELTIC v HIBERNIAN (4:30pm Kick-Off)
Celtic head coach Fran Alonso emphasized how his side was focusing on using the semi-final to re-set after a disappointing defeat in the Old Firm clash with Rangers last weekend at the top of the SWPL1 “We were disappointed about the game with Rangers. This game with Hibernian is a massive game and our full focus is on it – it’s a chance to get into a Cup Final.
“Before last weekend we were 25 games unbeaten domestically, so we’re not being hard on ourselves. We believe in ourselves. Conceding so early was the big difference against Rangers, it undid a bit of our belief. We lost many of the second battles and that is not like us.”
Alonso recognized that Hibernian have a great history in the competition and feels it makes them an exceptionally dangerous opponent: “It’s a one-off game, in the cups Hibernian are a very good team. They are a club who are used to getting to cup finals and winning them. We need to be confident and brave. I have all my faith in the girls that we can do it.
“It showed in the league game that there isn’t always much between the two teams. We dominated against them last time, but it was very close on the scoreboard. They will be up for it. I trust my team though and if we can control our game plan, we have a good chance of getting into the final. It would mean the world for me to lead the team out in a cup final. We have plans to win silverware so it is great to have a chance of doing it in my first season with the club.”
Celtic defender Jodie Bartle can’t wait for the semi-final to come round: “I absolutely love the big games like this. I saw a tweet saying that I’m a big game player and it put a smile on my face! I revel in these games. I love it.
“I’ve got an engine and I’m one of these weird people who just loves running and linking up with players is enjoyable.
“When we played Hibs the last time it was very tight. I only got on for the last few minutes. We controlled the game mostly, but Hibs clearly love a cup. I don’t understand how there is such a difference for some teams in cup games compared to league games but I’m confident, you need to be.”
With both semi-finals being played at the same venue on the same day, Jodie said: “I’m hoping to get there early to see a bit of the other semi-final and what goes on.”
Yet there is no doubt what Jodie’s overriding focus is: “Silverware! We play to win, we play to win trophies. It would mean an awful lot to get into the Final. The last trophy I won was in 2017 and that was a County Cup with Loughborough. I love a cup, I love a big occasion.”
Hibernian has an incredible record in this competition, reaching six successive finals from 2014 to 2019 winning four and a total of eleven finals and seven wins. Head coach Dean Gibson is determined to start a new period of success in the cup.
“It’s been a massive achievement. I don’t think it will be seen again. We still have players here who have won it before. It’s the first time that I’ve tried to win it for us, but we want it as a club again.
“We missed this competition last season with Covid, particularly when in the league we fell into a bracket where we’re not quite competing at the very top and in no danger of going down. This just seems to be a competition that we win and it’s our thing.”
Gibson takes heart from his side’s performance the last time they played Celtic in September. “It was a game we felt harshly done by. We deserved to take a point but a lapse in concentration at the end cost us. It’s something Celtic do and we need to be switched on from the first minute to last. They never know when they are beaten and can get a draw when they are losing or get a win when they are drawing.”
He views the clash as a big opportunity. “We approach the game the same way that we always do. Our squad are capable. It’s something to look forward to and relish. We are more than capable to compete and win.
“It will be unusual for Celtic to come into this game on the back of a defeat. It will be the first time since Fran Alonso came in as head coach. I think they will be aggressive and play on the front foot. Last week’s result for them against Rangers won’t impact that.
“We go into every game against the top three with everyone seeing us as underdogs, we don’t see it that way. We see it as 50/50. (Celtic coach) Fran (Alonso) has said that he believes we are underdogs as he talks about the big three (Celtic, Rangers and Glasgow City).”
Hibs and Scotland midfielder Amy Muir revealed that it was this competition and the Edinburgh side’s record in it that persuaded her to join the club. “When it came to cup competitions, it was year on year that Hibs were proving themselves. If you look at Glasgow City, they have the mentality of winning back-to-back league titles and we have that in this cup competition. We just show how important it is to do it year after year.”
In terms of her own preparation for the match, Muir emphasized the need to take it as just another game. “I know it’s a cliché, but you have to. You can’t get hung up on the competition or the occasion and that can take you over. The best thing that can happen to us is having this one. It’s a one-off game and a chance to get into a final. We focus on us and what we need to do – looking at previous fixtures against Celtic to see what we need to do.
“The last game with them was decided with fine margins. Our games against them, Rangers, and Glasgow City have come down to small things. It’s always things we can fix and we’ll be looking to do that.
“This is something you want to do as a player, playing in big games like this. In 2019 I played in that amazing Cup Final against Glasgow City at Tynecastle, it was a great night. I want to be playing in the biggest games and the hardest ones.
“We have a group of girls who have played in a number of these finals and even those who came through the academy, they have been at the finals. Now they have the opportunity to be involved. We’ll be on the same page and have the same motivations.”