“It Doesn’t Really Get Any Better…” Chelsea Ready For Wembley

ImpetusKieran Yap was invited to Chelsea’s pre-Cup Final press conference and heard from Emma Hayes, Magda Eriksson, and Fran Kirby on the legacy of those who came before them, the priorities for further growth of the women’s game, and how preparations for the big day have gone (5/12/21).

Above: The Women’s FA Cup. Photo: The FA

A hundred years ago, women’s football was arbitrarily and cruelly outlawed. 50 years ago the first women’s FA Cup was staged, and on Sunday, over 45,000 people will fill Wembley Stadium to watch Arsenal and Chelsea compete for the trophy.

These are the two top teams in England and interest has never been higher in the women’s game. This match features some of the best players in the world, five of the top ten players ranked by the Ballon d’Or judges could take the field and the two clubs are the form teams in the FAWSL.

Chelsea captain Magdalena Eriksson is eager to step onto the biggest stage in domestic football.

“It doesn’t really get better than that,” said the star defender. “When you explain it like that, we’re really extremely excited. I can feel it amongst the girls coming back now today from the international break.”

The majority of Chelsea’s players are returning from national team duties, but the high frequency of matches is not something the Swede is concerned with.

Above: The two captains – Arsenal’s Kim Little (left) and Chelsea’s Magda Eriksson. Artwork: @VitalityWFACup

“We’re used to playing back to back to back, at the moment. I pride myself in preparing for every game like it’s a cup final.”

Eriksson was a member of the last Chelsea squad to win the Cup in 2018 also against Arsenal.  Although she recalls the day fondly, she does not think it has any bearing on Sunday’s result.

“I view it as a nice memory.  It was a very long time ago and both our teams have gone through a lot of changes since then. Obviously having the experience of playing in finals are big and it’s really important but you have to utilize it and capitalize it on the day.”

It is the dream of millions of children and adults alike to step onto the turf at Wembley, in front of a packed crowd even just for a moment.

The Chelsea players are hoping to enjoy the moment, but there is serious business to attend to first.

“When I’m walking out it’s going to be all about the game,” she said. “All about starting right, getting the tactical things right, just starting the game we want to. Hopefully, after the game, I can enjoy it more and enjoy a win but before the game, it’s all about focusing on the game itself and getting everything right.”

Attacker Fran Kirby is of the same mindset. She was also on the field in 2018. On that day Chelsea ran out 3-1 winners, Kirby sealed the contest in the 76th minute after Vivienne Miedema pulled one back for the Gunners. She will enjoy the day but has a job to do.

Above: Fran Kirby with the FA Cup in 2018 after scoring for Chelsea in their 3-1 win over Arsenal. Photo: She Kicks.

“It’s always business until you win,” she says without hesitation.  “The feeling of playing at Wembley, its amazing. The feeling of walking out onto the pitch when there’s a crowd there is incredible and you do kind of have that moment when you do walk out that wow this is massive.

“Then as soon as you get on to the pitch and that whistle blows, it’s down to business and down to trying to win the game. I’m sure after the game hopefully we come away with the trophy and people can take it in and appreciate what we’ve achieved but until that moment you know that you just have to be on it 110% to make sure that you’re focused on the game at hand.”

It’s been a couple of years now. We fell short last year when we got knocked out in the semi-finals so I think we’re in a really good space at the moment. We know that we want to win and we’re excited but also we’re remaining focused on what we need to do to beat a quality Arsenal side.”

That quality she speaks of is almost too numerous to list, Kim Little, Beth Mead, and Katie McCabe are just three of Arsenal’s in-form stars. But one of their biggest weapons is Dutch striker Vivianne Miedema.

“Miedema is an exceptional striker, “ says Eriksson. She’s a great number nine with a lot of qualities to her and she’s really difficult to stop…it’s going to have to be a team effort. “We’re going to have to do it as a team like we do with everything else really.

“They have other players as well that we really have to look after, it’s not just one player.”

 “It’s about making more history but it’s about the recognition of everybody that’s come before.“

Chelsea’s manager, Emma Hayes will not be letting the day pass without ceremony. This is a day she wants to make the most out of in every sense.

Above: Chelsea manager Emma Hayes – this weekend is about recognising all those who came before in women’s football. Photo: The Guardian

Hayes was eight months pregnant during her last FA Cup final, her son is now three and has undergone his own preparations for the big day.

“I got him a tracksuit,” says Hayes, “I got him a brand new tracksuit… he’s got a new hat.

 “Women’s football has always been a family-friendly environment but to have my son come three years on from the last time I was there is an amazing moment for me as a mother. I hope he remembers some of it when he’s a little bit older, if not I’ll take a load of photographs.”

Hayes has a football match to win but the importance of the occasion is not lost on her. She is a passionate advocate for the growth of women’s football and points out the historical context of the day. Sunday falls on the centenary of women being banned from playing football.

“This is great for people that have been involved in the women’s game from the onset from the start,” said Hayes. “This is the showpiece event. Yes, we’re two fabulous teams both vying to win, but the FA Cup final is about history.

“It’s about making more history but it’s about the recognition of everybody that’s come before. To have the game on a poignant date on the women’s football calendar is critical and one that must serve as a reminder that this game won’t be banned again, never. It’s only going to grow and it’s only going to get better.

“This game is about every single person that has made sure that women’s football is a permanent fixture in everybody’s life.”

Hayes points out that it was not too long ago that top-level women’s football was far from the giant that is it emerging as.

“People think it’s a million years ago that those things happened,” she says, recalling her start in the top flight, she had to work to ensure that the right kits were available to players.

Above: Spending her whole career working in women’s football makes Emma Hayes appreciate those who fought so hard in the past for the game to be recognised and respected. Photo: Getty Images.

“We hadn’t got to this point (yet), there’s been a lot of hard work, sacrifice, investment from the club, but there’s still scores of girls and women’s teams across the county that are still facing challenges to get the basics, to get a quality of access to our sport.

“I hope that the FA Cup is just a reminder that women’s football matters, and that girls and women playing football matters.”

Hayes then puts the onus on the media listening to her. She delivers her words like one imagines she does to drive a team to win the trophies that fill Chelsea’s cabinet.

“I hope that you guys do a good job of reminding everybody of the sacrifices everybody made prior to now to put the women’s game in the place that it is and that’s what we have to be thankful and grateful for. “

As for what needs to improve for the state of the game, the answer is instant.

“More prize money for everyone, not (just for) the winning teams. Why is it we don’t get more prize money? We need more money being invested so it can trickle all the way down, it’s the same with TV money.

“That journey has begun but when it comes to prize money, it’s nowhere near where it should be and it’s nowhere near what the men’s game is.”

Hayes has spent her entire career in women’s football and cautions that applying the same practices to growing the women’s game as the men’s is not ideal.

Above: Recognition that developing women’s football needs to appreciate the different needs of girls and boys is a key part of Hayes’ message. Photo: Getty Images.

She points out that in her experience, young girls do not travel or catch public transport alone to play. The opportunities need to be brought to them. The sport needs different viewpoints and perspectives at all levels

“We need to come up with better ways to create solutions for girls and women, not just all modeled on the boys and the men’s game. I feel like for us to go another step further in our game we have to get it right. We have to have more diversity in our game than we have right now.”

As for the game at hand, the manager is approaching the contest much the same as she always does.

The downside to a squad filled with internationals is that they are almost all returning from overseas and training loads have to be managed. The team may not be finalized until the day before the match.

However, Hayes is confident her players will deliver, in particular Sam Kerr, fresh from a flight from Australia and a third-place finish in the Ballon d’Or.

“Sam is a top professional and we have sleep plans, recovery plans for these players and Sam will follow that. I spoke with her an hour ago and she said she feels much better than she did last time she returned so, she’ll give what her best can be on the weekend because these players are used to doing that even if it’s not what’s best for them.”

As kickoff approaches, there are no nerves from Chelsea, they’re used to must-win matches but Hayes is truly excited.

“It’s a special day in the women’s football calendar and I want to celebrate that for not just my own team but for everybody who’s been involved in this competition in their lives.

“I salute every single one of those women that have provided the opportunities, the pathway, the gateway and they’ve sacrificed so much so that the women’s game can be where it is.

“I just hope for everybody watching it’s a brilliant spectacle and one where everybody can celebrate the leaps and bounds we’ve made in women’s football.”

The Aussie Connection

Above: Some of the world’s greatest players and coaches will be on display at Wembley today. Artwork: Sky Sports.

Sam Kerr is currently one of the world’s best players. According to the Ballon d’Or judges, she is the top centre forward on the planet, and the statistics back that up.

Although she has circumnavigated the globe in the past week and played two games for Australia in between, she is expected to make an impact,

“Where do I start?” says Magda Eriksson when asked about the goal-scoring marvel. I think Sam’s been a great addition to our Chelsea team. I think she fits in our system perfectly, both as a person and as a player.

“I played against her in the Olympics with Sweden and I could really feel how difficult it is to play against her. She’s such a talented player, she has so many qualities to her. She’s both strong aerially, she’s good on the ball, she’s fast. It’s a player that’s really difficult to stop.

“How important she is in how we press, how we defend, how she’s such a team player as well, I have nothing but praise for Sam.”

Above: At the top of her game – Sam Kerr. Photo: Sky Sports.

Part of what has made Kerr so effective is her near-telepathic link with Fran Kirby. The duo were devastating last season and combined for 37 goals and 18 assists in the 22 games WSL season.

Kirby is comfortable playing with anybody up forward but her understanding with Kerr is the most dangerous partnership in English football.

She says being surrounded by the best forwards in the world at Chelsea like Kerr, Pernille Harder or Beth England makes her a better player.

“When you are playing with world-class players, it only increases your ability and you have to get alongside them and perform at the same level.”

While Kerr is the most famous Aussie export at Chelsea, another will take her place alongside Emma Hayes in the dugout.

Former Perth Glory player and Bristol City manager Tanya Oxtoby has joined Chelsea as an assistant.  Hayes says she brings something different to the club.

Above: Tanya Oxtoby, someone who Emma Hayes believes is adding more to Chelsea’s coaching. Photo: James Chance/Getty Images.

“Tanya is a remarkable young coach who is journeying through the levels and coming to us at Chelsea with some really really good experiences.”

Oxtoby is a psychologist and a former head coach, Chelsea hope to harness that expertise.

“She’s a good communicator I think she’ll bring some different things in terms of helping building relationships with players to her work that she does around opposition analysis.”

“I want to be able to provide an opportunity to get the best out of Tanya but also to develop Tanya because I think that’s it’s important that she can bring her different experiences and her background will offer us different viewpoints of my staff.”

For Australian football fans, it could be Caitlin Foord, Lydia Williams, and Steph Catley lining up for Arsenal while Oxtoby plots to stop them and Kerr does what she almost always does.

This will be a massive game.

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