“The Women’s Game Wins Again”

Ahead of tomorrow’s FA Cup Final at Wembley, Impetus’ Kieran Yap heard from the head coaches of both teams for us – Emma Hayes of Chelsea, and Manchester City‘s Gareth Taylor (14/5/22).

Manchester City and Chelsea have a strong mutual respect, and both managers are predicting a high-quality match in front of a potentially record-breaking Wembley crowd on Sunday.

Both sides can lay claim to deserving a trophy this weekend but are under no illusions that it will be an easy job. Gareth Taylor and Emma Hayes have both had seasons they can be proud of for different reasons.

City started the season off disastrously. Taylor’s side struggled for momentum and form after being plagued by injuries. Since slipping to ninth on the table. They recovered to finish third after embarking on an 18-game unbeaten run and claiming the Conti Cup over this week’s opponents.

Chelsea won the league but are at the end of a very high intensity campaign. Any dropped points during the season could have handed the title to Arsenal. Hayes’ team has beaten injuries to Fran Kirby and Magda Eriksson, Sam Kerr and Ji So-yun’s absences for The Asian Cup and a COVID outbreak that put an end to their Champions League run.

These two very different paths have converged on the biggest day of English football. The FA Cup has prestige, and both managers are excited for the opportunity to lift the trophy.

Above: Manchester City head coach Gareth Taylor – excited about tomorrow’s showdown, but full of respect for Chelsea. Photo: Sky Sports.

“The FA Cup is still a special competition for players, for coaches, for supporters,” said Taylor to the media.

“I think previously in both the male and female game that was probably more important. Now its shifted slightly with European competition becoming more potentially lucrative. I think increasing the purse for all teams that enter the FA Cup is massive in the women’s game now. It’s never lost its magic. It’s a great competition. It’s a competition I remember playing in as a player.  Being the underdog, being the favourite and what that brings, I think it’s a really special competition.”

City’s recovery under Taylor has given them serious momentum. Although he appreciates the form the current side is in, the manager is taking nothing for granted against the league champions.

“I think we’re going into it in form. I’d say Chelsea have been in decent form as well. They finished the season off well, so I think it’s sometimes going to have a relevance in a game. It’s a one-off game. It’s about who manages that game well enough on the day. Who plays the game and not so much the occasion.”

Cup finals are nothing new to Manchester City. They have carried home the trophy on three of the last five occasions. The other two years were won by Chelsea.

Above: Manchester City lift the FA Cup in 2020 after their win over Everton at Wembley. Photo: Telegraph.

“We’ve been there before,” reflects Taylor. “We’ve been in cup finals a lot of the times…there’s no real kind of edge if you like for either team. The ones who go and perform best on the day are likely to take the trophy home.”

City’s resilience has been something to behold this season.  There was expectation and excitement around a squad that had added some star recruits such as Hayley Raso and Khadija Shaw, and after a tough start, they secured a champion’s league place, a Conti Cup win and an FA Cup Final.

“Being in the finals is important for us,” says Taylor

“We got to the final game of last season, being in contention for the league with Chelsea, going quarter-finals of the Champions League, going quarter-finals of the Conti cup, winning the FA Cup. I think that’s the really important thing for us is going as far into competitions as we can. There are many ways to get there, we eventually got there.

“We left it late but when you look at the circumstances early on in the season with the lack of preparation that we were able to have, with the amount of injuries that we had. At times we looked like we were a long way away in terms of qualification, but the players were amazing in that point for me. We’re desperate to win on Sunday. We’re giving everything to win.”

Down in London, Chelsea coach Emma Hayes has recovered quickly from last weekends’ FAWSL title winning celebrations. She manages the champions of England but knows that City will be a stern test at Wembley.

Chelsea will need all of their ability to beat Taylor’s team, but have had some surprising, good news in the selection department.

“It’s going to be tight,” Hayes told the media.  “Most of us would agree that there’s not a lot between the sides.

“I think for us, last time we played City we were depleted, this week we’ve got a full-strength squad to pick from, including Fran Kirby.”

Above: Fran Kirby is back for Chelsea on Sunday. Photo: Chelsea FC.

The star forward, who’s assists and goals propelled Chelsea to last season’s trophy haul, has been missing though illness. The announcement that she is available for the final is the ultimate good news story in a week full of them.

“I don’t want to put any pressure on her because I love that kid and she’s been through a lot,” said Hayes. “But she looked like she hadn’t been away. She looked that good in training. It was nice to see a smile on her face. She’s participated in everything. In the beginning of the week we said ‘let’s just see how it goes’. Let’s do one bit of one session.

“On day one, she came up and said that’s not enough. Then we did day two and ‘let’s use you as a neutral or you play half the blocks of game’. She said’ I’m fine.’

“She’s been in training all week, so I’m over the moon to be honest. I think Fran’s a generational talent. Maybe I’m biased because I work with her. Rarely have I seen a football player that can do what she does. The way that she finds space, the way that she makes decisions. The way that she plays selfless attributes in possession.

“She can pick a pass out, she’s got eyes on the back of her head. She’s a winner. Every day she wants to be on the winning team. She’s a grumpy one when it isn’t going well. She’ll openly acknowledge that because she wants to win so badly.”

Kirby may be the biggest inclusion for either team this week, but she joins a pair of team sheets packed with international stars.

Hayes is appreciative and wary of City’s squad. One name in particular stand out for the Chelsea manager.

“I’ve seen a team grow and grow under Gareth’s leadership. And a team where they’ve come together in a really difficulty moment and recovered from a tough moment. They’ve got outstanding talent.

Above: Lauren Hemp – Chelsea boss Emma Hayes is a big fan of Manchester City’s Lionesses star. Photo: Hannah Parnell for Impetus.

“Particularly in Lauren Hemp, what a player! I love watching her play I really do. I’m excited for England in the summer. I hope she’s amazing in the summer and terrible on Sunday.”

One player that could decide the game is Chelsea’s Erin Cuthbert. The Scottish midfielder scored a crucial goal and was Chelsea’s best player in a difficult first half against Manchester United.

“When lots of players were struggling, she was dominating,” said Hayes. She took the game by the scruff of the neck. I think she’s found a home (in midfield). She’ll always say to me that’s always been her home anyway, but we’ve had some top midfielders, so she’s had to wait her turn. That’s where she’ll remain running the show for the team.”

“She’s had to improve, particularly out of possession positionally. And in possession she’s starting to make better decisions…. she’s always been a great learner anyway… I think she’s an unbelievable talent that’s becoming a real leader in the side.”

One name above all

Both sides could name a first XI made up entirely of internationals, with Chelsea boasting numerous national team captains in their ranks. In a galaxy of stars, one has shone brightest this season and has the attention of the football world and both coaches.

After a stunning performance in the last FA Cup, where she scored a stunning brace against Arsenal. Sam Kerr returns to one of football’s biggest stages.

Taylor, like all others is aware of what Kerr can do but is not focussed too much on any singular player. Neither coach can afford to this weekend.

“Sam is a very good player, but I think if you start to concentrate on here too much, we’re probably going to neglect one of the other really good players they have. Emma’s been in that role for 10 years now, I think it is, and has won 10 trophies.

“She’s been heavily supported, but I think we’re not doing so bad. This is my second trophy I’ve won. There’s an opportunity to win a third one in two seasons. It shows that we’re moving in the right direction.

Above: Sam Kerr – the Manchester CIty manager Gareth Taylor has a healthy respect for the Australian striker. Photo: Sky Sports.

“What I like about Sam Kerr is she was very gracious in the Conti Cup final. I thought she was amazing. Understand that you’re hopefully going to win games but understand that occasionally you’re not going to be successful. I thought that the way she handled herself as a person was spectacular.”

Hayes echoes those sentiments.

“Everyone in this dressing room knows how good those players are. We knew that the setbacks were temporary. Everyone in my dressing room rates Manchester City.”

Chelsea is the benchmark side in England, Taylor admires what they have accomplished but has faith that City can get the win. “There’s healthy respect between the players, between myself and Emma, between the organization. She’s done amazingly well. Why wouldn’t we commend what they’ve done?

“It doesn’t change things of course.  We want to be there, and we want to be that team that’s there and beating them and we’ll have another opportunity. We have one more opportunity to build on it, to stretch that unbeaten run.”

The Biggest stage

The opposing teams share similar views of this game. Both anticipate it will be high on quality, and both are eager to play in front of what should be a huge crowd.

After experiencing empty stadiums, Gareth Taylor is not taking a packed Wembley for granted.

“It just shows that the game is moving in the right direction,” he says. “We played in a final last year which was a different feel with no supporters there. This is going to be amazing, there’s not better placed to see than a pretty full Wembley. The atmosphere will be great.

“It’s really nice and special for the players of both teams to be able to celebrate that with their supporters and their families as well. Sometimes, as a coach you think these finals are going to come around all the time. I remember standing there and wishing that my family and friends were there, and our brilliant supporters. It felt great, don’t get me wrong. But it also felt a little bit empty in that respect.

“Sometimes you wonder if you’re going to be back in that situation again. Fortunately, we are. Things are different now. I think it changes everything. It changes the whole build up, even around the hotel before the game it was a bit of a ghost town last year.”

“It’s going to be fantastic. Two good teams, slugging it out. Two teams who showed real good quality during this season.”

Hayes is also eager to step into a stadium filled with more than 50,000 fans. The growing atmosphere at women’s football matches is something she is relishing, and she is supportive of the idea of separating fan groups.

Above: Chelsea lifting the FA Cup at Wembley last December. They are all out to repeat the scenes in front of their fans tomorrow. Photo: BBC.

“We need to keep crowds separate. I think there’s rivalries. I think believe it or not, there’s fans coming into the game that are vocal. There’s colourful language and I think that we have to be conscious that we should build these rivalries. We should build tensions in the stadium between teams, healthy tension of course. I do think it’s the way to go, I think we should have designated sections.”

Neither team goes into this match with a clear advantage in form or fitness. It is a finely balanced contest that should be as spectacular as it is unpredictable.  

“We feel the same way about each other. The difference is the games against Arsenal are more of a derby game. This is a chess match between two sides, and I think that we’ve got our strengths that could expose them, and they’ve got theirs that could expose us.

“I don’t think anybody in this room can call it, we’re favourites, they’re favourites. Either way it’s going to be a great game.”

Both clubs want that famed trophy, and both will be confident of winning.  Beyond what happens on the field, there is a bigger picture that is taking shape in women’s football.

In the shadows of England hosting the Euros, there is real momentum behind the sport. As Hayes puts it, regardless of the result this weekend, “the women’s game wins again.”

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