Carnival Wembley showcases football’s growing appeal

Manchester City may have added to their impressive silverware, but women’s football was the winner at Wembley. Katie Whyatt reports on a memorable day in the sun

As brooding skies gave way to reveal Wembley’s east end bathed in slashes of sunlight, women’s football once more toasted its elevation to main stream. In the end, it was job comfortably done by Manchester City, who cruised past Birmingham City 4-1 having killed the contest before the break with three first-half goals.

The scoreline might suggest an absence of competitive balance, but history offers a pertinent symbolic backdrop that highlights how far the women’s game has come in the last five years. Birmingham City’s last FA Cup final, in 2012, was fought in front of 8,723 people at Ashton Gate. Given the renewed appeal of women’s football in this country, it is chilling to think that the game’s crowning showpiece, settled on penalties that year, was ever contested in such humble surroundings.

Trickling up a Wembley Way lined with merchandise stalls and littered with half and half scarves afforded Birmingham – and women’s football – another timely ‘how did we get here?’ moment. As Manchester City’s Carli Lloyd – the world’s most famous player – would likely attest, England lags behind its counterparts across the pond in its sustained promotion of the game, but continuing to stage the FA Cup final at Wembley – as the FA have done since 2015 – marks another decisive step to consolidating women’s place on the main stage.

With that voice and stage comes genuine cultural traction. The hum of excitement and the sense of expectation was palpable; you could feel a genuine flutter of giddiness tearing through Wembley Way. Wembley was a rhapsody in (varying shades of) blue, but there were droves of school trips, scout group, families, scatterings of Real Madrid, Leicester, Manchester United shirts to complete the party. One school had made an 11-hour round-trip from Middlesbrough to be there. Andy and Stephen, Manchester City men’s season-ticket holders, came down because “Man City is a family, and we support the ladies, too”.

The whole thing felt like a carnival, a football festival. Even at 1-0 down, a Mexican wave tore through the Birmingham end. Kids got in for free; adults £15. But it would be erroneous to say girls even dominated the crowd. This felt like a celebration of football that bridged divides and demographics; the players, even on the country’s most prestigious stage, still felt close, accessible, tangible.

Before the game, lifelong Manchester City supporter Louise drank in the atmosphere with her three daughters, who were clad in shirts emblazoned with Duggan, Bronze and Kun Aguero. Louise began following the ladies’ team “about three years ago, because of my daughter”.

Louise explained: “She plays football. She wants to play for Man City ladies. We live just near London, but she wants to be Toni Duggan – that’s her star. She scores good goals – Chloe likes how she scores amazing goals, because she’s a striker, too. One of the little ones likes Lucy Bronze, as well. I think it’s amazing, to have female football players who they can look up to, because it different to the men’s. They struggle with the men’s – it’s not quite the same, is it?”

Just after the quarter hour mark, Manchester City’s class began to show in earnest. Megan Campbell’s free-kick floats into the box and Lucy Bronze glides away from her marker with such pace that not even the tumbling Kerys Harrop can halt her. The game was only 15 minutes old but Manchester City’s relief that the deadlock had been broken was palpable. Bronze turned provider eight minutes later, beating Harrop, scissoring an opening and crowning her bruising run with an arcing cross that Izzy Christiansen met with a crisp half-volley. When Birmingham goalkeeper Ann-Katrin Berger lost her head on the half-hour mark, and came early to collect a cross that she ultimately made no connection with, Carli Lloyd was there to pounce with a menace that underscored just how comprehensive a performance this was becoming.

Birmingham still toiled but the reality was Manchester City had had it signed, sealed and ready to deliver within half an hour. Birmingham had downplayed the underdog tag in the build-up, having, in previous rounds, proved their on-field mettle. They might not have the same financial muscle as Manchester City – more on that later – but have done so much right. But Nick Cushing’s side showed once more why they are the country’s dominant force, and made a case for continuing to be the main trailblazers for some time.

Manchester City laboured down a gear and it became, in many respects, a chance to appreciate the football. The flags flew to a constant hum of anticipation, punctuated by billowing horns, foam fingers furiously wagging. The crowd’s biggest roar of the afternoon was reserved for the announcement of the record-breaking attendance – 35,271.

Birmingham substitute Charlie Wellings, 18, had her moment in the sun after smacking home Ellie Brazil’s pinpoint delivery. A late fightback hadn’t looked forthcoming for long spells, but the goal gave Birmingham a new lease of life and they rallied briefly. But Manchester City were clinical in their riposte and Jill Scott eased past Harrop to plant a fierce finish into the top right hand corner.

In the end, it was business as usual for a club who have set – and continue to raise – the bar for women’s football. Manchester City are now the first team to hold all the major English honours at once: the FA Cup, the WSL title and the Continental Cup. Captain Steph Houghton has played in four FA Cup finals, but this was her first with Manchester City. She is the sport’s poster girl and was unequivocal on the importance of staging the final at Wembley.

“It’s an amazing stadium – the best in England,” she said. “I got goosebumps [walking out] – when you play in these big games, that’s what it’s about. You realise that all the hard days of training and being away from your family are all worth it. They’re all there sitting in the stands, watching you, proud of you for playing. To have a fantastic crowd – over 35,000 – is great for the women’s game. [We now need to] try and make sure that we keep inspiring young girls to watch. It’s up to us to keep making sure that every team looks at us and wants to beat us, but we’ve got to keep improving. It’s important that we keep growing the sport and I think there’s no better place to do it than Wembley Stadium.”

In the aftermath, Birmingham City manager Marc Skinner was far from downbeat. His squad have an average age of 22: there is time for a growth that mirrors the sport’s upwards trajectory.
“You get to choose your emotion: I could be really disappointed, and what’s that going to get me?” he said. “The roars – even as a young coach – [give a] feeling that kind of stirs you on. We said to the girls throughout the week that you live for moments like that. You can hear the roar, but you can’t see the people. It’s like a Where’s Wally? kind of thing. Once [my team] reflect on it, I’m sure they’ll have the bug to want to come and do it again – and our group owe it to women’s football to make it a good product to watch.

“Because I think women’s football has its own identity – and I think it should do, going forward. I think that everybody should want to come and watch it for its technical excellence, rather than just its physical capacity. And if you can mix both of those, I think we’ll have a real product going forward that people can be proud of, and we’ll fill stadiums like this in England. Because they do in other countries – and I think we need to do that, too.”

There is a concern now, with Manchester City such a dominant force, that the rest of the WSL could be left behind. To scrutinise Manchester City feels misplaced and churlish; the onus should be on others to emulate them, but the gulf in finances and media clout feels cavernous at times.

Skinner is under no illusions about the scale of the financial mismatch, but remains pragmatic. “I can only look at what I’ve got,” he says. “If we have had their financial resources, potentially, you’re competing on a different stage – but what we do have is human resources. I’m a coach before I’m a manager. I look at my people and I think you can maximise the potential of a lot of the young players out there. So who is the next Steph Houghton? Who is the next Jill Scott? Because they’re starting to get to an age now where, who is the new blood coming through? And hopefully I’ve got that bunch with me. I’m hoping to create those players if I can’t buy them, and that’s as simple as it needs to be.

“I’m never going to moan about the disparity between finances, because I can’t – I’ve just got to work at my job to make these players better every day. I’ve got a good bunch who are trying to do as much as they can, going forward, to put bums on seats.”

This was Bronze’s second FA Cup final, but her first in eight years. “I watched a little clip back from the game the other day and, back then, Rachel Yankey was the superstar. I was the little kid who was meant to be marking her. So a lot of things have changed since then: women’s football’s on the rise, attendances are on the rise, women’s football is getting better, the England team’s [getting] better and better. And I think it’s just going to continue to grow.

“Women’s football’s going somewhere, and it’s been going somewhere for a while.”

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Article by Katie Whyatt at Wembley. Katie’s latest articles.

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