Saturday, March 25, 2023

Ladies FA Cup final preview

Arsenal Ladies are shaping up for an F.A. Cup Final on Sunday, as they prepare to take on Everton at Stadium MK. That in itself is not unusual. In fact, a women’s F.A. Cup Final that doesn’t feature Arsenal is to be considered something of an anomaly with the Gunners having contested 7 of the last 8 finals prior to this year.

However this has been far from a typical campaign for Arsenal Ladies. With 3 defeats and a draw in their first 4 league games, the girls are bottom of the WSL. It’s been a time of transition with star players such as Steph Houghton, Ellen White, Gemma Davison, Kim Little, Katy Chapman and Gilly Flaherty moving on, with resources spread much more evenly around the league nowadays. Jayne Ludlow, Ciara Grant and Faye White have also recently retired.

Experienced England internationals Siobhan Chamberlain and Casey Stoney have arrived, along with Holland international Anouk Hoogendijk and Japanese World Cup and Olympic gold medallists Shinobi Ohno and Yukari Kinga. However, it’s taken time for the girls to gel as a team, which perhaps explains their inconsistency this season. With goal threats such as White and Little having left, the girls lost their own answer to Aaron Ramsey in midfield as free scoring, box to box midfielder Jordan Nobbs cracked a vertebrae in pre-season.

Whilst the girls have registered only one strike in four league games (courtesy of right back Alex Scott), they managed to rattle 5 past a rejuvenated Chelsea side in the semi-final. I was invited along to watch the girls train ahead of Sunday’s final and catch a few words with manager Shelley Kerr, who will step down from her post after Sunday’s game, Alex Scott and assistant manager and captain Kelly Smith, who hopes to be fit after feeling a slight strain in her quad in Sunday’s defeat to Bristol Academy.

The girls are first put through their paces with some stretching before raising the intensity of the session with what looks like a playground game of tag. Instantly, the mood is lifted, with right back Alex Scott at one point careering into young left back Emma Mitchell, the force of the collision knocks both girls over and both collapse in a fit of laughter. The mood around the training ground is sober but positive.

Right back Alex Scott acknowledges to me that there is more pressure on the team due to the inauspicious league start and with the final representing the final game of Shelley Kerr’s 16 month tenure, “In previous finals we’ve gone in as heavy favourites, this year people have already written us off for the season,” she says candidly, “As a team, we want to win it for Shelley too so she can go out on a high. Kelly Smith’s been carrying the team a little in the tournament in terms of goals and it’s down to the rest of the team to step up to the plate and create more opportunities.”

The loss of goal scoring midfielder and last season’s top scorer Jordan Nobbs is clearly keenly felt in the latter respect, “Her absence has been felt massively. It feels wrong to put that on Jordan’s shoulders because she’s so young but we’ve missed her athleticism and her ability to get from box to box.” Alex, herself a keen Arsenal fan, then utters an unintentional Wengerism when she says Nobbs’ return “will be like a signing in the second half of the season.” Manager Shelley Kerr is forthright about the prospect of Nobbs returning to fitness before Sunday, “Jordan definitely doesn’t have any chance of playing on Sunday.”

29 year old Scott also acknowledges the responsibility of both sides to put on a performance for the good of the women’s game, with the game being screened live on BBC 2 and close to 15,000 spectators expected, “I remember playing in Nottingham a few years ago when 29,000 people came to watch,” says the experienced right back, “We want to win the cup for Arsenal but we have new challenges of being role models in the game and trying to attract the next generation of women footballers.”

Having finished her slot with BT Sport, Shelley Kerr breezes over, looking surprisingly relaxed. Kerr is one of the most unmistakably Scottish people you could ever wish to meet. Her West Lothian accent has lost none of its percussiveness. To hear her speak is to absorb a pleasant flow of enunciated vowel sounds and freshly rolled Rs. Her gaze holds you when you speak with her. You find yourself involuntarily tucking your shirt in and correcting your posture.

Arsenal have typically played Siobhan Chamberlain in goal for the cup games, with Emma Byrne taking the gloves for league matches. I intend to ask Shelley who will get the nod for Sunday’s final, but in doing so I erroneously describe the goalkeeping selection as “a policy,” which Shelley immediately picks up on, “No, no. It’s not a policy, to be fair. It’s not the same as the men’s (with Szczesny and Fabianski), we make a decision based on training, tactics and that’s just the way it’s been.” Your reporter barely manages to hold himself together at this point, despite the temptation to break down in fits of horrible, apologetic tears.

Shelley’s bat is equally straight when I clumsily attempt to link her faith in Arsenal’s young players, such as Jade Bailey, Leah Williamson and Freda Ayisi with her decorated background as a youth coach for Scotland, “It’s nothing to do with my background. These girls are very talented and have come through centres of excellence. Someone like Leah has shown fantastic talent already. 5 or 6 of the starting line-up are 21 or under and the future’s very bright for this club.”

Shelley admits that Arsenal’s inconsistency has left her scratching her head, “If we knew the reason for it, we’d be fixing it and getting results. On Sunday for example, I thought we were fantastic for the first ten or fifteen minutes, but games don’t last ten or fifteen minutes. To put my finger on why we’ve played well in the cup but our form has dipped in the league is a wee bit of a mystery to be honest. In football it’s not just about talent, you need to be able to do the ugly stuff too and that’s something we need to do better.”

The only time Shelley isn’t candid during the interview revolves around her own future. Kerr took the decision to resign in the wake of Sunday’s defeat to Bristol Academy and Arsenal will have a four week break before the WSL resumes to appoint a successor. When I point out to Shelley that she could leave the club having accrued three trophies, she chirpily asserts, “That ain’t bad, is it?” But she won’t be drawn on how she’ll look back on her time with the club, “My only focus is the final,” she remarks.

Shelley leaves us to take the session over from the fitness coach. A high octane shooting and crossing session is proceeded by a game of two touch. Captain, assistant manager and Arsenal and England Ladies legend Kelly Smith comes over for a chat. Smith is also candid about the period of transition Arsenal are in, “We expected to lose some players, but perhaps not this many. It was disappointing. We’ve bought in some good, talented players but we haven’t yet got the right balance and cohesion in the final third yet.”

Smith was appointed onto the coaching staff last season, but admits that she is still very much in the nascent stage of her coaching career, with her B License exams in November. She says she has taken some forward sessions, but that Kerr has asked Kelly to concentrate more on her role as a player in the early part of the season. However, she appreciates her role as elder stateswoman in the build up to the final, “I’ll be in the ear of some of the young players, asking them how they’re feeling. I’ll be trying to help them feel as relaxed as possible so they can play their game.”

Smith pinpoints young striker Freda Ayisi as one to watch for the future, “She has something not a lot of players have in the women’s game have, she has strength and those quick feet, it’s impossible to get the ball from her. She still has to learn when to run with the ball and when to pass it off but that’s going to come with playing more games.”

For all of her experience, Smith confesses this would be the most satisfying cup win of her career were Arsenal to prevail on Sunday, “Yes it would be because of the bad start we’ve had and we’ve lost our manager so early in the season. It’s time for us to stand up and win it for our manager. Nobody wanted to see her go.”

The Gunners will be hoping to give Shelley the perfect send off on Sunday at Stadium MK. Tickets are £10 adults and £5 concessions and the match kicks off at 4.30pm on Sunday, 1st June at MK Dons’ Stadium MK. Tickets can be purchased here. The game will be shown live on BBC2.

Follow me on Twitter @LittleDutchVA

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Scott P

It would be pretty cool if the club won 2 FA Cups this year! All the silverware 🙂 Good luck to the ladies.

goonerism

Good luck ladies!

Toure Motors

COYG!

Nigel Hendicott

USA are the Olympic champions, not Japan. Good luck ladies!

Clock End Mike

That’s right. Ohno and Kinga were members of the 2011 World Cup winning Japanese team, and the 2012 Olympic silver medallists. And it’s Shinobu Ohno, not Shinobi.

And yes, wouldn’t it be great to have two FA Cups this season! Come on you Ladies!

Arsepedant

Come on ladies! Get us our second FA Cup this year!

Michael Farmer

What a great day at stadium MK.There was a good,enthusiastic attendance,the venue and organisation there was excellent,there was some interesting local history to visit and Arsenal played a very effective and entertaining game.The post match lap of honour went the whole way around the pitch and the team were very generous giving supporters their socks,shin pads and taking time to have photos and sign programmes.

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