‘Desperate to win’ – Man City Women chase perfect end to a season like no other in FA Cup final

A sense of injustice has driven Manchester City Women this season, and if they lift the FA Cup this weekend they will surely have silenced any remaining doubters.

“You can easily say we were written off,” goalkeeper Karen Bardsley tells MEN Sport, with other players inside the dressing room also referring to the outside criticism of City when a crippling injury crisis at the start of the season left them down in ninth in the Women’s Super League and out of the Champions League before the group stage.

Since a League Cup group defeat to Manchester United in November, though, City have arguably already proved those doubters wrong. Just one defeat in 23 games (and a narrow one at that) saw the Blues win the Continental Cup, overtake United to finish in third in the WSL, and reach Sunday’s FA Cup final at Wembley. Now they’re looking for that one last win to show they are ready to challenge Chelsea for the WSL title next season.

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“We were sitting down fifth or seventh at one point at the beginning and people said ‘you’re never gonna be able to get back from that’ and ‘what an embarrassment’ and things like that,” Bardsley recalls.

“Yeah, it does kind of feel as though we were written off. We weren’t involved in the title race, but you by the end, it was squeaky bum time for a few other clubs.

“We’ve really managed to turn things around. Obviously, after the start of the season. After the injuries we’ve been really fortunate to get the majority of everyone fit. And it’s been really impressive to see, just like how fluid the performances have been, you know, like it’s been just really consistent.

“Okay, maybe they’ve not been full 90 minute performances we probably need to win another trophy. But, the way we played against Chelsea in the League Cup final was one of the best 45 minutes of football I’ve seen in a long time from us and we just seem to be gathering a lot of momentum and confidence from you know, the games that we play.

“We managed to secure Champions League for next season, so I think that was a that was really important for us. But yeah, the vibes seem really good at the minute.”

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Bardsley will retire after the Chelsea game, and while she won’t play at Wembley, she’s looking forward to a perfect goodbye to a glittering career in front of at least 50,000 fans on a weekend where the men’s and women’s finals are played back-to -Back for the first time. Elsewhere in the City squad, the next generation are equally keen to ensure a cup double is secured from one of the most difficult seasons of their lives.

“The critical moment was the Continental Cup final [3-1 win vs Chelsea]how we brought it back,” forward Georgia Stanway said this week.

“Players stepped up and that was an unbelievable day. When you put it into perspective, we didn’t have the start we wanted – we set out to go further in the Champions League, win the league, Continental Cup and FA Cup.

“We’ve ticked off the Conti Cup so we’ve achieved something. To have done that and got to the FA Cup final considering the start we had makes it more exciting and showcases the growth we’ve had as a team this year. It wasn’t the year we wanted in terms of our start, but we can end it on a high.”

Reflecting on the trials and tribulations of a turbulent season, boss Gareth Taylor said before this game that City can still class this as a successful season, whatever happens at Wembley.

“There are many ways to get there, we eventually got there,” he said. “We left it late. If you look at the circumstances early in the season, the lack of preparation, the injuries we had, the way we managed that period, at times we looked a long way away in terms of qualification but the players were amazing.

“We’re desperate to win on Sunday, giving everything to win. If we’re not successful, what does our season look like? I still think it’s a positive season. We’ve won eight trophies in eight seasons as an organization, it shows we’re doing something right. We want to improve on that, I’m more ambitious than anyone to do that.

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City produced a brilliant performance to beat Chelsea in the Continental Cup final in March.

“We’ve come away with a trophy, qualification which was really important as a club for the Champions League, and we’ve got an opportunity to win another trophy. Being in the final is important for us.”

Newly-crowned Player of the Season Lauren Hemp agrees with her teammates and manager, saying the final this weekend is a perfect way to end the season positively and strike an early blow on rivals Chelsea for a title challenge next season.

“There are the games everyone wants to be involved in,” she said. “The FA Cup Final is a massive occasion. It’s one I’ve been part of before and those are the moments you remember when you look back on your career.

“It’s really exciting. We’re all in a good place, feeling really confident. We’re coming into the game in good shape off the back of a lot of wins, and we’re training really hard to be ready for it. It’s a great opportunity for us to lift another trophy and hopefully get one up on Chelsea again. We can’t wait.”

Lucy Bronze, a regular through thick and thin this season, said City will continue with their one-game-at-a-time mantra that got them through the testing Autumn period and into their brilliant 23-game run since November.

“It’s the best the squad has felt all year,” she said.

“Off the back of some disappointments this season, what we’ve achieved is fantastic. It says a lot about the character of the team and the individuals who have pulled out performances, working hard and sticking together.

Lucy Bronze featuring for Man City in the Women's FA Cup
Lucy Bronze has been a key player for City all season.

“It’s been like two different seasons in one. We were in a difficult position just before Christmas but there wasn’t much more we could do other than focus on ourselves. That cliché of ‘one game at a time’ was very prevalent at that moment.

“We’ve just taken everything in our stride, not looking too far ahead to Cup Finals or too far behind to disappointing results and performances. It was just about getting the result on the day and building on that. Since Christmas, we’ve been on a great run, picking up points and scoring goals. It’s nice that we got one trophy and that we’re in another Final, and the Champions League is where this team should be.

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“In a way, it’s more special [after the poor start] but it’s also disappointing because you think: ‘What position would we be in if we’d have performed better or not had so many injuries?'”

That is a question that will always follow City when they reflect on this season. What could have been? They have shown the form of title contenders for the last six months, but their injury-impacted start means they’ll never know if they could have pipped Chelsea to the title.

However, listening to Taylor speak before the final, and it’s clear that he feels the focus should be on what they have done well rather than asking ‘what if?’

He said: “Unfortunately in modern-day life, not just football, there’s a lot of criticism out there. It’s not hard to find. Hopefully, people have seen we really turned things around and give us credit for what we did, what we ‘ve done, and what we continue to do.

Gareth Taylor was under pressure externally at the start of the season, but has turned City’s form around with just 21 wins from their last 23 games.

“For me I was a player for over 20 years, it was part and parcel of the game, unfortunately. We do struggle to say well done occasionally. I’ve taken that into the coaching side to make sure players feel valued, feel good We can all highlight negative things, that’s easy.

“What stands apart is focussing on the positives. That’s what we did all season. Even in the difficult moments we really highlighted what we did well. Of course the errors we can improve on. And maximum belief. If you work towards a goal you ‘ve got to have full belief in what you’re doing.”

And City certainly have the belief they can end the season in the perfect manner on Sunday. To do that, all they can do is continue to take one game at a time. With Chelsea up in the cup final, a victory would round off a testing campaign nicely and set them up nicely to make up for lost time next season.

Whatever happens at Wembley, though, nobody will dare write this side off anymore.


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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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