When Laura Coombs reflects on her first Women’s FA Cup final a decade ago, the Manchester City midfielder does so with a sense of disbelief. She was part of the Chelsea side that was pipped to the trophy by Birmingham City in a penalty shoot-out at Ashton Gate in 2012, when an 8,723-strong crowd speckled the stadium. Afterwards, Coombs and her teammates split a measly runners-up check of £2,000 between them.
“It’s weird – at the time, obviously it was a big deal,” says Coombs. “But looking back now, it just felt a bit surreal that it was a real FA Cup. I’m pretty sure I wasn’t a full-time professional when that final came around. So that’s a massive change for me – the women’s game has moved on a lot.”
It is a point that is hard to understate. With more than 55,000 tickets sold for Sunday’s Women’s FA Cup final between Chelsea and Manchester City at Wembley, a new crowd record for the event is on the cards. In a seismic measure of the growth of the women’s game, next season’s prize money will increase by tenfold to £3m – although the figure still falls well short of the £15.9m the men’s competition receives. Add in the unprecedented symmetry of the women’s final being staged a day after the men’s at the home of English football, there is a sense the FA’s flagship women’s competition is finally getting the respect it deserves.
And what better way to celebrate such an occasion with an intriguing battle between two titans of the English women’s game? Chelsea, fresh from being crowned Women’s Super League champions for a third successive time last week, on paper are the favorites to clinch a domestic double. But Manchester City have already disrupted the Blues’ dominance this season after dispatching Emma Hayes’ side two months ago in the League Cup final after overcoming a nervy first-half fraud with defensive jitters.
Comb through City’s dizzying winning run of late and it would be unwise to downplay them as underdogs. Gareth Taylor’s outfit have won their last 13 games in all competitions and their watertight defense has conceded just two goals in their past nine. So ruthless have they been in front of goal that had the WSL title race been based on the penultimate nine games of the season, City would have pipped Chelsea to the title on goal difference.
“A lot of us wish that we could just carry on into next season now because I think we just want to continue on this roll,” says Coombs. “We had an unfortunate start and we had new players to bed in as well. Now, I feel like there’s a real sense that we can just go into every game and win. We’re in a good place.”
It is a world away from her side’s uncharacteristically sluggish form at the beginning of the season when, besieged by an injury-crisis, City conceded 20 goals in their first 13 matches and ultimately kissed goodbye to the title. Coombs has been somewhat of a bench player towards the latter end of the campaign once City welcomed back long-term absentees such as Lucy Bronze and Demi Stokes to shore up their defence, but has remained a key contributor throughout, scoring in City’s 6-0 route of Birmingham last weekend.