Olli Harder invokes ‘West Ham spirit’ before Manchester City FA Cup clash | Women’s FA Cup

Olli Harder believes familiarity will offer his West Ham players invaluable reassurance as they meet renascent Manchester City for the third time this season. Saturday’s FA Cup semi-final takes place at Dagenham & Redbridge’s Chigwell Construction Stadium, where Harder’s side play their home games.

“If you’ve climbed a mountain before, the idea of ​​doing it again becomes easier psychologically,” said Harder. “We’ve beaten City before, we know where we can hurt them and they know that as well.”

Although only a fortnight ago West Ham lost 2-0 at home to Gareth Taylor’s team in the Women’s Super League, Harder choreographed victory by the same scoreline in Manchester last October. “City are talented but there’s a lot to be optimistic about,” said the New Zealander. “We’re hoping to write a fantastic story about an underdog reaching the FA Cup final. It’s about seizing counterattacking opportunities and being more clinical than two weeks ago. If we can do that, defend for our lives and show the West Ham spirit anything’s possible.”

Tactics, talent and sheer tenacity will all play their part in determining who reaches Wembley, but emotional control also seems set to exert a key role. At the end of a week in which the Northern Ireland women’s manager, Kenny Shiels, contentiously asserted that “emotional” female footballers are susceptible to conceding several goals in swift succession, gender differences dominated conversation before the semi-final.

After his side’s 5-0 defeat by England in Belfast on Tuesday Shiels posited the thesis that “women are more emotional than men… so they don’t take a goal going in very well”. On Wednesday he apologized amid a furore, and, by Thursday, Northern Ireland’s players had issued a collective statement saying “we stand by our manager”. Harder and Taylor were braced for questions on the issue.

“I’m sure there’s context behind those comments,” said Harder, whose seventh-placed side sit three places and 11 points behind City in the WSL. “Research shows there are more clusters of goals in women’s football but I’ve no idea why.

Manchester City’s Khadija Shaw is congratulated by her teammates after scoring against West Ham in their recent WSL meeting. Photograph: Lynne Cameron/Manchester City FC/Getty Images

“I think men hide their emotions a lot better than women but all humans are emotional. Any time there’s a disappointment there’s going to be an emotional context. I don’t think it’s necessarily a case of women having more emotions than men.” Taylor proved similarly nuanced. “I know Kenny, he was working at Tranmere when I was a player there and he’s a good guy,” said City’s manager. “I think he was probably just talking a little emotionally himself. His quite-early apology for him was important and the right thing to do.

“But the situation he was talking about happens in football, regardless of gender. It’s an emotional game, players make mistakes, do good things, lack confidence. It doesn’t matter whether you’re male or female, it’s a passionate game.”

Taylor, a former City and Wales striker, coached boys’ teams in the club’s academy before crossing the Etihad Stadium Campus to take charge of the senior women. “There’s some subtle differences [between the genders in football],” he said. “What blew me away most is that the girls will do the most boring technical stuff ever, like their lives depend on it. I think that’s amazing – as is the application and effort of women’s teams.

“There’s many times we’ve been 4-0 or 5-0 up late on in games and the opposition just don’t stop. They still come out and engage. You’ve got to take your hat off. It just doesn’t happen in the men’s game. By that stage in a men’s team the opposition are on their holidays and you’ve earned the right to control the game and do less work. But women’s teams don’t let up at all.”

Similar resilience has served his side well in a season which started dismally but is ending brightly. Weakened by a raft of injuries to key personnel including England’s Lucy Bronze and Ellie Roebuck, City struggled badly last autumn but are now strong contenders for Champions League qualification. A once-powerful clamor for Taylor’s sacking has long since evaporated.

“I think if, in some really difficult moments earlier this season, anyone had taken offered us the position we’re in now we’d have it,” said a manager debating whether to hand Chloe Kelly her first start of the season after the England winger’s recovery from a serious knee injury sustained last May. “We’re going in the right direction but I’m expecting some tactical cat-and-mouse at West Ham. There’s going to be times in the semi-final where we suffer.”


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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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