There will be a crowd in excess of 40,000 at Wembley today to see Arsenal and Chelsea contest the 2018 Women’s FA Cup final, writes Liam Mackey.
It’s an attendance which will comfortably break the record set at last year’s final when 35,271 watched a Manchester City side, which contained Irish international Megan Campbell, beat Birmingham 4-1.
Previous years had occasionally seen big crowds turn up for the showpiece game, including 24,582 at Nottingham Forest’s City Ground in 2008, but attendances then began to fall away, hitting a low of under 5,000 at Doncaster’s Deepmoat Stadium just five years ago for a game which saw Arsenal beat Bristol Academy 3-0.
It was with the move to the home of English football in 2015 that attendances began to climb dramatically again, with increasing public interest in the game, and women’s football in general, also reflected in the fact that today’s match will be screened live on BBC 1, with coverage starting at 5.10pm ahead of a 5.30pm kick off.
Hoping to follow in Megan Campbell’s footsteps and get their hands on the glittering prize are Arsenal’s girls in green, Louise Quinn and Katie McCabe.
For Quinn, the attention being devoted to today’s final is both confirmation of how far the women’s game has come in recent years and a reminder of how much more can still be achieved.
“Some clubs are doing great but the game as a whole can still push on,” she says. “The average attendance would be a thousand or maybe a bit less who come to the (FA Women’s Super League) games so that can definitely improve. But the club is working very hard in the community to make that happen. And the social media side of things has definitely exploded and expanded in terms of the popularity of the players and the way a lot of the girls are becoming very public role models. Which, again, is exactly what you want. You can see the interest is definitely there.”
Irish skipper McCabe came off the bench to aid the Gunners’ cause in the semi-final against Everton but in a dramatic climax to the game — with the teams locked at 1-1 and the clock ticking past 90 minutes — it was defender Quinn who, up for a corner, rose highest in the box to head home the winner and send Arsenal through to the final.
“Definitely one of the most important I’ve ever scored,” is how she describes the goal, “especially the fashion it was done in, coming just as the board for injury time was going up.”
The personal reward for Quinn will be a first-ever appearance at England’s most iconic football venue.
“I haven’t even had the chance to play at the Aviva yet,” the 27-year-old points out. “So hopefully I’ll get to play at Wembley first and then, at some stage of my career, get to the Aviva. That would be amazing.”
Today’s scenario might have seemed beyond her wildest dreams as recently as 2017 when Quinn found herself caught up in the nightmare of her Notts County team suddenly folding because of financial difficulties. But the defender wasn’t left floundering for long. With the FA opening the transfer window to assist the marooned players, it was only a matter of days before she found herself training with Arsenal — the very team Notts County had been due to play next before the plug was pulled.
And the Blessington native hasn’t looked back since.
“The last year with Arsenal has been brilliant and I’m definitely reaping the rewards now,” she says. “There was a period in my career which was tough, when I didn’t think my performances were up to scratch, but I feel myself hitting better form now again. I’ve got great coaches either side of me, at club and country.”
At international level, it’s under manager Colin Bell that the senior Irish women’s team are still firmly in the hunt for an historic first-ever tournament qualification, as they look to make it through to next year’s World Cup finals in France, with June’s back-toback matches against Norway likely to prove crucial in determining their fate.
Would Quinn regard four points out of six as the minimum required from those two games to keep qualification hopes on track?
“I would think so,” she suggests. “But that was always our intention and our plan. We’ve always known the Norwegians and the Dutch would cause us problems but, as we’ve shown so far, the potential is there in our team and we’ve got the confidence now that we can get any result once we put our mind to it.
“We’re happy we’ve put ourselves in contention but the aim now is to push on and qualify. Yes, Norway have great players and it’s going to be a massive challenge for us, but we’ll go into those games with the belief that if we do our best we can qualify.”
At least today, Quinn will have superstar Dutch Gunner Vivianne Mediema playing with rather than against her, but there will still be a little taste on the Wembly pitch of what’s in store for Ireland against Norway, since a formidable Chelsea side — currently league leaders and just recently eliminated at the semi-finals stage of the Champions League — can call on the experience of Norwegian defender Maria Thorisdottir in their bid to lift the trophy.
The stakes may be high but Quinn has no worries about her own side playing the occasion rather than the game.
“We’ve enough girls with the professionalism and experience of massive games to go into this with the right mindset,” she says.
“Chelsea will be tough but, ultimately, we’ve got to look out for ourselves and make sure that we get everything right and then turn up and perform on the day.”
It’s certainly what Irish manager Bell is hoping to see from the Gunners in green.
Earlier this week, he recounted a recent conversation he had with his skipper on the subject of what today is all about.
“I called Katie and said to her, ‘you know that I’m English?’,” he said. “She said, ‘yeah, yeah of course’. I said, ‘well, every English schoolboy has the dream of playing at Wembley Stadium in the FA Cup final, and you and Louise now have that chance’.
“It was just to put it into perspective what an event this is going to be.
“Last year it was Megan Campbell and she had a fantastic game. I’m hoping both girls will start. Louise is probably playing the best football of her career at the moment, scoring that decisive goal to get them there. I’m going to be so proud of them. It’s a massive day for them and a massive day for women’s football.”
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