LONDON — On a day where pioneers were remembered and celebrated in the 50th Women’s FA Cup final, Chelsea added a further chapter to their remarkable dynasty of success with a comfortable victory over Arsenal.
Chelsea won 3-0 (stream a replay on ESPN+, US only), it could have been seven. And as Magda Eriksson held aloft the trophy in front of a crowd of 40,942 at Wembley, it was a reminder of how far the game has come, a full century after women were banned by the FA from playing football.
So as this was a celebration of the now, the current generation and FA Cup holders are equally aware of the importance of the past. With Wembley already packed, Lesley Lloyd and Elsie Cook walked out with the FA Cup before the teams took to the pitch. They were the captains for the inaugural women’s FA Cup back in 1971 — then called the Mitre Challenge Trophy. There was no official attendance for that first final, the players drove themselves to and from the Crystal Palace National Sports Centre, they sat and ate cheese and pickle sandwiches on the banks of the ground before kick off and, despite Lloyd lifting the trophy after her Southampton side won 4-1 against Stewarton Thistle, the Cup itself has since disappeared.
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After placing this year’s trophy on the stand, Cook and Lloyd hugged. As they took in the impressive Wembley surroundings, the pyrotechnics being primed, the players all going through their pre-match routines as the stands filled up with eager-eyed young fans, and those with memories of the near pre-professionalism past (the top flight Women’s Super League only went pro in 2016), the two 1971 captains took a moment to soak it all in. They played a role in this when they took to the field in front of a rickety wooden stand and started the ball rolling on a 50-year history leading to today.
But there was the other anniversary to mark — how back in 1921 women were banned from playing football with the FA’s council saying in the minutes of that meeting that the sport was “unsuitable for females and ought not to be encouraged.” There was also the fear the women’s game was rivalling the men’s for popularity, given just a year previous on Boxing Day, 1920, 53,000 paying supporters attended Dick, Kerr’s match against St Helen’s Ladies at Goodison Park. The ban was eventually lifted in 1971 and here, 50 years on, Chelsea put in a performance to remember against Arsenal.
“This was for them, as they may not have got those opportunities,” Chelsea manager Emma Hayes said. “They didn’t get the privilege of playing in front of 40,000 fans on live TV — today is for them. Somebody’s trodden the path before to make this available for us. Sacrifices have been made and we must acknowledge them.”
While the 1920 attendance still stands as the record for a women’s club match in the UK, having so many fans at Wembley at a time when the country braces itself for increasingly stern COVID-19 protocols was testament to the work done to grow and market the women’s game, but also to the match we had in front of us, which included Chelsea’s Sam Kerr and Arsenal’s Vivianne Miedema, who finished third and fourth in the Ballon d’Or voting last week.
But this match ended up being further affirmation of the incredible work Hayes has done at Chelsea, and the superb squad assembled there. This was actually last season’s FA Cup final — rescheduled due to COVID-19 — and Chelsea’s superb victory added the final piece to a remarkable domestic Treble.
“I think we’re getting better, I really do,” Hayes said. “Accumulating winning, and the odd setback, that experience counts for something – you can’t take that lightly and we used that to full effect today.”
Chelsea’s win comes three seasons after their last FA Cup triumph. To assess the work Hayes has done in evolving this team, just three players started both the 2018 final and the 2021 edition: Eriksson, Millie Bright and Fran Kirby. Since then we’ve seen the likes of established internationals Kerr and goalkeeper Melanie Leupolz added, alongside the batch of talent nurtured and brought through by Hayes.
But in both the constants from the last FA Cup triumph to Sunday’s were integral to this impressive victory. Kirby was outstanding, scoring the opener after just three minutes as she capitalised on defensive confusion to shoot past Arsenal’s Manuela Zinsberger. She would hit the post twice more, and was a constant threat and could have easily collected the Player of the Match trophy.
“I thought that was Fran’s best game in a Chelsea shirt,” Hayes said afterwards. “She’s a national treasure, look after her.”
Eriksson and Bright were brilliant in nullifying the threat of the usually outstanding Miedema, who had a quiet afternoon. But what’s moved this group on compared to one which reached the Champions League final last year is astute transfer business in the recruitment of Kerr, Pernille Harder and Leupolz — among others — and the unquenchable thirst of Hayes for further silverware.
Kerr was Player of the Match for her two goals — first a well-driven shot past Zinsberger’s near post, the second a beautifully lofted chip — and she could’ve easily had a couple more. “Sam’s the best striker in the world, she’s courageous, full of confidence,” Hayes said. “She’s a superb athlete and an amazing human.”
Kerr only arrived back in London on Thursday having been on international duty with Australia duty in Sydney, and had a sleepless night on Saturday, but was outstanding in driving Arsenal back as Chelsea created chance after chance.
Arsenal, leading the WSL by two points, were comprehensively outplayed as Hayes’ Chelsea negated their pressing game by dragging them wide, and then playing through the half-spaces. This was testament to the tactical shift Hayes made in the wake up of their Champions League final defeat to Barcelona in May 2021, by adopting a fresh 3-4-3 formation. But again she mixed this up, effortlessly switching to 4-4-2, and then a back five in the blink of an eye, but also move around with such ease that it can draw the opposition out of position and leave them grasping for thin air.
Hayes is one of the finest coaches in the game, and yet she continues to pinch herself every morning at the potential in this group of players. She played down the significance of this FA Cup final being the last part of the Treble — partly due to the weird merging of two seasons — but also because that’s their outlook now. They are used to battling for numerous trophies, and nothing but success is accepted.
“London is blue, and when the third girl went in, we were purring,” Hayes said. “To win a Treble — quadruple including the Community Shield — is the biggest achievement [I’ve had at Chelsea].
“This is a great day for women’s football. One hundred years ago we were talking about the Dick, Kerr’s Ladies, now we’re talking about Chelsea women. And we should be. Tonight I’m going to enjoy it. Are we the most dominant team in England? Yes. I thought we were a machine. We purred.”
While this victory is another piece of silverware in the overflowing Chelsea trophy cabinet, it was a match as much a celebration of where the game’s come from, and the women who helped make a match like Sunday’s a reality, as it was affirmation of this remarkable team led by the incredible Hayes.