If you have half an interest in women’s football in England, then you’ll already know that fourth-tier Ipswich Town were drawn away to current holders and big dogs of English woso Manchester City in the fifth round of FA Cup. As Ipswich Town are the lowest ranked team left and indeed the only side from the fourth tier that still stood before this weekend (incidentally only one team from the third tier reached the last 16, such is the imbalance of the cup this year), no one was left wanting for coverage of the Tractor Girls.
Ipswich are an amateur team composed largely of teenagers who don’t just split their time between school and football but subdivide it between the senior Ipswich team and the U21 side too. They booked their spot in the fifth round by beating Huddersfield Town (a third-tier team) in the previous round, playing counterattacking football that saw 16-year-old Maddie Biggs bag a hat trick and steal the show, although Ipswich’s goalkeeper Nikita Runnacles’ string of saves was equally as vital in seeing off the Terriers.
If you had spoken to the players after the draw for the fifth round was made, they’d have told you how excited they were to face City, one of the leading teams in England, a side that twice made it to the Champions League semi-finals only to be thwarted by Lyon. A club that boasts some of the best facilities in women’s football in Europe, a team built to win silverware, comprised of full internationals and stars of the game. Town weren’t writing themselves off, and few were keen to frame the match as a potential blow-out, but the unspoken hung heavy.
Focused on promotion to the third tier – and then the second and first – Ipswich had bigger fish to fry than the Citizens. Yet their impressive cup run, which had begun in the second round of qualifying (the entry point for fourth tier teams and fourth round overall) had earned them deserved plaudits, from the 7-0 win over fifth tier Royston Town to the impressive way they’d swept Norwich City aside in the Old Farm Derby to their next blowout, this time at home to AFC Basildon on to their first away tie, with their 6-0 win over third-tier Chichester City the biggest of the round. Then it was Portsmouth and a narrow 1-0 win before Huddersfield. En route to facing City they had played six, scored 29, and conceded two, seeing off one team from the fifth tier, two from the fourth, and three from the third.
Yet it had come at a cost. The trip to Huddersfield’s John Smith’s Stadium (220 miles from Ipswich) had left the team with a deficit of £700. The trip to Manchester would be a comparable distance but the club had given the women use of the men’s coach for the game. The simple act was reported by the Telegraph with players quoted about their excitement over the USB ports and TV screens, like staying at a Hilton when they had been used to Motel 6.
For all the positive press the Tractor Girls had had, for all the warmth shown to them and the reports of 400 fans on board to make the trip north west to the match in less than idyllic conditions with Storm Dennis wreaking havoc in the UK, there was little that could help the team on the pitch when the match got underway. Literally a case of women against girls, the rain that cascaded down on the British Isles matched City’s work on the pitch.
It mattered not that Alan Mahon rotated the team as much as it had been all season with back-up goalkeeper Karima Benamur, promising youth product Jess Park, and Irish teenager Tyler Toland all given rare starts. The home team remained bloated with talent and once Laura Coombs had given the Citizens the lead, the only question was just how comfortable their margin of victory would be. By full-time Pauline Bremer, Georgia Stanway and the aforementioned Park all had hat tricks.
Ipswich was easy to cheer for, the English public loving nothing more than an underdog, but their defeat had been predictable. The effort required for any team to beat Manchester City is a terrific one but that team need to have things in place to begin with.They can’t just be an unfancied team, they have to be able to match the Citizens to a degree; this was something Town could never do as amateurs. I have previously waxed lyrical about the mismatches that can be found in English football, especially in cup competitions, but from the outside, there almost seemed to be a willing suspension of disbelief from the neutral for this match.
Whisper it softly but could Ipswich actually… cause an upset? No, of course not. Just like Saint Kitts and Nevis, with an actual 14-year-old in the team, weren’t going to cause an upset in their group for Concacaf Olympic qualifying. There are positives to be taken from what both are doing and how they’re growing but maybe there was just too much sentiment and romance around this tie.
Maybe the result was more striking because of the coverage the match had received in the build-up, maybe it was because City had hit double-digits, maybe it was because the storm had caused mass postponements and the only other FA Cup match that took place was a 1-0. Maybe it was always going to cause the eyes to pop and stomach to twist in discomfort or maybe we actually started to believe that the Tractor Girls could do similar to third-tier Sunderland and keep a professional side out until the dying minutes. But they couldn’t and once again this season (and month), we’ve been left feeling complicit as one team has dismantled another.
Ipswich will go away and focus back on their league campaign, City will await the draw for the next round and get to work on preparing for their next league match (a top of the table clash with Chelsea), and we’ll try and forget how grimy the result made us feel, until the next blowout.