It’s Saturday, 4 May, 2019, at just after 5pm. The sun is shining, and West Ham United’s players are walking out onto the Wembley pitch for the FA Cup Final.
It’s an event that I was seriously wondering would ever happen again, but here it is – it’s happening. Every year since 1980, when Trevor Brooking stooped to head us to a 1-0 victory over Arsenal, we’ve been waiting to walk out on the hallowed turf – I was going to say 2006, but that of course was in Cardiff – and the manner of defeat has been etched out of my mind.
It’s our women’s team that have finally put an end to that wait, and as a long-time West Ham United fan, I could not be more proud – both of the team, and of our fans. Even as the teams anxiously awaited the long walk to the centre circle, the roar of the West Ham fans was clearly audible, and it was at that moment that I realised that whatever happened, it would be a wonderful day in the history of West Ham United.
It has been quite a first season for West Ham in the Women’s Super League. Under the guidance of Matt Beard, there’s been ups and downs but the team were eventually to finish in 7th place – a respectable finish for their first professional season, even leaving aside the day out at Wembley. And what a day it was. Just the sight of the West Ham players on the pitch was enough to bring a tear to the eye of this particular supporter.
The scoreline didn’t really reflect the even first half – with the team eventually succumbing to a 3-0 defeat – but even so, we won lots of new friends for the gutsy display both on the road to Wembley and the final itself. Earlier in the day, 59,961 people watched the men’s team beat Southampton 3-0. However, due to the blazers at the Premier League refusing to reschedule the match, it wasn’t early enough for fans to be able to watch it and then head to Wembley.
This was, to say the least, a disappointment, although perhaps understandable from a Southampton fans’ point of view – although it is hardly helpful in promoting equality between the men’s and the women’s game. Still, let’s face it, we’re used to our dreams fading and dying, and our bubbles bursting, at West Ham.
And, consider: perhaps we weren’t alone in experiencing such disappointment – the refusal to move the match might well have contributed to the organiser’s sadness in not setting a new attendance record at Wembley, and perhaps lessons might be learned next season. That said, the support that the West Ham players received at Wembley was nothing short of magnificent – a crowd of 43,264 was present, with the West Ham contingent appearing to significantly outnumber the Manchester City faithful, roaring the team on.
It’s such a shame that we couldn’t make that first half chance count, with Jane Ross’ header being superbly saved. It might have been a different game entirely: you wouldn’t have believed that we lost the league games 10-2 on aggregate. And what of the team’s 7th place finish in the Women’s Super League? It represents a highly satisfying debut season in the top flight.
It’s true to say that there’s a huge disparity between the top four in the league – Arsenal, Manchester City, Chelsea, and Birmingham, against the rest – and West Ham finished 17 points behind the top four. Take a look at the league table, though. It shows that the rest of the league is quite bunched, with the team finishing only four points behind Reading, in fifth.
The gap to the top four isn’t insurmountable over the coming seasons, provided the team has the right investment. An FA Cup final can only help to attract players who will help to bridge that gap. But back to Wembley though, and a special day out for any West Ham supporter.
‘It was a game of two halves, wasn’t it? We created the better chances in the first half. The first goal changes the game. When you go behind against Manchester City, they’re a very good team, and Man City deserved to win it on their second-half performance. But when we walked around at the end, with the fans, and you look at what we’ve created in such a short space of time as a club, this team is only going to get better and our fanbase is only going to grow. It’s been really tough but, to be here, speaks volumes for what we’re trying to do. We have a lot of young players who will learn from this and become better players because of it.’Matt Beard speaking after the match
The future looks rosy for West Ham United Women. There is no doubt that the team will become more mature, will be more experienced, and will be more resilient for the new campaign later this year, and I for one have sat up and taken notice of the team’s exploits. Many others are likely to do the same.
I’ll certainly be following both the women’s, and the men’s team, very closely in the new season – looking for improved performances, more consistency, and a higher league position from both teams next time around. Finishing runners-up in any final is always tough. Everyone remembers the winners: the other finalists are rarely mentioned.
But as the players trooped to collect their runners-up medals, there was no sense of having let any of the supporters down, no recriminations, only joy at the level of performance. Even when the mainstream media simply refer to season 2018/19 as “Manchester City – FA Cup winners”, we will forever remember it as the season that West Ham Women reached their maiden cup final – topping off our very first as a fully professional women’s football team, with a bright future to come.