After last season’s quadruple, and their losses in this campaign’s League Cup final to Everton and UEFA Cup quarter final to Lyon, Arsenal were intent on adding the FA Cup to the Premier League title they’d recently secured for the fifth successive time.
The League Cup final loss in February ended Arsenal’s run of 58 successive wins in domestic football. Drawing at home to Everton in the league last month ended their run of 51 straight league wins. Their bar is set high and the standard there for all their opponents to aspire to.
And a comfortable victory over Leeds - who finished third in the Premier League - was widely expected. The north London dynasty is made up of numerous remarkable achievements including the fact that they had previously won all eight FA Cup finals they’ve played in, 28 major trophies in sixteen years and are unbeaten in the league for the fourth straight year.
The seventh consecutive live televised FA Cup final began with Leeds looking for the greatest upset in English women’s football history, pitting their wits against a side who’ve won seven trophies over the last three seasons, during which time Arsene Wenger’s team have been trophyless. The Arsenal Ladies share the training ground at London Colney with their more illustrious male counterparts, so bragging rights are all with the women in recent years.
Leeds were up against the head coach - Vic Akers - who in his 22 years at the club has guided his team to every success possible in women’s football, the player - Kelly Smith - who Akers describes as the best in the world, and the striker - Lianne Sanderson who came into the game having scored a remarkable 50 goals this season and at least a brace in every round of the cup this year.
Looking like their only chance of success was to take the match to extra time and penalties - having won three of the four rounds they’ve played in, on spot kicks (in the semi final Telford even saved a second minute penalty from Everton’s England midfielder Fara Williams), Leeds hoped to rely on the experience of their three players who played in Leeds’ only previous FA Cup final appearance, two years ago.
That occasion wasn’t victorious and neither was this one ever going to be. Losing 4-1 this time improved on the 5-0 loss against the same opponents in the final of 2006, but in reality the outcome might have been much worse for Leeds this year. Arsenal enjoyed over 70% of the possession and ended the game having had an impressive 40 attempts at goal.
If the men’s game uses the term ‘men against boys’ for a one sided encounter then this was certainly ‘women against girls‘. Quite literally. Leeds are an up and coming, young side, containing a smattering of 16 and 17 year olds. Arsenal a team made up completely of full internationals, including eight of the 11 ladies who start for England.
One of Arsenal’s two star strikers, Julie Fleeting who scored a hat trick for Scotland against Portugal on Saturday, could only make the bench, having been out for sometime with a metatarsal injury. Four years ago, Fleeting played in the Cup Final for Arsenal a day after playing for Scotland and scored a hat trick that day against Charlton. She wasn’t able to repeat the trick today, but did manage an assist for Arsenal’s fourth goal.
Team news was completed in the knowledge that seventeen-year-old Kim Little, who also played for Scotland on Saturday, signed for Arsenal too late from Hibernian to be eligible to play in this competition. She is rumoured to be the next big thing, so it was a shame for her not to be able to strut her stuff on the big stage. However, her time will come.
Leeds’ Sophie Walton continued the good feeling within her family, as her cup final appearance coincides with her brother Simon’s Championship playoff qualification for Hull City.
Arsenal were determined to kick off with a bang.
In the sixth minute, Kelly Smith shot straight at Telford. Two minutes later Arsenal’s marauding right back Alex Scott rifled a power half volley which was tipped onto the bar by the England third choice goalkeeper, and a minute later, the confident Leeds’ number one made her third important save within the first ten minutes, this time from Lianne Sanderson. Arsenal had set about their task with little hesitation.
In the 15th minute, Wales captain and former British under 17 triple jump record holder, Jayne Ludlow bent a 25 yard free effort over the advanced Telford but the young keeper managed to get back in time to expertly tip the ball over the bar.
In the 24th minute, a double save from Telford denied Scott again and after 25 minutes Arsenal had outshot Leeds 8-0 with all eight attempts on target.
Soon passed a third of the game, Leeds had a disallowed goal, as former England number nine Amanda Barr lobbed Arsenal’s Irish goalkeeper Emma Byrne, but was correctly adjudged offside.
However, this was their only foray in Arsenal’s defensive third and two minutes later, England and Arsenal captain Faye White headed over, unmarked, in the 35th minute, when it looked easier to score.
The Gunners’ first half chances didn’t end there.
In the 38th minute, Telford used her feet to save Karen Carney’s weak effort when the Arsenal winger was put through one on one with the Leeds goalkeeper, who completed her repertoire of different types of saves.
Then in the 40th minute, a double handed block in the area by Leeds’ Katie Holtham, was amazingly not seen by the otherwise impressive Slovakian-born referee Sasa Ihringova, now based in Telford, Shropshire. A sure-fire penalty if ever there was one.
Byrne’s first proper action didn’t come until the 43rd minute, when she was forced to palm away Sue Smith’s corner. Set pieces were undoubtedly Leeds’ greatest hope for a goal, as expected.
The first half incredibly ended goalless, solely thanks to Telford’s heroics. However, Arsenal’s patient approach soon paid off in the second half.
In the 54th minute, their dominance was made to count by the golden girl of English women’s football Kelly Smith, who latched onto a Rachel Yankey through ball and slotted home. The former New Jersey Wildcats players linked up to great affect, carving open the Leeds defence in a way they’d threatened for the best part of an hour. Yankey was in her eighth FA Cup final - scoring in three of them - having also played for Fulham at this stage of the competition.
Then the floodgates opened.
In the 59th minute, Ludlow side-footed home from Sanderson’s in-swinging free kick, nutmegging the unfortunate Telford to bag her 20th goal of the season. An amazing effort for a holding midfielder, summing up Arsenal’s dominance in the game. The lady Gunners have six players in double figures this season, while Amanda Barr is Leeds’ top goalscorer with nine league goals.
A minute later Sanderson scored her 51st goal of the season (11 in the FA Cup), driving home a deflected effort from just inside the box.
Arsenal had astoundingly outshot Leeds 26-1 after an hour.
Bt Leeds’ valiant effort in perseverance was praiseworthy. With just over twenty minutes remaining, Sue Smith drove against the bar from 25 yards, after a clever stepover, and Jess Clarke followed up to head into the top corner for a consolation goal for the underdogs, on her 19th birthday. Wild jubilation followed the goal, which was richly deserved for showing real grit and pride in the face of far superior opposition.
Two minutes later, Kelly Smith missed a sitter, heading wide, when totally unmarked from seven yards, and then White headed a corner past Telford but her effort was headed off the line by Amanda Barr.
With a quarter of an hour remaining, Arsenal made a triple substitution, flexing their muscles with Gemma Davison, Julie Fleeting and Irish international Yvonne Tracy replacing Yankey, Sanderson and Ireland’s captain Ciara Grant.
A minute later, the only yellow card of the game was awarded for Leeds left back Alex Culvin, for a late challenge on Karen Carney - undeserved, as contact was minimal.
In the 80th minute, Fleeting bent a shot just past the post after good work from fellow substitute Davison, an eye catching dribbler. This immediately preceded an excited murmur around the ground following the rare site of a female streaker adding some extra flair to proceedings.
With only seven to go, Fleeting broke clear, used the outside of her right foot to bend the ball onto the post and Kelly Smith was present to tap the rebound into an empty net for her second of the game, and a consecutive FA Cup final brace. The game was done and dusted, though many would say that was evident long before Arsenal’s game-ensuring fourth goal.
Nottingham again did itself proud in hosting the final, which for the third consecutive year posted a record attendance, with a crowd of 24,582 beating last year’s tally by 53. There is always a real family atmosphere at a women’s football game, and though it’s not the aim to have half empty stadiums, perhaps it’s time to bow to Vic Akers’ claims that the women’s FA Cup final should be staged at Wembley. After all, even boys’ youth internationals are held there.
In reality, were it not for 20-year-old player of the match Telford, the margin could have been double figures, but for the good of the game and the progression of the women’s sport in Britain, it was kept to four.
Hot spring conditions meant for thirsty work, but the women’s game in England might need to prepare itself for more of that, as it’s looking to move to the summer so as not to compete against the men’s league. The FA are reportedly keen to endorse the idea.
Vic Akers’ program notes suggested Arsenal weren’t at their best this year due to last season’s World Cup giving so few of their players a preseason rest. Even star player Kelly Smith - still a class act able to bag a cup final brace - looked a jaded version of the player she was for England last summer.
However, with a summer rest to look forward to this year, Arsenal are set to give their opponents even more to worry about next year.
POST MATCH QUOTES:
“That’s what I’m there for. I‘m always trying to impress” - Leeds goalkeeper Carly Telford, on her fantastic performance.
“We battled hard but the best team won on the day” - Leeds winger, Sue Smith.
“[Carly Telford] is a great upcoming keeper, soon to be England‘s number one” - Kelly Smith, on Leeds’ young goalkeeper.
“We didn’t have it all our way this year as we didn’t win the League Cup but this is the main one” - Arsenal and England captain, Faye White.
“This year is seen as a bit of a failure after last year’s quadruple, but we’re still over the moon” - Arsenal’s 51-goal striker, Lianne Sanderson
“I’d rather be in a bikini right now in this sunshine” - Arsenal’s 20-goal Welsh midfielder Jayne Ludlow joked.