'We can cause an upset' - Tractor Girls ready for historic FA Cup tie
- Credit: Ross Halls
Ipswich Town Women host Super League side West Ham in an FA Cup quarter-final at Felixstowe on Sunday lunchtime. STUART WATSON spoke to manager Joe Sheehan and defender Paige Peake ahead of the televised tie.
This is an historic moment for Ipswich Town Women.
It's the first time they've reached the quarter-finals of the FA Cup. It's the first time they'll have had a game broadcast live on television (BBC Red Button, 12.30pm ko).
A crowd of 2,000 will be packed into the Goldstar Ground, Felixstowe for Sunday lunchtime's game against Super League side West Ham.
It will be a real marker of just how far this club has come in such a short space of time.
Two years ago, the Blues were thrashed 10-0 at Manchester City in the last 16 of the competition. Back then, they were an amateur fourth-tier club up against one of the game's super powers.
Nowadays Town are a progressive part-time outfit pushing for promotion into the second-tier. They have a young squad packed with homegrown talent being tipped for big things. And this time they are at home.
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Very much still the underdogs, yes. But it's not quite as David versus Goliath as before.
“When we played Man City that was our first taste of this kind of experience," said manager Joe Sheehan. "This time it’s more normal for us.
“It was a real lesson for us facing world class players who had played in a World Cup only 10 months previous.
“We’ve got young players who are so determined to get to as high as they can possibly get to, so that was a really important game for us. We came away from it knowing what world class looks like.
“Since then we’ve continued to grow naturally. We’ve gone part-time. We have more staff in place, we train more, we help support out players financially."
Does that mean the Tractor Girls can be more competitive this time around? Could they even win and move to within one game of Wembley?
“We know how difficult the challenge is based on the level of our opponent and the experience they have," said Sheehan.
“But we have to go into the game believing we can win.
“Can we do it? We’ll have to be organised. We have to be very tactically aware of how complex West Ham can be. Under Olli Harder they’ve developed a really good model of playing. It’s been really difficult for a lot of teams in the top division to manage their style, let alone us. So we’ll have to be on it.
“We’re going to have to meet the physical demands placed on us and we’re going to have to have a little bit of luck.
“I think if we can get all of those three things with a really supportive crowd behind us then there’s no reason why we couldn’t cause an upset."
Centre-back Paige Peake was still studying for her A-Levels when she came up against Steph Houghton and other City stars back in 2020. Now 19 and training three times a week at Playford Road she is looking forward to coming up against top level opponents again.
“The main thing we all learnt from that game was the physicality and pace at that level," she said.
“Back then it probably caught us by surprise a bit. This time it’s not going to be a shock. We know what we’re coming in for.
“West Ham scored late against Manchester United recently. They’re competing against the big teams in the WSL, they’re not a small team, so it will definitely be a hard task.
“It’s up to us to try and our-work them, out-run them, maintain their pace and, hopefully, beat them.
“We’ve got pace. Our wing-backs and forwards are quick. Hopefully we can get behind their back line and put them under pressure that way.
“I wouldn’t mind a few free-kicks and the penalty area! Set-pieces might be our best opportunity to score because we’re quite aware that clear cut chances are probably going to be few and far between against a side like West Ham."
She added: “We’re all quite fearless. We’re not in this competition to make up the numbers. We want to try and progress as far as we can.
“You see upsets in the men’s cup all the time. You don’t see it so much in the women’s FA Cup. Hopefully we can buck that trend.
“It’s probably down to the disparity in the leagues. In the women’s game you only have the WSL and a few clubs in the Championship that are full-time, whereas in the men’s pyramid, from Premier League to League Two, and even the majority of National League clubs, are full-time.
“As long as there’s continued investment and growth in the women’s game then hopefully there will be more upsets in the future."
The Tractor Girls are currently top of the National League South table with a record of W16 D3 L1. Only one goes up and it looks like their title battle with Southampton (who the Blues knocked out the cup on penalties in the last round) could go down to the wire.
“The league is so, so important to us," said Sheehan.
“We are trying to get into the Championship. We’ve all very conscious of what promotion could do for our careers. It could be huge for all of us. It would be life changing actually.
“So the league has always been our focus and the cup run has kind of been a bonus.
“If anyone has been distracted by it then it’s probably been me! Which is a testament to the players really.
“They are so committed to the league campaign and it’s no surprise to me that our league results and performances have remained really good since the West Ham draw came out."
Peake continued: “We’re a very close-knit team. We’re all young and a lot of us have played together a long time. I’ve played with two of the girls since I was nine years old.
“We’ve grown up together, shared all the downs and the ups, so that makes all the success we’re having all the more special.
“There’s no-one putting their personal goals ahead of the team’s. We’ve all got the same collective ambition, we’re all pulling together as one and we all know that at some point each of us is going to make a difference across the season.
On deciding to play the game at the Goldstar Ground, rather than switching it to Portman Road, Sheehan explained: “Felixstowe is our home ground. I think I speak on behalf of the staff, the players and supporters when I say we all enjoy being there.
“The opportunity to play at Portman Road is something we’d all relish at some stage, but we were definitely keen to play this game at Felixstowe.
“With the magnitude of the tie I think it’s really important for us to be in familiar surroundings and try and have that home advantage.
“Also, Felixstowe have been great hosts for us over many years now and I think they deserve to be part of this tie."
Peake added: "The atmosphere will be great. We consistently get crowds of 400 or so at Felixstowe. We have people following us all over the country - new even had some at Cardiff last weekend.
“In the last round, especially in the penalties, the crowd definitely helped us with that. Hopefully they can get behind us again."
Sheehan concluded: “It would be huge for a team at our level to get to the semi-final of an FA Cup. It would be incredible.
“It’s huge for more reasons than just experience and opportunity though. I’ve said for a long time now that my vision is not to just progress the team, but also to engage and excite a community and a region.
“Our squad of 20 on Sunday will feature 17 players who have come through our academy system. There are no numbers like that in this country across women’s football.
“If you’re a 9/10-year-old girl now and you’re excited by what we’re doing, I want you to have an opportunity to be where Paige is nine years’ time."