The 'Road To Wembley'

Wednesday, 1 December 2021

Our resident ground-hopper, Paul, recounts his 'road to Wembley', following the FA Cup from the preliminary rounds to the 2020 final.

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Photograph courtesy of Paul Donegan

Something slightly different from the ground guides that I normally write but thought I would write a piece looking back at my last two seasons attempts at watching a match in every round of the Women’s FA Cup and complete a ‘road to Wembley’. Of course, Covid has got in the way both times, but over the two seasons (19/20 and 20/21) I will have been to watch a match in every round. From the extra preliminary to Wembley Stadium on Sunday to watch the 20/21 final. I am not going to go into great detail about every match, but I’ve chosen to pick out a few of the highlights from along the way. So what made me come up with the idea of doing this? I actually think there were a number of reasons. Firstly, I have always loved the FA Cup. Some of my early memories of football and going to watch non-league matches in men’s football were when the team I supported got through to at least the first round and played a league team, occasionally causing an upset. It certainly has that magic where teams from across the pyramid, from WSL down to the regional leagues in the women’s game, all play in the same competition and have that dream of getting to Wembley for the final, or maybe knocking out a higher level side along the way. It was something I started to think about doing whilst in France during the World Cup in 2019 as I thought it would be a fun thing to try and do. I hadn’t heard of anyone trying to go and watch a match in each round of the women’s FA Cup before. I had mostly been to watch WSL and Championship level matches before this, with the occasional National League match on international weekends thrown in, so I had hadn’t been to watch much women’s football further down the pyramid. I also had a friend on Twitter who was trying to do the same thing so it would be nice to follow each other’s progress. I didn’t have any set rules, such as following on the winning side from one round to the next, rather just to go to a match in each round. Also, the groundhopper side of me likes going to different football grounds, so it might be a chance to visit a few new ones and not potentially the same one for a few rounds in a row.
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Clapton Community v Oakwood - Photograph courtesy of Paul Donegan

My 19/20 season ‘road to Wembley’ got off to a late start as on extra-preliminary round day, I was at Lewes watching a Championship match from one of the beach huts at The Dripping Pan. The extra-preliminary round match will come the next season. So, on the 1st September 2019, I travelled to Horley in Surrey to watch Oakwood v AFC Littlehampton in the Preliminary Round. Oakwood won 6-0 and in the next round, the first round qualifying, they were drawn away at Clapton Community. Having seen videos of Clapton’s support in the previous round (and again in this current season), this was the match I decided to go and watch in this round. It was played at Clapton Community’s Stray Dog ground in Walthamstow and the Clapton fans were brilliant as they sang, drummed and flags were waved for the whole match. But this is where Clapton’s 19/20 FA Cup campaign came to an end though as they lost 3-2 to Oakwood in front of 261 supporters. Not a bad attendance for a match between two tier 7 sides! In the second qualifying round, I went and watched Maidenhead United v Bowers & Pitsea. I saw my first upset here as tier 5 Bowers won 2-1 against a side who play in the level above them. In the third qualifying round, I headed to Suffolk to watch an East Anglia derby between Ipswich Town and Norwich City. Ipswich won 6-1 against their rivals in front of 667 fans. They would eventually get through to the fifth round where they would lose away to Manchester City. The first round was next and the day after being among the 77,768 at Wembley Stadium for England v Germany, I went to west London, and a slightly smaller crowd, at the Middlesex FA to watch Actonians v AFC Wimbledon. This one finished 2-1 to Actonians. In the second round, on a cold afternoon, I went to Romsey in Hampshire to watch Southampton Women’s play against Milton Keynes Dons. Southampton Women’s won the FA Cup eight times between 1971 and 1981 and are the second most successful side in the competition after Arsenal. After 90 minutes and extra time, the scores were level at 1-1 so it went to penalties. Southampton won the shoot-out 3-2 and knocked out a side who play in the level above them. Southampton would reach the fourth round where they lost to Championship side Crystal Palace. In the third round, I watched Watford v Plymouth Argyle with Watford winning 5-0. The WSL and Championship sides entered the cup at the fourth round stage. I decided to go and watch Tottenham against Barnsley in this round, with Barnsley already having won 5 games to reach this stage. This was to be the end of Barnsley run though as Tottenham won 5-0. I also saw Flora, my Twitter friend mentioned earlier, and her partner Ben at this match.
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Hackney v Dulwich Hamlet - Photograph courtesy of Paul Donegan

The fifth round was due to be played on Sunday 16th February but because of Storm Dennis, several games were moved, including Chelsea v Liverpool, and a few others were postponed. One of those remaining as on, and within easily travel distance of north London by the Sunday morning, was Crystal Palace v Brighton. There was heavy rain but Hayes Lane has a 3G pitch so this isn’t normally a big issue. By the time I got to Bromley, the rain was torrential but the match was still on as I checked on Twitter just before getting off the train. It took about 20 minutes to walk to the ground but during this time the match had been called off because of the rain. The following evening, I went to the Chelsea v Liverpool match which Chelsea won 1-0 and 9 days after it was meant to be played, and on a very cold evening, I went to the rearranged match between Palace and Brighton which Brighton won 3-0. So, in the 19/20 FA Cup, I finished going to two matches in the fifth round! However, this was to be the end of my ‘road to Wembley’ in the 19/20 FA Cup as Covid meant the quarter-final matches were called off (had tickets and transport all booked to go to Leicester v Man City) on the Friday before they were meant to take place. The cup finished in the Autumn with all the matches being played behind closed doors with Manchester City winning the final 3-1 against Everton. I had managed to see a match in every round up to and including the fifth apart from the extra preliminary. The 2020/21 FA Cup started in September 2020 and I managed to tick off the extra preliminary round this time as I started another attempt to complete a ‘road to Wembley’. In this round, I went and watched Banbury United v Swindon Supermarine which Swindon won 2-1. In the preliminary round, I went and watched Hackney v Dulwich Hamlet that was played on Hackney Marshes which is famous for Sunday league and grassroots football, a bit different to Wembley where the final is played. After walking around for a bit trying to find the right pitch it was being played on (there were at least 3 other women’s matches taking place there that Sunday afternoon), I watched Dulwich win 6-2. After baking hot and sunny conditions for that match, it was a really wet afternoon for the first qualifying round when I watched Dorking Wanderers against Ashford Town Middx. Ashford won this won 7-1. In the second qualifying round, I went to Canvey Island to watch Hashtag United play against my local side, Enfield Town. Enfield scored twice in the second half to win 2-0. The third qualifying round was scheduled to take place on November 1st 2020 (19/20 FA Cup Final day), but the match I was thinking of going to, plus a few others, were postponed and eventually played at the start of December after the lockdown. When the Cup restarted, I watched Enfield Town again, this time away to Luton Town. In foggy conditions, Enfield Town won the third qualifying round tie 2-1. The following weekend was the first round, and I watched Harlow Town lose 9-2 at home to Ipswich Town, with the score having been 8-2 at half time.
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Tottenham Hotspur v Barnsley - Photograph courtesy of Paul Donegan

The second round was meant to take place on 3nd January but due to Covid/weather etc, only one match from this round took place on that day. Then there was another lockdown and all non-elite sport stopped again, and the FA Cup was suspended. There was mention of matches being decided by the drawing of lots or coin tosses (I was fuming about this) so they could get up to the stage where the WSL/Championship sides entered but this idea seemed to be quickly dropped! When the FA Cup restarted at the end of March, supporters were still not allowed into grounds so the remaining matches in the first and second rounds and all in the third, fourth and fifth rounds were played behind closed doors. I did manage to watch a few streams of matches from these rounds but not sure if they count towards my ‘road to Wembley’?! The quarter-finals, semi-finals and final were again held over until the Autumn and by this time supporters were allowed back into grounds. With my 19/20 run ending at the fifth round, the 20/21 run continued with the following round, the quarter-finals! I went and watched Brighton & Hove Albion v Charlton Athletic. Charlton were the only remaining side from outside the WSL left in the cup but had turned full-time over the summer. It was Brighton who won 1-0 though. I went up to Manchester to watch Manchester City v Chelsea in the semi-final. Chelsea won this 3-0 to get through to the final. The less said about my return journey on trains from Manchester the better! So that gets me up to the final. Arsenal v Chelsea this Sunday. Over 40,000 tickets have already been sold but there is still time to buy one if you want to watch this match at Wembley (will post link below), otherwise it is live on BBC1/BT Sport with a 2pm kick off. I am not sure if I will have completed a proper ‘road to Wembley’ as I’ve not been to a match in every round during one season, but over the course of two Covid hit seasons, I will have been to watch at least one match in every round!

FA Cup Final Tickets

FA Cup, Women's Football, Wembley Stadium