How long is the road to Wembley? At the lower end of the women’s game, it can feel longer than most. Not so much because the FA Women’s Cup features all that many teams and rounds – compared with the men’s game, it has a third as many entrants, and no preliminary or extra-preliminary phase. But because in a sport where semi-professional teams can be found in the top flight, the lower levels face a whole bunch of additional challenges.
So when Bishop Auckland Ladies played their first ever home FA Women’s Cup tie on Sunday, a 4-2 win over Gateshead Leam Rangers in front of a healthy crowd to Heritage Park only tells a little of the story.
Try asking Fay Burn, double goal-scorer, about wangling enough time off work to go and play. Minutes after the final whistle, still in her training gear, she was heading out of the car park to finish her shift, pausing for a quick hug with her kids and fondly hoping to be home by eight.
Try asking the team’s head coach, Domonic Bylett, sent to Kenya to support the 33 Engineers as part of his commitments with the Royal Electrical Mechanical Engineers and unable to oversee the start of his team’s season. Try asking first-team regular Tracey Priestley, sidelined after an operation. When the club talks about a ‘stressful couple of weeks’, this is the kind of thing they mean.
Or try asking Alex Saunders, pulling her boots on after two years to make her Bishop debut. The club describe her as a goalie who can also play outfield. This is a different kind of grassroots footie.
For Bishop, playing at Heritage Park was already something of a cup final. Post-match chat on social media went long on the extra effort needed to cover the bigger pitch – shades of the lush, draining Wembley turf invoked 65 minutes into any FA Cup final commentary. It also generated a sense of occasion for a team more accustomed to life on school fields: Nick Postma, chairman of the men’s team got behind the initiative, a local girls team provided the ballgirls and mascots, and there was enough of a crowd to justify setting up the burger van. They were rewarded with a competitive game and a cracker of a goal from Natasha Napier to make it 3-1.
Leam Rangers came on a double-decker bus and added some hefty vocals to the afternoon, not least when Annabel Legg got the first of her two goals to make it 1-1 in the first half.
But it was Bishops’ day. A first home FA Cup tie, a first ever win in the competition and a step down that long road to Wembley. Next up, South Shields at home in the Second Qualifying Round.
Sep. 3, 2017
Heritage Park, Bishop Auckland, England
FA Women’s Cup First Qualifying Round
Bishop Auckland 4 Gateshead Leam Rangers 2