A look at how Birmingham City navigated their tricky ties to reach Wembley Way.
Starting with a derby
A local derby was on the cards for the Blues when they played host to last year’s WPL play-off runners up, West Bromwich Albion (formerly, Sporting Club Albion). Though WBA weren’t enjoying the same level of league success this season, they still proved to be stubborn opposition at Solihull Moors, before succumbing to a two-goal loss.
Jess Carter’s opener just before the break enough to cement the hosts in the match before debutants combined and Paige Williams set up Ellen White for the England international to nod home on the hour.
With a breathlessly quick turn-around from fifth to sixth round, the Blues were back in action, once more having been drawn at home, the following weekend when they played host to current holders, Arsenal. Second-best in the first-half, Birmingham were lacking their usual defensive stability and were saved on a number of occasions by ‘keeper, Ann-Katrin Berger; the German more than happy to repeatedly frustrate the likes of Jodie Taylor and Dan Carter.
Able to pick up the pace after the break, the hosts shored up their defence to limit the chances for the Gunners, Marc Skinner’s side equally able to find the occasional counter to work the visiting back-line. Usually lethal in cup competitions, Arsenal continued to threaten, Leah Williamson, Jordan Nobbs and Katie McCabe all coming close before the hosts broke the deadlock.
It was double-Deutsche delight in the Midlands, Berger standing tall at the back to deny Arsenal’s best efforts and Marisa Ewers the one to provide the goal at the other end. With little more than ten minutes left on the clock, Ellie Brazil carried the ball to the by-line before cutting back to Ewers for the Hamburger to smash her first-time effort into the top corner.
Able to weather the late barrage from the Gunners, Birmingham were rewarded with a spot in the semi-finals, once again drawn at home against last year’s runners up, Chelsea.
Still acclimatising to new manager, Skinner and yet to play a league game, the Blues started tentatively against a team they hasn’t met in the competition since the final in 2012. Nerves from both sides disrupted the flow of the first-half but a deft header from Megan Sargeant at a Sarah Mayling corner after the hour seemed to have the hosts going through. Not wanting to miss out on a third consecutive trip to Wembley, Emma Hayes’ Chelsea turned the heat up, applying more and more pressure to the resolute City defence and a moment of brilliance from Drew Spencer saw the substitute curl one into the top-corner from 20-yards.
Trusting themselves on penalties, Birmingham opted to absorb the pressure from their visitors, as Chelsea desperately tried to find a winner in extra time but just couldn’t find a way through one of the best regimented defences in the league. Pushed and stretched, the hosts refused to buckle, Berger imposing as ever.
Just as it had been in 2012, Birmingham reigned victorious from the spot, Berger unable to do anything about either Maren Mjelde or Hannah Blundell’s spot kicks but able to tip Eni Aluko’s low effort on to the post. Kerys Harrop made it three from three for the hosts after both Aoife Mannion and Mayling had converted, giving the Blue Girls the edge. Another save from Berger denied Millie Bright’s right-sided effort before White tucked Birmingham’s fourth away, the hosts Wembley bound.
A narrow win over Liverpool in Manchester saw the Citizens make it to their first FA Cup final, the Blues a perpetual thorn in the side of Nick Cushing’s team. Their recent history a scales that tends to tip towards the current WSL champions, but even on their rise to the best side in England, City have struggled to break through the Blue defensive wall. A Recent 1-1 echoes their last meeting, 1-1 at the end of last season, itself a mirror for the 0-0 of the Continental Tyres Cup final, the hosts best after extra time. The previous year yields similar results, a 0-1 loss in Manchester and a 0-0 at home as well as a 1-3 quarter-final exit of the 2015 FA Cup.
Whilst it will be hard for Birmingham to keep up their tireless work for 90 minutes at Wembley, there’s no question that they’ll dig in and match the Citizens blow for blow, history to be had for the victors.