Bridgwater buzzing for big Women’s FA Cup tie: ‘It puts club on the map’

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Bridgwater United welcome Manchester United to Somerset on Sunday for a fourth-round game to savour

It is a chilly Tuesday evening at Fairfax Park, home to Bridgwater United, and in the modest main stand it is out with the old and in with the new. A volunteer, Richard Gudge, is replacing 150 red and black seats as preparations to play host to Manchester United in front of a record crowd continue.

The Women’s FA Cup shimmers on a plinth before camera crews and huddling children keen to take a closer look. These are snapshots that epitomise a community bursting with pride. “I’ve taken the week off work to be here to help,” says Gudge, a decorator whose daughter, Freya, plays for the under-21s.

On Sunday, when Bridgwater welcome the Women’s Super League side to Somerset in the fourth round, Gudge will be selling hats, scarves and programmes in the club shop. It is impossible to escape the sense that a significant occasion is on the horizon.

There is a tangible buzz, nervous energy flowing through everybody from the coaching staff to the squad, who are midway through a double training session, and the caterers, who have ordered a quarter of a tonne of chips to feed a capacity crowd of 2,500. Among the fans will probably be Grace Best, sister of the Manchester United legend George. Grace is related to a player on the fringe of the first team.

The club’s previous record attendance was 1,112, for a men’s derby against Taunton Town in 1997. Sunday’s tickets for the main stand sold out in 10 minutes. In contrast to the men’s competition, the home team keeps 100% of gate receipts.

Such is the level of interest that the chairman, Bob Buckingham, believes they could have sold another 1,000 tickets, but, unlike when they entertained Milton Keynes Dons this month in front of a crowd of 146, there will be no room for walk-ups.

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“It is great to hear the community talking about the game and talking about us as a club, which is fantastic because it doesn’t happen too often,” says the captain, Leah Burridge, who joined in 2014. “It is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and we’re going to make the most of it.”

Founded in 1990 as Yetminster Ladies, after undergoing numerous rebrands – Sherborne Ladies, Yeovil Ladies and Yeovil United – last year they merged with Bridgwater Town and morphed into Bridgwater United. They have trained in Bridgwater, a town on the edge of the Somerset Levels, since 2016. Yeovil reached the WSL as a part-time club but after a switch to full-time for the 2018-19 season the club hit financial trouble, were docked 10 points, relegated and forced to start over in the third tier.

That summer the club was taken over by the businessman Adam Murry, the former Bournemouth co-owner who, in 2008, gave a 31-year-old Eddie Howe his first job in management. Howe kept the team in the Football League despite a 17-point deduction. The story goes that Murry, who set up a youth academy in Florida, had arranged a friendly against Yeovil but after the game was cancelled he decided to step in and buy the club.

“Coming to Bridgwater reminded me a lot about the early days of when I took over at Bournemouth,” he says. “It is a similar situation because we are the underdogs here. I love getting involved in challenges and Bournemouth was a big challenge for us.”

Bridgwater are part-time – they train 5-10pm on Tuesdays and Thursdays – and are adding an extra weekly session to the load. They are also looking into the men’s and women’s teams training together, as Oxford United have done this season. The goalkeeper, Bethany-May Howard, works for Royal Mail as a postal worker and the defender Bow Jackson for the Avon fire and rescue service. Others work as teachers, sports coaches and in sales.

The former Crystal Palace defender Amy Goddard helps run the commercial department and the run-up to the game has been understandably busy. “I looked in the inbox and saw 100 emails: ‘Oh, great,’” she says. “There have been a few late nights trying to get everything sorted ready for the big game. I look after all the sponsorships and doing that alongside the football makes you feel that little bit more involved.”

Murry has big plans, including building what he believes would be the first dedicated women’s football stadium in the world on a nearby 11-acre site. He does not want the women’s team to be “just one page alongside the men’s”. Murry is also the team’s acting manager, taking training alongside the former Southampton academy coach Kevin Braybrook, who worked with Gareth Bale and Adam Lallana at the club.

Braybrook leads a technical session – predominantly sharp passing – on a 3G pitch, adjacent to their stadium, that belongs to the local college. “We need to look after the ball because on Sunday they are going to press, press, press,” he says of the opposition.

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Bridgwater are third in the FA Women’s National League South. “I was lucky enough to be part of the WSL journey and to still be here and make sure the club is back on its feet and continues to move forward is special,” says the chief operating officer, Ewan Greenhill.

“To have reached such a big game again, after a lot of transition and uncertainty over the last few years or so, is amazing. It does help put our whole club on the map. There are people who have bought tickets who have never been to the ground but only live a couple of streets away and hopefully this is a platform to build and grow.”

By 9.30pm and after a round of interviews – Laura Holden, who scored the winning goal against Palace in the previous round, does some keepie-uppies for the cameras – an analysis session and a return to the 3G pitch, it is time for the post-training meal: chilli and rice is on the menu. Manchester United have won their past six matches without conceding a goal and have struck up a rhythm under the former Birmingham manager Marc Skinner. But nothing will kill the optimism in these parts.

“There’s only one United and that’s Bridgwater United,” Gudge says, breaking into a broad grin.

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