Leicester tackle demons head on to boost shot at Women’s FA Cup final

<span>Leicester’s Lize Kop celebrates with her teammates after they beat <a class="link " href="" data-i13n="sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link" data-ylk="slk:Liverpool;sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link;itc:0">Liverpool</a> 2-0 in the FA Cup quarter-final.</span><span>Photograph: Plumb Images/Leicester City FC/Getty Images</span>

“It’s not the first time we’ve had a change in manager. We’re in ­football, it’s a business, it happens ­everywhere,” says the Leicester captain, Aileen Whelan, in a matter-of-fact way.

“It’s just another day at work. The focus stays the same, at training, at the gym. It has been tough, don’t get me wrong, but that doesn’t take away from what we do at the weekend.”

Leicester head into their biggest game of the season, an FA Cup semi-final against Spurs at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium on Sunday, after one of the club’s most tumultuous times off the pitch.

Related: Leicester sack Willie Kirk after investigation into alleged relationship with player

The manager, Willie Kirk, was suspended on the eve of the quarter-final for allegedly having a relationship with a player. The assistant manager, Jennifer Foster, and the first-team coach, Stephen Kirby, stepped in to guide them to a 2-0 win over Liverpool.

Kirk, who helped the side avoid relegation when he took charge, was sacked by the club after an ­investigation 20 days after his suspension, with Foster put in charge as interim manager until the end of the season.

Since then they have lost to Tottenham and Brighton in the league, 1-0 and 3-2 respectively, and earned a 2-2 draw with Aston Villa, to ensure that only complete collapse and a number of miracle results for Bristol City would put them in any danger of being relegated.

An FA Cup final would be the ­highlight of a difficult season but keeping them on course has been routine. “The focus has to stay the same. We’ve got the same ­structure, the same routines, the same ­meetings that we have to go through, the same training sessions,” says Whelan.

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“As a footballer our whole career is outlined by routine. So, the one action of the manager leaving, it’s the same routine, someone fills in. Yes, it’s been difficult, the off-the-field stuff, but when you step over the white line we’re footballers.”

For Foster, the players have done the work at staying focused, but they have tried to lift the mood too. “It’s important that not everything is so serious. We’ve got to remember the enjoyment of why we’re here, we’re here to play football,” she says. “So, for us, it was just about dropping little moments into training that might take any pressure or any little bits of distraction from pressure.”

Win or lose, the turnaround at Leicester, from a club without a win in their first six games when Kirk took over in November 2022, to being ninth in the table with four games remaining and in an FA Cup semi-final, has been remarkable. The recruitment has been shrewd, there is a clear way they play, and an incoming manager will be starting from a better place than Kirk was.

Have they been able to use the FA Cup semi-final to help galvanise the team as the off-field problems have stolen the spotlight?

“The prospects of getting to an FA Cup Final is motivation enough,” says Foster, who will be without Denny Draper and Courtney Nevin but could welcome back Janina Leitzig and Shannon O’Brien.

“I’m sure there will be a few nerves. But we’ve got experience that in the squad, a lot of players will have played at World Cups, Euros, etc. So, we’ll be relying on a lot of the experience that those players have had to help some of the younger ones or players that haven’t been in a similar situation before. It’s good to have nerves. As long as we’re able to turn that into adrenaline and the performance, I think we will be completely fine.”

Upheaval off the pitch can have an effect on it but, even in the short term, tackling those problems head on, as Leicester seemingly have, can restore morale and create a better environment all round. Is that enough to help ­navigate their way past Spurs and into a first women’s FA Cup final against either Manchester United or Chelsea?

Not alone, but it certainly helps.