The 5-1 scoreline in Birmingham’s defeat of Coventry United to progress to the fifth round of the FA Cup masked an ugly performance from the home side.
“We were poor, we were sloppy, we didn’t look after the ball, we were second to every ball, we didn’t win first headers, we didn’t win first tackles and the first half was was nowhere near good enough,” said the frustrated Birmingham manager Carla Ward.
With league survival of both the men’s and women’s teams the “ultimate priority” and critical to future investment, signings, new contracts for players in limbo and the future of the club itself, the decision of the manager to rest a number of her small squad for this cup tie was understandable.
“I’m sure we will see progress,” said Ward of the off-pitch fiasco that saw players submitting a letter of complaint to the club’s board. “I’ve just seen that the men have had a great win today, so this week might look a little bit different.”
On whether her stand-ins stood up, she said: “Some people have put themselves, quite honestly, in the picture for Reading, some people have put question marks beside the names. It’s hard because I don’t want to sound too downbeat, because we’ve just won 5-1, but ultimately, I think we are better than what we’ve shown today.”
England’s young goalkeeper Hannah Hampton, the co-captain Harriet Scott, Lucy Whipp and the loanees Georgia Brougham (Everton) and Emily Murphy (Chelsea) all dropped to the bench for a breather in between the side’s bruising 6-0 defeat at Chelsea and next weekend’s home visit of Reading.
Despite the pressure it will put on Ward’s small squad, Birmingham know the impact a good cup run can have on form generally. Last season’s quarter-final meeting with Brighton was delayed until September, two games into the new season. The team that was pieced together by Ward two weeks prior to the start of the new league campaign would earn a 2-2 draw and go on to beat Brighton on penalties. A 3-0 loss to Everton in the semi-finals ended hopes of a miraculous run to the final but inspired them to three league wins in five games, their only leagues wins to date.
“Hopefully it gives us a bit of a lift,” said Ward. “Hopefully we can go into Reading now and hopefully kick on and get the points we need because ultimately I think we need two points.”
At a bright but chilly Damson Park (which they will swap for St Andrews next season after pitch trouble over the winter at the Solihull Moors ground) the home team would quickly quell hopes of a cup upset. A long-range effort from Christie Murray was parried by the goalkeeper Olivia Clark and Birmingham’s forward Claudia Walker pounced on the rebound and bundled it over the line.
Although the early goal hinted at a potentially very tough day for the visiting side, from then the play was much more even and the former Birmingham midfielder Destiney Toussaint, who made eight appearances for the home team before moving to Coventry in January, was their brightest outlet.
Having secured their safety in the Championship after a 1-0 defeat of Blackburn put a five point gap between themselves and the bottom-placed London Bees, Coventry had nothing to lose. As they grew in confidence though, their legs started to fade. A cross from Rebecca Holloway on the left was met by the substitute Murphy who would head the ball across goal and in at the far post.
They would add a third shortly after, with Walker easing through and striking low past Clark into the bottom corner, and a fourth just before full time with Sarah Mayling tapping in Murphy’s cross.
There would a deserved consolation for Coventry in injury time, with the substitute Georgia Stevens pulling one back, but Mayling would add a second straight away to quell the brief celebrations of the visitors.