Football: They're on their way to Upton ...

Andrew Baker sees the women of Wembley warm up for Cup final day
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The Independent Online
The FA Cup final and Wembley are synonymous in the mind of every football fan. But the women's game does not yet attract sufficient support to justify a date beneath the Twin Towers, so today's final will take place at Upton Park. Millwall Lionesses, one of the competing sides, will no doubt feel disappointed to miss out on an appearance at the spiritual home of the English game. But the loss will be felt more acutely by their opponents: Wembley Ladies FC would have been playing at home.

"Of course it would have been nice to play at Wembley Stadium," their manager, John Jones, said. "But we have to be realistic. The place would be half empty." It was a generous estimate: Wembley Ladies have arranged a coach to take their fans to Upton Park. Just the one.

But support on the terraces, while always welcome, is a secondary matter for Wembley after the health of the club's six teams. Unlike many of their rivals in the Premier League National Division, such as Arsenal, Liverpool, Tranmere Rovers and Everton, Wembley do not have the resources and support of an established men's team to draw on: enthusiasm is all.

"It takes pounds 18,500 a year to run this club," Jones explained. "And no one gets paid. So it's good that a little bit of money goes with the Cup. The rest of the time we stand alone, dig deep and pay to play." He has found a sponsor for some smart new tracksuits for the team to wear today, and the fans will not go bare: Jones has fixed up a job lot of new scarves.

Jones's first-team squad turned out on Thursday night at Hanwell Town FC, their home base, for their last training session before the final. The ground is a utilitarian set-up next to a busy west London road. It has an ancient, rather attractive pavilion in the manner of a Great Western Railway station; more importantly, it has excellent floodlights, so the Wembley players could work on their set-pieces long after darkness fell over the suburb.

Frank Morrow, the coach, took the high-spirited players through their paces. One routine involved various ways of getting the ball past a defensive wall.

Morrow lined up the players, taking his place in the middle of them. "Get in tight," he said, "and hang on to your whatevers." Then he told Sheri Huckleberry, a forward from Connecticut University in the United States who is playing with Wembley while on a summer course at Brighton University, to take the kick. "Lift it, Sheri," he suggested. "Lift it." So she did - sharply and smartly into the coach's whatevers. As a coaching exercise it was of questionable value, but it did wonders for morale.

Huckleberry is one of a number of younger players challenging for places in the Wembley first team towards the end of the season. Their contribution is vital because the club have lost experienced players, some of them internationals, to more powerful rivals, notably and recently three to Arsenal and three to today's opponents, Millwall, and it rankles with John Jones. "Their attitude was "We don't think we can win things here, so we'll go somewhere where we can'. They were players who were more interested in material things. It was a little bit of, shall we say, greed."

So victory over Arsenal in the FA Cup semi-final was sweet, and defeating the Lionesses at Upton Park today would complete the perfect programme of revenge on the raiders. It would also be the greatest victory in the club's relatively short history: Wembley Ladies were formed as District Line Ladies FC in 1975, and to date their finest hour was winning the League Cup last season.

Jones did not wish to divulge too many tactical details, but Wembley's basic formation will be well known to their opponents. They play a 3-2- 3-2 line-up, which Jones says encourages the pass-and-move game. "It may not be as fast as the men's game," he said. "And I think it is true that the pace is different. But I believe that makes it more fun to watch - it's easier to see what is going on."

Sheri Huckleberry, Wembley's Yankee, reckons that the game should be fun to play, even on such a grand occasion. "It's going to be well played, exciting and fun," she said. "If everyone is on their game, we'll do well." And would there be a little needle between the teams? "Sure, there will be a little. But this is a big game, right?"