OK, you know what's coming. Say it with me: "The Magic of the Cup." Across the 16 fourth-round ties played over the weekend in the women's FA Cup, two results brought about the much-loved Cup Upset (Cupset). That is, only two teams managed to best an opposition from a higher league of the English women's football pyramid.
In Liverpool, second-tier Birmingham City -- who were only relegated from the Women's Super League at the end of last season -- claimed the first relative surprise of the day when they beat Everton by one goal to nil.
Birmingham had been a staple of the top tier of the women's game since the inception of the WSL, and were league runners up in the early years of the Super League, just as they had been all the way to the final of the FA Cup before, even lifting the cup in 2012 before finishing as runners up in 2017.
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Although battling in the Championship, the Blues (as Birmingham are known) managed to retain many of their players when they were relegated and still possess a lot of experience and professional pedigree. But they still had to travel away to face an Everton side with lofty WSL ambitions and win, which they did.
The second such upset happened less than 25 miles northeast of Everton's Walton Hall Park home at the Lancashire Football Association's County ground where third-tier Burnley women play their football.
Brought in-house and integrated into the men's club at the start of 2021, Burnley are no slouches and are just six points off of the top spot in the FA Women's Northern Premier Division, having played one less than current leaders, Nottingham Forest. The Clarets have invested in their women's squad and on paper, always looked likely to beat fourth-tier Cardiff City.
Not to be confused with Cardiff City FCW, the women's arm of the men's Championship team who play in the Adran Premier League of Wales, Cardiff City LFC are a standalone team from the Welsh capital who were relegated from the third tier last season. Currently top of the FA Women's South-West Premier Division One, the Dragons (as they're colloquially known) look good money for promotion back to their regional third tier -- but there was no question they were the underdogs against Burnley.
Ten minutes into the match, and the football was one-way traffic with Burnley all over their visitors, claret-and-blue shirts flooded into the away box as the visitors dug in and held on. The finishing from Burnley was arguably sub-par with Cardiff goalkeeper Laura O'Sullivan -- still the Welsh No. 1 -- kept busy and repeatedly asked to simply claim the shots fired directly at her. The nervous moments for the modest 146 fans came from the shots that weren't straight at O'Sullivan with the ball routinely put narrowly wide.
Check out our goals from yesterday's 4-1 FA Cup win. Which goal was your favourite? 🤔#Dragons #WeAreDragons #WomensFACup— Cardiff City LFC (@CardiffCityLFC) January 30, 2023
©️Photos: Liz Johnstone pic.twitter.com/ZtNl3ohtzV
The Dragons stayed the course, defending with numbers before breaking with devastating consequences, forcing a ripple of cheers from the handful of Cardiff fans who'd made the 250-mile trip. That approach paid off as captain Cori Williams fired low into the bottom left corner in the 22nd minute to break the deadlock.
Burnley responded well, shaking off the surprise and went back to work, pulling the visiting defence around in their own box before, once again, the Dragons countered with Laura Williams firing across Lucy Farrell's goal to make it two.
The second goal was enough to unsettle the Clarets -- the team that could have been three goals to the good were suddenly two goals down and began to stutter on the ball, the gaps between those in the home attack began to grow as the chances started to dry up. Before too long it was three and the Dragons were in dreamland, Williams again the one to find the back of the net, this time with a cheeky dink.
Having scored a brace, Williams was subbed off early in the second half with her replacement, Ingrid Adland needing just five minutes to make it four and deny Burnley any route back into the tie. The chip from the Norwegian underlined the contrasting fortunes of one team who scored with almost every chance and the team who couldn't buy a goal.
With the tie all but decided, Burnley sub Evie Priestley finally knocked the ball over the goal line to deny O'Sullivan her clean sheet and give the frustrated home crowd something to cheer in the 89 minute.
Introducing @Vitality_UK Moment of the Fourth Round!— Vitality Women's FA Cup (@VitalityWFACup) January 31, 2023
A spectacular goal from @AdlandIngrid to secure @CardiffCityLFC's spot in the fifth round of the #WomensFACup 🤩 pic.twitter.com/5AOTr5amWT
With Cardiff City's win, they became the lowest-ranked team to advance to the fifth round. Indeed, because of the predictable and polarised nature of the fixtures, Cardiff are the only representatives from outside of the top two tiers left in the cup with six Championship sides and nine WSL teams.
Speaking to ESPN after the match, Cardiff captain Cori Williams called her teammates "absolutely brilliant" and she praised Burnley's growing profile in the women's game, saying: "They're a big name and they do very well for themselves on and off the field so it's great to see that for them."
Williams, twice capped by Wales, admitted it had hurt the team a lot when they were relegated and forced to drop down a division but that they had focused on preparation ahead of the season and looked for a consistent style across their games.
But beyond simply beating a higher-ranked opposition, the 90 minutes in Lancashire had a more profound meaning on the independent team: that one win netted them £15,000. The team so far has earned £43,000 from their four wins in the competition this season, with a further £5,000 guaranteed in the next round, which would rise to £20,000 should they beat Championship side, Lewes.
"These wins for us are absolutely massive," Williams said. "It'll set us up for next season and we can be comfortable then financially."
This is thanks to the recent increase in the Women's FA Cup prize fund that has seen the total monies increase six-fold, although the £2.9m total remains a long way behind the £19.8m total awarded in the men's FA Cup. But as can be seen with the likes of Cardiff, should teams navigate the earlier rounds, there is a substantial (albeit relative) reward for those on the lower rungs.
The draw for the fifth round of the #WomensFACup has thrown up some exciting fixtures 🤩 pic.twitter.com/BWqyOcpqxf— Vitality Women's FA Cup (@VitalityWFACup) January 31, 2023
Having whipped her tears away, the 31-year-old Williams suddenly couldn't stop from smiling, admitting that, as her nephew is a Manchester United fan, she'd love a home draw against the WSL heavyweights or any of the bigger teams, the team wanting to test their mettle against the best in England.
In actuality, it's another long away trip for the Dragons -- and their clutch of loyal supporters -- to the English south coast, where they will attempt to navigate their way to the last eight, battling the odds all of the way.
Because of the investment in women's football that leaves the top so far beyond the rest of the pyramid, polarising the entire ecosystem of the game, upsets and shocks in the cup remain a rarity rather than an expected narrative as we see in the men's game. Indeed, far too many of the ties from Sunday featured top tier teams picking apart those from lower down the pyramid, like hungry lions stripping the meat off of an unsuspecting gazelle, it was the type of football that becomes increasingly hard to enjoy with dinner.
Yet the result in Leyland was just the opposite, it was a treat and a spectacle -- the good type -- that reminds all of us that football is just 90 minutes, and anything can happen in 90 minutes.