Bristol City Women already face a tough task against Chelsea in this Sunday’s Continental Cup final, and that’s without mentioning the absence of talismanic captain Jas Matthews and manager Tanya Oxtoby.
Oxtoby is expecting to give birth to son this month and the Australian boss took maternity leave in January. Matt Beard will steer the ship until the end of the season, and believes that Oxtoby’s importance to the players cannot be understated.
The final will be played at Vicarage Road on Sunday and Oxtoby will be in attendance to watch her side take on the WSL’s table toppers.
“It will be great for the players to see Tanya,” said Beard. “She’s now got two weeks left before she’s due to give birth. I’ve been here two months and they haven’t seen her.
“It will be great for everyone to see her and catch up. She deserves to be there because she’s done most of the work for the team getting there.”
Bristol City beat Leicester City and Aston Villa to make it to the final and will go into the game with real confidence following a 3-2 win over Reading on Monday night.
City’s player of the match was Gemma Evans at the centre of defence. Beard was thoroughly impressed with the 24-year-old’s performance.
For both Evans and Beard, the absence of Matthews due to a foot injury will be a difficult one to take, with her leadership skills and commanding style of play crucial to City.
“All we’ve said all week is ‘Let’s do it for Jas!’” said Evans. “She’s a massive character for us. She’s our leader and took us to where we are. We speak to her every day and we wish her a speedy recovery.”
Monday night spelled yet another game without their club captain but Evans is relishing the challenge to lead the team in her absence.
“When Matt asked me to lead the team I said ‘Only if Jazz is okay with it.’ She’s a massive leader and to step into her shoes is quite a big task, but it’s something I can do and I will do it for her. She even approved and said I was a good choice!”
Ahead of the final, many will look at the WSL table and see the result of this game as a foregone conclusion, given Chelsea’s dominance and European pedigree. The defending champions will certainly be the favourites, but football isn’t that simple.
“The biggest thing in football is if you’re enjoying yourself and you’re confident, you can achieve anything!” said Beard with optimism.
“A lot of the game is about ‘up there’ rather than the ability. This group will fight for everything in this game, they’re really together and sometimes that’s difficult to beat.”
The attacking talents of Fran Kirby, Bethany England and Sam Kerr to name just a few have been a nightmare for WSL defences all season. City were on the receiving end of all three’s lethal nature in a 5-0 defeat just one month ago, but they’ll be looking to put that all behind them come Sunday.
Beard will know that the odds are stacked against his side before a ball is even kicked, but he remains hopeful that they could surprise some people.
“It’s going to be a tough afternoon whatever Chelsea team it is,” said Beard.
“But it’s a cup final and we’ve got nothing to lose. We are not there to make the numbers up, we want to win it – but we are realistic to know they’re one of the best teams, not in England, but probably in the world now.”
Beard has been in this position before, making two Continental Cup finals with Chelsea in 2012 and more recently with West Ham in 2019. His Hammers side were the recipients of a 3-0 defeat that day at the hands of Manchester City, a team of similar quality to Sunday’s opposition.
“If you look at the Cup final with West Ham and Man City, we had two really good chances in the first half, we were doing well and on top. When you get into these situations, you need to take your chances and especially against the top teams as you will get punished.”
Evans has stepped in as the team’s leader immensely in the absence of club captain Jas Matthews.
A leader at the centre of defence not only for City but the Welsh national team, Evans is raring to go for Sunday’s game and will call upon her International experience for such a decisive 90 minutes.
“It definitely helps with my nerves as I know how to deal with it,” said Evans, who has made 16 appearances for Wales.
“The camp is so excited right now, we are ready to go and can’t wait for it. The confidence within the squad is massive but I think we are realistic as well. We need to keep our feet on the ground, we know Chelsea are a quality team.
“I quite like being an underdog. We have no pressure on us and we can play with belief in ourselves. As long as us as players believe and the staff believe in us then that’s all we really need. We know the fans are behind us every step of the way as we’ve seen on social media. So I would say never write us off because we will fight for everything.”
When it comes to nerves, it will be intriguing to watch Beard on the touchline on Sunday. The head coach is taking part in March the Month, a fundraiser for Prostate Cancer where you’re challenged to walk 11,000 steps a day. So will there be any nervous pacing up and down at Vicarage Road?
“No nervous steps!” laughs Beard.
“I’m enjoying it, it’s been a good distraction for me and it’s for a great cause too. Before the game on Monday night I was on something like 8000 steps – I finished on about 17,500 by the time I’d got out the ground!
“It would be amazing to beat Chelsea, forget England, forget Europe, they’re one of the best teams in the world. It would be an amazing achievement and a massive boost for the football club.”
Bristol City Women will contest their first Conti Cup final on Sunday (kick off 14:30) at Vicarage Road.