FA Cup: Southampton take on Birmingham in biggest game of their young history

Southampton FC's Rachel Panting celebrates with teammates.
Southampton FC's Rachel Panting celebrates after scoring against AFC Bournemouth in the Vitality Women's FA Cup. (Photo by Isabelle Field)

The Vitality Women’s FA Cup celebrates the 50th anniversary of its first final on Sunday. The final pitted Southampton Women’s FC against Scottish side Stewarton Thistle (now Kilmarnock Women). Pat Davies scored a hat-trick as the English side strolled to a 4-1 victory at Crystal Palace National Recreation Centre.

They would go on to win eight of the first 11 finals, a record number until Arsenal lifted their ninth FA Cup in 2008.

Now, another team from the city are enjoying a cup run of their own. 

Southampton FC Women, an offshoot of the men’s team and a separate club to the eight-time winners, face Birmingham City in the fifth round of the FA Cup.

A club reformed

Southampton FC reformed the women’s section of their club in 2018, the same year as Manchester United. Whilst the Red Devils saw their application to the FA Championship accepted, the Saints did not. They were forced to start their journey in the Southern Region Premier Division.

Under head coach Marieanne Spacey-Cale, they gained promotion to the National League Division One in their maiden campaign. They did so in style, achieving a perfect season of 18 wins.

Southampton now find themselves in the same division as the team that won the inaugural FA Cup 50 years ago.

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Despite never tasting a league defeat in the two years that followed, two consecutive season curtailments have found the South Coast side locked in the fourth division. Southampton are believed to have applied for promotion after the FA announced plans for ‘upward club movement’.

“We’re very focused on where we want to get to but we understand we’ve got to be patient,” Spacey-Cale told the Daily Mail.

“It feels like a couple of years have been lost. In a strange way they have been lost on the pitch, but they’ve been gained off it. We’re probably more prepared for what comes next.”

Whilst the Saints league campaign was cancelled, the Football Association announced that the FA Cup would return, having been put on hold since January 14.

The magic of the cup

A 5-0 win over neighbours Bournemouth meant that Spacey-Cale’s side were through to the second round. Their opponents would be Plymouth Argyle.

Despite having not played in four months, and Plymouth being in a division higher, Southampton won 3-0 at Testwood Stadium. A week later they faced Yeovil United, who suffered the same scoreline, losing 3-0 at Testwood Stadium.

Southampton were through to the fourth round of the FA Cup, but not for the first time. They reached this stage last season before falling 4-1 to Championship side Coventry United in their first game at St. Mary’s Stadium.

It would be Championship opposition in the fourth round once again, but this time in the shape of Lewes. Any football fans looking at the rankings of both teams would have assumed this to be the end of Southampton’s cup run. But Spacey-Cale’s side wouldn’t give up that easily.

Cup upset

Lewes dominated much of the game at the Dripping Pan. They won a penalty midway through the first half, but Ini Umatong saw her effort denied by Kayla Rendell. A wonder strike by Georgie Freeland gave Southampton a first-half lead with their first chance of the game.

Umtong made up for her missed penalty by drawing the Rooks level from a corner as Lewes looked to restore order. But with 12 minutes to go, Rachel Panting fired a rocket from 30 yards into the net to keep the Saints marching on in the cup.

It’s Panting who has been the star of Southampton’s cup run. The 29-year-old has scored in every round of the competition so far. “I love scoring anyway and sometimes I hit them pretty well,” she told SFC Media.

“In my head, I always have the belief that if I strike the ball cleanly it’s going in. The ball came back to me, I thought ‘this is something to hit.”

After the victory, Spacey-Cale hailed the resilience and hard work of her side. “Even when it came back to 1-1, we never doubted that we would have something to say during the rest of the game.”

Her post-match words reflected the confidence of a side that have tasted defeat fewer times than you can count on a single hand.

Birmingham City

On Sunday they must go again. This time against Women’s Super League opposition in Birmingham City. The Blues avoided relegation despite continuing off-field troubles.

It’ll be a tough task for the fourth division side, but Birmingham are a depleted team, especially with Carla Ward announcing her resignation today. They could only name a single substitute for the final game of the WSL season against Tottenham this past Sunday.

The Blues have a history of their own in this competition. They lifted the trophy in 2011/12 with the likes of Karen Carney and Eni Aluko in the side and finished runners up to Manchester City in 2016/2017.

Should Southampton progress to the Quarter-Finals, which takes place next season on September 29, they’ll be the first fourth tier team to do so since their rivals Portsmouth in 2013/14.

Even if they don’t progress to the next round, it’ll still be a season to remember for the Saints. After a year of sporadic football, they’ve managed to reach the fifth round of the FA Cup, taking the scalps of three teams above them on the way.

Since beating Lewes three weeks ago, they’ve played friendlies to make up for the lack of league games. On Sunday, they narrowly lost 2-1 to Championship winners Leicester as they continued preparations for this Sunday’s game.

Speaking to the club’s website about the game, Spacey-Cale said: “It’s an exciting game to look forward to. We’ll just go into it with no fear and see what we can do.”

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