When Everton step on to the Wembley turf on 1 November in their first FA Cup final since 2014, it will mark two years from when they were rooted at the bottom of the Women’s Super League after a 1-0 defeat by Yeovil Town, a club now in the National League.
It has been a remarkable turnaround. Everton’s manager, Willie Kirk, who joined in December 2018 after being the assistant to Casey Stoney at Manchester United, has engineered his side past three WSL sides, including league champions Chelsea, to reach the final.
“It’s getting there,” said Kirk. “It’s been an evolution in terms of coming in and having to stay up, and then to try to build a club people wanted to join. We had a lot of top, top players in the past who have all left and we have to get that calibre of player back.”
For Birmingham, there can be some solace in the fact they are at the start of a new journey, albeit with fewer resources.
The Birmingham manager, Carla Ward, arrived at the club two weeks before the start of the season with barely a starting XI to name.
In order to prepare her team for what she would describe afterwards as a “step too far” for her “leggy” players she attempted to use the expectation of an almost guaranteed place in the final for Everton as motivation for her exhausted side, who came through 120 minutes and penalties against Brighton on Sunday.
“There’s some quotes I’ve got printed out ready to go on the changing room wall,” she had said in the build-up. “Maybe I don’t need to say too much if the girls read them, which they will.”
Unfortunately for the 36-year-old, her overstretched, threadbare and pieced-together squad struggled almost from the off and the bar spared their early blushes, as Rikke Sevecke’s instinctive flick caught the woodwork.
There were just two changes to Birmingham’s starting XI from Sunday’s gruelling quarter-final win. Forward Abbi Grant dropped to the bench at a rain-soaked Damson Park, before coming on in the second half, while defender Georgia Brougham, who scored the winning penalty on Sunday, was ineligible to play against her parent club.
For Everton, though, with more experienced players to call upon, the manager was able to preserve the legs of star France striker Valerie Gauvin and the Australia international Hayley Raso, who provided the cross for the former’s winner in their shock defeat of Chelsea in the quarter-final.
It was somewhat inevitable then that, while Birmingham marshalled their lines well, Everton’s relentless pressure would eventually prove fruitful.
With half-time approaching, the visiting team broke from a Birmingham throw deep in their own half and the England midfielder Izzy Christiansen, who artfully pulled the strings for the Toffees in the middle, flicked a delicate pass in behind for the Northern Ireland striker Simone Magill to sweep powerfully home.
In the second half, despite the exhaustion, the home team attempted to claw their way back into the tie with the same fight they showed to come good on penalties after twice giving away the lead in normal time, including in the 90th minute.
That, though, left gaps. And Norwegian right-back Ingrid Moe Wold’s cross to the far post was easy for Dane Nicoline Sørensen to sidefoot in for her first goal for the club. Late on, Gauvin, having come off the bench, raced through one on one and calmly slotted past Hannah Hampton for her third goal in four games.
The victory means Christiansen’s target, set when she joined the club, has, with an enforced delay, finally been realised. “When I signed for Everton in January,” she said. “I said to Willie the first objective is get to Wembley.”
The delight from the players in front of empty stands and cameras perhaps justifies the FA’s decision to conclude this tournament and reward the hard work of teams done before the pandemic with a shot at silverware.