By Chris Harris
Vic Akers has not been complacent in almost 22 years at the Arsenal Ladies helm. And he is not about to start now.
On paper, Monday’s FA Women’s Cup Final should be a foregone conclusion. Arsenal, the reigning champions and Cup holders, have been here on nine different occasions and won them all. They are hot favourites to lift the trophy for the fourth consecutive year and stay on course for another domestic treble.
And then there’s Sunderland. The Black Cats are second in their division, but that division happens to be in the second tier of the women’s game. They have never competed in a showpiece like this and are, not surprisingly, rank outsiders.
So Arsenal have this in the bag, right? Wrong. Akers has been around long enough to remember the likes of Wrexham and Swindon leaving egg on the faces of Arsenal’s first-team. He won’t make the same mistake at Pride Park.
“Any team that beats Chelsea 3-0 in the Semi-Finals is a team you need to take care of,” warned Akers.
“We will always prepare in a professional manner and give respect to the opposition for the fact that they are in the Final. To make it there takes some character and Sunderland have that in abundance because they knocked two Premier League sides out the competition – Bristol as well as Chelsea. We will prepare as if they were a team from our league.
“The first team have experienced this in their time of course. You go back to Wrexham in 1992, Swindon in 1969, there are sides from lower leagues who have beaten top sides. That’s the same in women’s football.
“I have had Sunderland watched, although I know quite a lot about them already. Mick Mulhern has formed another good young side there. A lot of their players played in the Under-17 World Cup, some in the Under-19s too. They will be a tough nut to crack. They are intelligent and Micky is well known for establishing good players and bringing them through. He has done that admirably over the years.”
Akers has another good reason not to count his chickens. He has seen five internationals depart this season – Lianne Sanderson, Anita Asante, Kelly Smith, Karen Carney and Alex Scott – while prolific striker Julie Fleeting is pregnant. That means the Arsenal team which emerges from the tunnel at Derby will lack the experience and big-match know-how of their predecessors. How the likes of Helen Lander, Kim Little and Suzanne Grant cope with the occasion could decide the destiny of the trophy.
“I think we have now lost seven or eight players out of last year’s Final team so that says it all,” said Akers. “It’s quite a loss for us and there will be players playing in their first Final on our side and that can be daunting.
“Fortunately we had the League Cup experience already this season so that will help, they had a taste of it there. Some of the other players of course have plenty of experience.”
It’s rather a pity that Akers’ final year in charge of the Ladies has been dominated by high-profile departures and the break-up of his all-conquering 2007 team. But when he pulls on his Cup Final suit one last time on Monday, Akers expects it to be business as usual.
“This has been one of the hardest years I’ve had as a manager,” he admitted. “But we’re still in the hunt for all three domestic trophies which is a magnificent effort. We have the League Cup, we could have the FA Cup on Monday and we are still in with a chance of the title of course.
“It will be an emotional occasion for me and obviously I hope I’m feeling elation at the end because we have won it.
“Monday will be my last major occasion as a manager and I will be sad to leave it. But if we lift the trophy that will be 10 wins in 10 Finals - and that’s a record to be proud of.”
And that’s why he won’t leave anything to chance.
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