When the draw for the FA Cup 5th round was made, it would be fair to say both Cardiff and Lewes were happy with their lot. The Rooks would have felt confident at pulling the only amateur team left in the competition, while cries of ‘We can beat them’ echoed around a pub in Cardiff at a live screening of the draw.
Upon seeing a final score of 6-1 to Lewes, you might snort in disbelief, but half time saw the fully professional hosts only 2-1 up against the unpaid Welsh outfit, and an upset was not yet ruled out as an impossibility, even when 45 minutes had already been played.
Cardiff prepared for the occasion much as they had for their tie in the previous round against Burnley. A coach and hotel were booked for travel, an overnight stay, and team preparation and focus. Jamie Phillip briefed the players before leaving the hotel, with the words ‘Everyone is watching you today. If you win today, you’re in the quarter finals of the FA Cup’. He paused after these words, and a silence fell upon the team that was somehow simultaneously tense, thoughtful, and excited. There was no fear in the room. Phillip’s nature away from the touchline is quiet and calm, and this instils confidence.
There was some frustration felt by the Dragons’ staff upon seeing the ‘wrong’ Cardiff City advertised on the Lewes website, complete with bluebird logo. However, after being alerted to this by Cardiff’s secretary, this was promptly updated to reflect the correct club. For a brief moment, you might have hoped that Lewes had researched the wrong team and were about to be completely wrong-footed.
The team arrived to the scene of a newly installed hybrid pitch being watered. Upon inspection of the pitch, the visiting players knew that Lewes would take advantage of their home facilities to play a harder, faster game than the FAWNL side were used to.
The Lewes players came out onto the pitch to warm up in their Football V Homophobia t-shirts, donated to them for the occasion to raise awareness of the campaign. As the Rooks completed their sprints, their coach instructed them to come out strong from kick-off and give Cardiff ‘the hardest first 10 minutes of football they’ve ever had in their life’. The hosts were focused, and by no means complacent about the task at hand. Indeed, they had previously approached Cardiff captain Cori Williams with an offer to play for them in 2019, but the skipper stayed in Wales to remain in contention for caps, which she was subsequently rewarded with.
The national pride within the team and its supporters is clear to see. Travelling fans were provided with a coach to the game, and brought with them numerous Welsh flags, including one adorned with the club name and logo.
The stadium gradually filled up, with fans having their choice of viewing point.
As a side note, If you haven’t been to The Dripping Pan, you should go. There are beach huts high in a corner above the pitch from which to watch the game, picnic tables where you can enjoy a pint from the pub within the stadium, conventional seating, standing room all along the perimeter of the pitch, and fantastic vantage points up a slope where you can watch the game next to the commentary box. In short, however you like to watch your football, you can experience it at Lewes’ homeground.
There was no hostility towards the visitors from the West, indeed some home fans commented ‘Cardiff seem more happy and together than our team! It’s great to see’.
But the Dragons were raring to go. Indeed, perhaps a little too eager, with a false start to kick off. Finally, game began and Lewes piled on the pressure as instructed. Within a minute, Cardiff had forced an offside from the Rooks who were keen to set the tone. With only four minutes on the clock, McKenna danced down the right wing, evading Piggot and Gauvain and fed Ellie Mason who converted the opportunity. 1-0 to the hosts. The home fans were jubilant, but the away side kept their heads held high. They absorbed threats in their waves on the south coast, and the game settled into a different tone. Cardiff were unable to fashion much of note going forward, but in the midfield and defence were excellent at forcing errors from Lewes. Commentary described the defending as ‘stubborn’, and it was clear to see that this was frustrating the Lewes attack, who no doubt hoped to have played the match out with a goal every five minutes.
The battle was intense between Northern Ireland international, Rebecca McKenna, and Cardiff’s Libby Piggot who has WSL experience. Following the initial run that led to the goal, a hard challenge from Piggot seemed to have reminded McKenna that the Dragons she wasn’t to be trifled with and saw a reduction in runs forward and an increase in passes backward.
Lewes seemed content to settle the game down slightly after the first few minutes, passing the ball around the back and looking to see where the gaps opened up in the sea of red. With barely half an hour gone, Cori Williams fell uncharacteristically, seeming to be in quite some pain. The referee did not blow his whistle, however, and Lewes stormed forward, capitalising on a momentary break in concentration and finding the net for the second time through Ellie Mason.
The Dragons’ spirit did not waver, and those in attendance at The Dripping Pan were stunned by an incredible goal from Ingrid Ådland from 25 yards out. The goal was almost an exact replica of the Norwegian’s goal against Burnley which won the FA Cup ‘Moment of the round’.
The amateur side from Wales went into the changing room at half-time only 2-1 down against a fully professional team two divisions above them. The game, it seemed, was on.
After a first half largely devoid of action for the Lewes keeper and defence, the second half started off with much for the travelling supporters to cheer. The Cardiff attack created some wonderful link-ups moving forward, with one and two-touch football cutting through the Lewes midfield and breaking into the final third with ease. Lewes supporters were roused by a drum and calls for ‘Come on you Rooks’, but the Welsh contingent matched this with ‘Come on you Reds’.
While the cheers continued, the waves of attack from Cardiff grew less frequent. The game became more physical, to the point where Ruby Scahill was ushered off the pitch with blood gushing from her mouth after an elbow to the face.
From this point, the game continued to descend into a more physical battle. Ellie Mason achieved her hat-trick in the 61st minute. Both sides made changes and brought on substitutes, with mid-week matches in their respective leagues looming. The game became frenetic and more end-to-end. Tempo increased, as did the number of goals scored by Lewes. Ellie Mason showed off some incredible individual aerial skill in the box to smash home a fourth, and the last five minutes of play also saw goals by Kenzie Weir and Aqsa Mushtaq, their first in Lewes shirts.
The final score finished at 6-1 to a deserving Lewes, who will host Manchester United in the quarter finals of the FA Cup. The Rooks made history, reaching the quarters for the first time. Ellie Mason would be the architect of Cardiff’s exit from the FA Cup.
There were undeniable positives for the reds to take back to Wales, however. The only unpaid side left in the FA Cup maintained a 2-1 scoreline for an hour on the road against a professional team. Nadia Lawrence made her first appearance of the season, and impressed with her incredible technical ability, and cheers rose from the away fans when Ellie Sargent got her first few minutes back on the pitch after being stretchered off with an ankle injury in December.
Cardiff’s rebrand couldn’t have gone much better this season, but it says everything about the team that they were disappointed with the end result. The quality, and the belief, is there, and their attentions will turn, without distraction, to the FAWNL where they will continue to pressure for promotion back into Tier 3.