Joe Sheehan can remember the attendance at his first match in charge of Ipswich Women without hesitation. It was about three years ago and they were playing Brantham Athletic in the quarter-finals of the Suffolk County Cup: Había 32 fans watching and while nobody would sniff at a 14-0 win an appearance at the equivalent stage nationally felt some way off.
El domingo, aunque, Ipswich will be there: they host West Ham in the last eight of the FA Women’s Cup and the sellout attendance at their home ground, in nearby Felixstowe, will be about 2,000. They lead the National League South, one of the third tier’s two branches, and the Hammers’ visit is the latest show of progress for one of the UK’s most progressive operations. Ipswich are a Championship club in waiting and potentially much more: it will be a chance to show that to the country, given the tie will be screened live, and perhaps a reminder the league system needs shaking up to give its more impressive setups the opportunity to flourish.
There are no guarantees Ipswich will top their division, to which they were promoted last season: Southampton and Oxford are offering stern competition and the smart money would be on a contest with the Saints going to the final weekend. But even if they do, they would then face play-off with the winners of National League North – likely to be Wolves – for a sole promotion place. It means one team out of 27 can be successful and there is a sense that the lack of fluidity is doing the game no favours.
“I can speak passionately on behalf of ourselves, Southampton and Wolves because I know the work we’re doing and the challenges we’re all facing,” Sheehan says. “To a certain extent I want us all to do well as I know what we’ve all been striving to do. I want us all to get an opportunity to fulfil our vision at some stage. The thought of any of us missing out over the next few years, based on what we’re trying to contribute to the growth of the sport in the long-term, would sadden me.”
El verano pasado, 10 of Ipswich’s players signed professional contracts. It is almost unheard of at their level but this is not a case of throwing the chequebook around. The core of a vibrant, technically fluent side have come through their youth setup, which received a Women’s Super League academy licence in 2018, and Sheehan can call upon the best talent in the eastern region.
“That’s the foundation of our success," él dice. “We’re an area of the country that, durante muchos años, had limited opportunities. We’ve managed to recruit really well, develop players, give them opportunities for senior football and give them a platform to represent England. Now we’re in a position where we’re proving we can sustain the success we’ve had for quite a few years.”
En 2019-20, Ipswich, then in the fourth tier, reached the fifth round of the cup and faced Manchester City. Their run was comprehensively halted but Sheehan never felt it would be a flash in the pan. “I’m not surprised this has happened again, two years on, because I know the good work we’ve all been doing and the consistency," él dice. “And it’s only going to get better from here.”
Two of Ipswich’s most exciting players, Sophie Peskett and the captain, Blue Wilson, have been sidelined with long-term injuries. But West Ham will have to watch Anna Grey, a supremely talented winger, as well as the forwards Zoe Barratt and Natasha Thomas. The first two scored in last Sunday’s win at Cardiff – the away attendance of which, notes Sheehan, was well above 32 – and the aim is that this group can reach the top together.
For that, promotion will be necessary. “It’s something we hope will change,” Sheehan says of the blockage between the second and third levels. “We’ve got an ambitious group of players and staff and we could have really positive seasons over the next two or three years and still miss out. What that would do for our players, wondering if they can make the jump themselves with us, would be something they’d have to consider.”
In front of that big crowd, against a strong West Ham side that are sixth in the Women’s Super League, they have the opportunity to make their case again. “We’ll try to compete physically and we’ll have to match their athleticism,” Sheehan says. “We’ll need to adapt really quickly, stay in the game and impose ourselves while nullifying them as best we can. If we can do that, with our support, then who knows what surprises it can throw up?"