At 14:30 on Sunday, Bristol City will walk out at Vicarage Road for their first ever appearance in the Continental Cup final. It is a feat than even just a few weeks ago seemed slightly impossible.
Without doubt, it has been a topsy turvy season for the Robins. Without a win in the league until the end of January, they were a young team lacking in confidence and seemingly having everything thrown at them. An already small squad, depleted for much of the first half of the season by injury and COVID, they were leaking goals while struggling for creativity at the other end.
Against the odds, however, their fortunes have turned since the start of the year. In their league wins against Brighton and most recently Reading, and a draw in tricky conditions against West Ham, they have displayed a wealth of character, togetherness and resilience that has made many believe they will avoid relegation. This despite a change in manager – Matt Beard arriving to cover Tanya Oxtoby’s maternity leave – and more recently, the loss of their captain and leader, Jasmine Matthews.
Their improved performances have coincided with a turn in the form of their key players. Jemma Purfield and Gemma Evans are thriving in the backline. The latter, in particular, has become almost undroppable. A sliding challenge expert, the 24-year-old Welsh defender’s toughness, leadership and technical ability has not gone unnoticed, in particular by Beard: “Gem’s fantastic. She’s a great character and wears her heart on her sleeve. You know what you’re going to get with her. Technically she’s a very, very gifted player – she’s quick; she’s good on the ball; she can play. And I think if you look at her performance the other night [against Reading], she’s so brave. She’ll put her body on the line for you.”
No one has been thriving more than their young striker, Ebony Salmon. When asked at the start of the season, Oxtoby emphasised her talent and need to develop and the England youngster is showing the rewards of her hard work. With six league goals to her name, she has hit a fine run of form that has resulted in a first senior Lionesses’ cap, catching the eye of everyone including her new club manager: “Ebony’s a very, very good finisher…Obviously, her pace is a massive threat. If you’re a defender, the last thing you want is Ebony Salmon faced up, running at you. I think if you look at Monday night, I think she showed a little bit more to her game as well where she was dropping into the pockets of space and the assist for Charlie Wellings’ goal.”
Throughout the season, this Continental Cup campaign has proved, as Beard acknowledges, a welcome “distraction”. They sailed through their group with victories over Crystal Palace, London Bees and Lewes – three games they were certainly expected to win but were definitely not guaranteed to do so. Their first proper test was against Aston Villa in the quarterfinals – a 2-1 win that, in hindsight, may well be seen as the turning point – before coming through narrowly against Leicester City.
Chelsea will pose an altogether different test; one that Beard, and his Bristol side, are very familiar with. Flying high at the top of the table, the current champions are undeniably one of the best club sides in the world, with an array of talent any manager would dream of. In their last two meetings, Bristol have conceded 11 times, unable to contain the attacking threat posed by Fran Kirby, Sam Kerr, Pernille Harder et al.
However, no matter the size of the task, shirking a challenge is not in this Bristol City team’s DNA. Beard and his side are not there simply to make up the numbers; they will turn up to compete and do whatever they can to disrupt the opposition: “All I can say to you is that this group will fight for everything. We’re going to fight for every point; we’re going to fight for everything in this game on Sunday. We’ve got a group that is really together and sometimes that’s really difficult to beat.”
Football is about the fight, the resilience and the magic. In fact, the Bristol story from the very start is one that encapsulates that. The “minnows” of the league, dwarfed by the riches of those at the top, they have season after season proven their worth to maintain their top league status. Once again on Sunday, they will emerge as the underdogs but the way that this team have been playing lately, they truly represent the heart of women’s football. As Emma Hayes acknowledged in her pre-match press conference, “there’s no such thing as a comfortable game” and Bristol will do their very best to make league leaders and cup holders as uncomfortable as possible.