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As backup goalkeeper and general secretary of the Clapton Community FC Women’s Teams, Sophia Axelsson was at the heart of an historic FA Cup run. A story that showcased the spirit and perseverance of a remarkable football club, both on and off the pitch.

By Sophie Axelsson. Images By Garry Strutt and Nick Davidson

The tension was high in those fifteen minutes of half-time at Hanworth Villa. It was 0-0 against Hounslow, our opponents from four divisions above, and we had matched them in every position thus far. But we were struggling to overcome our nerves.

Coach Claudio Gomes asked why that was. “Of course we’re nervous,” one player said. “We’ve never faced opposition this high up before.”

Gomes then asked us to look around the room. “Does Hounslow have anyone as fast as Maria Mendonca? Does Hounslow have a goalkeeper as good as Polly Adams? Does Hounslow have a striker as lethal as Emily Link?” The answer was no, and the same could be said of the player occupying every position we have. “We have everything to win. They have everything to lose. Let’s enjoy our football and go out there and continue to show everyone who we are.”

“The team, the coaches and every single one of the 450 travelling Tons stormed the pitch. We had made history”

Neither side managed to break the deadlock, and the tie would be settled by another penalty shootout for the second game in a row. Whilst the outfield players were debating who would take a penalty, goalkeeper Polly Adams sat on the floor with her phone, watching a video of Hounslow’s last penalty shootout, trying to memorise which side each player would pick. A strategy which would prove to be crucial in just a few moments.

Marta Boiro scored our first, then Polly Adams saved Hounslow’s first effort. Kiki Marino’s penalty was saved as Hounslow buried their second attempt. All square. Emily Link powered her shot through the Hounslow keeper’s hands, and again, Polly Adams made an outstanding save, making the score 2-1 to us. Centre-back Annie Lyons stepped up to the penalty spot, took a few strides back, took aim … and slipped. It didn’t matter. Her shot was unstoppable. All the pressure was now on Hounslow’s fourth penalty taker. 

As Hounslow’s fourth penalty sailed over the bar, there was a tiny moment of complete silence before we realised – it was done. The team, the coaches and every single one of the 450 travelling Tons stormed the pitch. We had made history. We were the first Tier 7 team to ever reach the third round proper of the FA Cup. We were the first team ever to beat a team four tiers higher up. 

Our FA Cup journey started in the second round qualifying stage, away to Tier 5 Haringey Borough. A hat-trick from Emily Link, a brace from Marta Boiro and header from Annie Lyons secured a 6-3 win for Clapton that day, ensuring the short trip across North London was a happy one. Next up was a trip to Tier 6 Biggleswade United. More goals from Emily Link and Marta Boiro secured a 2-0 victory to put us through to the first round proper.

A clash in fixtures at our home ground meant we had to switch to an away day in Bedford. The team, alongside 400 supporting Tons, made the 120-mile round trip to watch a thrilling game. Tier 5 Bedford sat second in their league at the time of the game, and their confidence was high.

At four minutes in, Marta Boiro was first to reach an Emily Link cross to put us 1-0 up. But then, on the stroke of half-time, Bedford’s tricky number 7 equalised and made the error of celebrating by knee-sliding and cupping her ears in front of the travelling supporters. Those fans sang even louder as the teams headed to the changing rooms for the half-time break.

There were no more goals in the second half, and no goals in extra time. Penalty shootout it was. It came to the last penalty. Captain Alice Nutman stepped up and buried the ball into the bottom left corner. 4-3 to Clapton. The pitch was flooded with emotions and dancing teammates. The celebrations didn’t stop there, and the poor bus driver had to sit through an hour and a half of Clapton songs and chants on the way back to London. But who could blame us? We were in the second round proper of the FA Cup! 

Up until the fourth round when the WSL teams enter the competition, games are still regionalised. And also up until the fourth round, the FA will not help teams with any expenses. Gate receipts are not shared between the teams in the Women’s FA Cup until the final.

So, before the third round, we had visited Haringey in North London, Biggleswade and Bedford in Bedfordshire, and Hounslow in West London. With the exception of the coach trip to Bedford, we had paid our own way to all games.

For the third round, we could have drawn any team in the South Zone. AFC Wimbledon, Ipswich, Crystal Palace, Watford, and many other teams nearer to London. At 2pm on Monday 29 November, we received the news that we’d been drawn away to Tier 3 side Plymouth Argyle, which meant a 500-mile round trip.

A group of hardworking CCFC volunteers started conferring straight away. How were we going to get the team down there, and how were we going to get as many of our supporters down as possible? 

After researching hotel costs and the best way to travel, we realised it would take roughly £3,000 to get just the playing squad and managers down to Saltash, where the game was to be played. All our wins up until this point had generated a prize sum of £2,900.

“How were we going to get the team down there, and how were we going to get as many of our supporters down as possible?”

One volunteer spoke to the train company to see if we could get discounted tickets. He shared all the press our historic cup run had generated, which highlighted the disparity in prize money between the men’s and women’s competitions. Had we been men, we would have already won almost £66,000. With that money we could have funded the round trip for the team and supporters, as well as covered the shortage the club is facing building changing rooms at the Old Spotted Dog Ground.

Once we realised we had no way of getting cheaper travel, we had only two options left. Bankrolling the trip ourselves (not an option for many players) or starting a fundraiser (terrible timing due to the changing room crowdfunder).

We decided on the crowdfunder. It went live on 1 December at 2pm. Just thirty-six hours later we had reached our target and not only managed to get the whole team to Plymouth, but we also managed to raise money to help pay for a supporter coach. 

We were overwhelmed by the reach our story and journey had. We spoke to the BBC, The Guardian, The Independent, Spanish media and so on. It was both a fairytale and a story which highlighted the continued inequality in football. 

Not long into the second half against Plymouth, I think many of us realised this might be the end of the road. Plymouth is the toughest opposition we’ve ever faced. We had lost vital players Mim Chadwick, Emily Link and Lucy Spours to Covid-19 before the game, but every single player gave their all for every single one of the ninety minutes we played. 

After the 5-0 defeat, we continued to sing and celebrate. For the whole adventure, the history we made. The travelling supporters continued to sing until the train reached London Paddington. 

This FA Cup journey has been a beautiful reminder that another football is possible. A fan-owned, fan-run football. Where a grassroots club can defy the odds and not only make their own dreams come true, but also extend that dream to almost 1,500 travelling supporters, volunteers and club owners.

We can’t wait to do it all again next year.

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