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How Gunners have been at the centre of cup’s rich history

After Sunday's extra-time drama at Wembley was watched by 1.7 million, Kirsty Pealling reflects on Arsenal’s early FA Cup triumphs

05 November, 2020 — By Catherine Etoe

Arsenal at the 2004 Women’s FA Cup final, from left: Clare Wheatley, Leanne Champ, Kirsty Pealling, Lianne Sanderson, Emma Byrne, Carol Harwood and Justine Lorton. Photo: Catherine Etoe

YOU can’t beat a bit of extra-time drama in a cup final – and that is exactly what Manchester City and Everton served up at Wembley on Sunday.

City eventually edged a thrilling FA Cup contest 3-1 in a match held behind closed doors but watched by a television audience of 1.7 million.

Skipper Steph Houghton collected the trophy, her third with City and her fifth all told, having twice won the cup in Arsenal colours.

It was not the only tally of note, though.

This cup final was the 50th in the history of a competition that Arsenal are surely the titans of, having won it an unrivalled 14 times. Their first came in 1993, when Vic Akers’ team beat legendary club Doncaster Belles in front of just over 3,500 fans at Oxford United’s Manor Ground.

Steph Houghton lifting the trophy for Man City. Photo: Manchester City FC/Tom Flathers

It was, Akers once said, “one of the big turning points in Arsenal’s history”. It was also a treasured moment for then 18-year-old defender Kirsty Pealling, who went on to win seven FA Cup titles with the Gunners.

“It was a massive, massive game,” she told me this week. “To win 3-0 against a top team like that was so memorable.”

Long a pivotal member of Camden Council’s sports development team, Pealling won every domestic title possible at Arsenal and wound up as the club’s longest-serving player by the time she hung up her boots in 2006.

But Camden Youth FC’s inspirational manager still regards the FA cup as special.

“Back then, it was the only game you’d see on the TV, it was the pinnacle, an opportunity for people who have never seen women’s football to watch it,” she said.

“The whole build-up, the attention, it’s just a special, special day and I think any player would say that.”

That Arsenal victory 27 years ago was also remarkable because it was the last final under the Women’s FA, who had run the sport on a shoestring for more than two decades before the FA took women’s football under its umbrella.

With a big day out at Wembley, mainstream media coverage and record-smashing crowd attendances, the Women’s FA Cup final has become a glitzy affair of late.

It is certainly a far cry from 1971 when South­ampton claimed the first trophy at Crystal Palace National Sports Centre.

But that rich history is perhaps why it remains such an exceptional competition.

• Catch Tottenham v Reading on Saturday at 2pm and Arsenal v ­Manchester United on Sunday at 2.30pm on The FA Player.

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