Bristol Academy: The Underdog’s Amazing Start

Hi, I’m Tash Harding and welcome to my blog!

Tash in action for Bristol Academy

Tash in action for Bristol Academy

New arrivals

After the finish we had last season, we were all definitely excited to start this one. With the departure of Jess Fishlock, we needed to invest in some new players. Mark Sampson brought in Lucy Staniforth, who brings great passing and a set-piece delivery second to none, and Natalia Sanchon who has already scored seven goals this season, which says it all.

The new players settle in quickly and pre-season training was going well. You could feel the confidence and a buzz around the players and staff within the club and everyone seemed to know there was something to look forward on the horizon. We set ourselves targets – but realistic targets that we knew if we pushed ourselves we would achieve them, and more.

Then it was time to kick off the season…

The first game

Before the game against Doncaster, we had a lot of players, including myself, away on international duty either in the Cyprus Cup or the Algarve Cup. It was a gruelling two weeks and very tough on the body. It wasn’t ideal preperation before our first game of 2013 but that’s football.

That first game was played in tough conditions, the pitch was awful and everyone found it difficult to play on it. But Bristol came away with a 2-0 win and I a cold!

But that was the start of the belief within the squad. We could win even when the conditions were tough. As we went on the show…

That Everton Game…

After the Doncaster game we were awaiting our next opponent, Everton. It was our first home game of 2013 and there was a quiet confidence that surrounded the changing room. We knew if we played well we could be going to another FA Cup semi-final, and give us a platform for the next league game, where we ironically would play Everton again.

Buzzing after Everton thriller

Buzzing after Everton thriller

We ended up winning that Cup game 4-3! What an incredible night and game that was for everyone involved and the supporters who watched. We were on a high because we knew we were in the semi-final and had the same team In a couple of days – and we had already beaten them. The club was buzzing!

The league game was played on a Thursday evening, and was one that still sticks in the minds of everyone who watched and who played in that game on both sides! Individually it was the start of my best season yet. We played as a team and took the game by the scruff of the neck. We went in at half-time 2-1 down, but not once did we believe that we were going to lose.

It came down to two spectacular goals from our skipper Cozza to make it 3-2. The crowd were amazing – the best atmosphere we have had this season so far. The Vixen supporters came in to their own that night. That was the springboard of our season.

FA Cup…The one that got away

Reaching the semi-final was an achievement in itself, but we weren’t happy with just being ‘semi-finalists’.

We knew if we played our game and played like we knew we could, we could change that to ‘FA Cup finalists’.

Lincoln are a strong team defensively and don’t concede very often. We knew we had to be at our best to get the result we wanted. Before we were going out for the warm up, we were reading the ‘good luck’ messages that everyone had sent us leading up to that game and that moment. We all felt proud and honoured to play for the club that day.

The game could not have started better for us, we were on the front foot from the start, but just couldn’t find the net. At the other end, Karen Bardsley pulled off some great saves to keep it 0-0 at half time.

Cup final here we come

Cup final here we come

Everyone took a minute to calm down before our gaffer told us: “If you want this, now is the time. We have nothing to lose. It’s a case of who wants it more. And we want it more.” That stuck with all the girls going into the second half. We came out of the blocks flying and our ‘Spanish Wizards’ came up with the goods again.

When that final whistle went, everyone erupted. The supporters were singing Spanish songs and the famous song “Shoes off if you love Bristol”. We knew we had a special team and staff that day and we could compete with anyone.

Runners up

I experienced my first FA Cup final this year. The week leading up to the game was incredible, we were feeling relaxed and knew if we played like we had been we could turn this into an even game. Training was going well and everyone was feeling great.

Unfortunately we had a setback when Laura Del Rio was declared unfit for the final. It was a blow but we knew we had a strong team and we don’t rely on individuals.

Tash was one of the faces of the FA Cup final promotion

Tash was one of the faces of the FA Cup final promotio

The day of the final was incredible, and very hot at that! We had buses upon buses of supporters singing the shoes off song when we arrived – I felt like a professional football player.

Our preparation could not have gone better for us and we were all nervous but quietly confident that this maybe was our year.

In the game itself, initially we pressed quite well and it felt like everything was going 100mph. Then a massive blow came on 1:24 seconds into the first half. Arsenal scored. It literally felt like the carpet had been swiped from underneath us in an instant. We had our backs against the wall from the start. It was a tough first half but were hanging on in there, going into half-time 1-0 down.

I remember looking around the changing room at the girls, and you could see the disappointment on everyone’s faces. We knew this was going to have to be the best 45 minutes we had ever played. It was mentally exhausting to make ourselves dig deep and shake this fear of losing but we went for broke, and decided to leave nothing left in the tank. We went out trying to win.

Unfortunately, they hit us on the break twice to win the game 3-0. They deserved to win. They showed how to get the job done and why they have the impeccable record they have earned.

We were left emotionally and physically drained. We felt that we had let everyone down and that’s the worst feeling to have. Everyone was left with the feeling “what if…”. What would have happened if that early goal hadn’t gone in?! These were the questions we were asking ourselves.

But you win some and you lose some. That wasn’t our day or our time to be champions. We had to forget it quickly because we had to play them again within a couple of days.

Take two

After losing the FA Cup final, you could sense the disappointment and sadness during training. And certainly in the first half performance of that Thursday evening clash with the Gunners. We went 2-0 down during the first half and we were awful. Half-time could not have come soon enough. Our gaffer said we should have given our wages to the supporters because we were that bad. There were over 1000 people there and they felt just as disappointed as us. It was the quietest 45 minutes in Bristol that evening.

In the second half we knew we had to go all or nothing. It was like we all had a kick up the bum, and came out a different team. The game ended up having a sending off, a comedic penalty incident and plenty of goals. Ultimately though, we lost 3-2, but that was a lesson well learnt and we took some confidence from that second half performance.

Onwards and Upwards (and joint top!)

Having beaten Everton, Chelsea, and Donny Belles we were on a high. Take away the loss to Arsenal, and we knew we were on to something special.

However we had to keep up our form. Birmingham away is always going to be a tough game especially because we have never beaten them in the league. And we were going in to this game with a suspended player, three injuries and off the back of two losses! It had all the ingredients of a hard encounter.

However we did well throughout that game and played Birmingham at their own game. I shifted up front with Natalia, and we both got on the score sheet. I had one of my better games that night, and the team more than deserved that win.

Celebrating another goal

Celebrating another goal

We knew if we won our next game, which we did (2-1 over Lincoln) we would go top of the league. To achieve this at the midway point is incredible for us being such a small club.

We know we have the ability to be up at the top, but now it’s the case of believing, living and acting like league leaders.

What next?!

The mid-season break has been good to us, with only three players missing. Training has been hard but good and only getting us fitter and better prepared for the second half of the season. We hope to be at the top come the end of the season and can finally shake off that tag of “The Underdogs”…


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