Sheehan: We Have to Go Into the Game Believing We Can Progress
Friday, 14th Feb 2020 14:11
While the UK braces itself for widespread disruption at the hands of Storm Dennis this weekend, Joe Sheehan is surely one of the very few people ready to welcome the heavy rain with open arms.
“The wetter the better,” grinned Sheehan, manager of the Ipswich Town team heading north for a Women’s FA Cup fifth round tie against holders Manchester City on Sunday.
Sheehan is looking for the weather to play a helping hand as he prepares his youthful side for a clash with a City squad packed with international talent, so much so that nine Lionesses featured for the Sky Blues as they defeated bottom club Bristol City 1-0 on Wednesday in a league fixture.
Ipswich are the lowest-ranked club still in the last 16 and although they occupy pole position in the fourth tier there are still 46 places separating them from City, who sit proudly at the Super League summit.
An enormous task, then, but 31-year-old Sheehan’s eyes light up as he enjoys a rare moment in the spotlight, the BBC cameras firmly focused as he discussed the biggest challenge by far of his fledgling career.
Sheehan said: “When the draw was made we were thinking ‘If only it was at Felixstowe’. It’s an open ground with a bobbly pitch that we are familiar with. That would have been great.
“Instead it’s at their stadium with its nice pitch, where City are at their most comfortable. It does play into their favour so any support we can get from the wind and the rain, we’ll certainly take it.”
But Sheehan has far too much faith in his side to simply leave their hopes of a shock win to the mercy of the elements. Having witnessed them in action two days ago, he acknowledged their opponents as “a well-oiled machine” before quickly adding: “Belief is key for us – we believe we can be unstoppable – and we always emphasise being fearless.”
Such is the disparity between the sides that Sheehan’s starting line-up could include as many as eight teenagers, with 16-year-old Maddie Biggs surely assured of her place after hitting a first-half hat-trick in last month’s 4-1 win at third-tier Huddersfield.
Another highlight of their progress thus far was a 6-1 thrashing of Norwich City and in their six ties the Tractor Girls have netted 29 times and conceded just twice.
Sunday’s game will be exactly one year after Sheehan’s first in charge, a 14-0 caning of Brantham en route to winning the County Cup, a trophy they look like retaining having won by double figures and accumulated 42 goals in each of the three rounds to have been completed this season.
Sheehan, who hails from Hornchurch, said: “We have put a culture in place within our group over the last 18 months that has some behaviour and values that we really stick by.
“That's what is so exciting, that we’re at this stage of the competition with this group of players. We’ve had around 13 to 15 young players involved at senior level this year and it’s proven a success so far.”
Regardless of what happens at the impressive Academy Stadium in Manchester on Sunday, the club’s long-term model is clearly succeeding. The target is three successive promotions, which will have them rubbing shoulders with the Super League giants.
“These players have an opportunity to create their own journey to that top division, via promotion with us,” added Sheehan, whose side are top of National League Division One South East.
“They’re not going to be just placed in the WSL. They’re going to have to earn the right to play there. We feel they’ve got enough about them to, over the next two or three years, grind their way to the top.
“When we do get to the top, having players that have managed to get there themselves, with the experience they’ll have got, then aged 18 or 19, you can’t buy that. We think that will serve us really well.
“We’ve stuck with the model and over the past year or so it has proved to be the foundation of our work. Nothing will change this week because of who we are playing – that’s us, that’s what we stand for and we prepare extremely well for every single game we play.
“We are very fortunate with the resources we have, the analysis we are able to do and the staff who help us with our planning. We will go into the game believing we can progress. I think we have to.
"A lot of teams who play in the Super League against Chelsea, Arsenal, Manchester City etc probably don’t truly believe they can get something out of the games. Unless you have belief it could be a really long old day.
“We are going to make sure we are fearless and believe we can progress. If we don’t, not only are we going against what we truly believe in, we will also be making it more difficult for ourselves.”
Interestingly, City have just had a change of manager, with Nick Cushing joining New York City and former Town loan player Alan Mahon, whose wife is from Ipswich, put in interim charge. The former Irish international had a winning start with Wednesday’s narrow win.
Sheehan was keen to take in that game and, asked what he thought, said: “You can see they are a team that have had something very clear in place for a significant amount of time. When you put that clear strategy and way of doing things with some of the best players in the world you get results.
“They are an excellent team and it will be a huge challenge for us. It was their 11th win in a row – that’s a great stat for us to hear as we approach the game! But they won’t take us lightly. I know Alan will want to make a good impression and they will want to progress in this competition because they won it last year.
“I really wanted to go and watch them on Wednesday. We have a lot of footage on them but I wanted to see them live and take in the pace of the game and the speed of their players.
“We brought in the Ipswich Town U18 boys on Tuesday and they helped us to get up to speed. We’ve never played a team as quick and physical as City. We will have to adapt because we can’t create that ourselves. Another reason I went up there on Wednesday was to see if the new manager had changed anything.”
No one is looking forward to the occasion more than 30-year-old captain Amanda Crump, who has been a Town player for 14 years. She said: “It’s an exciting time for the club. All the girls are absolutely buzzing to play against some of the top Lionesses. It will be a great experience for everyone.
“It’s absolutely huge for us, the biggest game in the club’s history so far, and it’s going to be an unbelievable experience. The World Cup has helped to improve the interest in women’s football and this draw has helped to build our fan base as well.”
Asked how she and her colleagues had been coping with the extra attention focused on them, Crump added: “We’ve had to try to put that to the back of our minds and concentrate on our league games because they are obviously very important to us. But it has been hard to not think about the game against City.
“It’s been great because we’ve not had this amount of publicity in all the years I’ve been at the club. The attention we’ve received can only help to build the club.
“We’re taking more than 400 people up there and it will be amazing for us to have that many supporters. It’s brilliant and we will definitely recognise that they’re behind us and believe in us.”
Boss Sheehan added: “We identified at the start of the season, and on the back of last year, that it might be the right time to start drip-feeding some of our best young players into the senior set-up.
“We have a lot of senior players – some play regularly, some don’t – but they all add extreme value to what we are trying to achieve.
“It’s not just about who they are as players but also who they are as people. But we felt we needed some younger blood, more pace, more energy and a bit more enthusiasm. It has been a good recipe for us so far.”
Crump, meanwhile, accepts that she is in the twilight of her career but, no matter what happens on Sunday, she insisted we will be hearing a lot more of some of her team-mates as they progress in the game.
She said: “When I look back to my time at the club I probably couldn’t have envisaged us being involved in a game like this. Well, not until we were heading into this season, I mean.
“I truly believe we have earned the right to be where we are. The club has progressed by leaps and bounds and there are players in our squad who could definitely be enjoying a full-time career in the future.”
Sheehan has no idea whether any of his players will be starstruck on Sunday. “They have never been in this situation before,” he said. “But what I do know is that we’ve played big games, like at Huddersfield in the previous round, and we coped with it really well.
“Our biggest game was actually against Norwich back in September, It brought out a lot of characteristics, expectation and pressure in front of a big crowd. I know our younger players felt the pressure that night.
“Paul Lambert, Lee O’Neill, Bryan Klug and some first-team players were there, and our experience that night means we haven’t been fazed by anything since. Sunday will be no different.”
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