Manchester City manager Nick Cushing praised his players for the resilience they have shown all season after his side clinched a domestic cup double with a 3-0 victory over West Ham United at Wembley.
After a tight first half which saw former Man City striker Jane Ross go closest to an opener for the Hammers, goals from Keira Walsh, Georgia Stanway, and substitute Lauren Hemp ensured it was City who lifted the trophy for a second time in three seasons.
“We set out to do a job today,” said Cushing. “We knew West Ham would be a good team and a difficult game but we set out to do a job that we’d set out to do all season. We’re proud that we’ve added the FA Cup to the Continental Cup this season.”
It wasn’t as simple as their first visit to the national stadium two years ago. Cushing’s side held a 3-0 lead after half an hour against Birmingham City, but Matt Beard’s West Ham team offered a stern challenge and had chances to go in front before halftime..
Cushing admitted he felt his team were “too emotional” in the first half but praised their second-half performance as they eventually rounded out what was a more comfortable score line than the overall game deserved.
“I thought West Ham were excellent. I expected them to cause us problems, I expected them to play on the counterattack with [Alisha] Lehmann, [Adriana] Leon, and I expected [Leanne] Kiernan to play.
“I think we played the occasion… maybe not the occasion, but I thought it affected our offensive play around the edge of the box. We took shots that weren’t on and put crosses out of play, it was just a little unlike us. We gave counterattacks away by not being structured the way we usually are so we just asked them to settle down, play logically, and I thought second half they looked comfortable.”
Expanding on his point, Cushing said he felt his players weren’t making the right decisions in the first half.
“I don’t think it is a conscious thing,” he added. “I don’t think Nikita Parris or Georgia Stanway just wanted to score for themselves but when you come to this occasion and get the opportunity to score at Wembley, it’s so huge it might impair your decision-making.
“It’s hard to get messages on the pitch and affect the game while the ball is moving. Halftime gave us a chance to calm everybody down, their attacks were coming from our attacks but once we solved those problems and I got my points across then second half they were excellent. It was a really controlled performance and we were excellent in the second half.”
He added, “My job as a coach is to affect the players tactically and to ensure they go out with the best mind-set. I have full trust in them and they have full trust in me; we had an honest conversation at halftime and they went out and won the game so I’m so proud of them.”
Two years ago it was the experienced quartet of Lucy Bronze, Izzy Christiansen, Carli Lloyd, and Jill Scott who scored the goals as City won the FA Cup for the first time, but there was a completely different story to the scorers on Saturday evening.
Walsh at 22 was the most experienced of City’s goal scorers, with Stanway turning 20 at the start of 2019 and Hemp still just 18. Cushing praised former Bristol City manager Willie Kirk for developing Hemp to a stage where she could play in an FA Cup final at 18.
And the Manchester City head coach was visibly proud to have three of his youngest players contribute to such a success.
“I said to those younger players all along, and I said to Jess Park two weeks ago, we have to expose these young players to this occasion because we want them to reach their potential. Irrelevant of the result, Lauren Hemp had to get on the pitch today, just like Georgia Stanway in 2017. You have to expose those [players] because we see those players as the next Nikita Parris, the next Jill Scott, the next Steph Houghton.
“I thought Keira Walsh was excellent, I thought Abbie McManus was excellent, Georgia Stanway is just Georgia Stanway in the way that she plays, and when Hemp came on she nearly got two goals.”
Once again expanding on a point he regularly hammers home about young players at the club, the Man City boss said he’ll continue to go down the same pathway in search of future success.
“I say this a lot but our strategy here is really evident. The strongest part of our football club is myself and Gavin Makel have a really clear strategy of how we work and we stick to that in both good and bad times. It’s to have good young players, develop good young players and put pressure on them to win things and deliver along the way. If we can be as British as possible then we will.
“We have the likes of Pauline Bremer, Janine Beckie, and Tessa Wullaert but if there are good young players out there we’d like to play a part in developing them because it’s our belief in how we’re going to be successful.
Victory over West Ham means next weekend’s final FA WSL match against Arsenal will mark the one-year mark since Man City last lost a domestic match, ironically against the same opponents they round the season off against on Saturday.
An unbeaten league campaign so far, plus winning both domestic trophies, marks a rise in success compared to last season where running out of steam left the club with no silverware at the end of the season, and Cushing has picked out one area where he believes his team have improved this campaign.
“People will say we’ve scored goals and we’ve got good young players but I think resilience has been our key. We probably shouldn’t have got a 2–2 draw out of Bristol City but we did. This team’s ability to absorb pressure this season has probably been our best attribute and I have so much belief in these players.
“Maybe in 2014 and 2015 we didn’t have that and in 2016 we weren’t really put under pressure. In 2017 and 2018 we didn’t absorb the pressure well and we didn’t win a trophy. We changed things and the most pleasing thing is we’ve always been able to stay in the game this season.”
But despite the potential for an unbeaten league campaign or at worst a season that will see them lose just one game across three domestic competitions, Man City won’t walk away with the league title and will instead have to stand by and watch as Joe Montemurro’s Gunners lift the trophy for the first time in seven years at Borehamwood next season.
Cushing made changes to the Man City structure both in terms of the weekly schedule and some staff changes during the offseason last summer but clearly still feels as though his side should be walking away with a domestic treble.
“I’m a realist, I understand football,” he said. “Last season we didn’t win anything and there’s no point being emotional about it, there were reasons for that. We had to be logical, we had to look in the offseason at why physically we weren’t great at the end of last season, why we thought the mind-set of the group wasn’t resilient enough and why we didn’t absorb pressure enough.
“We changed a few things in the offseason and potentially now we can go undefeated. The flip side of that is we should have won the league. Arsenal deserve the league but we don’t feel they were better than us. We haven’t lost a game, we should have won the games against Reading when we were 1–0 up; Bristol when we were 1–0 up; Chelsea when we were 2–0 up.
“I can go through all of these things but we have to look at the logical reasoning and look at how we make sure we don’t draw those games next year while retaining all the good things we’ve done this year, that’s football.”
He admitted his side “won’t play with the goal of going undefeated.” when they walk out against Arsenal on Saturday and his side now have two days off to enjoy their cup triumph ahead of the final game of what has been, on the whole, a very successful season for his Man City side.