It is somewhat apt that Nick Cushing’s final two games as Manchester City head coach come against the team he won his first trophy against with the team.
It’s been more than five years since Izzy Christiansen’s header stunned one of the dominant forces of the English game — City was less than 12 months old and on paper had a far inferior squad.
Four players from that starting XI remain at the club, but it’s fair to say Cushing has brought the club a long way from the days of having the likes of Nicola Harding, Emma Lipman, Paula Radtke, and Co. in his team for cup finals.
Wednesday night’s Continental Cup semifinal will be the last for Cushing in a competition he has a fond relationship with, winning the tournament three times, including last season against Joe Montemurro’s side.
For the romantics, it would be something to see Cushing direct his side to another final despite the fact he won’t be in charge come next month; nevertheless, one of these teams will get the chance to ensure the only names on the trophy remain Manchester City or Arsenal since the competition’s inception in 2011.
Wednesday night will be Cushing’s 18th meeting with Arsenal, his 19th and final encounter coming on Sunday in the FA Women’s Super League, two bigger games he couldn’t wish for before leaving for New York on Monday.
While he’ll be trying his best to keep his emotions in check, Cushing says he and his side will prepare for these games as normal.
“The game in itself is no different to games that we had over the past six seasons,” said Cushing. “This competition is important to us and we always want to be in the semifinals. If you look at our teams, we’ve never really consistently showed that we don’t prioritize that with team selection. We’ve always put strong teams out, we’ve always wanted to get to semifinals.
“We’ve done it every year bar one really so we’re happy that we’re in the semifinal, but we know it’s going to be incredibly difficult. One, because Arsenal are a top team and two, because we’re playing away at Arsenal in a knockout game where both teams want to get to the final.”
This week isn’t the first time Cushing has had to face an Arsenal side two games in a row. City overcame the Gunners, then under Pedro Losa, twice in a week back in 2016 in almost identical circumstances, first facing them in a Continental Cup semifinal before traveling to Borehamwood for a league fixture a week later.
A sole Jen Beattie goal, who will likely line up against City tomorrow, sealed an emotional cup victory just days after the death of former Man City player Zoe Tynan, before another 1–0 victory a week later put City on course for a league and cup double that would see them end the FA WSL campaign unbeaten.
“They were better than us on that day and if I was the coach, I would have done the same thing, but he [Losa] changed it and played three at the back and we beat them and went on to win the league undefeated that year and win the Continental Cup.
“It probably makes the second game a little bit cleaner in the sense of you’re just so used to playing each other that by the time you get to the second game there’s no real secrets. Pedro changed the system and I will have the opportunity and Joe will have the opportunity to change the system but we don’t have that much time. Wednesday night is the game, Thursday is recovery, Friday you’ve got to do a whole game’s preparation.”
Cushing added, “For me, you do exactly the same thing again and either do what you did really well in the first game and hope to win again or do everything that you didn’t do in the first game and do it better. I always think you shouldn’t lose twice across those two games really. You can do that because you’re playing a top team but really if you do things that cause you to lose the game and you do it exactly the same in the second game then you’ve got areas you need to improve.”
Frustratingly, despite people being able to watch both semifinals live on the FA Player, City’s following away match at Borehamwood will likely be affected by the fact the game clashes with the men’s team facing Manchester United in the Carabao Cup semifinal at the Etihad Stadium.
While such clashes are sometimes unable to be avoided, Cushing was clearly frustrated and hopes it is something that can be rectified in the future even after he’s departed the women’s game.
“I think it would definitely help if we didn’t play on the same day,” he said. “I consistently talk with our fans, we have a group of fans that travel to every game, men’s and women’s, and I think when you have to ask them to choose it puts them in a place where they don’t really want to do that because they want to watch both teams.
“I think if we’re going to grow the game it’s not ideal really if we’re trying to get a game where we have a full crowd. We’re probably not going to take as many away fans as we would if the men’s team weren’t playing, so it’s not ideal. I think the problem you’ve got is you’ve got an FA and the Premier League that aren’t the same sort of organization, so I don’t know if you’ll ever get that.”