It’s a unique occurrence when every step a team makes proves to be history in the making. But that is exactly what Southampton FC Women are experiencing this weekend.
In terms of unchartered territory, it doesn’t come as remote as this weekend’s trip to Super League side Birmingham City, who they meet in the fifth round of the FA Cup.
Once more Marieanne Spacey-Cale’s side have ventured into new realms as far as the competition is concerned, progressing a stage further than last in each of the previous three seasons.
Rachel Panting’s winner from 35 yards at Championship side Lewes wrote its own chapter in the history of this side, but Sunday’s trip to the Midlands may well warrant an entire new series. A series that has been in the making for some time and one which isn’t likely to be kept brief.
For defender and club captain Shelly Provan, this is all just a consequence of the work put in not only in this COVID-orientated season, but since the team’s reformation in 2017.
“Progression would mean that everything we put in over the last few months, and even the last few years, has come to fruition,” said the 36-year-old with a smile.
“Everything the club’s put in to backing us and helping us progress, I think for everyone it will be massive.
“To have gone this far into the competition it’s shown how much we’ve grown as a team and as a club year by year, season on season.
“For me the Lewes game was probably one of the best experiences of my career because of the hard work that’s gone into us getting this far and proving that we can compete at that level.
“That’s where we want to be and to prove that in that game was great.”
For a player who has reached an FA Cup semi-final, played in the Super League and represented England, listing the win over Lewes as one of her career highlights speaks volumes of the achievement.
But Provan is looking only ahead. Starting with the visit to Solihull on Sunday.
It’s a game with new challenges, new demands, but crucially new rewards.
“They’ll pose different threats to other teams that we’ve played,” acknowledges the experienced full-back, “but not threats that we’re not ready for.”
Shelly ProvanWe're more together as a group and as a team than we have ever been.
“We’re prepared and have put everything in place to physically match them, to tactically match them.
“We’ve got to go into the game believing that we can get something from it and hopefully we can put everything into practice and get a result.
“I had a couple of seasons there [at Birmingham] when I was at Loughborough University. It was a team that was close to where I was and it was full of some great players, I was lucky to be involved in that squad and it will be good to go back.”
Playing for the likes of Leeds, Bristol, Reading, Notts County and Birmingham, Provan has been surrounded by talented, ambitious squads during her playing career.
One thing has remained the same; the drive to play in the FA Cup.
“I think it’s one of those competitions you dream of being a part of,” she recalls, whilst looking over the training pitches at Staplewood Campus.
“I remember at school we had a competition which replicated the FA Cup and it was something we were always quite competitive in. Then going into women’s football, being a part of it and competing in it was huge.
“I don’t remember the first time, but I remember a few experiences in particular. The furthest I’ve ever got was the semi-final when I played for Bristol.
“We played against Arsenal and were pipped to the post at that one. But it was an amazing experience just to get that far and that close to the final.
“We had quite a few watching at the time and to play against quite a strong team who went on to win the competition that year was a great experience for us.”
It’s a competition that can ignite a whole new fire inside any side, particularly one that is reaching new heights at every stage.
Saints have had many things come their way the last two seasons that may have knocked back one or two others; back-to-back league suspensions, training from home for half a year, delayed cup finals.
Provan insists it’s done quite the opposite to her and her current teammates.
“I think the lockdown has given us a togetherness,” something clearly evident to anyone fortunate enough to watch the team in action.
“The training we had to do in lockdown and the communication we had to do, where it’s different to seeing each other at the training ground, has given us a real togetherness coming back into training.
“We’re more together as a group and as a team, along with staff, than we have ever been and I think that’s crucial to the progress that we’ve made since coming back.
“We’ve got a real mix of youth and experience. Even though some of the girls are young they’ve got really mature heads on them.
“Some of the challenges they’ve been set, some of the challenges they’ve faced in games, you’d think youngsters would crumble under that pressure and they haven’t, they’ve stepped up.
“That’s been key to the results we’ve got so far in the competition.”
With the number of youthful players in and around the squad as it is, the onus is on the individuals like Provan to guide them into these unknown undertakings.
Luckily for the rest of the squad, the former England international is under no illusion of what they need to do on Sunday.
“It’s about intensity for us. Over the weeks we’ve had to defend with intensity, now we’ve got to make sure we keep possession with the same intensity we do when we’re defending.
“It’s crucial that we have more possession than we have done in previous games to allow us to go forward and to ultimately score goals.
“I think the intensity both defensively and in attack is going to be crucial for us this weekend.”