The last time Chelsea played at Wembley, Millie Bright scored a goal so good that it simply deserved to be seen. It was the sort of strike, from 30 yards out, that hung in the air before crashing down underneath the crossbar – and in an ideal world the cavernous bowl of the stadium would have fallen into one of those perfect moments of hush before being shattered by the eruption of a crowd rising to its feet and losing its collective head.
August 2020, however, was not the world in its ideal state – and so Bright’s thunderous winner in Chelsea’s 2-0 win over Manchester City in the Community Shield was instead met with silence, aside from her teammate’s shrieks and gasps of shock that she had made it onto the scoresheet in such style. Bright was engulfed, Chelsea lifted another trophy under Emma Hayes, but Wembley remained unmoved.
Fans in England have long since returned to football but Sunday’s FA Cup final between Chelsea and Arsenal is set to bring in the biggest crowd for a women’s domestic match since before the pandemic. It’s been two-and-a-half years since the last women’s FA Cup final in front of fans and the atmosphere that enlivens such events has been desperately missed.
“It would be a little bit different now wouldn’t it?” Bright laughs as she imagines what it would be like this time around if she scored a replica of her long-range strike in front of a crowd of 40,000-plus at Wembley. “I do need to work on my celebration a little bit. I think I’m almost surprised when it goes in the net.”
As a defender, lashing in a screamer from distance will not be Bright’s main concern when she, as expected, starts alongside Magdalena Eriksson and Jess Carter in Chelsea’s back three. The 28-year-old, who captained England this past week in their World Cup qualifying victories over Austria and Latvia, will instead be tasked with keeping out Arsenal and their considerable attacking talents, chiefly the irrepressible Vivianne Miedema and the in-form Beth Mead.
Bright is relishing the opportunity and although the chances of another Wembley winner from the centre back are slim, she has pictured the roar of the Chelsea fans that would greet a last-ditch challenge or a goal-line clearance. The energy of the crowd can transform even the most basic and menial of defensive tasks into something much greater, feeding into a backing track of sound and colour which dictates the rhythm of the match and has been missing for too long in the women’s game.
“The fans are vital,” Bright tells The Independent. “If it’s the 80th minute and someone puts in an ultimate challenge or clears the ball, that lifts the whole stadium and that’s massively important in these games. It makes it more intense and that’s what you want finals to be like. You want it to be intense, for both teams to be at it, and that’s what it will be. Both sets of fans are really loud and it’s going to be a bit spicy.”
Chelsea were stung by Arsenal on the opening day of the Women’s Super League season in September, as the defending champions fell to a defeat in a 3-2 thriller at the Emirates. The two London rivals have been by far the standout teams in England this year and the end-to-end nature of their previous encounter only heightens the excitement heading into Sunday’s final.
“Both teams are in top condition, both performing in the league,” Bright says. “That’s what football is all about; two top teams going up against each other and it’s up for the taking. In the first game of the season our defensive performance was quite bad, to be fair. It was by no means our level and it wasn’t a game that we were proud of.
“But we focus on the games that we’ve been playing. We’ve played top, top opposition since that game. We want to keep developing, which I feel we have done. We know what Arsenal are all about. They know what we are all about. It’s just who’s going to deliver on the day.”
Bright returned to Chelsea this week having been “stunned” by England manager Sarina Wiegman handing her the captaincy for the camp in the absence of the injured Steph Houghton and Leah Williamson. England won both of their fixtures, a 1-0 victory over Austria and a record 20-0 thrashing of Latvia in Bright’s hometown of Doncaster, a night of huge significance for her personally but one in which she had the easiest night for a defender imaginable on the pitch.
Wearing the captain’s armband for her country has not changed her. At Chelsea, Bright has skippered the Blues when Eriksen has been unavailable but continues to take responsibility for the leadership of the team even when the Sweden international is back alongside her in the Chelsea defence.
“Whether I’m wearing the armband or not, I don’t like to change – and I really mean that from the bottom of my heart,” Bright says. “Me being me is the best result. I always want to make sure I’m leading the girls and I think me and Mags work really well as a team. I still demand standards whether I’m captain or not.
“Everyone’s aware of the FA Cup and the importance of it and what it means to football. To be given another opportunity to be playing in a final, we’ve worked extremely hard to get there. It’s something that the club represents, it’s about winning and making big games like this.
“Getting to play at the best stadium in Wembley is incredible and it’s a real mark for women’s football – looking back over the years and seeing how far the game has come. It’s ultimate pride for me and passion for the cup. To keep driving the game forward and excitement for the next generation.”