13 February 2020

EXCLUSIVE: Lewes FC chief Maggie Murphy dreams of some FA Cup magic against Arsenal and tells why she won't give up fighting for equal prize money for men and women

As the magic of the FA Cup continues to be questioned in the men's game, there's no denying it's alive and kicking for the women and nowhere more so this weekend than for Lewes who are the visitors at Arsenal.

It was this time last year when the Gunners dished out a 9-0 thumping to the hosts in the Continental Cup at The Dripping Pan.

But Lewes general manager Maggie Murphy believes the ‘magic’ could be on their side this time round, albeit a big ask.

“The players were very excited to draw Arsenal. Obviously the big games to them are the chance to go out and prove themselves,” she said in an exclusive interview with NewsChain.

“Obviously it would be a dream if we could go past Arsenal even though all the odds are stacked against us.

“But the game actually gives us a bit of freedom. It allows us to act as the underdog and therefore go out and play as hard as we can and try and prove people wrong.

“The atmosphere in the squad is really positive, there will be a lot of people vying to be in that starting 11, wanting to be the ones to walk out on the pitch.

“But football is football, there are upsets which take place all the time. It will be wonderful if the magic happens on our side this time.”

Arsenal have won 14 FA Cups and three Women’s Super League titles and Murphy's side, who are currently eighth in the Women's Championship, have a lot of ‘respect’ and ‘admiration’ for the London team.

“Several players (Rhian Cleverly and Annie Timoney) have come out of the woodwork letting us know that they are actually Arsenal fans," she said. 

"I think that is one of the really exciting things about women’s football is that you can go out against some of your heroes. But when it comes to the game they will be treating it like any other, more than any other in a way because they will have something to prove.

“It’s a really interesting thing in women’s football when you have players who are walking out against a team they admire and respect so much. Arsenal obviously has a huge history in football in the country but also in the FA Cup.

“There is this historical thing that some of the (Lewes) players have tried to become professional footballers and have seen the Arsenal players do amazing things.”

Lewes were on the receiving end of a 9-0 thrashing when they hosted Arsenal in last season's League Cup (James Boyes)

Last month Lewes called for the Football Association to investigate the ‘enormous gap’ in prize money in the men and women’s competitions.

The winner of the men’s competition will receive £3.6 million compared to the women’s £25,000.

In the fourth round of the women’s competition, Lewes took home £2,000. A day earlier in the men's fourth round, they took £180,000.

Murphy said: “£180,000 would make a huge difference to a club like Lewes. And yet we are still struggling day by day to make the case in this country that women’s football has huge potential and needs to be invested in order to realise that potential.

“If we evened up the prize money funds we would see huge growth in women’s football, we would be able to unlock some of that huge potential.

“We would be able to invest in marketing budgets, we would be able to get huge crowds going to the games. We would be able to generate more sponsorship opportunities.

“We are in a situation where the nation feels like women’s football doesn’t have big enough crowds, doesn’t generate enough revenue to merit the increase in prize money. And yet how can we realise that potential unless there is that investment.”

And in this fifth round of the FA Cup, the female winners will receive £3,000 while their male equivalents will get £360,000.

Murphy said: “Again that sum is revolutionary for a club like Lewes. We are caught in this vicious circle of non-investment leading to difficulties to generate crowds and additional revenue, someone needs to stop that and the FA are in a really good position to stop that.

“Lewes has a tradition on being brave on a lot of campaigning issues for ten years or so.

“We are not afraid to be vocal. We are a club that believes that football can be a huge tool for positive social change and we know that many of the other clubs are not able to be outspoken, so for us we are happy to put our head above the ball pit.

“It would be great for more clubs to join us in what we are trying to achieve because ultimately this would be of benefit to football across the country, it’s not really about Lewes, it’s about women’s football and it’s about football as a community asset as well.”

Katie Rood supports the Lewes campaign for equality in FA Cup prize money (Twitter: Lewes FC Women)

Lewes is the only football team in the world which pays their men and women equally and also splits the winning money received through the FA Cup equally.

But despite this Murphy is desperate for the FA to ‘flick the switch’ in terms of closing the gap between the men and women’s prize money sooner rather than later.

“Ultimately we want equal prize money. Let's put a plan in place to see how long it will take to narrow the gap and put markers to see how much we are going to increase the prize money until we reach that place.

“We know the FA have heard us. As to what happens next, it’s too difficult to call. In some ways they have a huge amount of power to flick a switch, whether they do it is another story I guess." 

One way Lewes did attempt to get heard was during their last FA Cup match where the fans wore T-shirts spelling out the difference the men's and women’s fourth round prize money.

“It got people talking about it. Have we seen any movement in terms of comment or anything that makes us think that the prize money gap will be reduced? Then no, so the T-shirts have not been a success.

“We will probably wear them against Arsenal as well with the new figures. And ultimately we hope that whoever is in the FA Cup final will wear those T-shirts, whether that’s Lewes or any other club.”

Simon Parker (right) stepped up to be head coach after Fran Alonso's departure last month (James Boyes)

Lewes saw the recent departure of Lewes manager Fran Alonso who parted ways to join newly-professional side Celtic FC on a full-time basis. 

“I think it was a decision he would have found difficult to turn down to move to Celtic which was offering a full-time setup whereas we are only part-time. And at the time the club was happy to accept his resignation and we’ve left on good terms.

“We have had the opportunity as Simon (Parker, who was the assistant coach) stepping up into the role and we’ve had some really good performances since then. On the positive side the players have enjoyed a little bit more freedom, I think, in the way that they are playing.

“They have enjoyed training being a little bit different and training has been a little more intense as well so, yeah, it was probably a good decision on both sides really.

“Simon had the experience of working with Fran and then stepping up into the role. He has an incredible win rate as well with his previous clubs. It means that the transition has been smooth and it means we haven’t had to make any differences.

“The squad cohesion is very strong, the morale is very high and you know we haven’t had to upset the balance at all in that respect either which is really important for us going forward.

Lewes FC will be looking to push as much as they can to finish in the top half of the league (James Boyes)

“Our biggest goal is to do as well as we can in the league. In the first five games of the season, we were unbeaten and then from then, we suffered a huge number of losses. 

"We were drawn in a very strong Conti Cup with the majority of the teams being in the WSL. We lost all of those games even though we played really well in a few.”

The team put in an impressive performance when they were holding Chelsea 1-1 until the 80th minute in the League Cup last November.

“We have had some great performances but not got the results. You can’t help but look at the league and feel the results we have had don’t reflect the quality we have in the squad.

“The exciting thing about the Championship is you have a number of clubs at the top of the table that are fine to knock Aston Villa out of that top spot and get promoted.

“But then you’ve got a large number of teams in the second half of the table and everything is extremely close. It’s really exciting, but not particularly exciting for those of us who are working here because it’s always very nerve-wracking. But it makes for excellent football,” she added.

Lewes are away to Arsenal in the FA Cup fifth round on Sunday at 1pm. 

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