Women's FA Cup: Youthful Ipswich of tier four ready for holders Manchester City

By Tom GarryBBC Sport
Maddie Biggs, 16, scored three goals to take her team to the last 16 of the FA Cup

When holders Manchester City take to the field in their Women's FA Cup fifth-round tie on Sunday, more than half of the players lining up against them will be aged 17 or younger.

Youthful opponents Ipswich Town, of the fourth tier, could face as many as nine senior England internationals - that's how many Lionesses started for City in the league on Wednesday.

The 'Tractor Girls' have won six cup ties to reach the last-16 stage, including victories over Huddersfield, Portsmouth and - by a 6-1 margin - their East Anglian rivals Norwich City.

Their run makes for a classic cup match-up at the Academy Stadium - the top-flight leaders against the lowest-ranked team left in the competition.

But the visitors will arrive in Manchester with a 16-year-old hat-trick heroine and their own aspirations to join the Women's Super League as soon as possible.

"There will probably be between six and eight players starting at Man City that will only be 16 or 17," Ipswich manager Joe Sheehan told BBC Sport.

"That's what's so exciting, that we're at this stage of the competition with this group of players. We've had around 13 to 15 young players involved at senior level this year and it's proven a success so far."

The Suffolk club's model is a long-term one; develop young talents while trying to move up the divisions as those players gain experience with age.

In fact, they are targeting three successive promotions.

"These players have an opportunity to create their own journey to that top division, via promotion with us," added Sheehan, whose side are top of National League Division One South East.

"They're not going to be just placed in the WSL. They're going to have to earn the right to play there. We feel they've got enough about them to, over the next two or three years, grind their way to the top.

"When we do get to the top, having players that have managed to get there themselves, with the experience they'll have got, then aged 18 or 19, you can't buy that. We think that will serve us really well."

The 16-year-old who stunned the Terriers

Maddie Biggs
Maddie Biggs scored her first senior hat-trick at Huddersfield, who are in the third tier

One of the youngest Tractor Girls certainly stepped up a gear for Sheehan's side in round four.

The star of January's 4-1 win at Huddersfield was 16-year-old forward Maddie Biggs, who struck a first-half hat-trick to help Ipswich reach the fifth round for the first time.

"I'm delighted for her," Sheehan added. "She's such a strong centre forward. She's really bullish, she's quick, she can head it, she can pin defenders, she can run off the shoulder.

"She's got a bit of everything really. When she's got the bit between her teeth, she can be unplayable, for someone so young.

"I sensed in the week building up to the game at Huddersfield that she had that bit of an edge. I remember saying in the hotel the night before that 'she could score a hat-trick tomorrow'.

"Now we're looking forward to letting her loose on Sunday."

Ipswich are one of only two sides remaining in the cup from outside the top two divisions, along with Sunderland, from tier three.

And everybody at the club seems to have been buying in to their project, including men's team manager Paul Lambert.

"That's been the case since day one. Paul Lambert has been out watching us and supporting us since the start of the season. I think he'll be at the game on Sunday," Sheehan continued.

"We know key personnel at the football club are so supportive of what we're doing. We've had men's first-team players watch us on Sundays and the support from the fans has been magnificent."

About 400 fans, possibly more, are expected to travel north to support the Suffolk club at the Academy Stadium, where they will take on a City side including the likes of Steph Houghton, Jill Scott and Ellen White, who beat West Ham United 3-0 at Wembley in last season's final and are one point clear at the top of the WSL.

However, the underdogs don't simply intend to just make up the numbers.

"When Man City came out of the hat and then us, I thought 'oh my goodness, we're playing the holders'," Sheehan recalled.

"A lot of people have been saying to me it's about the enjoyment factor and the occasion, but we're going there to try and win the game.

"That's our focus. We've got great belief. We've got a fearless group of young players who have been in really good form for about a year.

"We know the levels are totally different but, because of the momentum we've got with us, we don't know anything other than to try and go and win a game of football.

"We know this is a whole new level of test for us, and the gulf is absolutely huge, but trying to win a game is all we know.

"It's a one-in-a-million game for us, we know that, but there's no reason why this can't be that one. We'll do everything we can to try and progress."

Ipswich Women
There are 46 clubs and three tiers between Ipswich Town and Manchester City in the pyramid