“I’ll let you have a guess,” says Lauren Bracewell, smiling. Burnley’s goalkeeper has just been asked about the type of tactics Manchester United can expect from their hosts when Casey Stoney’s side visit east Lancashire on Sunday and her eventual answer is unequivocal.
“Defensive,” she says. “Park the bus! I think a scrappy, sitting-in game is needed. We’re not going to roll over so we’ve got to do as much as we can to make sure it’s a very, very difficult tie for United. We’ve done our analysis on where we can exploit them and we don’t want to give them too much respect.”
Stoney’s players sit fourth in the WSL but they will be wary of an upset as they visit the County Ground in Leyland for a fourth round FA Cup tie which doubles as the biggest match in Burnley’s history. Bracewell, who also captains Matt Bee’s National League North team, did more than anyone to secure it by saving three penalties in a shootout against Sunderland in last Sunday’s third round. “I don’t want to sound cocky and luck comes into it, but, if United win a penalty, I’ll feel confident,” says the 32-year-old who only returned to action at the start of the month after January’s Covid-induced suspension of the now cancelled third tier campaign.
The FA Cup’s resumption represents a lifeline for women footballers outside the top two divisions, with the win against Sunderland and, a week earlier, Fylde, enabling Bee’s part-timers to begin feeling the benefits of their amalgamation with Burnley’s men’s squad by the club’s new American owners, ALK Capital. Alan Pace, recently installed as chairman at Turf Moor, wasted no time in pledging to turn the women’s side professional shortly, and Bracewell and company have already joined Sean Dyche’s players in training at the impressive Barnfield facility.
“It’s absolutely fantastic that the club’s taken us on board,” she says. “It’s been a long time coming but as soon as Alan came in he had a zoom call with the whole women’s team and told us the plans. They’ve materialised straight away. He’s only been involved a few months and we’ve got extra kit, extra equipment and just little things like having coach travel to games makes a big difference. With the new infrastructure I can only see this club going one way; we want to be playing professionally in the Championship as soon as possible.”
For the moment, much of Bracewell’s time is taken up by a day job running her family’s business selling wood-fired hot tubs and firewood, with a typical working day stretching from 7.45am to 5pm before training three nights a week, often until 10pm. “You have to be organised and plan meals,” she says. “It’s sometimes difficult to manage preparing all your food in advance but you have to eat the right things at the right time so you’re not bloated for training. But I’m lucky, I live locally in Burnley and I can get away from work when I need to.
“Don’t get me wrong, it’s still hard to juggle everything but we have girls doing jobs with set 50-hour weeks who struggle to get to training. We’re all so passionate about football, though, we make our lives work.”
Facing Manchester United is the reward. “It’s the biggest game in most of our careers,” says Bracewell. “To come up against a global name is just amazing, it’s so exciting.”
It also represents a burst of radiant sunlight following a monochrome year. “We’ve worked so hard in a really tight timeframe to prepare properly for United,” says Bracewell. “As a goalkeeper you lose your reflexes quickly, but those reactions, and things like judging players’ run ups on penalties, are very hard to regain swiftly.”
Full normality still seems some way off but at least things feel infinitely better than just a month ago. “Even with social distancing it’s been so good to get back to training because you can have some sort of communication with a physically present person rather than just zoom calls,” says Burnley’s goalkeeper. “But, until now, we haven’t been able to use the changing rooms and Matt’s had to do team talks outside.”
A late switch of venue from Padiham FC to Leyland facilitates dressing-room access on Sunday when the only downside appears the lack of a crowd. “It’s disappointing supporters can’t be there,” says Bracewell. “But the game’s being streamed [on Clarets+ for £1] so we’ll know our fans are there in spirit. Let’s hope we can inspire a new generation of young girls from Burnley to have careers in football.”