How Tottenham are preparing for their first FA Cup final

LONDON -- Last season, Tottenham Hotspur were battling against relegation in the Women's Super League (WSL). On Sunday, they are making history with their first FA Cup final. It has been a whirlwind journey over the past 12 months, but manager Robert Vilahamn had his sights set on Wembley ever since the fourth-round win against Sheffield United in January where they nearly crashed out.

"I think it's like a dream coming true," the Swede said ahead of the final. "That stadium is the stadium I grew up with, when I watched those finals. England was the only league we could watch when we were kids, and that final was the biggest stadium I knew about, so to be there, a full stadium, I'm very proud.

"It's the first time in a long time that Tottenham are in the final, so we are going to make sure we go for the title because it's been a long time since they won [the men's team last lifted the trophy in 1991]."

It has been all hands on deck to get the side ready to head to the home of English football on Sunday to face last year's runners-up Manchester United (stream live on ESPN+ on Sunday from 9:30 a.m. ET). This is how the team is preparing for its biggest game yet.

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The bus rolls on

When Tottenham went 2-0 down against Championship side Sheffield United in the fourth round, it looked like their FA Cup hopes would be over. But they somehow engineered an inspired comeback to win 3-2 with three goals in the last 20 minutes -- two from Bethany England and a 96th-minute winner from Rosella Ayane.

After the game, Vilahamn spoke about getting to Wembley. It is rare that a manager is so vocal about wanting to reach the final so early on in competition, but he clearly thought it was what the side needed amid a tough campaign.

When players filed in for their team meeting to reflect on the game the following Tuesday, assistant coach Vicky Jepson had created a picture of the Tottenham team bus on a road. Their destination: Wembley. Each game marked a checkpoint on the road that the team needed to overcome to reach their goal.

"We have a meeting on a Tuesday after a game, and Vicky [Jepson] will put it up on a screen," goalkeeper Becky Spencer said. "It is just up there and we can see where the bus has gone."

Ashleigh Neville, who has been with the side for seven years, added: "Him [Robert Vilahamn] and Vicky had this little picture that we were on the bus, on our bus, the Spurs bus, and the teams that we were playing. We just need to get to the next stop, and then we take it game by game.

"Every time we came in after playing one of the FA Cup games, the bus was moving along the journey, and it was great seeing it. Obviously, we got to the semifinal; it was like we were just one stop away, and we kind of just took it kind of game by game, but they always had belief.

"It's not always pretty, the teams that we've played and the results and like Sheffield United for example, going down and then coming back shows the kind of character that we've got within the team. I think it's just nice to see the journey that we've been on, and then we've now made it to that final stop, and I think everyone's really looking forward to it."

Tottenham's bus rolled on to defeat Charlton Athletic 1-0, before facing WSL giants Manchester City in the quarterfinal where they came through 4-3 on penalties after a masterclass from Spencer in goal. Another late finish was needed when they met Leicester City in the semifinal as, after it finished 1-1 and went to extra time, Martha Thomas headed home a winner in the 118th minute to seal the win.

Now the photo of Spurs' bus is parked at Wembley, ready to welcome the team on Sunday.

A trip to Wembley

A week before the final, Spurs' team took a trip to the iconic Wembley stadium. Several players have played there before -- Thomas did for Man United in the final last season, England and Drew Spence both represented Chelsea previously, and goalkeeper Spencer is heading into her 10th FA Cup final and a third at Wembley, having previously lifted the trophy six times but only actually playing once: in Birmingham City's win over Chelsea on penalties in 2012.

But for most, it will be the first time they have played at the 90,000-seater stadium. Heading to Wembley provided an opportunity for them to look around, get a feel for the atmosphere and help to minimise the natural fear reaction that can happen when players first take to the pitch there.

"We just had a little look around to see what the changing rooms were like and what the pitch is like," says Neville, who has only previously been to Wembley once as a fan when she was around 15 to watch West Brom against Derby in a playoff final. "I think maybe just for some to visualize what it's going to be like on the day. I guess for some individuals it is nicer for them to not be shocked or not be taken aback by how big the stadium is, because it is huge when you go out there.

"There are a few girls that haven't played in front of a lot of fans, obviously here at Spurs, we've played to just over 50,000, but I think that's nearly double now playing at Wembley, and that could be quite overwhelming. So I think it was just to do that. It was a nice little team-building thing for us to go there and hopefully it's helped a few of the girls."

Amanda Nildén who signed on loan from Juventus in January, admits that being able to get to the final with Spurs was a "dream" come true. The defender faced England last month in the inaugural match of Sweden's 2025 Euros campaign and she was able to share the experience with her teammates to help prepare them for the game.

"I think it was a good thing to do with the team together and to get that feeling," she says. "We are very motivated for this game, but to be there you get the extra push. That was a great moment. There are a couple of girls who played there before. It is an amazing stadium, very big and when I played there it was 64,000 [fans]. I think now it will be close to full so it will be different but all the girls have played in big stadiums. To walk out there will be an amazing feeling for everyone, even the girls on the bench and in the staff. It will be a big moment for everyone in the club and we're really looking forward to it."

Come kick off, this preparation could be hugely important. Thankfully for Spurs, they have won the two games they have played at the Tottenham Hotspur stadium, and Vilahamn will surely be using these experiences to help his side compete in such big games.

Connecting with the past

Vilahamn has spent time over the past few weeks researching the history of the club, including the men's team. The last time the men's team won a trophy was in 2008 (the League Cup); the women won their most recent in 2019 (the Championship title) when they gained promotion to the WSL. It is the organic nature of the growth of the team that makes it more special for the Swedish coach.

"I think it's this organic trip we do," Vilahamn says. "I was the coach at BK Hacken, we took over Gothenburg FC; there's nothing wrong with finding your own way to do stuff, but this kind of building from the ground and seeing this development, I think that's quite cool actually, and that's quite unique."

Tottenham's women began as a grassroots club in 1985 playing in Broxbourne before the two founding members, Sue Sharples and Kay Brough (Lovelock), petitioned the club to begin using the Tottenham Hotspur name in 1991. The club worked their way up through the football pyramid, first competing in the Greater London League before finally reaching the WSL in 2019.

"It's for real I would say," Vilahamn says. "I think the fans who have been with us from the first day, they love that and the players who have been with us, they love that. It's just a few years ago they were actually playing in the countryside in very small stadiums. Then also you see the potential. After this short time we are already in a final. Imagine if we can work really good for a few years now? I'm quite sure we can compete for the titles."

Tottenham were almost relegated from the WSL last season after a dismal run of nine games without a win, prompting the sacking of then-manager Rehanne Skinner. England's high profile £250,000 signing from Chelsea in the January transfer window transformed the side as the forward steered them away from danger with 13 goals from 14 games.

Neville joined Spurs in 2017 when the team were playing in the WSL 2. And, having seen them go from semipro to professional, her lengthy connection with the club makes playing in an FA Cup final far more special.

"[Back then] we were playing at Cheshunt in front of like 20, 30 people with no grass; that's where we were," she says. "And I'm very grateful for where we've come to now; I think a few of the girls in the team are used to where we are. They played at different clubs, and for me, I'm really grateful for what we've got here, but to play in front of a sold-out stadium at Wembley is going to be incredible.

"I think all the hard work that not only me but the girls that have been here and that have left and moved on, the final is definitely something that they can be part of and be proud of that we've made it this far as a club, and they've been part of that history."