When Matt Beard took over at Bristol City in January, they were bottom of the Women’s Super League, winless in their first 10 games of the season.
They were only four points adrift of safety, but the team closest to them, Aston Villa, still had two games in hand over the Robins.
Almost exactly two months later, Bristol are off the foot of the table and in a Continental Cup final. It’s a remarkable story that only gets even better the more you delve into it.
Beard’s appointment was huge in itself. The 43-year-old is only a temporary hire, acting as maternity cover for Tanya Oxtoby, the Bristol head coach who is two weeks from her due date. It’s quite possibly the first instance of such a situation, but hopefully not the last.
In November, Beard and West Ham had agreed to part ways after two years together. On Monday, Bristol beat Reading 3-2 to leapfrog the Hammers, pushing the manager’s former club into the WSL’s only relegation spot.
It means they go into Sunday’s final with three wins and one defeat from their last five games. It’s momentum they will need, for they are huge underdogs.
Chelsea stand between the Robins and the club’s first-ever major trophy. The Blues are the reigning WSL champions, top of the league, in the Champions League quarter-finals and have beaten Bristol 9-0 and 5-0 this season.
But cup finals can bring upsets. In the build-up to this one, Wigan’s triumph over Manchester City in the men’s FA Cup final in 2013 is referenced by both managers.
“It's a cup final. We're not in it to make the numbers up and it's not a foregone conclusion by any stretch of the imagination,” Beard said this week. “We appreciate where they are, where we are, but anything can happen in a cup final.”
Bristol are a team built on togetherness and collective spirit. They’re a team that rallies and knows how to stay in a game, Chelsea boss Emma Hayes crediting that trait to the work of Oxtoby.
“[Matt’s] had the platform to build off. Tanya's put together a team that's learned how to stay in games. I think that was the strength of that side,” she said.
“He’s added the counterattacking piece to their game and that's why they're fighting to stay in the league. I genuinely believe they will stay in the league.”
Their quality in transition is led by Ebony Salmon, a lightning fast striker, only just 20 years old, who earned her first senior England call-up in February.
She has a clinical touch when she gets in front of goal, but also has the ability to create too. On Monday, she provided a sublime assist for another threat Hayes picked out in this Bristol team, Charlie Wellings.
The Robins’ ‘never say die’ attitude, meanwhile, radiates from the captain, Jas Matthews. Since 2011, she has only spent one season away from this club and was part of the team that reached the Champions League quarter-finals in 2015.
She will be missing this weekend, but Bristol have as good a replacement as they could possibly find in Gemma Evans. The Wales defender was player of the match in Monday’s defeat of Reading, having been handed the armband in Matthews’ absence.
“When Matt asked me to lead the team, I said: 'only if Jas is okay with it', because she's a massive leader and to live into her shoes is quite a big task,” Evans said this week. “She approved. I think it's something that I can do and I will do for her.”
Among the many motivations Bristol have this weekend – a first major trophy, a big upset, further momentum for their fight to stay up and winning it for their injured captain – another is the return of Oxtoby.
The Australian coach may be due to give birth later this month, but she will be in the stands at Vicarage Road on Sunday, seeing the players for the first time since she took her maternity leave in January. Her presence could certainly help inspire something special.
“It'll be a great boost for everyone because she deserves to be there,” Beard said. “She's done most of the work for the team getting there.”
Beard will take little credit for this cup run. After all, he arrived when the club were already in the semi-finals.
But if they do complete a remarkable upset on Sunday, he will deserve plenty of praise for what he has done in the last two months. As will the players, and as will Oxtoby for laying the foundations for a truly incredible story.