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Echoes of Master Oogway as Robert Vilahamn prepares Spurs for historic FA Cup final

On the surface, there is little similarity between Tottenham Hotspur manager Robert Vilahamn and Kung Fu Panda’s Master Oogway.

One is a human being coming to the end of his first season managing Spurs’ women, who play Manchester United at Wembley in the Women’s FA Cup final on Sunday – a club first. The other is an animated Galápagos Tortoise who imparts his wisdom upon Master Shifu, his apprentice, and Po, the Kung Fu Panda in question, instead of footballers.

Robert Vilahamn, manager of Spurs women, looks out into the stands of the Tottenham Hotspur stadium during the FA Cup semi-final
Robert Vilahamn during the FA Cup semi-final / Tottenham Hotspur

But despite these differences, Vilahamn and Oogway align in their appreciation of ‘presence.’

Oogway’s musings on the subject ease Po’s inner turmoil in the first of Kung Fu Panda’s four instalments.

“You are too concerned with what was and what will be. There’s a saying: yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, but today is a gift, that is why it is called the present,” he tells Po, with the fitting backdrop of the sacred peach tree of heavenly wisdom.

For Vilahamn, the idea of ‘presence’ helps make sense of Tottenham’s rocky road to Wembley.

The Lilywhites began their FA Cup journey with a 96th minute winner and a 3-2 comeback against Sheffield United, which proved a sign of things to come. The 96th minute was their salvation again in the quarter-final as Bethany England drew Spurs level against Manchester City before a dramatic penalty shootout win.

Spurs also left it late at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium in their semi-final against Leicester, overturning an early goal from the visitors through Jessica Naz, who netted in the 83rd minute, and Martha Thomas, who headed home decisively in the 118th.

Martha Thomas and Bethany England roar in celebration and run towards the fans after Thomas' late winner
Martha Thomas (right) and Bethany England (left) celebrate the winning goal / Tottenham Hotspur

Asked to reflect on this habit of late game heroics, Vilahamn highlighted the ‘presence’ of his squad.

“One of the four key words in our environment is to be present and that helps us to handle setbacks,” he said.

“If you look at those games where we came from behind, it shows a character where you can actually stay present and focus on what we’re doing and turn the game around, not by luck, but by playing good football and sticking to the plan.

“That’s why we do yoga, for example, that’s why we work with our minds and body so we can handle it.”

A huddle of Spurs' players join Martha Thomas in celebrating the winning goal. Most are knelt and hug one another.
Spurs celebrate after handling that pressure against Leicester / Tottenham Hotspur

This idea of presence is guiding Spurs as they prepare for their first ever women’s FA Cup final.

Yoga sessions, which Vilahamn assures the players either love or will learn to love, have been part of Spurs’ routine throughout the season. With pressure and excitement growing ahead of Sunday’s trip to Wembley, these sessions can offer a crucial source of calmness for players and manager alike.

“Everything is about self-confidence and how you can play under pressure, there’s a lot of good footballers out there who cannot perform on the biggest stage,” Vilahamn reflects.

“If you look at the players who can do it, they’re the ones who can stay present and keep going even if they fail.”

The manager’s decisions will be scrutinised with the stakes so high, but yoga has helped Vilahamn lean into presence, not pressure.

“I think you should never take too many decisions on feelings, you should stay calm and use your brain aswell,” he said.

“It helps me when we do the substitutions during games, I don’t panic too much – I’m trying to stay calm and reflect on what’s happening.”

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Spurs can also draw on the experience of FA Cup veterans as they seek calm amidst the chaos.

Bethany England, Drew Spence, and Becky Spencer have all lifted the trophy previously, while Martha Thomas came on as a substitute for Manchester United during last year’s final: a 1-0 defeat to Chelsea.

Vilahamn has turned to these players for their insight.

“The first morning meeting this week, we asked the players who’ve been in the final, who’ve won the final, what’s your best advice?” he said.

“They said the same stuff: to keep focusing like we always do and not to overthink anything. I think that’s helped the team to focus and to prepare.”

Becky Spencer applauds the home fans at full time, wearing her bright yellow goalkeeper's kit
Becky Spencer’s penalty saving heroics helped Birmingham to the 2012 FA Cup / Tottenham Hotspur

While being present, Spurs can still afford to reflect on how an FA Cup final marks a historic step forwards for the club.

Tottenham Women only became fully professional upon their promotion to the Women’s Super League (WSL) in 2019 and the current squad includes players from Spurs’ semi-professional days.

Before she was saving the day against Leicester in an FA Cup semi-final, Jessica Naz was scoring the opener in the 1-1 draw against Aston Villa that carried Spurs to the top flight, a game which Ashleigh Neville, a full-time teacher when she joined the club in 2017, also started.

Ashleigh Neville applauds the fans in the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium
Ashleigh Neville will now play at Wembley / Tottenham Hotspur

“It’s quite cool that those players are still here and are going to play at Wembley,” said Vilahamn.

“It shows how much we have developed this team in a short time and it shows the potential for how good we can be because in these few years we have grown from a semi-professional women’s side to one of the best run clubs in the world.

“You need to know your history before you can have your vision.”

As well as punctuating progress, Sunday’s final is an opportunity to accelerate Spurs’ growth.

“We’re going to play for the full stadium, we’re going to show them how good the football we can play is,” said Vilahamn.

“I think we can win a lot more fans. This is the momentum we need to use because the girls deserve it.”

Kit Graham and Luana Buhler parade a banner stating "Spurs are on their way to Wembley" at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium
Kit Graham and Luana Buhler celebrate that ‘Spurs are on their way to Wembley’ / Tottenham Hotspur

Making the final may be a triumph in itself, but Spurs will have all eyes on lifting the trophy and becoming the first side to disrupt the FA Cup dominance of the big three – Arsenal, Chelsea, and Manchester City – since Birmingham City in 2012.

“In the final, everything’s about winning,” said Vilahamn.

“Even if it doesn’t look absolutely great, if you need to find ways to win, you need to go for it.

“Cup games need to be looked in a different way, but we still want to play our style, we still want to score a lot of goals.”

There were no injuries to report at Thursday’s press conference, with Drew Spence, Celin Bizet, and Martha Thomas having returned to action in last weekend’s visit to Everton.

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Drew Spence scored and assisted as Tottenham fought back to draw 2-2

But Vilahamn does have to deal with the absence of midfield maestro Grace Clinton, who is ineligible to face Manchester United – the club she is on loan from.

In Clinton’s absence, Vilahamn may turn to the in-form Matilda Vinberg.

“In the last three or four games she’s been one of the best players we’ve had. Right now, she’s a big part of this team,” he said of the 21-year-old.

Vilahamn will also have to contend with VAR for the first time in his career, but these are challenges to embrace. Sunday is a gift, so Vilahamn will be demanding presence from himself, his players, and the fans.

“I’m just so happy that we’re going to do this together, that we’re hopefully going to get the trophy for the women’s team for the first time

“I just want to make sure that they [the fans] come and sing at Wembley, and make sure we can have their energy because semi-final, quarter-final, the fans gave us the energy to come back in those games.”

Spurs vs Manchester United, 14:30, Sunday


  • Jonny Coffey

    Jonny Coffey, 21, is a London-based sports journalist focusing on football. Fascinated by tactics, Coffey is famed for his introduction of inverted full backs to the second division of Cambridge college football, and his admiration for Carlo Ancelotti’s eyebrows. A lifelong Arsenal fan, his interest in analysing wing play is a thinly-veiled ploy to rave about Bukayo Saka.