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FOOTBALL'S FRONT LINES

Invincible but not untouchable — when every fan is part of the squad

Football's Front Lines: "It's passion and pride. We attract bigger crowds than a lot of League Two sides."

Vociferous chants of ‘Chelsea! Chelsea!’ reverberated from the stands as the Blues clinched yet another home victory on Sunday.

Only not at Stamford Bridge, but seven miles down the road in Kingston.


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Where Chelsea Women call home

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Where Chelsea Women call home

While Chelsea’s men eased to three points against Fulham, their women battled to a hard-fought victory against Reading at Kingsmeadow; a home they share with AFC Wimbledon.

Their 1-0 win will have gone under the radar for the vast majority of football fans on a day when Sky Sports offered back-to-back-to-back derbies on the Premier League stage, but for the 1,701 supporters present it was yet another memorable occasion.

“There’s still a chauvinistic thing about women not being able to play football,” says Mark Pycraft, Founder of the Chelsea Women’s Supporters’ Group. “That’s blatantly rubbish.”

Over 1,700 came on Sunday

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Over 1,700 came on Sunday

Mark’s words seem even more pertinent now after Lyon sensation and inaugural female Ballon d’Or winner Ada Hegerberg was asked if she could twerk as she collected the prestigious award.

Hegerberg played down the incident afterwards, but the biggest moment of her career to date has been somewhat tarnished by a foolish offhand remark.

Women’s football is on the rise, but the hill can be steep at times.

Luka Modric was spared the same request, funnily enough

Reuters
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Luka Modric was spared the same request, funnily enough

“I think a lot of people don’t realise how popular women’s football is,” Mark adds.

“It’s passion and pride. We attract bigger crowds than a lot of League Two sides.

“It needs more exposure on television. We have a women’s show which only lasts 35 minutes, is badly filmed, and it’s on late at night so nobody really sees it.

“Then you’ve got Alex Scott covering men’s games as a token gesture. We need more focus than that.”

Watching the men in action before kick off

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Watching the men in action before kick off

Chelsea are certainly making progress as a club.

In May they announced the men’s team would no longer be referred to as the ‘first team’, seeking more representation and acknowledgement of the ‘ever-growing status of women’s football’.

Led by inspirational manager Emma Hayes, Chelsea Women won the domestic double last season – including an invincible league campaign – and reached the Champions League semi-finals.

Yet, in contrast to the barriers between players and supporters on the men’s side, there exists an overwhelming sense of humility and integration.

I spoke to fans of all ages at Kingsmeadow and the same buzzwords kept repeating themselves.

Community. Attachment. Equality.

Karen Carney signing autographs

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Karen Carney signing autographs

And chatting to adoring fans

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And chatting to adoring fans

After the final whistle, captain Karen Carney, one of only four England players to reach 100 caps, stopped with team-mates to chat to fans and pose for selfies.

“There’s a real sense of bonding around the club,” Effy Haavik Nygard, one of the Kingsmeadow Ultras, says.

“Unlike the men’s game, you can come here and feel you’re appreciated by the team.

“You actually feel like when you’re really vocal, you are a 12th person.”

I heard several players yell ‘man on’ during the game.

Such a term is harmless – the extra syllable required for ‘woman on’ is impractical – but it’s evidence of the inherent male identity of football, and the scale of the task facing the women to level the playing field.

Effy posing in her Ultras gear

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Effy posing in her Ultras gear

The Ultras representing

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The Ultras representing

Laura Daboo didn’t like football two years ago, but the attraction of immersing herself in the action made her fall in love with the club.

The 24-year-old says: “I’d never been a football fan before but being able to come to the game, chat to the players and get really close to them is what really drew me in.”

Hannah Beecroft reiterates the sense of community and level of appreciation from the players.

“You feel part of the club,” she says.

Hayes (middle) leading a post-match team talk

Getty - Contributor
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Hayes (middle) leading a post-match team talk

“The players appreciate you more and it’s more about the fans’ experience than making the money.

“They’re quite willing to have a laugh or a chat and sign things whereas the men are so protected.”

It’s easy to see why there’s such an affinity with the players.

Chelsea boast one of the strongest squads around, backed up by their domestic success and European endeavour last season.

Ji celebrates the winner

Getty - Contributor
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Ji celebrates the winner

In Fran Kirby and Ji So-yun – Sunday’s matchwinner – they have two forwards in the elite bracket of women’s football.

Captain Carney is coolness personified on either wing while Millie Bright is their imposing, ball-playing centre-back who keeps it all together.

She’ll never admit it, her focus solely on the players, but the real star is manager Emma Hayes.

After a rollercoaster year of euphoric highs and personal tragedy, she has maintained unprecedented levels of professionalism at all times.

While pregnant with twins, Hayes discovered she lost one of her babies during an away game at Arsenal in her final trimester.

With Chelsea battling for silverware on multiple fronts at the business end of the season, Hayes chose to keep the news secret from her players and bore the grief in private.

She finally told them in May, after she led the side to FA Cup glory at Wembley while eight-and-a-half months pregnant.

One of football’s most inspirational figures

REUTERS
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One of football’s most inspirational figures

Hayes’ character resonates among the fans, who credit her with the feel-good spirit at the club.

“She’s our leader,” said 19-year-old Hannah. “Not only has she bought in players, she’s brought in a real family feel to the club.

“For her, it’s not just about winning the game, it’s about the players as people.”

Martin Cottle, 50, who travels with his wife from as far as Southampton to every home game, believes Hayes has even loftier ambitions.

‘Their leader’

Getty Images - Getty
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‘Their leader’

Hayes receiving an MBE from the Queen in 2016 for services to football

PA:Press Association
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Hayes receiving an MBE from the Queen in 2016 for services to football

“She’s an inspiration to women’s football,” he says.

“She could very well be England manager one day, even if I think her heart is here at Chelsea.”

Attracting nearly 2,000 people to every home fixture, Chelsea boasted the highest average attendance in the Women’s Super League last season and are a leading example to other clubs in the division.

Thanks to the Supporters’ Group, and dedicated fans like Mark, they now take up to 100 around the country to away games too, even in Europe.

The regulars descend upon Kingsmeadow

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The regulars descend upon Kingsmeadow

“I’ve been a men’s football fan since I was three but I am more drawn to the women’s game now because you get more invested in it,” Mark says.

“We started running coaches and minibuses last season because there was so much interest.

“It gives us a community. Once or twice a year the club organise travel up to Man City, but apart from that we do all the away travel.

“It’s a fun day out on top of that. It’s a really close-knit family.”

The Premier League might be widely regarded as the best league in the world, but so many of us experience it through the filter of Sky Sports’ pageantry.

While the endless camera angles offer microscopic access, it also creates a sense of detachment which can deter some fans who crave something more tangible, more real.

Chelsea Women offer such an alternative; a wholesome, inclusive atmosphere where you can regularly interact with some of the biggest names in the game, who are leading not just their own campaign, but the charge for their sport.

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