Six years ago, the Women’s FA Cup Final was played in front of a crowd of fewer than 5,000 people at Doncaster’s Keepmoat Stadium.
Last weekend, 43,264 watched Man City beat West Ham 3-0 for Wembley’s fifth consecutive final.
While the numbers reflect the deserved surge in popularity, many are frustrated the 99-year UK attendance record for a women’s fixture remains intact.
The record of 53,000 was set back in 1920 at a Boxing Day match between Dick, Kerr Ladies and St Helens.
“After that, the modern day attendance record was last season at the final between Arsenal and Chelsea,” Allie Coker explained.
“The fact that today’s crowd might smash both of those records is pretty impressive and very exciting!”
However, Saturday’s attendance fell comfortably short of the record, and many are blaming the Premier League.
In the days leading up to the game, the Premier League declined a request from West Ham to change the kick-off time for their men’s fixture against Southampton on Saturday.
The club asked for an earlier kick-off time of 12.30pm, instead of the scheduled 3pm, so that Hammers fans could get to Wembley after full-time at the London Stadium.
Premier League chiefs denied the request as they thought it would be unfair on Saints fans who had trains booked around a 3pm kick-off, although Southampton had no issue with the proposed rescheduling.
The denial of West Ham’s request, coupled with the lack of direct trains from Manchester to London because of engineering works, meant 2019’s attendance fell shy of the 45,423 present at the 2018 final.
Emma Denmark, season ticket holder for West Ham’s men’s and women’s teams, was one of thousands who were forced to make a decision between the fixtures at Wembley and the London Stadium.
“It’s rubbish that they couldn’t move the kick-off time,” she said.
“But I’ve seen so many people saying they’re going to head down here from the London Stadium.
“I think it’s infectious, you now see guys who once upon a time would say things like ‘get back in the kitchen’ who are definitely changing their attitude and that’s the best thing that can happen.
“I have a season ticket at both and I made the choice today to come here and support the women because they put their heart and soul into it.
“When they put on the shirt, they’re playing for passion, they’re playing because they want to be there, they’re not playing because of big money or massive sponsorship details.
“They wear the shirt and they wear it with pride.”
The incremental rise in attendance figures in the last five years for the marquee fixture in the women’s game emphasises the positive impact of the 2015 World Cup in Canada on women’s football.
The Lionesses exceeded expectations by reaching the semi-finals and inspired a generation of girls watching on from home.
According to Ella Jerman, sports journalist and West Ham fan, the influx of interest in the women’s game could receive a further boost after this summer’s World Cup in France.
“This summer’s tournament could be a real tipping point for women’s football,” she said.
“In the past few years people are now so much more aware that women’s football actually exists!
“You don’t have to go far back to a time when people didn’t even know if their club had a women’s team, that’s a lot different now and the last World Cup played a big part in that.”
The attendance issue proved to be a frustration but it did not detract from the spectacle of a game more competitive than the final score suggests.
On at least three separate occasions in the first half, players on both sides found themselves on the wrong end of head-to-head collisions.
They were the type of incidents in a men’s game that routinely end up with the players hitting the deck before the physios are frantically waved on, only for both to miraculously recover seconds later.
But City and West Ham showed little interest in play acting; players from both sides took thirty seconds to compose themselves, gave each other a sporting handshake, and got on with the game.
Ella was left hopeful about the future of women’s football after a number of fans chose Wembley over the London Stadium.
“It shows there’s such an appetite for women’s football,” she said.
“There’s been so much scepticism over the years with people saying ‘does anyone actually care about it’, but all you have to do is walk down Wembley way today, see all these fans and it proves the women’s game is going somewhere.”
With the World Cup in France just a few weeks away, the Lionesses are set to benefit from more exposure, with the tournament free to watch on the BBC throughout the summer.
Phill Neville has named his squad for the tournament and expectations are high regarding another boost in popularity for the women’s game.
“They can only build on what they did in 2015,” Allie declared. “It can only get bigger.
“The names are out there now, people know who Steph Houghton is, they know who Claire Rafferty is.”
The Premier League may face further questions about the reluctance to compensate for the fixture clash.
Men’s matches are regularly moved for TV at late notice, or to suit teams playing in the later stages of European competition.
Adjusting the kick-off time for West Ham vs Southampton, two sides free from relegation fears or European qualification ambition, should have been feasible.
The decision is in contrast to the excellent work being done in other countries to fuel the growth of women’s football.
Earlier in the year, Atletico Madrid hosted Barcelona at the Wanda Metropolitano in front of 60,739 fans.
A conscious push towards increasing the media exposure ahead of the game was touted as the driving factor in attracting such a large crowd.
26,912 tickets costing between €5-10 euros were sold to the public – equating to 44% of the crowd – with the rest of the stadium given free admission.
A number of ideas have been discussed in a bid to improve crowd sizes on these shores, including using men’s stadiums for women’s fixtures.
“The effort made by clubs to try and increase their crowds has been really important,” Ella said.
“We saw Brighton last week hosting Arsenal in their final home game at the Amex Stadium and over 5,200 people turned up.
“That’s probably a good 4,000 more than usually come and watch Brighton!”
Allie pointed out that with U23 sides playing a contracted number of games at the club’s main stadiums, a similar rule should been looked at in the women’s game.
“The under 23’s in the men’s league have a contract where they play in the club’s main stadium two games a season,” she said.
“I think we should implement that for the women’s team so they get at least two games a season in the big stadiums.
“At the moment you play in the middle of nowhere and you’re nowhere near anything!”
Samantha Miller, formerly of West Ham Women and now QPR, added the caveat that hosting women’s games in large stadiums would be futile without the necessary promotion behind it.
“It would be amazing, but in order for that to happen, the marketing needs to be right,” she said.
“Promotion for it would need to be pushed because you don’t want to be playing in a huge stadium with nobody watching!”
With this summer’s World Cup just a few weeks away and England hosting the Euros in 2021, women’s football has never been in a better place.
The Lionesses are set to inspire the next generation of women footballers.
It is surely only a matter of time before the 99-year attendance record is broken.
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