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FOOTBALL'S FRONT LINES

A new dawn rises for Women’s football — true or false?

About an hour in to Chelsea Women’s 1-0 win over Spurs, a man two rows in front of me turns around to give his opinion to those discussing the occasion.

“Fact is,” he announces, “they’re still representing the badge.”

A man in front of me – who has a tattoo of John Terry on his leg – responds: “Exactly, they’re part of the club.”

It’s a refreshing exchange between two blokes I safely assume are Chelsea die-hards.

Both sit alongside their daughters who amuse themselves during the quieter passages of play with the inflatable clappers that were attached to every seat at Stamford Bridge.

25,000 are in attendance; an excellent turnout for a Women’s Super League fixture, but 15,000 light of the most optimistic estimation given in the build-up.

The hope was the opening weekend for the domestic campaign would follow on from the World Cup and signal a new dawn for the women’s game.

It does feel like a significant moment, but is this new dawn true or false?

Sold out in theory but not reality

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Sold out in theory but not reality

Continuing our Football’s Front Lines series, I went to the much-hyped London derby, designed, in combination with the Manchester derby, to raise the curtain on the Women’s Super League with aplomb.

Further afield, Barcelona Femeni beat CD Tacon (a club in the process of being absorbed by Real Madrid) in the first ever women’s Clasico.

Despite much cheerfulness around women in football, grim news from Iran came as a brutal reality check.

A female football fan who went by the name Sahar (or ‘blue girl’) set herself on fire in front of a courthouse where she was scheduled to stand trial for attempting to gain access to a stadium.

Iranian authorities regularly prohibit women from watching football live and Sahar faced a possible prison sentence of two years.

She died from her injuries.

Whether you like it or not, women in football is a matter of utmost importance, one that transcends the boundaries of sport.

I spoke to members of the Chelsea Women Supporters Club to find how marquee days such Saturday affect the broader landscape of the women’s game.

A young fan watches on

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A young fan watches on

“I think the scheduling for the game has been brilliant,” Kerrie said. “They’ve tweeted it, it’s all over Instagram, they’ve put it all around Stamford Bridge.

“We just need the marketing to carry on. You can’t just do it for one game.”

The season-opener came almost exactly two months after Megan Rapinoe and co lifted the World Cup in Lyon.

Some would have liked the Women’s Super League to get underway sooner to capitalise on the momentum generated by the tournament that was watched by millions.

But the schedule was deliberately constructed to avoid a clash with the men’s Premier League in the hope of boosting attendances and coverage.

Ellen White’s goals were the highlight of the Lionesses’ World Cup campaign

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Ellen White’s goals were the highlight of the Lionesses’ World Cup campaign

“The World Cup is the World Cup,” Chester said. “Even with the men’s, loads of people watched it who don’t even like football.

I was surprised with the amount of people who did watch the women’s World Cup.”

The two derbies were given appropriate locations in the form of Stamford Bridge and the Etihad.

This resulted in a friendly competition between the two fixtures to see who could attract the bigger crowd, with the two clubs adopting different approaches.

Chelsea gave out free tickets while Man City offered theirs at a reasonable price.

I don’t think they should make too many of these free because otherwise people take it for granted,” Chester continued.

“And so when you start charging, they won’t come.”

Interestingly however, City won the attendance battle by approximately 6,000 as plenty chose not to utilise their free tickets for Stamford Bridge on Sunday.

Perhaps paid tickets make the match a commitment rather than an option?

Title hopefuls

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Title hopefuls

Saturday was an entry point for new fans.

It was an occasion beyond the 90 minutes with pre-game entertainment in the form of freestylers, stilt walkers, and DJ Marvin Humes (formerly of JLS).

These bells and whistles created a carnival atmosphere but there’s no hiding the fact the matchday experience was significantly different from an afternoon at Kingsmeadow, where Chelsea Women play the majority of their home games.

Familiar pre-match anthem ‘The Liquidator‘ welcomed the teams out with the many fans adding a rhythmic ‘we hate Tottenham’ before the usual synchronised roar of ‘CHELSEA!’ — evidence of the men’s rivalry translating across despite just one previous competitive meeting.

Pre-match entertainment

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Pre-match entertainment

Though we should identify key differences with the men’s game, as well as similarities.

Chelsea’s keeper in that one previous meeting was Lizzie Durack.

This summer, the Australian-born one-cap England international quit football at the age of 25 to pursue a career in finance with Goldman Sachs.

Durack was rarely a starter, but you don’t see many male 25-year-old third keepers trade the training pitch for a desk in the city.

England’s Millie Bright played well at the heart of Chelsea’s defence

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England’s Millie Bright played well at the heart of Chelsea’s defence

Despite a lower attendance than anticipated, Saturday at Stamford Bridge felt like a victory.

However, one-off scheduling masterstrokes may not be enough to promote the women’s game suitably.

I’m a season ticket holder for both [Chelsea men’s and women’s] and it’s really annoying when they both fall on the same day,” Chester explained.

In two weeks, I’ve got to leave at half-time in the women’s to get here [Stamford Bridge] for Liverpool.

“If they could separate it so there was one on one day and one on the other, or have more time in between, that would be better.”

Gemma Davison impressed for the visitors

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Gemma Davison impressed for the visitors

The FA have introduced an online player that allows fans to watch all Women’s Super League games from home.

Jane, a young member of the supporters club, believes this to be a step in the right direction.

“It’s good now the games are being televised,” she said. “The FA have brought out the app so you can watch all the games online, which is good because not everyone can get to away games.”

You could argue this service may encourage fans to shy away from the stadiums as they opt to watch the games from the comfort of their homes.

But the player should increase the ease with which fans can follow their team’s campaigns and narratives, growing their fandom and relationship in the process.

Breaking new ground… yet again

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Breaking new ground… yet again

Four years ago, the domestic game briefly benefited from a World Cup afterglow.

However, attendances soon dwindled.

This time, the governing bodies are seeking deeper retention and the way to do that is through meaningful relationships between fans and clubs.

Speaking after the game, Chelsea manager Emma Hayes said: “The first thing I’ll do on Monday morning is ring the CEO and say: ‘What’s the plan?

“‘What have we got to do as players, as staff? Appearances at schools, in the community?'”

Hayes is an inspirational figure who has already done so much for the women’s game, someone who exudes leadership and charisma in every interview.

Last season, she juggled the task of managing title-hopefuls Chelsea with the challenge of raising a new son, while coming to terms with the tragic loss of another child.

“I think it was difficult for her,” Jane said. “Obviously losing one of them, because she had twins, so she did go through a lot.”

With some evidence that the Lionesses have gone backward since the World Cup, I asked whether Hayes would be a suitable replacement for Phil Neville in the future.

“I don’t think she wants a national team job,” Kerrie answered. “She loves the day-to-day life.

“I can imagine her being one of the first female managers in the men’s game, if that ever happens.”

Hayes and Karen Hills greet each other before kick-off

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Hayes and Karen Hills greet each other before kick-off

Chelsea are set to battle Arsenal, Man City and possibly Man United in what could be the most competitive Women’s Super League season yet.

For all the marketing effort, the best adverts came from the left feet of Caroline Weir and Beth England.

Both derbies were settled by long-range screamers to emphasise the ever-improving quality of the women’s game.

And yet, ignorant dinosaurs continue to pollute social media with tired ‘jokes‘ about kitchens.

The game’s biggest obstacle remains the outdated attitudes of the naysayers.

“I just think they should get over it,” Jane said of the critics. “Women want to play football, there’s nothing wrong with that.”

“They need to come up with something original,” Kerrie added. “Every player and fan have heard it all before.

“If you don’t like it, don’t comment. Or go to a game, because half of the people commenting haven’t even gone to a women’s game.”

“You’re always going to have those doubters,” Chester concluded. “For me, I hadn’t watched women’s football much until the World Cup in Canada four years ago.

“And then I went and in all fairness, I’ve enjoyed coming to the women’s more than the men’s.”

The most important thing of all

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The most important thing of all

The FA are now targeting the men’s international break in November for a ‘Women’s Football Weekend‘ headlined by a North London derby, a Merseyside derby, and Chelsea v Man United.

It seems the appropriate effort is finally being made to nurture the fastest developing format of the beautiful game.

Long may it continue. 

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