Gender and Football: Belles, Balls and Bureaucracy
It’s 2012. I am standing on my old school field, in roughly the same spot where sixteen years earlier, during Year 8 PE, I face-planted the cinder-running track attempting the hurdles. I am one of a crowd of twenty or so watching a football match on the new 3G Astroturf. I am joking with one of the players warming up to go on. “A pint a goal, seems fair”. And twenty minutes later I am laughing and applauding as that player, from an improbable angle, fires the ball into the top corner of the net.
I support Doncaster Rovers because they play my sport and represent my town. By such simple determinism how could I not follow Doncaster Belles? But anyone can follow — can look out for results and know a player or two — it takes a hook, a connection, to keep you going back. With Rovers I blame the childish nonsense and freedom of the Pop Side, with the Belles it was the intimacy between players and fans. I first saw them in 2011; and as I sat there, after a 3-0 defeat, watching the players hug and high-five most of the crowd, I couldn’t believe I’d left it so long. Grounded footballers genuinely thankful of support. This was my town. They were now my team. And I still owe former striker àine O’Gorman that pint.
You could argue there’s an irony, an inadvertent sexism even, in a man writing about women’s football. Its coverage often reflects its written form; women’s football – gender first, sport second. I’ve heard it described as slower than men’s football, more technical than men’s football, worse than men’s football, better than men’s football. Whether it is one, all, or none of these depends on your own subjectivity, but why must it always be suffixed and determined by the words ‘than men’s football’? Women’s tennis is tennis, so why can’t women’s football simply be football and be judged only against itself? As for me; I am no hipster, I am not ‘only being PC’, I just enjoy football and a stubborn pride in my home town I can’t seem to shake.
It’s 2013. I am standing in Doncaster’s Frenchgate Shopping Centre. To my left, on a small plinth, sits the Women’s FA Cup; to my right, what used to be Woolworths. In my hands are flyers, hundreds of self-made flyers. On the flyers, details of a petition against the Football Association’s decision to demote the Belles to a new second tier at the season’s distant end; no matter how they play and no matter how they perform. I am here for my team. I am here to protest. I am here to make a futile last stand for settling football matters on football pitches.
The FA has decided what is good for the progression of women’s football, and what you, I, or even those within the sport think cannot deviate them from this path. Because they are ‘furthering the women’s game’ the FA have allowed themselves the liberty of riding roughshod over awkward, unquantifiable things like tradition and ability in an unwavering pursuit of a perceived greater good. And as women’s football was marginalised for so long, we are expected not to have the temerity to question their methods, but be merely grateful for the action.
If a club falls in a sport, and Sky Sports don’t have the rights, does it make a sound? Minimal media coverage may be a hindrance to growth, but can be helpful when you want to make controversial changes. In the men’s game the FA wouldn’t have got away with a forced demotion of one top-flight club, and the permissible franchising of another. Well, not now, anyway. Women’s football however is seemingly free for experimentation; so Manchester City are moved to the top table and Lincoln are moved to Nottingham, because what we need is progress, not history nor community. Is this sexism? Or is it just an inherent egotistical obtuseness of those in charge of the game? Sadly, you could easily argue it as either.
Though its birth may have been clumsy, the concept of a Super League second tier is undoubtedly good. On a club level it has enabled Sunderland to find the recognition and progression they’d long deserved, and for players like Fran Kirby it has likewise facilitated personal progress. Without the second-tier, and without a place in it for Reading, Kirby may never have catapulted herself to the England place she so rightly deserves. Wales too can be thankful for the addition of another semi-professional division; with regular game time for players such as Sarah Wiltshire, Nicola Davies and Helen Ward, last year they came as close as ever to reaching a major finals.
It’s 2014. I am standing, in shoes sodden from a Doncastrian downpour, in a small untidy boardroom above a Solicitors. Across the table from me sit two of women’s footballs most famous players. Behind me, a projection screen, on which I am outlining to them just how three years in sports administration and three more editing a fanzine make me the ideal person to take my club, and their club, forwards.
How do you take a women’s football club forwards? How do you operate in a national division on limited means? I argued for community investment, trading on historical significance and greater ties with my other team. A prominent men’s football club nearby can be very useful; they can help you reach an existing local audience, they can help you find football favouring sponsors, but they can’t solve all your problems. The FA seemingly think they can, but therein lies a naivety and an unwillingness to believe what the rest of us know; that a men’s football club, no matter how successful, is not a reliable financial crutch. From gambling on promotions, to the whim of eccentric owners there are just too many variables. Doncaster Rovers are well run, but if I lent a tenner to Nick Leeson I’d be more confident of seeing it again than I would if giving it them. Independent women’s clubs may not be as flush, but they are at least in greater control of their own future.
It needs only a week’s wage of a top male footballer to transform the finances of a women’s side, and so those men’s clubs who have shown an interest in the FAWSL have inevitably skewed the competition. A drop in the ocean at Anfield has transformed Liverpool from back-to-back wooden spoon holders to back-to-back champions. Manchester City have followed their male counterparts’ example; bludgeoning a path up the pecking order through finance and acquisition. And so the club I saw humbled on my school-field just three years ago now boast six England regulars.
The FA, perhaps believing their own hype about the ‘greatest league in the world’, has facilitated a transition whereby the big names in men’s football are now big women’s names too. As they continue to herald big signings and big investment among the top few, the FA makes an assumption that the potential women’s football audience is the same as the existing Premier League crowd. But it isn’t. I know this because I’ve approached that audience. I put flyers in their hands and they didn’t want to know. I gave them free tickets and they never came and when I asked them why this was, they told me they simply didn’t have the time or the inclination.
The reason why people are watching women’s football in greater numbers, is more likely the same reason many non-league teams are seeing an attendance boom. Because it offers a refreshing change from the hyperbole and money-centric men’s top flight; a chance to get involved, to meet and interact with players who are down to earth and happy to engage with their support. You need only look at the prominence of lad culture, of the misogynistic Sports Bible and Paddy Power hanging on all that is Premier League, to sense a courting of that support is likely to be unrequited.
It is 2015. I am standing on an unloved terrace at an underused Athletics Stadium in North London, a faded advertising board for the 2004 Rugby League Tri-Nations at my feet. A rusted redundant roller sits at the side of the new 3G pitch on which the women of Tottenham Hotspur and Preston North End are competing for a place in the FA Cup 4th round. The Belles played and won their third round tie last night, but such is the logistical hotchpotch of summer tiers in a still predominantly winter sport their opening league game is still six weeks away.
Scheduling remains an issue for the FAWSL; in June it will take a month’s sabbatical for the Women’s World Cup. An inevitable move for the top tier, but simultaneously halting second tier fixtures represents a missed opportunity. The league could have bolstered attendances by piggy-backing on a heightened interest in the game. Instead the whole division will kick its heels as Kirby, its sole representative, skips across Canadian turf.
Whilst domestically average attendances remain in three figures, the international game can at least bring in the crowds. In November, England’s women played at the new Wembley for the first time in arguably the most marketed women’s game ever. The team was ‘making history’, 55,000 people would be there and the press lapped it up. But beyond the extended press coverage of what was, ultimately just a friendly, it was the words of the poet Hollie McNish that best contextualised things.
On Boxing Day 1920, 53,000 fans watched Dick Kerr’s Ladies at Goodison Park, while over 5,000 fans waited outside trying to get in. In 1921 the FA issued a ban on women’s football, which lasted 50 years. 50 years. It banned women from using any FA affiliated ground (so they had no place to play or train), and banned any FA affiliated referees or coaches from helping them. In November 2014, the audience for women’s football is finally, nearly, almost reaching the same number of spectators as it already fucking had in 1921, before the FA stopped almost all possible development of the game. So I wish they’d change the ‘Making History’ title to ‘Catching up with History’, because people wanting to watch women play football certainly isn’t a new thing.
There will always be an audience for women’s football simply because, as McNish points out, there has always been one. And for most connected with the game, it is in its difference to men’s football that its real appeal lies. When launching the summer Super League the FA had an opportunity to celebrate and promote football in its purest form, instead they have made the same mistakes they’ve made with men’s football all over again. Only the FA could seek to promote a sport, and take out the sporting contest in order to do so. When FAWSL launched, teams like Sunderland, Blackburn, Leeds and Charlton who slogged their way to respectability through the 90s, had their heads pushed underwater by the red tape and bureaucracy of the body that should’ve been supporting them. Women’s football will continue to grow, it will continue to gain greater coverage, but for all the FA’s bluster, this can be attributed as much to changing attitudes in the populace, as it can to glossy marketing. And that’s the thing for those of us who know the game. For all the talk of progression and progress, a key question of the FA will still permeate; what the hell took you so long?