After the frenzy and furor of the World Cup, the clamour in stadiums across France so loud and abrasive one couldn’t hear themselves think, the return of the Women’s Super League in September was a puncturing comedown. In England, the top tier of women’s football returned a month after the Lionesses came home from Nice with little to show for their run to the semi-final. The start of the league season saw three of six matches played at men’s stadiums: first Manchester City hosted Manchester United at the Etihad for the first ever Manchester derby of the WSL-era before Bristol City kicked off against Brighton at Ashton Gate. The following day, Chelsea welcomed Tottenham Hotspur to the top tier with a match at Stamford Bridge, the London derby (one of many that will be contested throughout the season in the southern-skewed league), the only one that was free to attend.
Later in the month, West Ham United took to the London Stadium as Spurs got their second taste of what if felt like to be the away side in a Premier League stadium (two months before they were due to welcome Arsenal to the new Tottenham Hotspur stadium). In the coming weeks Reading will return to the Madejski Stadium, the home of the club oft visited by the women’s team that are officially based at Wycombe Wanders’ Adams Park.
Numbers without the noise
The match at the Etihad was well-attended, the league record set at 31,213 as the two sides from Manchester sparred, and although many expected the record to go 24 hours later in London with the match at the Bridge a “sell-out,” it did not. The complications of Chelsea giving the tickets away (albeit in a staggered fashion) meant there was a sizable gap between fans expressing their interest in tickets and the actual match, with many opting not to use their tickets while not returning them to the club for reallocation. The 24,564 fans that did attend were in high spirits and arguably helped to create a better atmosphere, the slightly more intimate stadium and presence of thousands of thundersticks undoubtedly contributing.
Yet there was a pervading feeling of flatness up and down the country at the overgrown stadia. From Manchester to London to elsewhere in the capital, the fans sat on their hands. Where there should have been nervous excitement, the air crackling with the bated breath of home and away fans, there was emptiness. The match at the Etihad was the most glaring of the three with the biggest crowd being the biggest let-down, the warm bodies in the stands growing cold with silence. A walk around the concourse would prove that each block around the pitch carried the same hush.
There is an air of the unknown about women’s football to fans of the men’s game in England; the matches carry their own identity, they have their own atmosphere. Whilst it is one that’s more subdued than its male counterpart, it is also distinct in lacking animosity. As always, women’s football: the same but different. For fans unaccustomed to the environment it could potentially throw them out of step and it’s highly possible that the majority of fans at the Etihad just didn’t quite know how to show their support.
With Chelsea keen to make their match an experience, there was a pleasant low-level buzz that fizzed around the Bridge the next day. Clusters of fans would start cheering and although little rarely caught fire, the noise continued to filter and flutter around for the full 90 minutes. By the time the Hammers took to the pitch against Spurs later in the month, the rain was beginning to fall and the pockets of fans would rustle but again there was that feeling of disjointedness.
Despite bettering Chelsea by just over 200 fans, the imposing London Stadium did little to elevate the fans around the pitch; everything felt removed from the action. The noisiest moment came when the cluster of Spurs fans began to serenade Lucy Quinn, the familiar notes of “Happy birthday to you” dancing across the park.
The atmosphere? Divisive.
Throughout it all, possibly the most surprising thing is the feedback from the fans in the stands: home, away and neutral largely agree that they enjoyed the atmosphere, finding the matches comparable to those at small (usually non-league) grounds. It is, in fact, the journalists like myself who cover the games who’ve been most critical about a lack of atmosphere and noise and who’ve, to their own surprise, been longing for the chants from fans they’ve become all too familiar with.
The reasons could simply be geographical; fans would have been in their bunches in the stands getting waves of noise from those around them whereas the some of the press boxes in men’s stadiums are a little set back. Or it could simply be that they were too engrossed in the football in front of them to take too much notice. Regardless, watching from a more removed location made it apparent that overall atmosphere was lacking.
When Arsenal went to the Emirates Stadium before they’d even officially started their pre-season, the match exemplified just how uncomfortable matches in men’s stadiums can be. The match, sold as an Emirate Cup double-header (Arsenal women vs Bayern Munich followed by Arsenal men vs Lyon), was convenient for the club to lump the women in and get them in front of a crowd. Unfortunately for the players, the crowd weren’t interested, the official attendance (a peak of 28,500) one no one could quite believe based on the deafening silence from the scattered fans. The WSL team with some of the noisiest fans in Borehamwood were left to potter about on the manicured pitch without the routine shouts of “RED ARRRRMY!” or even the eye-rolling, “How high do you want the goal?”
The one thing that seems to be unanimous from fans, players, managers and pundits is that the number one goal is filling out the team’s regular homes before thinking about any more frequent or permanent moves.
For Manchester United manager Casey Stoney, it’s not even worth the cost of a one-off match at Old Trafford as she said, “It costs a lot of money to open a stadium like that. I can spend that money in a better way, that’s how I look at it. I go ‘we need this, we need this, we need this and this’ let’s invest in that. I’d rather invest that money into marketing and get this place [Leigh Sports Village] sold out consistently and then open up a big stadium. That’s my take on it, and the club are open to discussions on it but I’ve said no.”
Whilst it’s true that the grounds and stadiums women’s teams play in tend to be more on the spartan side, tucked out of the way, sometimes not even in the same county, there is a familiarity and comfort to them. As it stands, the sad truth is no WSL team needs to move because their homes are full to the point of bursting and no fans are being turned away because matches are over-capacity. The desire to move matches to the men’s stadiums is felt around the league and country but the context of the crowd size lies in the promotion, the timing (during men’s international windows), and the good feeling left over from the World Cup and even the price of the tickets.
Glaringly, as Stoney noted, the record crowds did nothing to draw fans in when they returned to their regular homes. “I watched City’s next attendance and it didn’t filter back at all. I looked at the following weeks attendance and it didn’t filter down at all,” she said.
In our pursuit to grow the game and keep pushing to have higher attendances, it’s vital we don’t get ahead of ourselves in Europe. The impact of crowd noise can still do a lot to sway the momentum of a game. The fabled twelfth man is as important in the women’s game as the men’s. At matches there will always be those who make noise and those who don’t, there is no black and white, right or wrong way to support a team. But as much as the Arsenal faithful might send me to the point of distraction in Borehamwood or the City supporter’s group and their drum might have me plugging my ears, they do, undeniably add something. Putting women’s teams in empty noiseless stadiums isn’t the way to grow a game that spends so much of its time fighting battles on and off the pitch.