Saturday, 7 September 2019

Manchester City Women vs. Manchester United Women

Like many people it seems, I was enamoured by this summer’s Women’s World Cup. I watched every England game, gripped by the quick and exciting forward play of The Lionesses  – the strong-running of Lucy Bronze, the midfield-controlling of Jill Scott, the shithousery (and goals) of Ellen White. It was great to watch – so I need to go and see this ‘women playing football spectacle' for myself.

To be honest, I said the same thing four years ago when I stayed up late to watch England’s heartbreaking injury time defeat in the Semi-Final against Japan. But I’m going to do something about it this time – I’m actually going to put some effort in and watch a women’s game in person. Coincidentally, Manchester City are opening their Women’s Super League season against ‘new’ rivals Manchester United – with the match moved to the Etihad Stadium to take advantage of a big crowd. I snapped up a ticket straight away – they were only £7 a pop, after all. 

I’ve long been puzzled as to why it’s taken women’s football so long to establish itself because it’s not like they can’t play. I can only convey my feelings through personal experience; when I was about 8, I played in a team on Saturday mornings on a windswept Wigan school field where even dogs daren’t roam. One week, a girl turned up to play for us – and she was brilliant. Quick and skillful, she caused the opposition lads some real problems down the wing. Being a deep-lying midfielder (before such things were popular – okay I was lazy and didn’t want to run), I just kicked the ball out wide to her and she ran with it, creating several goals. Sadly, she never played for us again (I seem to remember her saying that she wasn’t *usually* allowed? At 8 years old???). 

Anyway, since that brief experience of playing football with a girl, I’ve not been a subscriber to the ‘girls can’t play football’ adage, as they clearly can. Since then, growing up (well, that's debatable – ageing up) and learning more about the game, I was always intrigued by the lack of girls who played football – my child's mind just assumed they didn't want to get dirty.

The reason why women’s football hasn’t established itself (until recent times, at least) was due no in small part to the FA ban on its members clubs from hosting women’s games on their pitches. Despite attracting huge crowds during the First World War, the game was deemed ‘unsuitable’ for females in 1921 by the governing body and a ban was swiftly put out. It took 50 years for it to be lifted and during that time, the men’s game had established itself as England’s leading professional sport. Women had a lot to catch up on.

One of the major criticisms aimed at the women’s game recently (that I’ve seen, anyway) is that it's being promoted ‘beyond its quality as a product’. Whether you think the ‘product’ is any good is a subjective opinion – expecting it to contain the same skill, speed and physicality as the men’s game is ridiculous, in my opinion. It's the same game, yet different. To many, though, women's football simply isn’t ‘as good’ as the men’s game, so isn’t worthy of their attention – but do most people just watch football for the high levels of skill on display? If that was the case, nobody would watch (men's) lower-league games – football does not need to be 'good' to be exciting; being excited is the feeling that we all want to experience when watching games, surely?

I think that the supposed 'over-promotion' of the women’s game can be put down to three points:
  • (The obvious one) women’s football needs to catch up after spending half-a-century in the wilderness, so the apparent over-promotion is designed to give an 'artificial boost' to the game.
  • The ongoing push for women to achieve equality in society has led to women’s football being marketable. Rightly or wrongly, companies see women's equality as an opportunity to gain brand credibility for a relatively small outlay.
  • In competition with the internet and on-demand services, television and media companies are struggling to attain rights to show the world’s most popular sports. The BBC, especially, do not have many major sports to televise beyond football World Cup’s, European Championships, Wimbledon Tennis and Olympics Games. Certainly not enough sport to bring back Grandstand, anyway.
With any popular subject in society these days, it’s the 'not taking the time to understand each other’s points-of-view' that’s the centre of the problem, I feel. I followed social media extremely closely during the World Cup and the number of cheap shots on both sides was something to behold. Comments on every post regarding the tournament were generally ‘don’t care’, ‘it’s shit’, ‘get in the kitchen’, etc.  Understandably (but mistakenly), those on the women's football side nibbled at the bait, sent abuse back and swiftly closed down the avenues for any meaningful conversation.

The BBC then didn’t help matters with clickbaity posts and articles with headlines such as ‘Five Ways Women’s Football Beats Men’s’ – whilst the article itself makes some good points and backs itself up with facts, do they really think click-driven headlines like that will help to educate and change the mind of the football fan who’s already suspecting that the women's game is getting some 'undue coverage'?. No – they’re going to think there’s ‘an agenda’ to over-promote women’s football and ‘do down men because it’s fashionable’. Regardless of whether there’s a trickle of truth in that, I’m with Timmy Thomas on this one – why can’t we live together? Why can’t we enjoy football mutually without resorting to these cheap shots? Why can't we have a reasonable discussion without abuse and blocking? This way, common ground can be sought and when you've got that common ground cleared, you can create a path to walk down together, hand-in-hand to watch the game we all love.

(By the way, fellow Alpha's; this is not me ‘white knighting’ – going out of the way to be all ‘progressive’ to impress women so they’ll like/take pity on me – as I said, I’m perfectly fine with just laying the ball off and letting a woman do all the work).

Speaking of living together, today’s ‘first professional women's Manchester derby’ is being held at the Etihad Stadium – one of a few WSL games to be held at men’s first team grounds on this opening weekend. Clubs are attempting to allow as many people as possible an opportunity to see women’s football for the first time in order to capitalise on the World Cup. Usually, City’s women play at The Academy Stadium – the 7,000-seater stadium across the road from the Etihad that was built for the club’s various youth sides. I’ll be honest here, although I fully understand (and support) the decision to host a big game such as this in a big stadium, I’m slightly disappointed that it’s not being held in The Academy Stadium so I can tick it off the groundhopping list!

It isn't just hosting the bigger games at men's stadiums that's new this season in the WSL; matches will be shown live on BT Sport and at least one a week on the BBC Sport website. This summer also saw the league sign its first overseas television deals – covering Mexico, Central America, the Dominican Republic, Norway, Sweden, Finland and Denmark. Highlights will also be made available on the new 'FA Player' – so they're at least getting all the building blocks in place to expand the reach of the league.

The Etihad (or ‘The City of Manchester Stadium’, as it used to be known) is located roughly a mile-and-a-half from the centre of Manchester, so is easy to get to by all forms of transport. On the way into Piccadilly train station, my own train from Wigan is delayed on route by about 40 minutes, so on arrival I’ve got half-an-hour to kick-off. ‘No problem’, thinks I, ‘I’ll get the tram’. On reaching the Metrolink station under Piccadilly, I’m met with a massive queue that snakes around the back of the station – nearly all of them going to the game, from what I can tell.

Despite it being 7 minutes until kick-off by the time I get to board the tram, I somehow manage to still get into the ground and into my seat just before the game starts – I’ve never sat in the Colin Bell Stand before, but if you are and you’re going via the tram, get off at Etihad Campus as it drops you right outside the stand. What immediately hits me about the crowd around the stadium (who are not making a move to actually get in for kick-off!) is that it’s mostly families – not just Mum’s with daughters, as you might automatically expect, but Dad’s with daughters, Dad’s with sons, Mum’s with sons, Mum’s and Dad’s with sons and daughters – the whole Brady Bunch.

The top tiers of the stadium are closed but the rest of the ground looks fairly packed – there’s a mix of City and United supporters dotted around, with the main bulk of United supporters behind one of the goals in the usual away end. As the match starts, it’s immediately noticeable how different the atmosphere is – there’s no thunderous roar on kick-off, it’s mostly children doing the shouting and singing. Yes singing – for some reason, I expected the game to have an atmosphere of the average men’s friendly; bits of shouting, attempts at starting songs, but nothing prolonged and tuneful. Thought I was in the audience for The Voice Kids, at one point.

Both sides start in a cagey fashion; having periods of possession, getting a feel of the ball without creating much. What I do notice is how tactically good the players are; they stick to their positions and individual roles without straying too far and leaving gaps. As I’m surveying my surroundings, I see that there are ads, placed around the stadium, denoting the club as being ‘One City’ – it’s all the same club, rather than two separate entities. With all kinds of families sat around the ground, you’d imagine that this is the sort of ‘crowd’ that women’s football needs to appeal to and attract – this 'One City' promotion clearly aimed to allow them support 'Manchester City', despite the cost of watching top-level men's football becoming increasingly unaffordable for the average family. I just hope that, if it does grow to anywhere near the level of popularity as the men’s game, women’s football continues along these lines and not go down the path of grabbing as much money as it can. The memories that football can give you, when you’re experiencing it with friends and family, is worth more than money – and everyone should have the opportunity experience it.

United were the better side in the first half – their best chance falling to Jane Ross; stood on the penalty spot, she receives the ball from the left, shoots first-time and somehow, Ellie Roebuck (in for the injured England No1 Karen Bardsley), sticks a hand out and deflects it wide. The 19-year-old is called into action again just before half-time; another ball in from the left sees it bobble around in the 6-yard area, United’s Jessica Sigworth is unable to get a decent connection which allows Roebuck to pounce upon it.

What has struck me about the atmosphere so far is that it’s friendly – no venom spat from the stands at the players, no abuse for the referee, no swearing whatsoever. I’m not sure how to feel – on one hand, hearing all of that at a football game makes me embarrassed (and often angry at the utter rubbish some people say), on the other, I can’t deny that it all adds to an intimidating atmosphere that may help to give your side an edge.

Half-time allows me an opportunity to leaf through the programme; a very interesting landscaped-A5 effort for £3. There’s an intriguing read about the first ‘competitive’ meeting of Manchester City Women and the previous incarnation of Manchester United Women in September 1990. With both sides being amateurs, they played on a field in the grounds of Manchester University in front of a crowd of around 150, City edging a thrilling game, 4-3 (is there any other way to describe a 4-3?!). Whilst the City side would go on to morph into the leading side they are today, Manchester United disbanded their women’s side in 2005 – only bringing the team back last season when they easily won The FA Women’s Championship. The re-establishment of this fixture has undoubtedly created much interest going forwards; it just needs time to grow as its own ‘rivalry’, and not as simply a mirror of the men’s fixture. (I just hope it’ll be a 'friendly rivalry' – I don’t want to see H&M-wearing teenage girls throwing shade at each other, like the Stone Island-wearing teenage boys do near men’s football grounds). 

City start the second half more urgently – ensuring they’re quicker to the ball and moving it at a faster pace. It becomes apparent that they’re technically the better side – and they’re immediately rewarded for their approach. Two minutes of the second half have been played as City probe around their opponents penalty area, United clearing away a loose ball – but it’s cut out on the left by Caroline Weir who proceeds to take another touch to bring herself inside, before firing the ball from almost 30 yards – and into the corner of the net. It was a strike worthy of any seen at this stadium in recent times and it’s quite rightly met with exuberant, youthful cheers from the H&M Ultras.

The attendance is announced as being over 31,000 – a record crowd for a regular women's league fixture, producing the biggest cheer of the day (bar the goal, of course!). In the week (as well as in the programme), the club said that they were expecting 20-25,000 to turn up (perhaps this explains the queues for the tram earlier?!), so it’s great to see those expectations exceeded.

As the game grows older and City frustrated at United’s well-organised defence, the threat of them being hit by a sucker punch, whilst searching for that clinching goal, is always hanging over them – and it nearly happened. United midfielder, Jackie Groenen does well to nip a long ball away from City’s centre-back, Gemma Bonner, and as the Dutch international reaches the penalty area, bearing down on Roebuck, she loses control of the ball – it falls to City right-back Aoife Mannion to clear, which she does – right onto Groenen’s foot! Fortunately for Mannion, Groenen couldn’t control the ball, it hit her foot and rolled back off the post and into Roebuck’s grateful mitts.

It was United’s best chance of the second-half – and their last. City did enough in the end, but United
did themselves credit, considering this was the first match at this level for many of their players. With some big players to come back for City – including new signing Ellen White, I’d expect them to start converting their quick, attacking play into goals before long. The crowd are appreciative, many staying to applaud them off.

I enjoyed the occasion, even if the game wasn’t high on chances – I’ve seen much worse in the last year alone. I’ll definitely be back at a women’s game soon, if only to tick off some more grounds! In the end, from my vantage point (and poor eyesight, to be fair) it just seemed like light-blue shirts were playing red shirts. And that's all that matters – men, women, boys, girls, it's still football we're watching, it’s still the game we all love so let's work together to make it better for us all.

Manchester City Women 1

Manchester United Women 0

Attendance: 31,213


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