So here’s the thing…
I thought it would be good to write a piece about the differences between watching the Arsenal men’s and women’s team at the Emirates but then I saw that the Athletic had already kind of done that.
In his piece https://theathletic.com/5125483/2023/12/11/spurs-newcastle-arsenal-chelsea/ Tim Spiers quoted one home supporter, James, at the Emirates on Sunday to watch Arsenal Women thrash Chelsea Women 4-1. James said:
‘It’s a more welcoming environment, 100 per cent. There’s much less swearing, there’s hardly any alcohol, it’s a lot better for families and young kids’.
By his own admission James only attends ‘a few men’s matches’ per season. Which is likely to be the case given the well documented problems non-season ticket holders have experienced getting tickets through the ballot system this season.
I’d tend to agree with James; I am fortunate to have a ST in the North Bank Lower so I attend pretty much every men’s home game and can attest to the amount of alcohol and swearing (not to mention vaping and the occasional flare).
I have also been to all three of the Arsenal Women home ties at the Emirates this season, and most of them last season as well. The atmosphere is different and crowd behaviour prior to the game is noticeably different. For men’s games I leave home about 2 hours before k/o, meeting a mate and heading for a pub about 10 minutes from the ground for the ritual pre-match drinks.
We turn up about 20 minutes ahead of k/o and arrive inside a packed stadium where the queues for the loo are almost as long as the bar. Its raucous but generally good natured: lots of singing practice as fans rev up for the game.
The ground is nearly full at kick off, North London Forever is bellowed out, and the game kicks off to a cacophony of ‘Arsenal, Arsenal, Arsenal’ with the Ashburton army banging their incessant drum.
It was a bit different on Sunday when the Women were playing.
The Tollington Arms was not so crowded, nor was the concourse, even though numbers were similar. I don’t think 59,000 people were there on Sunday: seats were sold but not all the buyers turned up. We made history, but the next challenge is to ensure ticket purchases translate into bums on seats.
Whatever the reality on Sunday it is fairly typical for the ground to fill up slowly for women’s matches. The core group of singing fans is not in the NB or Clock but in the East Stand behind the dugouts. They are fantastic, keeping up a constant supportive racket – with songs for nearly all the squad. Elsewhere its pretty quiet, and I expect not everyone is sure what to do yet.
Maybe that will come with time.
It is not so boozy, and swearing is indeed less, but not absent altogether. I would have said a year ago that the women’s game was less confrontational, less abusive of visiting teams and supporters. In short, less like the men’s game where abusing the other side and their fans is pretty much expected (even by them). There was a sense of solidarity, something of an acknowledgement of common cause: the creation and development of the women’s game within a man’s world.
This was possibly a result of the Lionesses’ success in recent years, and of course that is why so many young women and girls are flocking to see starts like Mead, Russo, and Williamson in the flesh. When Beth Mead made her return from injury the cheers for her came not just from Arsenal fans but also from the opposition; the same was even true for our Dutch star Vivianna Mediema.
But this seems to be changing.
I went to Meadow Park on Wednesday night to watch Arsenal play Tottenham in the Continental Cup. There was a big crowd for Borehamwood – 3,600 – ok, its not 59,000 but for a cold and wet weekday evening that’s impressive. Even more so when it is the women’s league cup, not the WSL or Champion’s League, and the team featured more of the squad players than were present on Sunday.
There was plenty of swearing on Wednesday, and not just because the Arsenal were a bit lacklustre and Spurs were (dare I say it) quite good.
The anti-Tottenham stuff was a bit pantomime but actually got a little boring and was certainly unnecessary. I don’t think there were many away fans there but they certainly weren’t made to feel welcome. I get the rivalry with Chelsea in the women’s game. They are genuine rivals on the pitch, but Tottenham aren’t (yet).
Nor do we have the history in the women’s game that we do in the men’s. There aren’t decades of matches to point to, no unpleasant managers to mock, or players to ridicule. They are just a group of young women playing football and trying their best, and wanting to enjoy it.
A few season ago when we were playing West Ham Women at Meadow Park I was by the corner flag when Nikita Parris won a corner. As the WHU defender who’d conceded it retreated a female home fan game her a mouthful of abuse. Parris came over and told her to ‘lay off’. Exactly right, the Hammers were soundly beaten and probably expected to be. The young defender was just trying her best and there was no need to give her grief.
They aren’t paid millions, they aren’t superstars. They are just like my daughter, and yours, young women who love football and want to play it. It is a bit sad if we have already dragged women’s football into the cesspit of bile that the men’s game so often resembles.
Older fans tell me of a time (the 1960s and earlier) when they or their dads would watch Arsenal one week, then go over to the Lane to watch Spurs the next. Yes, there was intense rivalry, there always has been. But it doesn’t have to be accompanied by hatred and abuse.
And it certainly isn’t needed in the women’s game.
You can love your club and support your team without singing hate songs about the opposition or verbally abusing their players. Because it is then a short leap to abusing individuals online, like our own Bukayo Saka experienced in the wake of the Euros and Chelsea’s Lauren James has had to face this week.
Drew Gray 15/12/23