At the start of the season, I watched a documentary about women’s football that left me yearning to see a ladies’ game. My girlfriend, Saffron, had recommended it to me after it sparked a similar desire in her too.
The feature, called When Football Banned Women, revisited the time when some of the UK’s top female footballers were being watched by tens of thousands of spectators just after the First World War. But the FA banned them from playing in stadiums and thus halted the growth of the game in its tracks.
To this day, it’s never reached those same heights. In fact, it’s not even come close. Big football clubs with successful men’s teams are giving their female counterparts fixtures at non-league grounds that are often miles away from their home stadiums. Even the draw of free entry at these matches for season ticket holders of the men’s team hasn’t brought that many fans through the turnstiles.
Saff and I have looked into seeing women’s matches for some time but there aren’t many local teams and fixtures are limited. So when we discovered that Birmingham City Ladies were playing their final game of the Women’s Super League 1 season at St. Andrew’s Stadium, we jumped at the chance to support the Blues and learn a bit more about the modern women’s game first hand. Reading Women were the opposition in the battle to finish fourth.
Playing at home
It was a strange walk to the stadium. We headed across Birmingham in glorious sunshine but found the streets empty. There was no indication that a football match was happening in the city and no pre-match hype. We actually spotted someone with a Birmingham City shirt walking towards the Bullring and away from the location of St. Andrew’s, which made me question whether I got the wrong information about the game’s time and location. As we entered the suburban surroundings of St. Andrew’s, however, a few fans began to emerge and we queued up with supporters of all ages at the entrance.
The only stand in use was the lower Kop but even with just the one stand open, it felt fitting to have women use the club’s actual home. Especially as, before kick-off, the original Birmingham City Ladies team of the 1960’s took to the field to mark the 50th anniversary of the team’s formation. And after this, there was also a big send-off for Emily Westwood, who was moving into a staff member position following eight years of service on the field for the Blues.
Having both of these events at St. Andrew’s felt special. Normally Birmingham City Ladies play at Solihull Moors’ Damson Park, joining several other teams in the WSL who play their fixtures at grounds away from the club’s main stadium. Considering that many Premier League 2 games are contested at big stadiums, it might be worth looking into women’s matches being played there too. Afterall, they are elite sportswomen. Surely they deserve an elite arena.
Sealing the Golden Boot
Going into the game, my knowledge of women’s football players was limited. However, I knew about England international Ellen White and I really looked forward to seeing her in action. She’s the talisman of the Birmingham team and entered the match as the top goalscorer in the WSL 1.
Watching her play was fantastic. She had every attribute you’d want in a centre-forward, holding the ball up well and making several dangerous runs. But it was the opposition who took the lead.
Reading’s fans were quite noisy when the game started and their support was rewarded with some great play from their team early on. A Brooke Chaplan goal after four minutes indicated a possible rout was on the cards as the away side dominated possession. But White equalised on the half-hour mark against the run of play.
A long punt up-field from Charlie Wellings was seized upon by the Birmingham number nine, who ran in between two defenders and took the ball around Grace Moloney in the Reading goal. To see one of the best strikers in women’s football score a goal was class but her 15th of the campaign also sealed her place as the Golden Boot winner by a four-goal margin. Some feat in an 18-game season.
To top things off, she also pulled out her trademark goal celebration. I bloody love a trademark goal celebration. From Tim Cahill’s corner flag shadow boxing to Paolo Dybala’s mask, seeing such enjoyment and importance in scoring a goal adds something extra to the strike for me.
White’s celebration involves making a pair of glasses with her hands, presumably because she wears them off the field (I can’t actually find any resource explaining why she does it). Whatever the reason for it, it seems to be working alright for her. And it’s also gained her great popularity amongst fans, with one young girl in front of us writing ‘Ellen White’ in her notepad during the match.
Meeting an international
Throughout the game, I paid particular interest to Birmingham’s holding midfielder Hayley Ladd. She’s a Wales international with 25 caps to her name and is one of the Welsh team’s main assets for the ongoing World Cup qualification campaign. Because of this, I couldn’t resist getting a photo with her when the players headed over to the fans at full-time.
She was very friendly and polite considering I wished her well for the next Wales game against England in late August – Wales having two World Cup qualifiers to play before that match. Despite my ignorance, she asked if we were going to try to make the England game and hoped to see us there.
As much as I enjoyed meeting a player like Ladd, it was more important to see young girls being given the chance to meet her and White and all the other Birmingham squad members. To do so at a beautiful stadium on a glorious sunny day should hopefully inspire some of the 1,100 crowd in attendance to either come back or start kicking a football themselves.
Rachel Williams injury
There was a long delay towards the end of the first half due to a serious-looking injury. Rachel Williams had stretched to control the ball in the air and suddenly fell to the floor in visible discomfort. I figured her hamstring or groin had been pulled by the awkward open-scissor motion of her body. But then it looked like the impact of hitting the ground had caused the damage.
A stretcher was immediately called over and her season finished with her being wheeled around the side of the St. Andrew’s pitch. Not a pleasant sight.
Before the game, I learnt that the previous four meetings between the two sides had all finished in a draw. I was convinced – even in a second half of rare chances – that a winner would emerge to buck the trend. However, Moloney managed to get a hand on Lucy Quinn’s shot from the edge of the six-yard box and Fara Williams directed a free header over the bar for either side’s best chances to find a winner.
The point was enough for Reading to seal fourth, with Birmingham finishing a place and two points behind.
I left St. Andrew’s feeling pretty fulfilled after my first women’s football experience. However, the more research I’ve done for this post, the more I’ve felt frustrated at my own ignorance.
The England comment with Ladd started it off but I also had no idea that Reading’s Natasha Harding was also a Welsh international. I thought she was outstanding on the flank for the Royals. I’m not disappointed I didn’t get a photo with her or anything like that, I was more disappointed that I didn’t realise her pedigree until after the game.
I feel like I should have done more research into the opposing team, particularly as Rachel Rowe and Melissa Fletcher were also Welsh internationals in the Reading squad. If you add that to the fact England’s most capped player of all-time, Fara Williams, was also on the field, then I can’t help but feel despondent.
However, my research into the Birmingham side did really help. Seeing Ann-Katrin Berger in goal after her recovery from thyroid cancer was incredible, whilst I also knew about Aoife Mannion’s great presence in the Blues defence. Plus, I feel like going to the game provided the best learning experience of all. Otherwise many of these names wouldn’t be on my radar now.
Looking ahead, Saff and I are hoping to see Wales’ World Cup qualifier against Bosnia next month. It’ll be a redemption of sorts after my Ladd gaffe but it will also continue our journey into the ladies’ game and support a branch of football that – honestly speaking – deserves a grand setting every week and the crowds it used to pull in.
Birmingham City Ladies 1 – 1 Reading Women
FA Women’s Super League 1
Ground rating: 7.5/10