Following the semi-final run England’s Lionesses enjoyed at this year’s World Cup, the women’s game garnered even more interest across the country. Its biggest domestic competition, The FA Women’s Super League, secured a major sponsorship deal with Barclays and several of the teams announced their opening games of the season were to be held at stadiums usually reserved for their male counterparts.
Bristol City took on Brighton at Ashton Gate on the opening Saturday while the first ever Manchester derby between City and United’s women’s teams played out at the Etihad in front of over 31,000 spectators. That game broke the attendance record for an FAWSL match, beating the 5,000 inside Brighton’s Amex Stadium when Arsenal won the title last season.
However, the new record was set to be broken the following day, as Chelsea welcomed London rivals Spurs to Stamford Bridge. Tickets were free and the stadium sold out, meaning 40,000 were anticipated to be in West London for the occasion. Three of us headed to the capital to take in a potential landmark day for women’s football.
I’ve been to a few high-level women’s football matches on the blog and while the level of play has been top quality, there hasn’t been an atmosphere to match. I’ve heard passionate singing from the ultras of Aston Villa and the Red Wall of Wales but they’ve been small groups inside small venues. This game had so much more vibrancy.
You could feel the difference before a ball had been kicked. The tube was packed heading in. When we arrived, Chelsea’s traditional pre-match tune – Harry J All Stars’ The Liquidator – came on and ‘we hate Tottenham – Chelsea!’ rang around the stadium, just like it would in a Premier League clash. I loved joining in, particularly as Wolves were banned from playing the anti-West Brom version when I visited Molineux last year.
Flames shot up from the pitch as the teams entered the field and the crowd’s excitement levels were palpable, including in the away end to our right, where Spurs had a strong backing.
Chelsea started the match intensely against opponents who’d only been promoted from the FA Women’s Championship last season and went ahead after just four minutes when Bethany England scored one of the best goals I’ve ever seen live.
Poor control from Ria Percival allowed England to steal the ball, set herself up and curl a stunning shot into the top corner from 25 yards out. It was a strike that looked destined to be a goal from the moment it was hit and we were lucky enough to witness it swing in from behind the goal. Quite a start for the Blues’ top-scorer last season, who’d also won her first England caps a few days before.
Although there were no further goals, we were enthralled during both halves. Neither side had much cutting edge up front but there was plenty of quality on display and Spurs held their own in their first FAWSL match.
The audience were suitably entertained even during half-time, where we were treated to a DJ set from Marvin Humes (who looked suspiciously like Thierry Henry on the big screen). Mascots bounced, t-shirts got fired and girls did kick-ups in front of each stand.
The biggest indicator of how good the match was, though, came when a Mexican Wave attempt – the ultimate sign of boredom and, therefore, sporting disrespect – was shut down by those behind the goal. It really was a special day.
Some of my favourite players in the women’s game are currently at Chelsea including Wales captain Sophie Ingle and Scotland youngster Erin Cuthbert. But having seen both of them play for their respective countries already, the name I wanted to see in the starting line-up was South Korean superstar Ji So-yun.
The midfielder has amassed close to 150 appearances for the Blues since arriving in 2014 and has been named in the PFA Team Of The Year in four of her five seasons at the club. Her goals and assists have helped Chelsea win two league titles and two FA Cups while she’s also become the top goal scorer for her country. Seeing her in action, though, she had more than just an eye for goal.
Ji is a phenomenal playmaker. During the match, she created four chances and finished with an 89% pass accuracy. Her touch and control were near perfect. Her only weakness seemed to be her slight frame, which Spurs took advantage of by muscling the ball off her in a move that nearly gave Rachel Furness an equalising goal.
But during the 90 minutes, her outstanding technical ability allowed her to keep possession, drive her team up the field and play her teammates in to dangerous areas. She was everything I wanted her to be and if Chelsea had a potent striker, they would have seen off Spurs more comfortably.
The missing 15,000
Looking around the ground during the match, a number of empty seats were visible but I still thought there was enough fans to break the attendance record set at the Etihad. So when the announcer said 24,565 were in the stadium, I did feel quite disheartened.
How were 15,000 people missing from a game which sold out? Admittedly, we were guilty of buying four tickets and only using three but to have 15,000 not turn up, there must have been a lot of people buying a handful and then not bothering to go.
It made me question – and not for the first time – whether giving tickets away for free was a good idea. At the Manchester derby, tickets were priced at a maximum of £7 and yet more turned up there than where the tickets were free.
A 12:30 kick-off on a Sunday probably didn’t help Chelsea but then I think two London clubs with huge fanbases could have sold out the place on the day if tickets were available.
Despite missing out on the record for an FAWSL match, the game marked the highest ever attendance for Chelsea’s women’s team, which is still amazing to be part of. It felt like looking into the future: top female athletes were playing in a big sporting arena backed by a huge crowd. But being there without paying didn’t sit right with me.
When I first bought my tickets, I asked Chelsea FCW on Twitter if I could make a voluntary contribution on the day to fund the team. Unfortunately, they didn’t respond. We bought a couple of programmes instead but – because chips had somehow sold out at half-time – a Twix was the only other purchase we made.
It’s frustrating because I want to see this future vision of women’s football sooner – it’s what they deserve – but I don’t think it will get there until people value them more.
A group of guys sat behind us, for example, missed the opening goal and left 10 minutes early. Then there’s the attempted Mexican Wave and the fact that 15,000 people couldn’t be bothered to see world class talent such as Ji, Ingle or Millie Bright play for free.
We are getting closer to seeing days like the one at the Etihad every weekend. I just feel we need to put more faith in the players. If you put them on the biggest stages, people will come, and come again because they can offer goals, skill, fight and drama. Plus, who wouldn’t want to visit the best sporting facilities in the world each week?
I fell in love with Stamford Bridge as soon as I entered the Shed End. Having only seen the ground on TV over the years, I was floored by the whole place in person.
It was bigger and more modern than I expected but it also had a lot of character. I adored all the flags and banners draped over the stands for club legends such as Didier Drogba and Frank Lampard, plus the plaques in the gangway that were dedicated to Blues fans who had passed away.
There were a few too many pictures of current Chelsea men’s players on the decor outside but I thought the Shed Wall – featuring all the legends of the club on the original wall of the Shed End terrace entrance – was a special sight. Hopefully stars like Ji will get a place on there very soon.
FA Women’s Super League
Ground rating: 9/10