Football. It’s a man’s game. Traditionally played by hearty chaps clad in colourful replica shirts and supported by crowds of men whose hoarse voices echo around the stadium as they wave, chant and cheer their team on in a bid to let off steam on a Saturday afternoon. Or is it?
Football. You can’t escape it. The children’s playground game is everywhere you turn, down every street, in every house, lurking in every shop. We’re football crazy; we’re football mad. It seems that “Who do you support” has replaced “hello, how are you?” as the standard form of introduction in polite society and women are also getting in on the game. The founding editor of leading soccer glossy Four Four Two was a woman, one Karen Buchanan. Barriers are slowly being broken down as statistics reveal that one in eight premiership season tickets are held by women. Some clubs are more women friendly than others, for instance Notts Forest where a good percentage of season tickets are purchased by the fairer sex. Domestic deity Delia Smith, a fanatical Norwich fan has joined the club’s board of directors, with Zoë Ball, Dani Behr and Cerys Matthews from ultra hip Welsh band Catatonia also championing the cause. Even AS Byatt likes football – famously likening Gazza to a medieval knight.
Women in football –it’s a recent development right? Wrong. That’s probably what most men think today. They still have not quite got used to seeing women playing football live on television, reading reports by women on sports pages, having them sounding knowledgeable on radio and television football programmes or listening to them arguing down the pub. Looking along a row of seats and seeing, yes quite a few women fans, they think “Hmm- far more than I remember when I was a lad.”
However in reality, the link between women and football is nothing new, but a development that began at least 100 years ago. Kaye Holland talks to three women about the long held passion that takes centre stage in their lives.
Jo Norris Senior payments officer for Arab bank and lifelong West Ham fan
Think of West Ham and your rough, gruff Albert Square posse springs to mind. So what’s Jo Norris - a middle class female fan hailing from the affluent neighbourhood of Northwood in North West London - doing on the Upton Park terrace? The attractive brunette decked out in fashionable designer clobber (“I’ve just returned from a shopping spree in Italy”) rotates her Gucci clad feet as she explains: “It started out as a way to get one up over my younger brother. He’s a Spurs fan and I decided to support a rival London team to provoke him. West Ham appealed as I liked their home grown ethos at the time. Whereas today the influx of foreign players has prevented home-grown talent from breaking into the first team side, this was not always the case. English teams did use to field English players! West Ham’s 1965 European cup winning team consisted of not only all English men without even a Scotsman or Irishman , but mostly local lads brought up in East London or nearby Essex.”
Jo went to her first game at the age of ten. About five seconds after having plonked herself in her seat, she was hooked. ”I was gripped, positively smitten. I can’t think of any other occasion where not only are you allowed to scream obscenities at the top of your voice, but it is positively encouraged.” I ask her if her appreciation of football is met with derision or enthusiasm from fellow male fans. “Initially when you say you follow football, men look at you in a bemused fashion but once they realise that you understand the offside rule, you’re automatically accepted. Some ask which Man U player I fancy but when I reply that I’m a Hammer, respect kicks in. After all, as any woman at a West Ham game will tell you, you don’t watch West Ham for the talent!”
She is irritated by the media making out that women who watch football are part of a trend. “I do think it’s patronising that women involved in men’s sports are remarked on for being women. I don’t have a different perspective from men; to spotlight women in this way is divisive. When I look around Upton Park, I don’t see men and women, I see West Ham fans.”
Katie Wareham, a financial controller at Elton John’s team, Watford, agrees insisting that her sex is a mute point in the workplace. “We are all football fans talking about football.” Clad in a neat tailored suit and pearl drop earrings, it’s clear that breaking bread in a predominantly male environment hasn’t made Katie one of the lads. “I tend to be myself. If you’re going to break down barriers, you have to be accepted on your own terms – feminine in my case– rather than changing to what people expect.” The slim, articulate ‘Hornette’ maintains the idea that women fans are only interested in what the players look like “is another male stereotype. A lot are genuinely very well informed about the game.” Wareham – hailing from a working class background – was taken to her first game in early adolescence by her Father. “My Dad worked a six day week so I saw it as a way of ensuring that we got to spend some quality time together. I imagined we would sit and chat, catching up with each other while occasionally casting glances across the field to check on the score.” As it turned out, the pair did sit next to each other – but that was about it. Most of the time, Katie was unaware who she was next to. “The only thing I was aware of was Watford.” From the second the game began, Wareham was utterly engrossed, surfacing momentarily at half time over a hot dog and tea, before returning to her blinkered obsession with the darting shapes on the field. At 16, Wareham found herself in need of a Saturday job to supplement her studies and social life. The obvious solution? To work as a retail assistant at the club shop. “It was the perfect answer. I got paid to wear a Watford shirt (the obligatory staff uniform), serve fans and watch the game as the shop used to close at kick off for the duration of the match.” More than that though, Katie felt “part of a community. I belonged to something special. It was a fantastic time.”
Birmingham university beckoned, if briefly. Missing her Watford friends and weekly trips to “the Vic”, Katie abandoned the Midlands and headed home to that small corner of Hertfordshire that her grabbed her heart. Soon she landed her “dream job” working in the financial planning department at the family friendly club. Katie confesses that today more women can be found on the terraces than before but refutes the idea “that women watching football is a fashionable new trend. If you peer closely at random crowd scenes from pre-war football games, you will in fact see quite a few female faces. Female fans were always there, if not in great numbers.”
Leanne Small has played for both Barnet and Arsenal Ladies. Small is serious about her sport; sticking to a strict diet from which sweets and such treats are banned. Unlike others her age, alcohol is off limits. Come Friday and Saturday nights you’ll find Leeane tucked up in bed rather than propping up a West End bar. “Friday nights are low key as I need to conserve my energy ahead of Saturday’s fixture, whilst on Saturday nights I am so drained that I usually just crash out! Real party animal, aren’t I?” she laughs. Her girlish giggle however, barely conceals the evident wrath she feels towards those who believe women should wear skimpier shorts in a bid to promote the game. Without provocation Leeanne blasts “I’m a serious athlete. Surely it’s about skill and tactical ability first and how people look second.” Warming to her argument, she continues: “If the crowd only wants to watch models then they should go and buy a copy of Playboy.”
She grows incensed that women’s interest in football is a new fad. “Women have been there from the start; making sandwiches, supporting sons from the sidelines. Women have always been playing football, but they kept very quiet about it because up to now it’s not been considered very feminine.”
You would think that Leeanne would be a dream date for our men folk, given her dedication to their favourite pastime. Sadly says Leeanne, this is not always the case. “Men want to be footballers, not date them. Though I’m sure most are just jealous that they can’t bend the ball like me!”
Although from different walks of life, the trio agree that football rules. Mention rugby and noses crinkle in distaste. Katie is amused by the nice public school names such as Josh Lewsey and Gavin Henderson: “Not a Darren or Wayne in sight!” Leeanne despairs of the negativity “So much is negative, like deliberately kicking the ball out.” Meanwhile Jo, the most natural candidate to convert to rugby – with her privileged upbringing – finds it “too slow.”
In their hit song, Baddiel and Skinner sing that football is coming home. But for these three and many more women like them, football came home years ago and by all accounts it’s here to stay.