This Sunday, Arsenal Women meet Tottenham Hotspur Women in a league clash for the first ever time. Spurs largely ignored their women’s team until a couple of years ago, but they were promoted into the top flight of women’s football for the first time this season. Their promotion, alongside Manchester United, represented a watermark moment for the league.
Not only because, with the greatest respect, the WSL no longer has a side that will so obviously relegated like Doncaster Belles or Yeovil Town. Spurs and United are in the division with the resources and the willingness to compete. This season represents the first time that there will be a proper relegation battle in the WSL for some years.
From a marketing perspective, big names like Spurs and Manchester United in the WSL have more commercial potential than Yeovil, who were relegated last season. (Sorry, Yeovil!) Tottenham have taken the decision to host Sunday’s match at their newly renovated stadium, cashing in on both the lure of a North London derby and the wow factor of a new arena that many are yet to visit.
You may recall that in the Emirates’ inaugural season, over 50,000 packed into the ground to watch a Youth Cup semi-final. A large part of that audience attended as stadium tourists. Around 40,000 are expected in the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium on Sunday for similar reasons. Arsenal has an away allocation of 3,000 which, I think I am right in saying, is a first for a WSL fixture, where fans ordinarily mix freely or else there are so few away fans that it is simply not worth the hassle of segregating them.
Arsenal have sold their allocation out and, again, this is largely driven by the opportunity to see Tottenham’s new stadium (as well as the novelty of going to Spurs away as overwhelming favourites). The WSL, much like the Women’s Champions League, is beginning to take on the appearance of elite men’s football, with most clubs in the top half of the Premier League now reflected in the women’s equivalent.
United and Spurs’ promotions mean all of the ‘Big 6’ are now represented (though Liverpool’s women operate in a parallel universe in the WSL- they are the current favourites to be relegated). There is a debate to be had about how far rivalries from the men’s game can translate into women’s football. It is not an equivalent universe.
#WomensFootballWeekend starts on Saturday 😍
Wherever you are, be part of it and show your love for the women’s game ♥️
Who’s got their tickets for the north London derby? 😏 pic.twitter.com/EemAHuyoOE
— Arsenal Women (@ArsenalWFC) November 14, 2019
Tottenham and Arsenal have little to no history in the women’s game, they have moved in vastly different circles. Arsenal are the most decorated women’s team in England by some distance and the current champions, Spurs are in their first season in the top flight and their ambitions for this season will involve not being relegated. On Sunday, their game plan will be one of damage limitation (though they are a defensively well-organised side).
In their last two meetings, Arsenal have thumped Spurs 10-0 (in 2017 in the FA Cup) and 6-0 (in a pre-season friendly in August). In any case, women’s football crowds lack the enmity of the male equivalent. For many, this is a key selling point of women’s football. Though Arsenal have a segregated away enclosure on Sunday, Arsenal fans will have bought tickets in the home end and will move freely, without challenge, in their Arsenal colours. Spurs Women have 5 former Gunners in their squad- unthinkable in the men’s game.
The match won’t be one of relative equals, as it is in the Premier League. The far better resourced Arsenal will dominate the match and Tottenham will camp in their own half and try to frustrate. It won’t be and can’t be a working facsimile of a Premier League game between the teams and that means the intensity won’t translate. Not yet anyway.
It took decades for the bitterness to build up between Spurs and Arsenal in the men’s game. Members of my family used to watch both teams happily in the 60s and 70s, which was commonplace because the rivalry just wasn’t as severe as it has now become. Women’s football is still in an embryonic, developmental stage.
There remains a schism between professional and amateur (the top flight is professional, the second tier semi-professional in the WSL), Arsenal have just won a Champions League round of 16 tie 13-2 on aggregate- inequality remains vast. Promotion and relegation is still occasionally decided by application, as it was in the early 20th century in the men’s game.
Sunday’s match is a North London derby in name, but the rivalry will take many years to germinate. Yet Sunday is an important first step. I spoke to Leah Williamson after the last gasp victory over Manchester United in September and she said as much, “The WSL needs derby games, those are the fixtures everyone looks forward to, in the men’s game those are the fixtures that get everyone talking and that’s what we need in the women’s game.”
*First NLD in WSL, not ever
*Not the first time Liverpool have played at Anfield
Pedanticism aside, I still have the nagging feeling that there will still be little uptake after Sunday. Will fans continue their patronage when the Barclays is back or is WFW just filler? https://t.co/RZYwcv7LAe
— Sophie Lawson (@lawson_sv) November 15, 2019
This is especially important for the television spectacle. Too often, even when crowds have been good for women’s games, they have come across a little passive and disengaged. There are lots of people who will come to a big-ticket women’s fixture as a one-off event, but they are not emotionally invested, which can lead to the impression that the games don’t matter and that they don’t have a narrative thread binding them together.
Hopefully, a greater number of derby games will change this and give the games a sense of meaning and intensity. This weekend has been billed “Women’s Football Weekend” by the WSL with the Premier League calendar minding a gap. The WSL have deliberately arranged fixtures such as the North London derby, the Merseyside derby and Chelsea v Manchester United in this space to attract floating voters.
Big crowds are likely this weekend, but to keep punters coming back is the key and creating greater intensity and crowd participation is crucial to that goal. At United away in September, the home team’s “Barmy Army” sang throughout and were hostile towards the Arsenal players and the referee in a way that is unusual in women’s football. The WSL is hopeful that piggy backing onto men’s football rivalries will help to sell the WSL ‘product’, but that will take time to come to fruition.