Tuesday, December 5, 2023

Sp*rs Women v Arsenal: From Ancient Grudge, Break New Mutiny

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.

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.

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.

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Graham T

Looking forward to going into a North London Derby, where I don’t feel sick to my stomach. Really enjoying your coverage of the women’s team. Tim any chance of putting the Patreon version of the women’s podcast up

Tim Stillman

Check your emails 🙂


They offered my brother’s kids free tickets at school. So there will be a lot of people not showing I think.

Tim Stillman

Yes, this is usually the way. However, the record attendance in the WSL is 31k, hoping this beats it.

Christopher Humphrey

I’ve got tickets for 3 non-women football followers who are coming as “stadium tourists”. I’m hoping that what they see on the pitch will get at least one of them to Meadow Park.

Christopher Humphrey

I like the bit about the rivalry not being so bitter in the 60’s/70’s. The bridge of my nose contradicts that view! May 1971 Spuds 0 v Arse 1…”We won the League at White Hart Lane”….original version.They weren’t happy!!!

Christopher Humphrey

I remember my Arsenal supporting father talking about the split support in his large North London family and post war visits to WHL one week followed by Highbury the next just for the sake of seeing a game. Those post war crowds must have been amazing to be part of before the real nasty stuff started to spread in the 70’s when it became quite frightening to show your loyalties in others’ “territories”.

Peter Story Teller

Hey remember that! My one and only trip to the Lane!
I still have a Ray Kennedy poster somewhere.
What a sad end to a great player both at Highbury and Anfield.

Christopher Humphrey

Yes, Parkinsons Disease is a cruel progressive illness and it is remarkable that Ray Kennedy was able to achieve so much in his playing days.
Talking of that May night in 1971. Me and 2 school mates bunked off for the day to join the alleged 250,000 hordes trying to get into 55,000 capacity WHL. No segregation, no “online” booking…..no nothing!!! It was carnage. Remarkably 2 out of 3 of us actually made it in to watch the game. So 1-0 to the Arsenal became the battle cry for generations of Gooners to come.

Peter Story Teller

“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.” I am a little concerned if this really is the wish of the WSL. Granted local rivalry spices the derby matches but some of the tribal hatred exhibited by the men’s game followers, I resist calling them supporters because if they were they would show more respect, will not be welcome at WSL matches which are currently played in a much more convivial atmosphere and has a lot to do with the growing… Read more »

Christopher Humphrey

Mmm….a “Catch 22”.
How can the WSL gates be increased without importing the less savoury elements of the Premiership’s tribal support? I wish I knew!
I have yet to convince a single Gooner supporting male friend to come along to Meadow Park and the 3 friends who are coming to WHL Sunday are “stadium tourists” for the day.

Peter Story Teller

I think the issue in this country in particular is that men’s football has been the national sport for over a century and many who have enjoyed that game cannot resist comparing the women’s offering to it rather than enjoy it for what it is. We do not compare 100m sprinters based on the sex of the athlete and say women are no good at running because they are a couple of seconds slower to the finishing line. That is simply the physicality of men vs women. It is true that not so many seasons ago even the top women’s… Read more »


Going to the game with family but having to sit with the scum in the home end. Debating wearing red and white but not sure if I will be lynched for doing so. Any thoughts?

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