The People’s Game- a chat with three Arsenal Women fans about women’s football fan culture

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I started watching Arsenal Ladies in the mid-1990s. It became clear to my mum that Saturdays at Arsenal weren’t enough, so she took me to Arsenal Ladies because they played on a Sunday. The concept of watching women’s football was never introduced to me as different, so I didn’t pay it any mind, really. It was football, it was Arsenal and, well, they usually won.

Nevertheless, my route to watching the women’s team was via the conduit of the men’s team. Through the years, I have learned that this is not necessarily the typical route to supporting the women’s team. In fact, a large section of Arsenal fans at Boreham Wood on a match day do not have any affiliation with the men’s team at all.

With coverage of the women’s game improving and WSL games now all streamed live on the FA Player, it’s never been easier to forge a relationship with the women’s team in its own right. Student Amy Owen’s love affair with Arsenal Women started after last year’s World Cup, “The only women’s football player I knew was Alex Morgan. I think the first world cup game I watched was a USWNT one just because it was on but I really enjoyed it (ironically now watching the USWNT is one of my last resorts – yes I’m still bitter, sue me). From then on, I watched all the England games.”

However, it was the Dutch national team that really caught Amy’s imagination and with their Arsenal contingent, a bond was formed, “I rooted for them in the final and found out some of those I enjoyed watching the most played at Arsenal. By this time as well I’d made some great woso friends on Twitter and various other social media platforms, so I got an AWFC membership and since the beginning of the season I’ve been to almost every home match and as many away ones as I can possibly get to.”

The success of the Dutch national team, who won the European Championships in 2017 and got to the World Cup Final in 2019, has brought an Oranje tinge to the Gunners support, with current Gunners Vivianne Miedema, Danielle van de Donk and Jill Roord and ex-Arsenal players Sari van Veenendaal and Dominique Bloodworth in their ranks.

Software Developer Max Klaversma lives in the Netherlands. He was drawn to Arsenal via the Dutch national team, “I spent some time watching 2015 World Cup highlights and some domestic match highlights for some clubs (one of which Bayern München), but like a lot of Dutchies, it wasn’t until the European Championship in 2017 in my home country that I really started following the game.”

For Max, it was striker Vivianne Miedema that attracted him to Arsenal when she signed for the club in 2017, “I had seen her in those Bayern highlights. I like her ‘vibe’, her realism and how down to earth she is. She had signed for Arsenal prior to the tournament, and she’s basically the reason I started following Arsenal.”

Like Max, Amy never really had any affinity with the men’s team, “As a kid growing up I did play football from the ages of about 6-10, I played with the boys, collected cards, I knew who the men’s players were. I liked Chelsea (sorry) because they played in blue, went to a few local men’s games with my Dad but it wasn’t like a BIG thing. My Dad was a West Ham supporter; but he wasn’t a football mad Dad. I enjoyed it but I didn’t live for it.”

For Max, if anything, women’s football was his route into watching men’s football, “I haven’t actively followed men’s football at any point. We watched the ‘obligatory’ matches, the 2010 World Cup finals, 2014 play-offs and big derbies – basically Netherlands vs. Germany. To be honest, I’ve started watching more men’s football after I got into women’s football – but most often older videos and almost no current matches. I can spend a few hours watching Bergkamp highlights for example.”

For Claire Sweeny, a member of the Arsenal Women’s Supporters Club committee, her love affair with football did start through men’s football. Claire is a West Ham supporter in the men’s game, but an Arsenal supporter in women’s football. “Kelly Smith’s testimonial in February 2017 was my first game. I volunteered with my friend and helped run the shop. I absolutely loved everything about the day. I agreed to go to the next game against Tottenham Women and we beat them 10-0 and that was that: hooked!”

Claire says balancing supporting two different London clubs doesn’t feel awkward given the different spaces they occupy, “To me it’s two different things. I’d liken it to the fact that Andy Murray and Serena Williams are my favourite tennis players. I’ve always had a soft spot for Arsenal anyway as my Granddad was a Gunner all his life. He passed away shortly before Arsenal Men won the FA Cup in 2014. He had dementia but the last time I saw him I mentioned the final and he grinned at me. He would have loved to have seen me in an Arsenal shirt I’m sure!”

Since Claire started regularly attending Arsenal Women games, West Ham have invested heavily in their women’s team and both teams are in the WSL. “I’ve got more and more involved in Pride of Irons and they in turn have got more interested in women’s football. They now meet up as a large group at the games. However, I still want Arsenal Women to win! I have been to a few games but it’s hard to fit it in when I follow Arsenal Women home and away!”

Claire was very much attracted to the social side of attending Arsenal Women games and the story is similar for Amy, whose bond with the Gunners has grown quickly through a close-knit social circle, “It’s a really small community (something I learned pretty quickly) and it allows you to not only have that bond with players but also other fans. I can honestly tell you that I now go to the football to see my friends every week, the football (while still one of my favourite things) is secondary.”

Max Jones and Aidan Small said on the most recent episode of the Arsenal Women Arsecast that player fandoms are becoming far more common in women’s football. Max came to Arsenal through an appreciation for the skills of Vivianne Miedema. For Amy and her friends, Danielle van de Donk was the bind that tied her and her friends to Arsenal. “One single player brought us all together (from all areas of England, Holland, France etc.) and I now have this incredible group of people that I can lean on for anything.”

One of the unique selling points of women’s football is the opportunity to interact with players. “We had the opportunity to tell the player who brought us all together, which was really nice (an opportunity that would be so rare in men’s football) and she was very taken aback, she personally messaged some of us later, telling us it meant a lot.”

That interaction with players is a big draw for women’s football fans, the sight of Arsenal players signing autographs and posing for selfies long after the final whistle is commonplace at Meadow Park. As the women’s game grows, Amy hopes that the connection to the players does not subside, “The connection to the fans that’s been created is incredible and you already lose it when you play at bigger stadiums. It’s hard because I want to girls to be given what they are worth, I want them to be able to play in the men’s stadiums like they should, but the selfish part of me loves the little community that has been created at Meadow Park.”

Claire is in agreement with that assessment, “On the one hand I think it’s great that women’s football is getting the recognition it deserves after so long. Plus the extra money coming in can only be good for the players, the training facilities and the medical side too. However, the flip side is the amount of time that players can spend with the fans will start to diminish. For many people the accessibility of the players is one of the main reasons they like women’s football. The players are so generous with their time; but it will get harder and harder.”

All three cite the more positive, close knit atmosphere of women’s football as a positive distinction from the men’s game, “I like the fun and positive atmosphere at the games,” says Max. “I could go talk to supporters of Chelsea or Ajax if I’m at a game. It doesn’t require all the police escorts, the separation of spectators. If I want to, I can talk to a player after a game (at Arsenal or PSV) and get them to sign a shirt or something.”

The lower levels of rancour and bitterness at women’s games are also cited as a key selling point for Amy, “I was at the game Arsenal Women played at the Spurs Stadium in November. I was so happy they got to play there but we lost a bit of the small ground magic. The closeness disappears and the chants are lost in a sea of men’s fans who only want to boo or yell offensive things to the opposing team.”

Since winning Euro 2017, the Netherlands regularly play to sold out stadiums in front of crowds of 25,000 and more and Max has already seen that distance start to grow between players and fans. “I think that’s logical. I suspect it will happen at club games at some point and would be too bad for the fans, but still understandable.” However, even without immediate access to players after games, Max’s big hope is that the atmosphere of women’s football is retained.

“The big ‘anxiety’ that I have is that the (in my eyes) negative atmosphere from men’s games gets transferred to the women’s games. I understand you’re supporting your club, and I’m not a saint when it comes to being negative about other teams (or my own for that matter) on social media, but I’d say you should be supporting your own team foremost and not by denigrating the other team.”

Claire, who spends lots of time watching both men’s and women’s football, says she has grown to prefer the latter, “There are three reasons I like women‘s football more than men’s: 1) I like the fact that they cheat less and spend less time rolling around on the floor. 2) The players have more time for the fans and seem to be more appreciative of the support and 3) the atmosphere at the games between sets of supporters, for example, we have a very good relationship with the Man City Women’s supporters and have a lot of fun banter with them.”

I know I have spoken to many fans at Boreham Wood who have been attracted to women’s football through a growing distaste for men’s football and the business that surrounds it. Many, like me, come because they support their clubs and see the women’s team as a part of that whole. Increasingly, there are many like Claire, Max and Amy, for whom Arsenal Women exist in their own right, entirely separate from the men’s team and men’s football.

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Peter Story Teller

It appears that we are at a crossroads in the development of women’s football at the moment. What I fear is that it could end up like that wonderful holiday hotspot that gets ruined because it becomes so popular. Of course, we want to see the women professional players receive the rewards they deserve both financially and from mass support playing in huge stadia to tens of thousands of fans each week. The question inferred in this blog to me is, how can this be balanced with what makes women’s football so attractive at present i.e. the accessibility of the… Read more »

Bob Jane

Those fans have really put into words why I’ve started to prefer the Women’s team to the Men’s. The Men’s team just seem so far removed from everyday people like us.

I’m now convinced that if I ever get to visit England, I would go to an Arsenal Women’s instead.

Sebastian Lewis

Hi Tim, I’ve been an Arsenal mens supporter for the last 25 years. Since the Women’s World cup last year I’ve started to take a keener interest in the Women’s game. Due to my affinity to the club I obviously started with AWFC, and luckily for me it turns out we have an INCREDIBLE women’s team, with some really entertaining, talented, likable players!! What I have found most surprising about Women’s football is the players seem to be far more accessible (for lack of a better word) than Men’s players. They seem a lot more grounded and in touch with… Read more »

Tim Stillman

Cheers Sebastien, the games are all streamed on the FA Player app, which ught to be available in ZA too https://faplayer.thefa.com/

Naked Cygan

It would not surprise me at all if our women’s team beat our men’s team if they ever played. We have the best women’s team in the world.

goonerink

we have the female messi(though she is better) for our womens team.
ofc they would win.

I would like to see Miedema vs Leno in a shootout though.

Rose- Heather

The Women are my main Arsenal team, and I’ll make the most effort to see team, not only are the games good, but also excellent value for money and I enjoy the atmosphere. The only thing I really miss is the volume that can be achieved at a large stadium.
My men’s team is 5 hrs away and in League Two and get very little radio/tv coverage, so I’ll keep an eye on the men too, just to get in on the Premiere league action.