Played in Chelsea

We did our first Lionesses match back in May, watching Phil Neville’s side getting shut out by New Zealand prior to the World Cup. At the beginning of September, it was time to go local, supporting the AFC Wimbledon Ladies as they beat Cambridge United 2-0 at home in the National League Division One South East (more on them in future updates) So, on to the FA Women’s Super League. Top-flight footy? Chelsea versus WSL debutants Tottenham Hotspur? At Stamford Bridge? Free tickets? Even the wife got on board with that and she can’t stand football!

A week before the game the media was reporting this one as a “sell-out” (insofar as something free can be). So, I was expecting a challenging journey, but it was pretty much drama-free heading up to the Bridge from Wimbledon tube. It was great to see so many people at Fulham Broadway making their way towards the ground and, but for the large numbers of young people visible, it would have been easy to think this was just another fixture for Frank Lampard’s side rather than Emma Hayes’s.

Large photos of the Chelsea Women’s players were displayed along the Fulham Road and into the forecourt area around the Shed End. My son, George, pointed out Fran Kirby to his sister, but I suspected that we wouldn’t be seeing her due to a reported injury. I kept quiet about that. Plenty of other good players we knew would be on show and some new ones for us to start learning about.

I have to say all the stewards we met were superb – friendly and helpful; acutely aware that many had never been to the ground before (or in my case not for many, MANY years). Perhaps they were enjoying the inevitably different atmosphere of a women’s fixture. There were smiles all the way, bag search was hassle free, even handing over the kids’ half-full water bottles on a boiling hot afternoon before heading up the ramp into the East Stand was accompanied with looks that said “yeah, this just how we have to do it.” So far, so good.

Once in the ground, it was a bit of a rat-run to the Upper East. There’s definitely not enough room for a large number of people to grab food and drink comfortably, so we swerved that adventure until half-time. I thought I’d got in fairly early on the ticket allocation following the World Cup, but to my (inner and silent) disappointment we were right at the back, up top, just in front of the BBC cameraman. It turns out my dad would have a similar view to us on his TV fifty miles away on the South Coast, only with the benefit of close ups, cutaways and commentary!

What he wouldn’t have, though, were the banging tunes, courtesy of Capital Radio’s Marvin Humes, along with the sound of Chelsea-branded ‘thunder sticks’ (attached to each seat); essentially inflatable rods which the kids smashed together to make perpetual noise. I suspected that these contraptions may be American in origin but, it turns out, while popular in the US we actually have the Koreans to thank for them.

He’s kind of an annoying kid, if you insist on giving him a thunder stick!

Ok, fuddy-duddy alert…! To be fair it did all come together to create a carnival atmosphere prior to kick-off, during which time it was nice to see recently retired star Karen Carney presented with a framed shirt by the Chelsea manager, recognising her years of service to the club.

The teams were read out. No Erin Cuthbert in the Chelsea starting eleven. I stayed quiet. The kids waited eagerly for Fran… but she didn’t even make the bench. I shifted in my seat slightly feeling like they weren’t getting what I’d sold them six weeks earlier. So, I walked them through the Chelsea players I was looking forward to seeing as they appeared on the screen: Maren Mjelde, Ji So-yun, and new signing, Norwegian attacker, Guro Reiten. All present and correct. They would also get to see skilful Spurs winger Gemma Davison and new striker Kit Graham, who’d arrived with rave reviews (and not without some transfer controversy) from Charlton. The kids returned to thunder stick duty. They seemed happy enough with that. They’re kids, they’re resilient.

There was eventually a match and it wasn’t half bad, played at a decent pace for early season and exhibiting the kind of excellent sports-woman-ship we’ve come to associate with the sport.

New Blues captain Magda Eriksson, playing at centre back, sliced an early effort wide before the hosts got themselves in front. Forward, Beth England, fresh from Lionesses squad duty, took the game by the scruff of the neck inside five minutes, robbing Ria Percival and rifling left-footed past Becky Spencer from 25-yards. It must have been TV gold. Eh, dad?

Chelsea, looking far more composed in possession, pressed for a second but only Reiten significantly troubled Spencer’s goal again in the first half, bringing a smart stop from the former Blues’ keeper.

Meanwhile Tottenham’s confidence grew, and Graham forced a good save from Ann-Katrin Berger low to her left a few minutes before the interval.

My wife had headed for hot dogs and beer ten minutes before half time and barely made it back (even with the rest of us mucking in to help) by the start of the second period! This was in part because there was one (ONE) available toilet for ladies in our part of the Upper East which caused something of a queue, and secondly because of sheer weight of traffic getting to the food kiosks. Nonetheless, hot dogs and a pretty awful coffee were acquired, and one beer as a reward for her efforts – which she then couldn’t take back into the stand – “why do they sell it, then?” she asked, not unreasonably, but chugging it in the corridor anyway – northern girls, eh? Brilliant…

First half action: Chelsea v Tottenham Hotspur

Spurs began the second half kicking towards a mass of their fans at the Shed End. And they nearly equalised when Rachel Furness found herself in front of goal, but Berger was equal to her well-struck effort, diving at full stretch to her left to keep the ball out.

At the other end, busy Chelsea midfielder, Drew Spence, hit the bar from distance with Reiten heading the rebound against the upright. Replays on the big screen suggested the keeper got something on the first shot.

Emma Hayes made a couple of substitutions midway through the second half, introducing Deanna Cooper at right full back which allowed Mjelde to push into midfield and have more of an impact on the game. Erin Cuthbert also got on with around twenty minutes left which pleased George, who was still engrossed; not so much Emily who had joined her mum in the world of phone / tablet activity!

Tottenham’s brightest spark was Davison, who showed great technical ability on the ball and looked like the player capable of making something happen for Spurs. But she drifted in and out of the game and I found myself wondering whether she was perhaps a bit unfit or a bit lazy, or both.

Chelsea probably should have put the game to bed more comfortably late on with the visitors tiring. Reiten, Cuthbert and the increasingly influential Ji all had chances, but Spurs held the score to 1-0; a very respectable WSL debut against a side who should be looking at a top 3 finish.

So, in retrospect – the triumphs? Well, player-wise, I loved Reiten. She’s more than capable of tearing up the WSL this season. Also, a passing word for full-back Hannah Blundell. I confess she’s not a player that’s been on my radar, but I really enjoyed her performance bombing up and down Chelsea’s left flank. And Beth England, a great strike to win the match, but more than that, she looked a proper bloomin’ handful to defend against, particularly in the first half.

Overall, it was a great occasion, good atmosphere, the club really got behind the event. I’m not in any way a Chelsea fan, but didn’t feel I needed to be to turn up and support the women’s game. To be honest, I’ll happily go and watch any of the 12 WSL teams on a Sunday afternoon. I also didn’t get the impression that a lot of people around me were die-hard, Premier League Blues. I wonder if that’s going to be a prevalent factor in developing a new, specific audience for the women’s game or whether larger, partisan crowds connected emotionally to clubs will emerge from what are currently non-league comparable attendances.

Interesting side-note on the crowd. I heard absolutely no criticism of referee Amy Fearns during the 90 minutes. I can’t believe that’s always going to be the case at women’s football, but it was quite refreshing.*

Any surprises? Um, perhaps not a bombshell for regular Blues fans, but Carly Telford was not in goal for Chelsea – She is after all the current England keeper (Karen Bardsley injury notwithstanding). Also, Mjelde at right back and Eriksson at centre back having seen them operate in different roles throughout the World Cup. Both played well to be fair and were somehow able to quietly stamp their authority on the game as it unfolded. Ji’s movement off the ball was sensational, but she didn’t look 100% sharp to me, with some heavy first touches, stray passes or just not being able to get the ball out from under her feet quickly, as she usually does.

I was also pleasantly surprised at how Spurs ground themselves into the match having endured a pretty shaky start. They look like a team who can give anyone a game on their day with hard working players through the middle and some skill on the wings. I’ll be interested to see whether a 15-goal striker can emerge in the group which would certainly set them up for survival.

Chelsea Manager, Emma Hayes. Her twitter response is in the mail. Err…

Disappointments? Look, the kids wanted to see Fran and I’ve implored Emma Hayes, via Twitter, to give us more Erin Cuthbert (she ignored my comment by the way). So, that’s our expectation on a future trip to Kingsmeadow – it’s not like we don’t know where that ground is. We are seasoned Wombles and therefore ‘ground-sharers’.

I had hoped to get a glimpse of young England prospect, Jessica Naz, following her Euro U-20 performances, but it was not to be. Leaning on more experienced players will be massive for Spurs while they get a foothold in their first FAWSL campaign, so not a huge surprise.  

Generally, I guess I was disappointed with the number of empty seats, A feeling which I accept was compounded by our ‘rooftop’ position in the stands. With the best will in the world, it is a bit irritating to be sat about as far away as one can be, looking down at vacant seats three or four rows from the pitch. Nevertheless, the 24,564 attendance is five times Chelsea’s best which is incredible and demonstrates a similar phenomenon being seen in America’s NWSL: put women’s football in a grander setting, market it right, and more people will show up.

However, I always felt the entirely-free-ticket allocation would be a double-edged sword: more take up, absolutely; but also, nothing at stake for people to miss the event. The non-attendee’s figure is getting on for 40% of the stadium’s capacity. Personally, I would have happily paid a tenner and a couple of quid for the kids. I wonder how much lower the attendance would have been, if at all. Look at City v United. We are watching professional sportswomen after all and the expectation shouldn’t become this is only worth watching if it’s free.

A full uptake of tickets, but over a third of the ground was empty.

Ultimately, women’s domestic football will have to find its own way to mass popularity. I, for one, hope that means it doesn’t always need the ‘crutch’ of men’s game affiliation for credibility which, without intending to be disrespectful, is partly what playing matches in stadia like Stamford Bridge and the Etihad connects to. The complementary idea being floated of ‘double-headers’ at big stadia also plays into this, for me. Although that itself is not a reason not to try it. It’s about taking the steps and seeing what works.

The Lionesses are paving the way in England, backed by the BBC. More commercial TV, bigger sponsors, new purpose-built stadia (like that being mooted at Barnsley) will all move the game forward in its own right and allow women’s football to generate its own identity. It doesn’t need to become ‘men’s-football-lite’. But, in the meantime, I get it. Why not hold showpiece matches at grounds like Stamford Bridge to keep the media interested and hopefully attract a broader spectatorship that wants to stick around for week-in, week-out Sunday fixtures.

My wife, in case you’re interested, is unlikely to come again!

*Note: Liverpool Manager, Vicky Jepson, really gave it to the match officials, a week later following a missed foul in the build up to Tottenham’s winning penalty at The Hive – Ed.

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