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The Secret Fan | The SSE Women’s FA Cup Final

  • Subsidised tickets offer good value for money
  • But fans complain about high food prices
  • Family feel to future-focused event

Bella Raey. Nettie Honeyball. Helen Graham Matthews. Lily Parr. Gillian Coultard. Sylvia Gore.

For those new to the women’s game in England, these names will be unfamiliar to you. But each of these women is a pioneer in a sport that has enjoyed as long and storied a history as the men’s game, but with arguably more controversy and intrigue.

In her excellent book ‘The Roar of the Lionesses’, Carrie Dunn corrects a few myths about the women’s game, starting with the belief that it only really got started in England when the Football Association (FA) took control of it in 1993. In fact, women’s football was a popular alternative to the men’s version of the sport as far back as the late 19th century.

Grounds like Everton’s Goodison Park saw 53,000 at a women’s game one Boxing Day in 1920 and crowds in the tens of thousands were not uncommon elsewhere. But all that stopped when, after warning men’s teams not to play against women in 1902, the FA finally banned women’s football outright in 1921, saying that “football is quite unsuitable for females and ought not to be encouraged.”

Different times

Happily, these are different times and the FA is determinedly pursuing a strategy aimed at doubling female participation in football by 2020. To my eyes, at least, it seems to be working. At a recent Durham Women FC game, I watched 200 young girls play in a pre-match tournament before a Spring Series game that attracted 561 spectators – and this for a club that was only founded four years ago.

So being present at the showpiece occasion of the domestic women’s game – the SSE Women's FA Cup Final – was going to be difficult to resist. I bought my tickets.

PICTURE: Wembley Way (Mark Bradley)

As a friend in the men’s game told me recently, price is not a strong driver of attendance and support, but if it’s pitched correctly, it can lead to people coming without skepticism and with open minds. If this is true, then the cost of £15 (€17.70/$19.40) for an adult to attend the biggest fixture in the women’s domestic game (subsidised by FA partner SSE) represents fantastic value for money, especially when kids come for free and concessions cost a fiver.

Looking back, I noticed that the attendance at the first SSE Women’s FA Cup Final to be held at Wembley in 2015 was 30,710, but this increased to 32,912 a year later. For my first experience of the showpiece occasion of the game, I was among more than 35,000 fans – definitely ‘suitable’ and certainly ‘to be encouraged’.

I was planning to drive to Wembley Stadium, but as the cost of parking (£20) was more than the match ticket itself, I opted to park in Harrow, where I used to live, and use the Metropolitan Line to take me on London Underground to Wembley Park station, with the famous view up towards the stadium.

PICTURE: Outside Wembley Stadium (Mark Bradley)

Atmosphere

Walking up Wembley Way, I was struck by how different the pre-match atmosphere was from previous visits (when, on one occasion, I was in danger of being struck by another fan). But on this occasion the presence of dozens of girls’ football clubs, coaches and parents, lining up for photos, conveyed something of the USP of the women’s game.

I watched one family, with two young girls, step through the barriers at Wembley Park Station. The youngsters were stopped in their tracks by the view ahead of them. I watched another, half way along, just standing and staring. It took me back to my first trip to Sunderland’s old stadium, Roker Park, with my dad back in 1969. I’ll never forget the noise; the smells of the onions frying and the odd Capstan Full Strength cigarette. However, what I remember most of all is my first view of the pitch: the ultimate in greenness. My love affair started that day and I could see those same life-enhancing moments happening around me as I completed my journey from the Tube station to the turnstile.

I bought a programme at one of the huts. At £4 this was much more affordable than the usual ‘big game’ magazine. Although smaller in size (A5 rather than the usual A4), the content was focused with four pages dedicated to the very youngest fans and, pleasingly, a lot of depth on the FA’s strategy and support for the women’s game: ‘doubling participation levels’ standing out again.

PICTURE: The match-day programme (Mark Bradley)

Once in the immediate footprint of the stadium – one level up – I spotted the first of many ‘here to help’ volunteers. They were handing out posters of the England women’s team that converted into clappers. The more traditional stewards were noticeable by their absence, as this was a ‘light touch’ occasion, and while on the whole the helpers I met were more passive than proactive, they delivered when needed.

If, like me, you have taken small children to a football match, then you’ll know just how important it is to be able to access toilets from outside of the stadium. In fact, some friends of mine have had to plead with stadium staff to be let into the corporate hospitality entrance to use the restrooms and have faced resistance, as if their kids were going to quietly commandeer a table and consume someone else’s five-course lunch. At Wembley, this wasn’t a problem (unless you were female, as the lines were five times longer).

Choices

Inside the concourse, SSE had set up a photo opportunity, with long queues attesting to its popularity. Elsewhere, the clappers, football-shaped foam hands and other atmosphere-creating paraphernalia added to the sense of excitement. Again, ‘family’ was everywhere. Supporters either seemed to be part of extended family groups or junior girls’ teams. And they were hungry.

PICTURE: Inside Wembley Stadium (Mark Bradley)

The concourse choices ranged from the general food and drink dispensers to Krispy Kreme and Popcorn stands, a Nachos trailer and a Real Ale stand – as if any parents would need alcohol to get them through a day supervising a party of 30 kids. Generally, the service was good: quick, accurate and often smiling too.

Price-wise, well… you know what’s coming. I listened to a few conversations around the condiments stand by block 126 and they were all about the cost of the food. To me, a seasoned stadium goer, this is part of the experience – so you just pray that the quality will match the price, but the novices around me were suffering: £9 for a pie and a pint (that’s a deal, apparently) was a matter for serious discussion.

What was proving popular was the fish and chips. Although it was only a small battered piece in a tray with a portion of fries, it looked good, tasted nice (according to the kids next to me – I went for the Nachos) and, at £5.80, actually seemed to be represent decent value.

Wembley’s concourse is thoughtfully themed, with historic murals, designs and graphics that illustrate the proud stadium’s history and, just as I began to wonder how my beloved Sunderland would be getting on against Swansea, I spotted a giant reproduction of Sunderland goalkeeper Jimmy Montgomery’s legendary double save against Leeds United in the 1973 FA Cup final. This club and country focus serves the stadium well; acknowledges the complex and diverse motivations of the people who come to enjoy it and adds to the pre-match experience.

Signal

Inside the Stadium (connected by EE) Wi-Fi was patchy. I only managed to get a brief signal before half time, during which Sunderland’s latest inevitable capitulation was confirmed. Around me, people were holding up their phones and reinterpreting the scene from the Lion King when Rafiki holds little Simba up to the sky, but few were getting anywhere. Having said that, the giant LED screen around the stadium fascia had encouraged people to share photos by Twitter and, as the 4G signal was much stronger outside, many people took the opportunity to participate before they entered. I didn’t, so those glancing up at the big screen were spared the sight of a selfie of a man with a beard made of Nachos.

If they did glance up later, they would have seen one of the FA’s 'For All' videos. This featured England legend Casey Stoney and a simple, but very effective, call to kids to believe in themselves – and to ignore the haters.

VIDEO: The Casey Stoney 'For All' video (FA)

The pre-match experience was well curated with a young DJ on a raised platform providing the tunes while being projected on to the big screens. As her music faded out, the giant inflatable club crests and choreographed explosions announced the teams and the game started.

Or at least Manchester City started, as Birmingham City seemed to freeze and, by half time, it was over as a contest with City leading 3-0.

There were 35,271 spectators present, beating the previous high, but this was less about the now and more about the future: a beacon to draw kids towards a rapidly-growing game. As I looked around, during the five minutes of manic Mexican waving in the first half, I could see the beaming smiles of those youngsters witnessing something that might one day lead them to believe in themselves, ignore the doubters, pick up a ball, join a team and add their names to an ever-expanding list…

Lucy Bronze. Isobel Christiansen. Carli Lloyd. Jill Scott. Casey Stoney.

PICTURE: Inside Wembley Stadium (Mark Bradley)

Refreshments menu – a selection:

• Hot dog £6.80
• Crisps £1.50
• Pie £4.30
• Fish & Chips £5.80
• Pie and Pint Deal £9
• Nachos £5
• Real Ale / Lager £4.95
• Soft Drinks £3-3.20
• Tea £2
• Coffee £2.20
• Wine £5.20

PICTURE: Wembley Stadium's refreshments (Mark Bradley)

Mark’s ratings:

Ease 8/10
The whole fan journey was smooth. Parking at Wembley could be pre-booked, but there were other easy options, including the one I took to park in the St George’s Centre in Harrow for £3 and take the Metropolitan Line down to Wembley Park. The occasion itself was well managed, with knowledgeable ‘helpers’; very good sign-posting and no queues at turnstile access points. There were few queues at food outlets either and, while there was little proactive assistance from the aisle stewards, rows and seats were easy to locate. Those outside toilets receive a ‘thumbs up’ too as that really does deliver for families who may have had a long journey.

Value 9/10
Thanks to SSE’s subsiding of the ticket price, fans of the women’s game could attend the match for as little as £15, with concessions at £5 and kids coming for free. I’ve previously argued that while price is less of a factor when first timers consider returning, it mustn’t be a barrier in the first place. This was a powerful gesture, albeit with the shine slightly taken off it by other match day costs, such as the food and on-site parking. However, value (as I keep saying) is in the eye of the beholder and, from my experience at Wembley on May 13, when it came to the kids present, ‘being there’ clearly trumped most other considerations.

Recommendation 8/10
I liked the fact that you could enjoy this occasion even if not partisan. It felt like a celebration of the women’s game: its participants, its clubs, its coaches, its followers and, maybe more than anything else, its future. For me, it transcended its function as a final and became more of a celebration, regardless of whether your team won or lost. Women’s football is winning and, if your girls need convincing that it’s a sport that’s for them, come to next season’s final.

PICTURE: On Wembley Stadium's concourse (Mark Bradley)

Brief Overview:

• Teams: Birmingham City v Manchester City
• Date: Saturday, May 13, 2017 at 5.15pm
• Location: Wembley Stadium connected by EE
• Broadcast live on BBC Two (UK national free-to-air channel)

This is third time the showcase occasion has been held at Wembley, following the Chelsea v Notts County game in 2015 and the Arsenal v Chelsea game in 2016. Tickets were free for kids, while adult tickets cost £15 and concessions (OAPs and students) cost £5.

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