Guests in a world of gatekeepers

In the summer of 2019 I stood in a packed London pub to cheer on England in the semi-final of the women’s World Cup and thought about the first time I saw a women’s football match on television, when I was a kid. Such public, collective support for the women’s game seemed unimaginable back then.

It was a stark illustration of the progress made in football, which I’ve seen firsthand: I went to my first Norwich match when I was six, meaning I have been around the sport, as a player and a fan, for more than 20 years.

But despite that triumphant summer evening, there is still work to be done, to counter the many ways in which football still tells girls and women that they are not welcome, or not valued. It can be overt, but just as damaging are the tacit signals, too — something as basic as not having enough women’s toilets at a ground, for example, is a reminder that this space is not meant for you, that you do not belong.

During the second lockdown in November, “elite” sport was allowed to continue — boys’ academies fell into that category, and could keep training, but girls’ academies did not, including those attached to Women’s Super League clubs, the top tier of the women’s game, even though academy players might be involved in matchday squads. Again, it conveyed that message of non-belonging — that in football, girls matter less than their male counterparts.

Recently Liverpool unveiled their new £50 million training centre, built to house the academy and the first team— but there is no space for their women’s side. At present Liverpool Women share a training facility with the League Two club Tranmere Rovers, but their contract ends this season; it is unclear where they will be based after that.

For a team of Liverpool’s stature, this was thoughtless at best and actively dismissive at worst. They have also been criticised for not financially backing their women’s team, who were relegated from the WSL in the summer, just as the men celebrated their long-awaited Premier League title.

I’ve written before that football is considered a language native to men but acquired by women; in the same way, women are often made to feel like guests in a world where men are the gatekeepers. The Manchester United Women manager Casey Stoney, the former England player, has said that she does not want to share the men’s existing training facilities because she doesn’t want her squad to feel second-best; she wants her players to have equal ownership in the space they occupy.

United, by the way, only founded a women’s team in 2018. Among world football’s big names, they are not alone — Real Madrid Femenino were set up last year — but it is particularly galling that United, notorious for their commercial nous, have been so indifferent to the opportunities that a women’s side would offer them.

This summer gave United a stark demonstration of what they had been missing out on, when shirt sales for their new signings, the USA internationals Tobin Heath and Christen Press, outstripped those for any male player. Which invites the question: why, for so long, were girls and women of so little value to United as potential fans and customers?

Norwich, of course, have had a women’s team for a while now — I even played for them, as a teenager — but only recently have they started to be incorporated into the men’s team. I played for the reserves and it took me a long time to realise that the team I represented were, in fact, linked to Norwich City, even though we wore the same yellow shirts, simply because playing for Norwich as a woman was so different from what it meant to play for Norwich as a man.

Unlike Liverpool, Norwich’s new training site, The Nest, has welcomed the women’s team, who now play their home games there. A conscious effort has been made to grow the media presence of the women’s side, and players are featured in kit launches and club photographs. It seems simple but these gestures are vital in conveying that sense of belonging — of making the women’s side an equal part of the club, not an afterthought.

Although women are an increasingly visible and powerful part of football, the default narrative remains that they are somehow lesser or inferior as both fans and players, and continued, active effort is needed to overcome that falsehood.

Us fans have a part to play in that. Carrow Road is already a welcoming place, but we can strive to make it even more so. And we can extend our support to Norwich City Women: follow their social media accounts, take an interest in their results, attend a match, learn the players’ names. Because that’s part of the appeal of being involved in the fast-growing women’s game: even the smallest acts have the power to make a big difference.

This piece was published in OTBC, the Norwich City matchday programme, for the Championship game against QPR on 29 December 2020. Subscribe to OTBC here.

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Hannah Shaddock

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