Rich Speight says...
This debate has come up because some supporters of women’s football clubs have experienced hostility to them being overly partisan in support of their teams, especially when playing away from home in the WSL.
This plays out in a number of ways, either they’re told to be quiet (by stewards or home fans) when chanting their support and celebrating goals, or they experience direct hostility and verbal abuse when their team scores or wins. As the games get bigger and more important, with more money and prestige at stake, and the rivalries are more intense, this issue seems to grow and grow.
There’s a tension at play here that represents something of a cultural divide between those who see the women’s game as an escape from the excesses and intensity of modern men’s professional football and are quite happy for it to retain the non-league look and feel, and those who are impatient to build the audience for women’s game as quickly as possible, constantly improve the product and the experience, and spread the success we have seen in pockets and on special occasions throughout the country, the continent and indeed the planet.
Whilst not entirely mutually exclusive, I generally fall into the second of these camps. I take this game really, really seriously - I appreciate all of the wonderful differences with men’s football, particularly the LGBTQI+ inclusivity and the proportion of young girls like my niece at the games - and we should always look to retain and build upon these differences to bring in these and retain new and more diverse audiences. But we also need to welcome the passion of those who already follow men’s football too.
Another, more controversial dynamic, is that some women’s football fans are against the idea of others being actively hostile toward opposition players. Partisanship is seen, in some quarters, as fundamentally against the ethos of women’s football. When Spurs players were booed and jeered when taking corners at the Emirates last week, some Tottenham supporters complained loudly that this was against the very nature of what it is to be a supporter in the WSL.
Yet I must say that when Liverpool’s Katy Stengel hit the ground like she’d been shot after Neve Herron had placed a hand on her shoulder in our away game in February, leading to a penalty and a red card, was absolutely livid and made my thoughts known despite being surrounded by a stand full of (thankfully good-natured) scousers.
I do want respect to be shown a deplore racist, sexist, homophobic and transphobic abuse, I cannot get on board with the idea that somehow women’s sport has to be less tribal than men's - I think that partisanship is part and parcel of the game.
On the pitch, whilst sporting behavior is to be encouraged, I want our players to be hard, aggressive, and give their all for their shirts within the rules of the game whether they’re playing for the men’s team or the women’s team, and our want our fans to do the same whichever section of the club is on the pitch.
What many supporters want is simply the ability to choose between home, away, and mixed or family areas of the ground. This doesn’t have to be strictly enforced or even particularly formal, especially at smaller grounds where there is only limited seating and the majority of the supporters stand on the perimeter. It could simply be advertised as “the away end”, “home end” or the “mixed fans and family area”.
This would mean those who wanted to start singing and chanting could get together, and those who wanted to keep it a little more convivial would be able to have an area where they could meet up with their mates from other clubs.
Essentially, I want our club and the others in Tier 2 to do anything and everything to make the experience of attending matches and watching on a live stream as attractive, compelling, and entertaining as possible. The atmosphere (or lack thereof) is a big thing and, in conversations with people who don’t go to watch the Lasses, the lack of intensity is a key reason behind their abstention.
The proposed double-header at the Stadium of Light will bring this issue to the fore, especially if it could be arranged so that both the men’s and women’s teams were playing against the same club on the same day (Sheffield United, Bristol City, Blackburn Rovers, and Birmingham City are all potential options if the Lads go up, Charlton Athletic is the obvious one if we don’t). I would love to see and hear 20,000 Sunderland supporters cheering on the Lasses while the away supporters cheer on their women’s team too.
More than that, I want to have the option of standing or sitting with other Sunderland fans when I go to watch the Lasses away from home; I want a supporters club that organises fans for away trips so, and I think it makes it a lot more attractive to exiled supporters to know that if they attend a match close to them around England they will be able to find and connect with the other Sunderland fans. I also want to be able to buy my tickets for away games from Sunderland AFC rather than from every other club I visit, racking up multiple new online accounts in the process.
In general, we need to think big as a club and as a sport. If there’s one thing I’ve seen over the past few years of covering women’s football is that the potential of the game is consistently underestimated or downplayed, often by those who know it best.
We’ve seen some stupendous things happen with domestic and European attendance in 2022, and the Euros haven’t even got started yet. Sunderland AFC and our fellow Championship clubs should look to ride this wave.
Charlotte Patterson says...
For me, it depends on the occasion and situation. I just don’t know how practical it is to implement in the FA Women’s Championship. Women’s football is growing and still has a way to go. I completely understand the premise behind the idea of introducing away sections at games. But I don’t think it is quite at that stage yet, minus some exceptions.
For example, the River Wear Derby between Durham Women and Sunderland Women, which took place last month had a sell-out crowd, had an ‘unofficial’ away section that added to the game. I think in the case of derbies, rivalries, and cup games this would be great to implement to get a great atmosphere. But, currently, women’s football is not there yet.
It’s always great to plan and think ahead for the future and I’m a huge advocate for that and feel very passionate regarding that topic. But in the same breath, we almost have to allow women’s football to reach its progress naturally too. Trying to hurry things up or force matters may end up isolating some.
Women’s football has always been ‘mixed’ in terms of fans of both teams intermingling with no issues, so that change may be hard to accept or adjust to for some. I constantly find myself going back and forth about what I want for women’s football, which is likely a sentiment shared by many.
I want it to become equal to men’s football, but when you look at how modern-day men’s football operates, I don’t want that. But at the same time, there is so much potential for women’s football and I don’t think we have reached the heights we can absolutely achieve as of yet.
At present, I think away sections at big cup games, bitter rivalries, and local derbies are great. But in terms of implementing it in the league, I don’t think matches quite have the attendance figures yet to warrant it.
Graeme Field says...
It’s a really interesting question. My initial reaction would be to advertise and give information to supporters about the away end. Very importantly though it should be made clear that it’s optional for away supporters. If they want to sit or stand in there, great. If not, they can go where they like. I think this might need to be looked at on a match-by-match basis in future seasons, but I don’t see the need for an away end like in the men’s game, next season.
That said, I want the popularity of the women’s game to keep growing, with more coverage and higher attendances. With that, rivalries are likely to become more intense and segregation might be needed then or for certain games.
What with the size of the crowds and the family atmosphere at the Sunderland Women’s games, there’s no need for an away end for fan safety at present.
But if you give the fans an option, then fair enough. They might want to create a feeling of togetherness, start chants and display their flags.
In the next two to three years the question may become more pressing. As things are, just give fans the option.