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England v Austria: Group A - UEFA Women’s EURO 2022

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Seriously Fun - Wednesday night proved that we can have the best of both worlds!

Being a part of the crowd that watched England win their opening game of Euro 2022 with my family was a brilliant experience - but an entirely different one to anything I’ve witnessed before.

Photo by Jose Hernandez/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

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England got the job done on Wednesday night in the opening match of Euro 2022.

That’s the big story, that’s what really matters.

Three points in a tight group, not the greatest performance, some nerves on show, but thoroughly well deserved for a pretty dominant and professional performance.

The second biggest story, from a Sunderland supporter's perspective, is that it was once again a victory made on Wearside.

Beth Mead - who was vitally important in the rise of the Lasses to the top tier of the women's game - proved her prowess in front of goal once again to send Old Trafford into raptures.

England v Austria: Group A - UEFA Women’s Euro England 2022 Photo by Visionhaus/Getty Images

And then, obviously, there’s the occasion itself. As a spectacle, and an experience as a football fan, it was unique and wonderful. Unique because it was an atmosphere the likes of which I’ve never witnessed at a football match in thirty-odd years of going to games, and wonderful because of the unbridled joy that was on show from so many of the assembled 68,800 fans in the ground.

My personal, anecdotal experience is of queues for food and drink that were not free-for-all scrums, of stewarding that was polite and respectful, of first-time football fans being talked patiently through the finer points of the game by seasoned England supporters, of families of all shapes and sizes sitting together and enjoying an occasion that many had literally been waiting years to attend.

People were literally dancing on the terraces, whooping in joy at the pre-match fireworks, and smiling - beaming - because they were thoroughly enjoying their evening.

The diversity of England and Manchester was on show, people wore their national colours with patriotic pride, and the England band were thankfully silent throughout, bar a muted drum beat or two that got some chants going.

England v Austria: Group A - UEFA Women’s EURO 2022 Photo by Naomi Baker/Getty Images

Did I join in with everything? No. A Mexican wave on twenty minutes while the ball was in play was, frankly, weird... and the same goes for the mobile phone light show. But then a large proportion of those in attendance were kids, and who the hell am I - a 40-year-old bloke - to tell them what is and is not appropriate to do at the match?

Nevertheless, there’s been a lot of controversy in the aftermath regarding comparisons, particularly those made in the press, between the nature and attitude of the crowd at Lionesses game and the typical experience at a men’s football match at Old Trafford or other big stadiums across the country.

I have great sympathy with the view that it’s best not to compare the two - same sport, different games and all that. It’s seen as patronising to the women’s game in particular to praise it as less “aggressive” or less “tribal”, which is taken as suggesting it's less important or played with less intensity.

Anyone who saw Ellen White’s energetic pressing, Fran Kirby’s skillful passing, or Millie Bright’s resolute defending would know that is a gross mischaracterisation of what happens on the pitch. It’s also absolutely appropriate to say that England didn’t play as well as they could have and that Austria’s defence was excellent.

But to deny that the different demographic mix that women’s football attracts, and the impact that has on the atmosphere at big games, would be foolish too. It was a lot more family-friendly than any game I’ve ever been at - there was a two-month-old baby sitting with his mums a couple of rows in front of us. There were gangs of teenagers chanting the names of their favourite Man United players.

UEFA Womens EURO 2022 Fan and Spectator Experience - Manchester Photo by Anthony Devlin/Getty Images

But there was also a Manc lad in the fanzone with his t-shirt tied around his head singing “Number 1 is Ellen White, Number 2 is Ellen White, Number 3 is Ellen White... We All Live in an Ellen White World” at the top of his voice - I assumed he’d been on the sherbets for much of the day. He was enjoying himself and raised an eyebrow and a laugh amongst his fellow supporters.

Yet I will be entirely honest here, many of the “family-friendly” cliches that my friends across women’s football want to put behind us were indeed on display on Wednesday - and that is not a bad thing at all. It was simply very, very different to any game I’ve ever been at - men’s or women’s.

It wasn’t like watching a Lasses game at Eppleton, but wasn’t like watching the Lads at the Stadium of Light either. I can’t compare it to watching England’s men, because I’ve never been to see them live. It was an almost entirely new experience, and that’s a really good thing.

This is not to say that it was any better or worse than the feeling I have had watching men’s football. England’s pretty routine victory over Austria didn’t produce the pure, unadulterated passionate release of tension and emotion of the kind we all felt at Wembley as the Lads achieved promotion in May. That was something of an order that I have also never experienced before.

But it’s entirely natural to compare the two, especially given they are the last two games I’ve been to. If England win the Euros on 31st July, it’ll be right up there as one of the best things I’ve seen as a football supporter. I may be dancing in the Trafalgar Square fountains late into the night!

England v Austria: Group A - UEFA Women’s EURO 2022 Photo by Naomi Baker/Getty Images

I’ve long thought that there is a cultural divide between two distinct groups of women’s football fans. There’s the old guard who feel comforted and secure in the low-key surroundings of the domestic game, and in the family-day-out feel of the international scene. Women’s football has been a safe haven for many, the antithesis of the upper echelons of the men’s professional pyramid.

These are often the people who’ve been there through thick and thin, who have helped to build the game over many years, working at grassroots level, volunteering, keeping the flame alive during the hard times. Their love is pure and organic, and they sometimes worry about the pollution of the game that rapid growth, more money and greater exposure will bring.

And then there’s the new breed, often but not always younger and a bit more bolshy, who want professionalisation, big crowds, big attention, big money, and a big-match experience to go alongside it. They want the rivalries, the controversies, the talking points. They want to add a bit more spice into the mix, which will make the game a better product with heightened emotions, bragging rights at stake, and more compelling narratives.

Sunderland Ladies v Durham Women - Barclays FA Women’s Championship Photo by Stu Forster - The FA/The FA via Getty Images

They’re not clearly demarcated camps by any means, and there are some major overlaps in attitudes; everyone wants the game to retain the LGBTQ+ friendly atmosphere and the great access to players that fans of all ages and genders love so much. Both, in many ways, are seeking a more authentic game as they see it, with the potential to forge its own path distinct from men’s game. Both love the game, both want greater protection for the players.

Both camps have politicised and apolitical elements too, and although it’s hard to generalise, I suspect that the “new breed” have a greater propensity to see the game as a vehicle for radical societal change and the “old guard” to see it as a vehicle for local community participation in sport.

Nevertheless, the attitudinal difference - which is to some extent, but not entirely, generational in nature - does exist. And I’ve generally thought of myself as being a fully-paid up member of the second of these groups.

I want the Lionesses to be ruthless and professional and win this tournament, and then the World Cup.

I’m impatient for Sunderland AFC to progress the women’s side of the club as quickly as possible, I’m unsentimental about the Eppleton ground, I want us to be back in the WSL as soon as we can and think KLD spending a few million now would pay massive dividends in the future.

Sunderland v Sheffield United: FA Women’s Championship Photo by Will Matthews/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

I want to shout and chant and make the fan experience brilliant and the atmosphere electric for Sunderland fans who come to watch the Lasses. I want the opposition to fear travelling to the north east for more than just the length of the journey.

It’s not that I want the women’s game to replicate the men’s in its entirety, but I am not hostile to an elite mentality or the benefits that come with paying players properly as high-level athletes in a way that enables a young woman to choose football over other career options available to her.

I also think the size and status of clubs matter here and for a Championship club like Sunderland, which sits somewhere between the grassroots and the elite, and which has achieved great things despite rather than because of its past owners, we need to navigate the path forward more carefully as both tendencies exist within the fanbase.

On Wednesday I saw the other side - that inclusive, friendly, family nature of fandom and its power, more clearly than before. It shifted my thinking somewhat.

My son was able to enjoy the game more because of the relaxed, supportive nature of the atmosphere inside the ground, perhaps in a way he hasn’t been able to on other days when we’ve been to the football together.

The issue of chants and hostility to the opposition have been the dividing line within women’s football, particularly amongst the more active elements. Second or third-hand anecdotes about fans who want to chant in support of either the team or individual players being laughed at or told to stop by others in the crowd are common.

This is not something I’ve experienced (although I know more than most about the opprobrium of the trolls on social media), and Northern Ireland fans didn’t seem to have that issue at St Mary’s on Thursday.

Norway v Northern Ireland - UEFA Women’s Euro 2022 - Group A - St Mary’s Stadium
Northern Ireland fans show their support before the UEFA Women’s Euro 2022 Group A match at St Mary’s Stadium, Southampton. Picture date: Thursday July 7, 2022
Photo by Nigel French/PA Images via Getty Images

But when this happens, it must be frustrating - all those fans are doing is showing their loyalty, their passion, and how much they care about their teams. Nobody is forcing others to join in, so it’s bang out of order to complain that people in a football stadium would have the audacity to raise their voices.

There’s serious talk amongst some of my comrades about the need for dedicated sections of the stands that are reserved for “chanting” as well as segregated areas for away fans. I’m not convinced of the need or the efficacy of chanting areas, but it’s certainly worth a try and can’t do any harm.

I just think we should be encouraging people to be more tolerant of others in the ground. I think that the culture of chants and true rivalry with opposition teams will probably spread through the stands organically as the kids going with their parents become teenagers and young adults attending with their friends.

I do think having home, away and mixed sections in grounds that are able to provide them would be a great benefit and would provide places where a German-style “ultra” mentality could develop.

But I am starting to understand better the perspective that says that kids and adults who might not want to be overly tribal at the match, who might be gentler, milder-mannered souls, should also continue to have a proper home in women’s football.

England v Austria: Group A - UEFA Women’s EURO 2022 Photo by Naomi Baker/Getty Images

Three generations of Speights were sat together at Old Trafford on Wednesday - me, my 12-year-old son, and my dad. We’re all massive Lads fans and massive Lasses fans too. We all follow the game in different ways.

My Dad is at every Sunderland men’s and women’s game, and has a season ticket at Durham WFC too - he’s not a chanter, he likes to talk about the game relatively quietly. He’s coached girls who’ve gone on to have careers in the game, and always included them in his teams when he was involved in school football. He’s a grassroots bloke, but he sees the future as being professional.

My son is a chanter, a gamer, a kid who wants to know the names of all the players and enjoys winning trophies with the Lionesses on FIFA as his main way of engaging. He knows that his friends at school are not particularly interested in women’s footy, but this generation all have their niche interests and subcultures, and it doesn’t seem to be an issue. He simply loves the experience of being in big stadiums watching good football.

And I spend my free time writing and podcasting about both Sunderland teams and the Lionesses - because I love and care deeply about the future of this club and this sport. Due to where we live, getting to games live is not always easy, but when I do I savour the experience, whether it's men’s or women’s football.

I take my support both teams as seriously as one another, but I know I’m in a small minority currently. That’s absolutely fine too.

Sunderland Ladies v Durham Women - Barclays FA Women’s Championship Photo by Stu Forster - The FA/The FA via Getty Images

So - ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls - blow those vuvuzelas, clack those clackers, chant those chants, even wave those phone torches about if that’s what makes you happy. There’s no right or wrong way to be a football fan or a Sunderland supporter, so long as you treat your fellow fans with respect in the stands, on the streets, in the pubs, and online.

What I learned from my first Lionesses match was this: be proud of the kind of football fan you are, and ignore those who want to police how you want to follow your teams.

It’s as simple as that!


Farewell, Tony, and thanks for the Sunderland memories


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