On Saturday, Chelsea beat Arsenal 2-1 to win the Continental Tyres League Cup in front of a record-breaking 6,743 strong crowd at the City Ground in Nottingham.
Prior to the game, there were complaints about it not being played at Wembley. There were grumbles of London-based fans about having to travel. I could not have been deafer to these criticisms.
I have to begin with a disclaimer, Nottingham is the city I grew up. It’s the city where I fell in love with football.Embed from Getty Images
My enthusiasm for the game played at the City Ground is certainly influenced by my excitement at getting an opportunity to return to my hometown see world-class players go head-to-head in my team’s ground.
Being from Nottingham I am acutely aware that the city’s own love affair with football has been going through a rough patch of late.
Notts County Ladies had a short but glorious spell in the WSL from 2013-17 that saw the likes of Ellen White, Lucy Staniforth, Casey Stoney, Karen Bardsley don the black and white of County.
However, they folded two days before the 2018-19 WSL season was due to start, leaving some players homeless and unemployed.
Nottingham Forest men’s club, who brought home the European cup in 1979 and 1980, have not played in the top-flight since 1999. Notts County men’s, the world’s oldest professional football club, were relegated from the football league for the first time in 2019.
Euro 2021 changes
Nottingham is long overdue some footballing TLC, bringing the Continental Cup final to the City is an opportunity for just that.
It looked like this TLC would be coming in 2021, when The City Ground was originally named in 2018 as one of the host stadium’s for UEFA Women’s European Championships.
However, this was changed in 2019 with Manchester United’s Leigh Sport’s Village being named instead.Embed from Getty Images
Now, of the nine host stadiums, two are in London, two in Manchester (not including Wigan which is only 17 miles away), and one each in Rotherham and Sheffield less than a half an hour drive apart. Not a single game will be played in the midlands.
This could not be more frustrating for fans that live outside of these areas.
Take the North-east for example. The 2019 World Cup squad would be unrecognisable if you took out players raised and trained in the North East of England. Steph Houghton, Lucy Bronze, Lucy Staniforth, Beth Mead, Jill Scott, Jordan Nobbs, Carly Telford, Demi Stokes all have roots there.
Yet fans will have to travel out of the region if they want to see their local heroes play.
It’s not just Geordies and Mackems that should be up in arms. The growth of women’s football in this country relies on reaching and inspiring new fans.
Concentrating matches in a few parts of the country will limit the potential for the Euros to reach new fans.
Conti Cup finals
In recent years the Continental final has been played in Sheffield, Wycombe, Manchester and Rotherham.
This gives many fans the opportunity to see professional women’s football live for the first time. This has a real impact on young fans and potential players.Embed from Getty Images
When the City Ground hosted the Women’s FA Cup final in ’07, ’08 and ’10 it was the first time I, and I am sure many others, saw top-flight women’s football.
I still remember the gleeful and almost bewildering feeling of being given the opportunity, and permission, to celebrate women playing football.
That still comes back to me now. I, now living in London, go to Meadow Park or Kingsmeadow to watch WSL matches.Embed from Getty Images
That feeling is why I love watching women’s football so much. It is the rush of feeling genuinely included and represented, a feeling that no men’s game could ever emulate.
The Continental Cup final moving from city to city every year is an opportunity to take that feeling to women and girls all over the country.
When asked her thoughts about the final, between two London teams, being played in Nottingham Emma Hayes said: “I think if you are going to have those cup competitions you should probably mirror the men’s game and keep them at Wembley”.
If you look at attendance records, maybe you would be inclined to agree with Hayes.
Last year’s Continental Cup final in Sheffield only drew a crowd of 2,424, this year’s crowd of 6,743 is an improvement. However, it’s still paltry compared to the 43,264 that attended the FA Cup Final at Wembley.
Teams that have worked hard to reach a cup final deserve better than to play it out in front of tiny crowds.
However, this failure to pull a crowd cannot only be blamed on location. The marketing behind these games must be better.
Nottingham Forest fans were emailed only two days before the game advertising discount tickets. Maybe enough to interest those without weekend plans, but too late for many.
What can be done?
Before dismissing regional stadiums as not able to draw big crowds, more needs to be done. They need to make sure that the games are advertised by engaging early with schools, local clubs and football fans not just from the city, but the surrounding areas too.
This is an investment in engaging with and creating new fans, and therefore would be money well spent.
After all, high attendance numbers are important, but if they are made up of people who live in London and have the opportunity to see WSL matches live every week what purpose are those numbers serving?Embed from Getty Images
Playing at Wembley is the easy answer. It is the national stadium; it is a place of prestige and playing there is a sign that women’s football is being valued and respected.
I cannot dispute that the Lionesses match against Germany at Wembley in November 2019 was an amazing occasion. It truly felt like women were being invited to be a part of our national footballing history.
It’s important that the FA Cup final is held there for the very same reason. It is time that women were finally able to start taking ownership of a stadium that should be for all of us.
Often the easy answer is not the best answer. Playing FA Cup finals at Wembley has given women’s football the chance to claim our space at Wembley – why not use the Continental Cup to do something different?
Equality with the men’s game is important, but equal does not have to mean the same.
“Equal does not mean the same”
The Continental Cup offers the opportunity to do things differently. To not simply follow blindly in the footsteps of men’s football and to take women’s football around the country.
By holding up the traditions and conventions of men’s football as the best way of doing things, there is a danger that we automatically cast women’s football as second best. The men’s game’s ‘poor younger sister’ that is eternally playing catch up.
At the heart of the conversation about the growth of women’s football, there is the question of whether we want exactly what the men have. Or if we should strive to create something different, new and better.
There are some obvious examples where the men’s game has got it wrong. Soaring salaries and exclusionary ticket prices; examples of bad behaviour by players on and off the pitch; and the prevalence of racism, homophobia and other forms of discrimination.
With these cultural factors, we aim to be different and better than the men’s game – so why does the league cup final have to be the same?Embed from Getty Images
Sat in the City Ground watching Vivianne Miedema repeatedly foiled by the Chelsea defence, knowing that Sam Kerr and Bethany England were ready and waiting when the fast break was on – I could not have been happier than knowing that sat with me were many people who would not normally have the opportunity to see football of that quality.
Never mind aiming for high attendances for the sake of numbers, high attendances should be celebrated for their ability to reach new fans, and what better way to reach new fans than to take great football matches to their hometowns.
Written by: Annabel Lyons