My first women’s game in the UK is a top match. Manchester City against Reading. If Manchester City win their game in hand, they are top of the league – and they have already qualified for the Champions League semi-final. Yet, the match is not played at Manchester City’s Etihad Stadium but at the club’s Academy Stadium.
On my way to the UK, I have read the anthropologist Mariann Vaczi’s book on Atletic Bilbao, in which she makes a strong case for the Atletic women’s team playing their matches at the San Mames Barria stadium – just like the men’s team. But instead, they play at an academy ground in a mountain village. “A visit to a women’s game reveals that futbol femenino is embedded in a feminized rural context as opposed to the tough masculinity of urban competition”.
At least the Manchester City Academy Ground and the Etihad are part of the same City of Manchester complex, built for the Commonwealth Games in 2002. But apart from being much smaller – the capacity is 7,000 compared to 55,000 – the Academy Stadium does not feel like a proper football ground. And you could argue that there is a similar difference to the two grounds as the one Vaczi points out.
One of the characteristics of a great football stadium is the ability to create the atmosphere of “a world apart” – a theater of dreams, where you are completely absorbed by the matchday experience. A total immersion. The Academy Ground seems to be deliberately striving for the opposite. It seems intended to be a transparent space as opposed to a closed and mystical shrine.
There are huge windows in the corners of the ground; and in three of the four stands, the roof is floating high above the outside walls, allowing the noise of the passing cars to dominate the soundscape. It seems like something conceived for a desert stadium. Fresh breezes are invited into the ground to cool spectators seeking shadow – not shelter – under the floating roofs. Well, no need for that in rainy Manchester.
To some extent, you could argue that it might be appropriate for an academy stadium, the main purpose of which is to develop young talents. To give fans a glimpse of the stars of the future. But to have one of the top women’s teams in Europe playing there?
Vaczi mentions two arguments for Atletic’s women playing at the academy ground. The first is costs. It takes a lot more staff to operate a big stadium compared to an academy ground. That City wish to cut down staff expenses for the Academy ground can be inferred from the self-service ticket machines outside the ground. First time I have seen such a thing at a football ground, although to be fair, I bought our tickets at the small, staffed ticket office just outside the ground. Given the millions Manchester City splash out on players, however, it is difficult to imagine that City can’t afford the staff necessary to operate the Etihad for a women’s game.
The second argument from Atletic is the psycological effect it may have on the players to play in a stadium with more than 90% of the seats empty. Just as the self-service ticket machines might indicate that it is an issue of cutting down staff costs, the coloring of the seats inside the Academy Ground might indicate that a horror vacui – or more precisely fear of empty seats – may be at play.
It is not unusual to use different colored seats at grounds. They stand out in order to write sponsor names, club names, or even to form club crests or portraits of club legends across the empty stands. But here, the apparent random use of grey seats among the sky blue ones only seems to be a disguise of empty seats. The crowd is just over 1,200 – and apart from some 40 standing behind one of the goals, everybody is packed in the main stand with no access to the opposite stand. So the policy is to pack a stand as much as possible – at the cost of leaving the others empty. With a 7,000 capacity, the ground is almost 20% full. Compared to 2% if it had been played at the Etihad.
I do not buy the argument about the negative effect on players, though. Why would Queens Park keep playing at Hampden Park with crowds of around 500 in a 50,000 stadium, if the effect was that demoralizing? One thing is that it might lift the players to play in a proper stadium without disturbing traffic noise. But it could arguably attract larger crowds. I guess a lot of families, who can scarcely afford the pricy tickets for men’s games, would take the opportunity tho visit the Etihad for a women’s game. We paid £6 for an adult ticket and £4 for a student ticket. You could argue that the value for money at women’s game already is better than at most men’s game – and that it would be better still if you got inside the “real” ground. Vaczi also points to the fact that to sell women’s game to a larger audience, you have to show that you have faith in the product.
Talking of “selling the product”, it is in some ways a relief to find a ground with no advertising – except for Manchester City. But – ironically – it adds to the feeling of being inside a training ground rather than a football stadium.
If you look at it historically, there is no reason why women’s games shouldn’t attract big crowds. At the end of WW1, women’s matches were frequently gathering five figure crowds – up to 50,000. Before the FA put an end to them in 1921.
Anyway, it would be interesting to know what the female players themselves actually think about it.
Prior to the match, a girls team enter the pitch and have a photo taken in front of the main stand. And after the City players have entered the field, they come over for a joint photo. A nice gesture – and lovely to see some of the girls beaming with pride as they leave the pitch afterwards. In fact, the women’s team seems to be great at creating a community feeling, whereas the men’s team seem to be targeting a place among the European elite, rather than the community.
From my point of view, if I just want to watch a game of football, I turn on the TV to watch top quality. But I go to matches to be caught up in the special matchday experience. And that seems difficult to generate at the Academy Ground. Of course, there are many things to it. For instance, there was no away fans among the 1,200 crowd, so a vital competitive edge was missing. And the composition of the crowd was quite different from a men’s game. I always do a count of the gender composition of 100 random people passing my seat. Normally, the ratio of men is between 75 and 95%. Here, it was 51%. This is not to say that women cannot generate a good atmosphere. But it reflected that the crowd was mainly a family audience with kids. They tend to go to stick as a tightly knit family unit, rather than to be absorbed in a crowd.
A small group of City fans did their utmost to generate an atmosphere. They sold souvenirs from a desk (maybe it was a one-off that the Manchester City shop at the Etihad was closed for the match – due to Easter – but it seemed strange), they handed out clappers to the audience, and as the match got under way, they took up position fairly close to us with a drum.
For those who have read my previous blog posts and my posts in the facebook group on football grounds and stadia, it is no secret that I am very annoyed with drums at matches – as well as clappers. To me, they basically ruin atmosphere rather than generate it. The special thing – to me – about British football, is the way the ebb and flow of the match are expressed by the crowd. How the noise gradually rise as an attack is building up – to culminate in a collective sigh or roar. Drums do not follow the flow of the match. If anything, they are a response to it. Sometimes – after a chance has been missed – the drum is used to get a chant going. Other times, the drum is used to get a chant going as nothing is happening on the pitch – and everything has got disturbingly quiet. And then, if by chance a promising attack is set up in the middle of the drumming, you don’t really get the response to it from the crowd. In the first half, City do get a sudden break, but the crowd seems preoccupied with the drumming, rather than raising the noise level to strike fear into the defence and encourage the attacking players. The game is lulled into the same, predictable rhythm of the drum.
I know that some people will argue that my perception of a good atmosphere is gendered. One of my friends in Manchester went for her first match at Old Trafford during the 2010 Olympics – a women’s game. She told me and another of my friends – a male City supporter – that it was so great. Whenever a player excelled, all the crowd cheered, no matter which team she was playing for. We looked at her in disbelief. “But you have to support one of the sides”, we tried to explain. As she just answered that they didn’t, we insisted that they missed the point of the match. That you are taken for an emotional ride that may end in despair – or jubilation. That is the essence of football. But she had had a great time anyway. Of course, I also know women who are just as passionate about their side as I am – or just as “hot fans” as some researchers call it. But there may be a case for arguing that the matchday culture at men’s matches basically has been developed by men and is gendered.
Or maybe it is more of a generational thing. Just like thousands of others moaning about the modern game, longing for days gone by with packed terraces, pay at the turnstile, singing and chanting, muddy pitches and sliding tackles, I treasure everything that reminds me of those old days. Old wooden stands, obstructed views – and the oohhs and aaarrhs of the crowd. You could argue that basically we are just mourning our lost youth, looking for scraps and pieces to relive it. And there probably is an element of truth in that. But I do believe that there is more to it than that. For instance, the reason why people bring the drum in the first place is to generate more of an atmosphere in a modern all-seater stadium. The question is whether it works or not. I think it doesn’t.
Other things may have contributed to the rather flat atmosphere at the Academy Ground. It was freezing cold. And everybody probably expected City to walk it. But in the opening ten minutes, Reading seemed to be playing with more purpose. Gradually, City took over most of the possession, but the Reading central defence was well organized. City did have a couple of good runs on the wings – particularly with left back Stokes going forward – with dangerous crosses coming in. Especially Nikita Parris made some good runs, sometimes cutting inside as well. And City did manage to catch Reading in possession on a couple of occasions. But Reading seemed more direct in their attacking play, so it was not a great surprise that they took the lead. Although it was from an unlikely source – an overhead-kick after a set-piece that looped over the City keeper.
Still the small section around the drummer tried to get some chants going, but whereas they did manage to get people to use their clappers to accompany them at the start of the game, it just grew more and more quiet.
At half-time, we went to get a snack. Looking at the food on sale, it looked much more inviting than at most grounds although the “Be nourished” sign over the kiosk probably didn’t reflect in the pies and pastries on sale. And although the pie looked more delicious than the standard Pukka Pies at grounds, it turned out not to be that good. Too dry and fluffy, and not really hot.
For the second half, we went to the standing terrace behind one of the goals – along with some 40 others. On a cold day, it is much easier to keep warm when you are standing. But the noise of the cars was more disturbing there.
Just before Reading doubled their lead from a corner, City put on Danish striker Nadia Nadim, and the cheer-leading group responded with a “We’ve got Nadim, Nadia Nadim” chant. And she did add some much needed movement in the City attack with a couple of good runs into space behind the defenders. Alas, it seemed that her teammates are not used to look for her runs. She did get into a number of finishing positions with one shot blocked, one shot wide and one shot saved.
Normally, I am quite sceptical about Danish players. No matter how they play, Danish media always hype them and claim that they were decisive for any success their club may enjoy. But I really like Nadim. Not just because she is a cool person, making the transition from Afghan refugee to medicine student and professional footballer. She is also the type of player who offers you something unexpected. The type of player that can raise a crowd in anticipation of something special when she gets on the ball – and that is also essential for generating a good atmosphere.
But there is no way back into this for City. Even though Reading have one of their two strong centre backs, Jo Potter, sent-off 10 minutes from the end. Impressive holding-midfielder Rachel Furness slots comfortably into central defence to keep City from creating more than a few half chances.
After the match, the City players walk to the touchline to sign autographs and chat with fans. There is really a lot to learn for their male counterparts at the top clubs, the majority of which won’t bother to stop to sign any autographs after a match nowadays. Many of them seem to be living in a bubble world, not really caring about the world around them. There are, of course, notable exceptions, like Juan Mata and his Common Goal initiative. But last time I had a look at the players who had signed up for this, a third of them were female. Considering the number of professional male footballers – and how many of them earn astronomical amounts of money – it seems to reflect that female footballers generally are more grounded in the real world. Which is yet another reason why I think they should be playing inside the Etihad rather than the Academy Ground. To bring some sanity back to the game.
Back in Denmark, I meet an English friend at the gym. He has also been in England for Easter, and he has been to see Wimbledon. And a sign at the ground told that it had been purchased by Chelsea for the Chelsea Women’s team. I am pretty certain that the atmosphere would have been much better, if the City women’s team had played at Bury, Rochdale or Oldham – all lovely football grounds. But the 30 to 40 minutes train ride would probably scare off some of the families with children from going.