Songs, banners & away trips: How women's football fans have grown

It is not just Premier League grounds that have felt the loss of supporters during the coronavirus pandemic. Women’s football fans, ever-growing in numbers, have flags, banners and songs ready to go when they can all return in full.

After breaking attendance records throughout 2019, this year promised to be even better for women’s football.

Supporters groups were filling coaches for away games, Manchester United fans were making noise with their drums and songs, while clubs like Liverpool and Leicester City were gaining new followers every day.

So how much have the supporters’ clubs grown and where can they go next?


Away fans and a new rivalry


Manchester United’s introduction to the WSL has brought a spark.

In their second season in the league they are top of the table, unbeaten and a genuine threat to their rivals.

And Natalie Burrell, founder of their ‘barmy army’, wanted clubs like Manchester City, Liverpool, Chelsea and Arsenal to know they were there from the start.

“I noticed straight away it was different in women’s football because everybody was sitting down, nobody was standing up. I thought ‘this isn’t right’,” she said.

“We had a little group [when they were in the Championship] of five or six people singing. You could see how it lifted the atmosphere. I just got more and more interested.

“But when we went to a game against Sheffield United, there were 2,000 people there and again, nobody was singing. I thought ‘what’s the point?’

“I remember [former Everton and England goalkeeper] Rachel Brown-Finnis tapping me on the shoulder and saying ‘why have you stopped singing? The girls love it! Carry on’.”

They did carry on and United fans have since made banners, flags and songbooks – making Leigh Sports Village one of the most vociferous grounds in the league.

But rivals Manchester City have been around a while and have one of the biggest followings in the WSL.

Their official supporters club – with around 200 members, some of those living in Canada, the USA and France – regularly fills 35 to 40-seat coaches for away games.

Treasurer Jude Morris-King says they are enjoying the “friendly banter” with home fans at matches they travel to.

“To see the number of away fans increase has been brilliant,” she added. “A lot of people wouldn’t be able to travel otherwise as they come to games on their own. We’re really proud of that.”

Committee member Jayne Comer added: “When we first started singing and shouting, there were very few clubs who had that kind of organisation in terms of songs for the players and chants. That’s grown.

“There are other clubs now who are really behind that and are making a real effort to make that atmosphere really loud and exciting.”


‘It was our mission to get fans in’


Everton moved to their new home Walton Hall Park this year and the supporters’ club has since become official.

Fan Julie Makin said it was their “mission” to try to get more Everton fans into the new ground and “fill it up” when they return after the coronavirus pandemic.

"Everton have got financial backing now and are taking it seriously, which is amazing," she added. "They have been doing so well on the pitch so we wanted to capitalise on that and bring some young fans on board. "We're in our own city now, the ground is cracking and in a way, with Covid-19, we've actually had an opportunity to build the fan base online."

Chelsea have also got a large fan base – and an unofficial supporters’ club – and before the pandemic, were starting to attract more fans from the men’s game.

Committee member Mark, who used to spend his match days handing out flyers for the supporters club, set up the original Facebook group and has since seen it “explode”.

“Over time we built a community and a family which keeps growing. As the game changes, it’s now a lot of families and men’s supporters that come down. We have had people who are very surprised by the standard and the passion.”

Those fans were not able to celebrate Chelsea’s 2019-20 title win together but were given a surprise on one of their Zoom calls.

“One of the young academy players popped on to see how we were doing,” said committee member Kerrie Evans. “We haven’t really celebrated any of the trophies together so there has been some extra pressure just to make sure everybody is OK.”


The introduction of new supporters’ clubs


While the giants of women’s football in England continue to grow their fan bases, one club has fallen behind.

Liverpool, now playing in the Championship, have not had a supporters’ club – until this year.

Founder Jo Goodall, who set it up in March, admitted “people were a bit dubious” but she is now working with the club to become official.

“I’m not sure why [a group was not formed before] but the team and the club need it – there are so many fans out there,” she said. “I wanted to show that we were there during the lockdown – we were still supporting.

“Now we have got our foot in the door a little with the club, there are people there willing to listen. Who knows where we can go from here?”

And Leicester City’s move to a full-time professional outfit in August prompted Joe Berridge to set up a supporters group.

“It’s fairly laid-back at the minute but we’re trying to formalise it,” he said. “Leicester wants to get into the WSL so it feels right for us to be a more professional set-up.

“We just started out as a group on social media and now there are fans from America and Canada who have been in touch with us.

“To see it grow from a Twitter account with 15 followers to people from all over the world getting involved in about seven months is pretty cool.”


Original article 23.12.20 on the BBC Sport website.

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