Women’s football – should it be played in huge stadiums?

Hi all. I’m Steve Edwards, coach at Watford Ladies FC, and welcome to my blog.

It has long been a general complaint within the circles of women’s football and even from those outside it, that women’s football loses some of it’s appeal due to the fact that it is generally played at non-league grounds that lack the buzz and allure of some of the country’s showcase stadia, such as the Emirates and Anfield.

Liverpool played Arsenal at Anfield in FA Cup semi-final

Liverpool played Arsenal at Anfield in FA Cup semi-final

With the growth of the game going at top speed, it is clear that should the female version of the beautiful game ever start to attract attendances of thousands, then top level arenas will be the natural choice. But for now, whilst crowd figures dwell around the 1,000 mark – and that’s a bumper crowd by WSL standards – does the non-league ground actually offer itself as a better option?

We have seen an upturn recently in opportunities for a football club’s ladies team to be able to play competitive fixtures at their main stadium on an adhoc basis. Liverpool, Arsenal, Leeds United and Aston Villa are just four clubs allowing the use of their stadium to their female team for a league fixture.

Whilst this is a fantastic opportunity for the players and a chance that clubs should take with both hands, you have to wonder whether it actually gives the home team any playing advantage. If you play your regular home matches at another ground, presumably the team will have spent time getting used to the environment there and that time will have allowed the venue to feel like home. Familiarity is known to be a key mental component in allowing a player or athlete to compete with a sense of wellbeing and comfort.

Staines Town FC, home of Chelsea Ladies, is the type of stadium you're more likely to see in England

Staines Town FC, home of Chelsea Ladies, is the type of stadium you’re more likely to see in England

Each player will be used to undergoing their own pre match rituals, most likely sitting in the same part of the dressing room, and walking down that same tunnel and crossing the touchline onto the pitch will fire up the same motivational thoughts that playing at home can give. Needless to say, the same feelings will not be felt by the away side, particularly where some of these non-league grounds will have uncomfortable away dressing rooms and an atmosphere that may act as quite non-motivational.

Surely, by then allowing one or two home matches each season to be played at such great venues such as Elland Road and Villa Park, you are actually turning the match into a Cup Final on a neutral ground? Granted, it will be a huge lift to the home side, getting to play at such a venue, but it is clear that you would remove all “home advantage” from the equation as playing there will be equally as much of a privilege for the away side. This once became known as the “Wembley effect” as many international sides visited to compete against England, and used the occasion of playing at such an amazing venue as a catalyst to play above their standard. Of course, a 90,000 home crowd will go some way to nullify this particular point, but the same obviously cannot be said for women’s football.

There are also a number of positive factors that actually help the argument for non-league grounds to be used. For attendances of 750 people, if you put that number into the middle of the Kop at Anfield, it can act as a strange experience for the players to see 95% of the vast stands empty and a small amount of noise coming from just one area of the ground. For stadiums that have a small capacity, the same amount of people can make a much more deafening noise that gives the effect of a much bigger crowd. This has been evident on a number of occasions at Boreham Wood FC, the hosts of Arsenal Ladies matches. Also, for the football romantics, non-league grounds tend to have character about them, whether it’s a reminder of days gone by or a small, attractiveness about them with a neighbourly feel. Indeed, many supporters prefer to stand when watching football and this is viewed as a distinct advantage for non-league grounds.

So if all this is true, and the pros of playing at a non-league ground do outweigh the pros of playing at a bigger stadium, then how is the game supposed to grow into the attractive money-making product and long term plan that the FA and everyone involved in women’s football clearly want it to become?

Well, clubs such as Bristol Academy Ladies and Barnet Ladies (soon to become the London Bees) might have the right idea by having their own purpose-built stadiums that they don’t need to share with their male counterparts. Their venues at Stoke Gifford and The Hive, will serve a greater purpose than your traditional non-league grounds, they’re newer and more modern, and will accommodate a substantial growth in attendances, should that happen rapidly. Doncaster Rovers Belles also play all their matches at the Keepmoat Stadium, therefore despite the crowd noise disadvantage, they are at least very familiar with playing there and it can be considered a true home match in every sense of the word.

Will we ever see a club game in England played at Wembley like the Olympic final was?

Will we ever see a club game in England played at Wembley like the Olympic final was?

For most football fans, it is clear that the prospect of going out for the afternoon with a trip to the Stadium Of Light would be much more mouth-watering than a visit to the Hetton Centre, and the comfort and family friendly surroundings will suit the vast majority. But maybe for now, part of the charm of women’s football is that non-league grounds are used and more than fulfil their needs.

One thing is for sure however. When the day comes that international match attendances filter down to league football and we can comfortably house 90,000 fans who want to witness the Women’s FA Cup Final, like we saw for the 2012 Olympic Final, then we can wave goodbye to non-league grounds forever, and look forward to the day when women’s football will be played on the stage it truly deserves.

It might take a while to get to that day, but we’re certainly on the right road.