Saturday's FA Cup final at Wembley could have set a new record attendance for women's club football in this country, were it not for an embarrassing footnote: the men's game conspired to hold it back.
Manchester City ran out convincing 3-0 winners against West Ham, with second half goals from English trio Keira Walsh, Georgia Stanway and Lauren Hemp. Walsh and Stanway will expect to represent the Lionesses at next month’s World Cup, while an assured late substitute performance from 18-year-old Hemp, who has yet to earn a senior England cap, gives plenty of hope for the future.
But the 43,264 watching City's comfortable victory has an element of disappointment, as it falls just shy of the 45,423 who attended last year’s final, which saw Chelsea beat Arsenal 3-1.
A 99-year-old record
Earlier in the week, the FA confirmed that 52,000 tickets had already been issued, with several days to go – raising hopes of not just beating last year’s record in the modern era, but potentially overcoming a record in the women’s game that has stood for 99 years.
In 1920, 53,000 were recorded as attending the women’s match on Boxing Day between Dick, Kerr Ladies and St Helens. A few months later, the FA banned women’s football – with suspicions that the authorities felt threatened by the women’s game’s growing popularity – and didn’t lift the restriction until 1971.
This weekend’s game brought another unseemly moment from those who run men’s football.
Avoidable empty seats
Despite West Ham Women getting to the final against expectations, the Premier League refused to move the men’s side’s kick-off on the other side of London to allow fans to attend both games.
The Hammers’ appeared to bring more fans to Wembley than City, with claret and blue spilling into the top tier on their half of the stadium – but a glaring emptiness in the seats behind the goal was a conspicuous reminder of what could have been.
While some supporters decided to leave the 3pm game at the London Stadium against Southampton at half-time to make their way to Wembley for the final’s 5:30pm start, it should come as no surprise that most stayed to see the 3-0 win at their last home game of the season.
The clash could easily have been avoided, had the Premier League wanted. Given the regularity with which top division matches are moved for TV, or teams playing in European competitions, shifting the West Ham vs Southampton game to a lunchtime kick-off should have been no problem.
Inconveniencing fans suddenly becomes a concern
Then, last week, West Ham released a statement, saying: "Despite the club's very best efforts, it was decided by the Premier League that it wouldn't be possible due to the potential inconvenience caused to supporters who had already planned their journeys and purchased tickets."
This must come as one of the first instances of the Premier League refusing to move a game for fear of inconveniencing fans. One might hazard a guess it will be the last, too.
Some critics, always keen to point the finger at the women’s game for failure to attract more attention (often ignoring the 50 years it was banned for in the process) argue that the final could have been shifted back to get more fans through the gates. However, with trains between Manchester and London disrupted this weekend, City were supplying coaches for fans, and pushing back the kick-off would likely have hampered, rather than boosted attendance.
The problem here, then, is one caused by the Premier League. Faced with a rising popularity and professionalism in a football that they cannot minutely control, they have refused to do the right thing.
What we know about the women’s game by now is that when it is given the room to, it flourishes. Only six years ago, the Women’s FA Cup was played in front of fewer than 5,000 people at the Keepmoat stadium in Doncaster. Now at Wembley, this is the second year running more than 40,000 have watched the final play out – almost 20,000 more than attended last year’s League One play-off final.
The recent record-breaking attendance in Spain, where 60,000 watched Atletico Madrid play Barcelona, should be a feasible target for women’s football in England over the next few years. Now, though, because of the Premier League’s decision, last year’s FA Cup final remains the target – and a 99-year-old record remains.
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