Pic: Alan Cozzi / Watford FC

A Woman's Game?

31st January 2014

As the football season reaches its halfway point, Heather Harris examines team loyalty, and discovers an interesting gender bias...

Knitting, watercolours, bingo: the chosen pastimes of the majority of my mother’s friends. At 76 she lives alone, a mild-mannered, gentle lady, softly spoken with not a bad word to say about anyone.

Until Saturday comes…

Like Clarke Kent, but without the phone box, at 3pm she transforms into a screaming vision in blue and white stripes, a fox head – the emblem of ‘her’ football team, Leicester City – staring proudly from her chest.

Her four grandsons could not be prouder. While other teenagers are forced to regale their elderly relatives over Christmas dinner with tedious tales of how school is going and how much they’ve grown since last year, my mother is discussing possible action in the transfer window and the relative merits of the 4-4-2 formation.

Ann Capel, mother of the writer

“When my sons left home and then my husband died and I had no one to go with to the match, everyone assumed I would give up,” she explained, clutching her regular LCFC calendar. “But what people don’t understand is the sense of community there is on the terraces. If you’re a season ticket holder you sit next to the same people season after season and at Leicester everyone has become a friend.”

Arguably, this may not be true of some of the larger Premier League clubs, where my Mum’s loud questioning of the referee’s eyesight would be drowned out by expletives, but studies of the ‘beautiful game’ all agree that this sense of belonging is one of the attractions, beyond even the sport itself.
As the article Psychology Of A Football Fan by Debjit Lahiri states, ‘It is a feeling of being part of a society or a group with a common interest that satisfies a fan more than anything. A sort of a ‘family feeling’ tends to grow within him.’

Interestingly, in this study, Lahiri uses the male terminology to refer to fans throughout, even though as long ago as 2003 a research survey showed that ‘more women than ever before are football supporters’, noting that ‘one in four fans going through the turnstiles is female.’ Undeniably, it is the male of the species that still tend to flock to grounds in larger numbers, but fans like my Mum who take the No 93 bus and a packet of ‘red cross rations’ (think Rich Tea biscuits, Bakewell tarts and the odd mini quiche, which the stewards kindly let her take into the ground assuming she is unlikely to fell the opposition striker with a piece of short crust) are ever more present.

In part this results from the increased independence of women, but it is also positive evidence that the hard work of the Football Association to make the sport more family-friendly since the terrible hooligan-ridden days of the 1970s is paying off. Ardent Watford FC fan Frances Lynn, 50, told me, “I go on my own by coach or train to all home and away matches, even to Cardiff on a Friday night or Burnley on a Tuesday. I always see someone I know.”

Since discovering the mighty Hornets (Harry the Hornet being Watford’s large inflatable headed mascot) at the age of 15 – reading all about their success on the back of the Evening Echo while doing a paper round in Apsley – Frances has hardly missed a match. Her dedication reached its peak in the last eight years, during which time she has been to virtually every single game, home or away.

Frances Lynn being presented with the Watford FC ‘Supporter of the Year’ award for the 2012/13 season by Miles Jacobson of Sports Interactive, who sponsored the club’s shirts last season. (pic: Alan Cozzi/Watford FC)

“The most extreme was when I flew back from my job in the States to see retiring Manager Graham Taylor’s last match and then flew back the following day,” she said, admitting she daren’t calculate how much she has spent following her team, who, over the years, have been up and down the table more regularly than the average wine waiter at a wedding.

Frances has taken her mother to matches and her niece, but her brother and father just aren’t interested. “I was hooked from the very first time I saw them. It is the drama I love. The fact that you never know what’s going to happen. I do get frustrated if they lose, but it would be boring if they won every week!”

The sentiment is echoed by my teenage son, who shares Frances’s passion for Watford. Following his recent outburst after a heavy home defeat I suggested he supported a better team. “You just don’t understand. It doesn’t work like that,” came the loud rebuff, as he slammed his bedroom door.

This fierce loyalty is also been the subject of investigation by sports psychologists, including Ronald F Levant, who said, in his study of supporters: ‘A football team attracts more loyalty than any other brand. Even when their team is woefully out of form or is fighting relegation they tend not to leave their team. This is strange, as they would never go and see a bad film twice or eat at a restaurant that has served them bad food?’

Such behaviour is explained by a recognised theory called ‘Basking in Reflected Glory’. What happens is that the feel-good factor experienced after a win, no matter how infrequently, cleaves the fan to his team with blind faith. The British Psychological Society puts it like this: ‘It appears that some people’s identity is so intertwined with their team that the recurring pain of defeat is worth the benefits of feeling part of a group, showing others that their loyalty knows no bounds, and having a ready-made topic of conversation in social gatherings.’ Research also shows that fans wear their team colours more frequently after a victory, and are more likely to use the word ‘we’ of their club’s performance when they are on a winning streak.

Nowhere is such loyalty, such identification, exhibited more than in the die hard England football fan, such as 30 year old Becky Gamester who lives with her Arsenal loving boyfriend in London. Since watching her first game aged 12, Becky has travelled the world, from Russia to Israel, from Montenegro to Kazakhstan, supporting her country.

“I fell in love with football supporting Nottingham Forest and used to have a season ticket, but as soon as I’d been to an England away game I decided to prioritise my country – like many, I cannot afford the cost of match tickets and travel for both.”

A dodgy decision, I suggest, seeing how well Notts Forest is doing this season? Becky disagrees. “As England fans we are realistic. I love the whole atmosphere of away matches and accept that the trip itself is three or four brilliant days with 90 minutes of mediocrity on the pitch in between.” Becky still goes to around ten Forest games a season “and I am as passionate about my club as my country, but the opportunity to watch football abroad swings it for me.”

Becky will be on the phone to her travel agent as soon as the national fixtures are announced and is already looking forward to trips to Miami and Brazil for this summer’s World Cup, from where she’ll be blogging for BT.com and fsf.org.uk. Such is her passion for following the beautiful game to foreign shores that she volunteers for the Football Supporters Federation’s Fans’ Embassy. “It’s an information point we set up at all away games and a 24-hour help line for fans,” she says. “We offer independent advice and the supporters’ experience is our priority.”

She confirms that attitudes are changing towards fans of the fairer sex. “When my female friend and I first travelled to away games, we used to get some funny looks at the airport. Now girls at football matches are no big deal. Even on the media there are more and more women involved in football.”

That includes, of course, the new voice of ‘East Fife Five; Forfar Four’ and other less linguistically exciting BBC classified football results, the lifelong Spurs fan, Charlotte Green. “I remember as a six-year-old reading the results round the kitchen table. I was a strange child, really quite obsessed with football. The family all thought it was a big joke.”

But the joke was on them when this Radio 4 presenter was invited to take over from the retiring, silver tongued icon James Alexander Gordon. The level of public reaction to the choice of a woman was akin to that devoted to a royal birth. “I really don’t know why my appointment should be so amazing. We’ve had a female prime minister, for goodness sake. I don’t think gender is significant. What matters is doing a professional job.”

And, judging from the reaction so far, her velvety tones have already hushed any dissenters on the terraces.

So with football fans relying on a woman to tell them whether their beloved team is leap-frogging up the table or hiding underneath it, surely the final remnants of sexism in this particular sport have been shown the red card. And the next logical step – surely a female team manager. Perhaps a certain Mrs Ferguson might have some spare time on her hands…

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