My first football match was when I was only a day old. My dad was managing a local club, and I was brought along for good luck. My family say I’ve been a fan ever since.
I’ve been to hundreds of matches, and attended 40 of the 92 English league grounds. I’ve been to the Asian Super Cup final in Japan, as well as games in China, Germany and Poland. But there’s something unique about seeing our English Lionesses reach the final of the Euros.
I come from a footballing family, so it’s not surprising I’m such a passionate supporter. My mum and dad have an England flag standing proudly outside their bedroom window for this weekend’s match, and I tried for five hours – ultimately, unsuccessfully – to get a ticket to Wembley.
Some of my best childhood memories are of watching my mum play for Bradford City, a top team at a time when women’s “professional” football didn’t exist. My dad played, too, for Crewe’s developmental team, so all of us always saw football as a sport for everyone. As a 10-year-old, I remember chatting tactics with my dad’s friends, and my opinion counted just as much as anyone else’s.
But I recognise that my experience was at odds with my peers. Growing up, my dad would take me to Huddersfield Town matches. I was completely swept up by the buzz of the crowd and the camaraderie between the fans. But even if there were sometimes other girls in attendance with their dads, I rarely saw mums or groups of women. When we would go to watch my mum play, even though Bradford City were in the Women’s Premier League National Division – the highest level in women’s football at the time – there was no fan culture that you would typically associate with professional sport. Supporters were friends and family. But the men’s games seemed to cultivate the most loyal followings, even the obscure ones. At school, even though I was mad about the game, I never bothered chatting football with the boys; I knew I’d be disrespected despite my encyclopedic knowledge.
I know how exclusionary football can be to women and girls. For that reason alone, it’s impossible to overstate just how significant Sunday’s Euros final will be. It could be the watershed moment female fans and players have waited for, as the UK is finally forced to wake up en masse to the fact that football is for women too.
Millions will be tuning in, including men who have never really acknowledged that women’s teams exist before, let alone supported them. Anecdotally, the reason seems to be simple: the truth is that the Lionesses’ talent is impossible to ignore. The team displays good, old-fashioned sportspersonship at its finest. They have conceded one goal since the group stages; in their game against Norway they scored six goals in one half, which had never been done before at the Euros. These women are smashing records, they have got the skill level, the professionalism, the personalities – what is the excuse to not support them at this point?
Too many girls still grow up believing that football is a sport for boys. But now, regardless of the messaging they may receive, girls will be able to watch women play from the stands or at home. You can’t overstate just how seismic that will be. If girls can see it, they can be it. I’m a diehard Huddersfield supporter, which has always been a family-friendly club, and as a child (and now a young woman), I’ve always felt welcomed as a female supporter. That makes a huge difference, because formative experiences matter.
It’s hard to describe just how good it feels to be swept up in a summer of football frenzy with women at the heart of our national pride. The Euros could be our opportunity to create a lasting legacy that transforms the way women’s sport is received across the board. But to be successful, we need to understand that change is not galvanised on positive feelings alone.
Women’s football urgently needs investment, strategy and planning. We need resources to not only get women into football, but also to keep them there. This is no longer a men’s game, and we need to recognise that there are already excellent female players, coaches and physios who don’t have the recognition they deserve. And I’m not just talking about sponsorship. It’s vital we also make women’s games more accessible and affordable if we want to increase crowd numbers – ticket prices and match locations have to be better considered to have any hope of transforming football into a game for all.
The Lionesses have captured the hearts and imaginations of girls across the country. I’m hopeful that their dedication will set us on an unstoppable path for change that will make everyone see that the women’s game is just as worthy as the men’s in its own right – and worth shouting about from the rooftops.