THE WEMBLEY dream was dashed for Birmingham City Ladies on Sunday in a 3-1 defeat to Manchester City Women at the Academy Stadium on the Etihad Campus in Manchester.
It was a tough game for Blues Ladies against a very strong Man City outfit and, if I’m honest, I wasn’t surprised by the outcome, especially as Blues were shorn of three attacking players due to injury and suspension.
What the game did show was the difference between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’ in the women’s game – and how the women’s game could be permanently separated into those two distinct groups due to the money being poured into it
At first sight, the Academy Stadium is impressive. With a capacity of 7,000 fans in seating and standing areas it’s a nice size for big academy, ‘elite development squad’ and women’s games that doesn’t feel completely deserted for the not so big games. The pitch is lush, the press facilities dare I say it are better than St Andrew’s (complete with miniature Sky Sports screens) and there is even a hospitality area for visiting dignitaries.
It sits on the edge of the huge Etihad campus, surrounded by training pitches and the Academy buildings itself, and is linked by a pedestrian footbridge over the nearby road junction to the main stadium – the idea being that men’s and women’s games will be tied up as double-headers so fans can attend both with ease.
However, I can’t help but feel that it all seems a bit artificial. While it is true that the women’s game is one of the fastest growing spectator sports in the country, the beauty of it is that it still has that grassroots feel. At the Autotech Stadium in Solihull you can’t help but be right next to the pitch, where you can hear every shout, see every touch and almost feel every tackle – it’s like I imagined football to have been before the advent of huge player wages and corporate clients.
While it is true there was a mitigating factor of the Manchester derby being on the same day, the attendance at the Academy Stadium was just over half of what Blues Ladies get in Solihull – and this was boosted by about 50 or so of us who had made the journey up the M6.
It’s a fact that, while it’s possible to keep a team going at the top with regular influxes of cash, if the fans aren’t there then that team becomes reliant on those influxes of cash. If the women’s game is to grow properly then it needs to be organic – to build support within each team so that no team is reliant on being pumped full of money by a benevolent men’s team or owner.
In the last few years the women’s game has come on leaps and bounds but in some ways I fear for it. Fulham have shown in the past that going fully professional and bringing in the best players can really boost the quality of a team but, as they showed, without the backing of the fans that dream inevitably dies as an owner grows tired of sustaining heavy losses.
I’m proud that Blues Ladies has been built with sustainability and community in mind – there are no plans (and no money) to offer huge contracts to players but there is still something that binds them together and that has built a real team spirit. Fans are slowly being attracted to the games in greater numbers and there is a chance the area can have a team to be proud of.
With a bit of luck, that team spirit that did them so well last season will continue to do them proud this year – and fans will continue to build a dream slowly that will surely rival anything that Manchester City’s petrodollars can produce.