The Women’s FA Cup Final, set for Saturday, takes pride of place as one of the Football Association’s showpiece events at Wembley. But such pride has been a long time coming.
It is set to be a hugely exciting occasion, with around 50,000 people expected to attend. In recent years, Arsenal have dominated the competition and this year they are looking to win it for the 14th time. They go into the final in mediocre league form but have put on some dazzling displays in the cup – most recently a 7-0 destruction of Sunderland in the semi-final, with Danielle van de Donk scoring a hat-trick.
They will be up against current holders Chelsea, who needed extra-time and a goal from Fran Kirby at the death to get past Manchester City.
Yet the cup’s origins have been all but forgotten, glossed over in these modern days of professional women’s football.
Because it was launched as the ban on women’s football in England was just being lifted, the early years of this cup saw games played on poor, non-approved pitches. This might be expected in the 1870s, when the men’s competition began, but the women experienced this just 40 years ago.
Yes, women’s football in England was banned, and this was not in the dim and distant past. The prohibition on what was seen as an unsuitable game for the ladies was enforced in 1921; during the First World War women’s football had been so successful that tens of thousands of people were going to watch it. The generally accepted explanation now is that the men’s clubs and the governing bodies were extremely concerned that the ladies would draw attention and money away from their set-up; at the time, they couched it as a concern about women’s health, which they argued would be ruined by exerting themselves in such an inappropriate sport.
Do not think, however, that the women quietly accepted this decision, packed up their boots and went home, resuming their place in the kitchen. Instead, the next half-century of women’s football in England continued on the quiet – with no support from the FA, who stringently adhered to their ban, handing down sanctions to affiliated clubs who allowed women to play on their pitches, and to men who helped a women’s team, perhaps through offering coaching. The women – and their male allies – organised themselves, creating their own competitions and representative teams, all the while playing on rugby pitches and in parks because they had nowhere else to go.
The Women’s FA Cup was created in 1971. At that point, women’s football in England was run by the Women’s FA – independent of the FA, but affiliated to them simply because an edict had been handed down saying that national associations had to assume ultimate governance of the women’s game; again, the widely accepted reasoning for this now is that the powers-that-be had started to see that the women’s game was growing globally, and was currently outside their auspices, so they needed to take control. In practice, the Women’s FA ran things themselves up until the middle of the 1990s.
They launched the Mitre Challenge Trophy in 1971, with Southampton and Stewarton & Thistle (a Scottish team, of all things – competing in this English cup while Scotland’s powers-that-were maintained a strict disapproval of the women’s game) reaching the final. Where was it played? The Crystal Palace national sports centre. 70 years previously, Tottenham Hotspur and Sheffield United had played their FA Cup Final on the same site, attracting over 100,000 spectators. No attendance figures can be found for the first-ever Mitre Challenge Trophy final – much of the history of women’s football in England has been lost in the mists of time – but it seems unlikely that more than 1,000 people were there to see this historic event.
The finals in the 1980s, with the competition renamed as the Women’s FA Cup, made it as far as league grounds – Sincil Bank, Loftus Road, Craven Cottage, Old Trafford and the City Ground all welcomed the Women’s FA Cup final, with Prenton Park and the New Den among the stadia opening their doors to women’s football in the 1990s. By this time, the FA had realised it would make more sense for them assume overall control of the women’s game; the Women’s FA, for all their qualities and enthusiasm, were still operating on a largely amateur ethos – not conducive to growing the game from grassroots to the highest level.
Under the new moniker the FA Women’s Cup – the word order was important, showing the FA’s ownership of the competition – began to grow, and even made it on to TV screens, with national TV station Channel 4 (then the newest of just four TV stations available in the UK) featuring the talents of the likes of legendary goalscorer Karen Walker and current England assistant coach Marieanne Spacey.
In the new millennium, attendances mushroomed – despite the relative lack of publicity the game still received. As Arsenal asserted their dominance, people flocked to the FA Women’s Cup Final, with around 25,000 attending for three years running from 2007 onwards. England had hosted the Women’s European Championships in 2005, which may have been a factor in attracting fans to this big occasion.
Then, surprisingly, interest in the competition took a downturn when the FA launched the FA Women’s Super League. No longer was the FA Women’s Cup treated as the season finale – it was, literally, its centrepiece, in the middle of the year, the first piece of silverware to be awarded rather than the last, and thus less of an occasion, particularly when it means trekking to a tough-to-locate ground. In 2013, not even 5,000 could stir themselves to go to Doncaster’s Keepmoat Stadium for the match – perhaps this is not so much of a shock seeing as it was between Arsenal and Bristol Academy, two teams based a long way from the Yorkshire ground.
What seems to have happened with the domestic cup finals and the England internationals is that the FA have sought men’s league clubs interested in hosting women’s matches, and built a relationship with them. They have tended to be reasonably small clubs with reasonably small grounds – for instance, the Keepmoat, Bristol City’s Ashton Gate, Wycombe Wanderers’ Adams Park, Rotherham United’s New York Stadium. Instead of running the risk of a couple of thousand fans rattling around in a 30,000-capacity stadium, the FA have erred on the side of caution – and the same has applied to elite domestic women’s fixtures, with most Women’s Super League clubs making their home at a ground owned by a men’s non-league club.
“There is a kind of glamour in [lower-league and non-league football grounds], but nevertheless by putting women’s football in small stadia, out of the way, you’ve got to be a pretty dedicated fan to find the ground, find when things are on, and it’s just not the sell that it could be,” says Professor Jean Williams of De Montfort University in England.
Yet in 2015, the FA Women’s Cup final was held at the newly-reconstructed Wembley for the very first time – a much more attractive proposition for fans considering attending. Professor Williams thinks this is an important step, indicating much-needed ambition for women’s football in England – their cup final is at the same venue as the men’s, showing that it is an equally-valued event.
“In status terms, you’re saying there is a parity here,” she says, wondering if double-header events might be the way forward.
Indeed, the commercial value of the competition has certainly been acknowledged – the cup has its own sponsor, energy company SSE, which has also meant a slight tweak to its name. Now it’s the SSE Women’s FA Cup, keeping the sponsor’s name separated from the governing body.
The powers-that-now-are have learned that women’s football can bring in money – if marketed correctly, linked with appropriate commercial partners, and trusted to do so. Now the 2016 SSE Women’s FA Cup Final is set to show that it can also bring in tens of thousands of fans to the biggest stage in England.