For most male football fans, Saturday afternoon was traditionally an escape. An excuse to leave the house, meet the lads, have a few drinks and tell the referee exactly how to do his job - away from the watchful eyes of wives and girlfriends. But a revolution is taking place on England's famous terraces and under her towering stands. The face of the beautiful game is officially changing. And, aesthetically, it is for the better.
New research, to be published next month, will show a dramatic increase in the number of women attending Premiership football matches. The official England supporters' association is also reporting a major rise in female membership, and at some of the bigger Championship clubs more than one in five season ticket holders are now women. The boys' club that was once "going to the match" is now under threat.
The Premiership research, obtained exclusively by The Independent on Sunday, shows that the number of female football fans attending top-flight games this season is now 18 per cent of the total - up from 13 per cent in the 2004-05 season, and 14.6 per cent last season. This acceleration means that the total female attendance at matches this season is predicted to be in the region of 2.33 million - up by nearly 500,000 from last season's total of 1,882,507.
The report, compiled by digital company Match Day Media, which provides entertainment facilities at Premiership stadiums, found that the average female fan attending games was aged from 25 to 34, and usually affluent. The vast majority were middle class or above, with 50 per cent falling into the C1 category and 25 per cent AB.
Gerry McKenna, chief executive of Match Day Media, said the trend was the result of a number of factors - including more modern, comfortable stadiums and changes in the way the national game was now marketed.
"We're seeing a significant year-on-year increase in female attendance as football has become a more polished product," Mr McKenna said. "It's a far more welcoming environment now, and is becoming much more of a lifestyle prospect rather than simply a sporting one."
The research estimates that if the current rate of growth continues, nearly a third of those attending Premiership matches in four years' time will be women.
"I don't see why this growth won't continue, as football moves closer and closer to the music and entertainment worlds," said Mr McKenna. "If you look at big tennis tournaments like Wimbledon, for example, the crowd is pretty much 50-50 in terms of men and women."
Harpreet Grewal, the newly appointed head of the official England supporters' association, said the FA had also noted the trend - with female membership up 54 per cent since the 2002-04 period.
"We're seeing a major increase in the number of girls playing football, and, from there, wanting to attend matches," said Ms Grewal, herself a football fan for nearly 25 years. "There is no reason why women can't get involved in football at all levels - be it watching, participating or in terms of business. It's not a male-exclusive sport."
Some commentators believe that the presence of an increasing number of women in high-profile footballing positions, such as Delia Smith at Norwich City, Karren Brady at Birmingham City and Ms Grewal at the FA, has also helped to break down gender barriers, as has the emergence of female football presenters on television, such as Gabby Logan and Helen Chamberlain.
Delia Smith, the director of Norwich City, made headlines in the 2004-05 Premiership season for her famous "let's be having you" half-time speech to the crowd at Carrow Road. She is outspoken about her love of the terraces, once famously telling a journalist: "I like to sit down with my friends and have a really good bitch. And when I got to football matches, I am at my most misbehaved. I sing rude songs about the opposition, such as 'stand up if you hate the scum'. But I don't sing the ones with swear words. I don't think they are very nice."
Additional reporting by Andy SwansonReuse content