Football: Now it's a game for both halves

Trevor Haylett discusses how football can gain a bigger squad for its distaff side
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The Independent Online
HAD Harry Redknapp paid more attention to the changing face of the football fan he would not have blundered down the path of political incorrectness and could have avoided the wrath of Mrs Sandra Redknapp, the new Mrs Louise Redknapp, as well as a large portion of the rest of womankind.

Redknapp was casting strictly one eye only over the debate surrounding Mrs Unsworth's perceived role in her defender husband David's decision to seek an immediate move from Aston Villa to Everton, having made his longed-for departure from West Ham only a few days beforehand.

"Wives," said the Upton Park manager, with his tongue racing some considerable distance ahead of his brain, "should concentrate on looking after the kids and the house. There was a time when a bloke would go home an say, `Pack the china, I've got a better job and we are moving.'"

Leaving aside the question of how far his new daughter-in-law - the pop singer Louise, recently married to Jamie - conforms to Redknapp's cosy ideal of domesticity and willing subservience, he is some way wide of the mark in failing to recognise that the game, and all its side-shows, play an increasingly significant part in today's liberated world of the distaff side.

During the World Cup more women "discovered football" than was the case for previous big international events. In the United Kingdom 95.2 per cent of women and girls over the age of four saw at least part of a televised match during France 98, an increase of six per cent compared to Euro 96.

Those figures correspond with the trends inside grounds. In each of the four Premier League seasons in which records are available, the female followers have been flocking to the all-seater, well-catered, musically enhanced stadia in ever- increasing numbers.

Mike Lee, spokesman for the Premier League, said they were confident this growth could be maintained, citing enhanced comfort, the reduction in hooliganism and the existence of family areas as factors behind the trend.

At the same time he points out: "We must not lose sight of the fact that what people, both male and female, find most attractive about the football experience is what happens on the pitch," he said. "We have to strive to maintain both the quality of the game and its marketing appeal."

However, Shiela Spiers, a Football Supporters' Association committee member, remains concerned that unless a greater share of televised football is given back to the terrestrial networks then the game's new summer fans will just as quickly drift away.

"It's significant to me that the World Cup matches were shown on both BBC and ITV," she said. "If you consider those to be an appetiser for new football enthusiasts they have no chance of moving on to the first course let alone the main course unless the number of games shown only on Sky is reduced.

"The vast majority of people who subscribe to the satellite sport package are football supporters now or were so in the past. You won't find any new fans taking it up."

Talk about appetisers and main courses was a convenient cue to bring Delia Smith into the discussion. Since taking over as Norwich City's majority shareholder she has worked hard to entice more women into Carrow Road. The celebrity cook wants to introduce a "women's day", offering free or reduced admission (assuming the sex discrimination legislation does not defeat her). Another initiative includes bringing out a range of women's clothing tailored specifically for the football fan.

She said: "What annoys me more than anything is when women write off football when they have never been anywhere near a game. They still think it's a spit and sawdust environment but they don't realise what they are missing.

"I want more women to come to the games because I know what a joy it is for me and what a difference it has made to my life."