Man Utd by name, and by nature: BBC commentator Jacqui Oatley accuses Manchester United of betraying female game

She tells Ian Burrell that prejudice is rife in football as the women’s Euros kick off

The world’s richest football club, Manchester United, “stands out like a sore thumb” for its lack of support for the women’s game in England, according to the sport’s most prominent female commentator.

Jacqui Oatley, the BBC Match of the Day broadcaster, said United were conspicuous by their absence from women’s football since 2005, despite the major commitment to the female game made by some of the Old Trafford club’s biggest Premier League rivals. “It’s great that Manchester City are taking [women’s football] seriously. The one that stands out like a sore thumb is Manchester United,” said Oatley. “To quote the great [Norwich City chairman] Delia Smith: ‘Where are you?’”

Oatley will host BBC Three’s presentation of the women’s Euro football championships, which begin tomorrow in Sweden. “It’s a real shame that Manchester United decided to scrap their women’s team right on the eve of England hosting the women’s Euros in 2005; the news came out and Manchester United said see you later. But you don’t need to be an accountant to see the figures in men’s football, to see how little is required to have a decent women’s set-up.”

The comments come as the FA celebrates 20 years of running women’s football and launches the “Kick Off Your Career” campaign to encourage young women to consider working in the industry.

Oatley compared United unfavourably to other big Premier League clubs who have embraced women’s football. “Arsenal deserve so much credit for pushing women’s football forward and you look at the benefits they have had. They have won 18 major trophies since the Arsenal men last won one,” she said.

“Manchester United is the one missing club. Liverpool this season have really taken women’s football under their umbrella and moved them into their training complex, they are the only full-time club in the Women’s Super League and they are top of the league at the mid-season break.”

In an interview with The Independent, Oatley, a committee member of the Women in Football group, also complained that not enough women were being employed to cover the game in the written media.

“There aren’t many [female] sports writers on newspapers,” she said, calling for more mentoring opportunities for women. “Some started doing it, but then have stopped for whatever reason – from what I have heard it’s maybe the culture.”

Oatley was herself the victim of prejudice after becoming the first female commentator on Match of the Day six years ago, despite the fact she was an amateur footballer and has been “completely obsessed” with the game since the age of 12, when she “ripped down all the Bros posters from my walls”.

The criticisms she faced are “history” and she has, with a smiling face, since confronted former manager Dave Bassett, one of her critics. As one of her BBC commentary colleagues told her at the time: “You’ve played football but I’ve never kicked a ball in my life – and nobody has ever asked me.”

The BBC has itself been under pressure to increase the number of women on air across its output and its director of sport, Barbara Slater, is attempting to make the summer output a “watershed moment” in female sports presenting on its channels.

Alison Mitchell is Britain’s leading female cricket broadcaster and will be covering the Ashes for Radio 5 Live. She was also part of the BBC’s Wimbledon coverage. Although she grew up around club cricket, Mitchell devoted her sporting energies to hockey, at which she captained the University of Nottingham and represented the Midlands. “I grew up never even thinking that I could play cricket. That’s changed – it’s now the norm because girls are exposed to it at primary school. It’s actively promoted.”

She is part of the presenting team for the Flintoff Ashes Roadshow this week on 5 Live, featuring former England all-rounder Andrew Flintoff. Later in the series she will be covering the Tests across BBC radio. And she has finally been able to don whites by turning out this year for the famous celebrity cricket club, Bunbury.

She has not suffered chauvinism despite the male-only preserves that once existed at Lord’s. “I have never felt unwelcome in cricket circles,” she said. “I get to attend four or five dinners a year in the [Lord’s Pavilion] Long Room. One year I was wearing a skirt that I thought was possibly slightly too short.”

Oatley described receiving negative comments when she made history on MOTD as “a very difficult time”. She said: “Mentally it was a huge challenge. I didn’t enjoy it for a second, I can’t pretend I did.” But her career has blossomed and she will lead a presenting team for the women’s Euros that also includes Radio 1’s Tina Daheley and Breakfast’s Sally Nugent. The final, as well as England’s game with Russia next week, will be shown on BBC2.

Sexism in sport: Those that fall foul

Football

Women’s football may have taken giant strides in terms of technical ability – but sexist attitudes remain. That’s not surprising when Sepp Blatter remains president of Fifa. He has suggested that female players should wear tight shorts – “Let the women play in more feminine clothes like they do in volleyball” – and referred to one woman candidate for Fifa’s executive committee as “good, good-looking”.

Two years ago Sky Sports commentators Andy Gray and Richard Keys mocked female assistant referee Sian Massey. “Can you believe that?” said Gray. “A female linesman. Women don’t know the offside rule.” They were sacked but have since resurrected their careers at TalkSport radio.

Tennis

The BBC’s head of news and current affairs, James Harding, said yesterday that presenter John Inverdale had  done the “wrong thing” when he suggested that the reason behind Wimbledon champion Marion Bartoli’s success might be that she knew she “was never going to be a looker”. Many headlines celebrating Andy Murray’s victory in the men’s tournament appear to have forgotten that Virginia Wade was a British winner in 1977.

Golf

The Royal & Ancient club at St Andrews still refuses to admit female members, despite the fact that Augusta – long the most famous symbol of sex discrimination in US golf – chose to let women join last year.

Formula One

Jenson Button said of the prospect of women’s F1: “One week of the month you wouldn’t want to be on the circuit with them, would you? A girl with big boobs would never be comfortable in the car. And mechanics wouldn’t concentrate. Can you imagine strapping her in?”

Cycling

Despite the Victoria Pendleton effect, cycling is very much a men’s sport. There is still no female version of the Tour de France.

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