Top footballers in sensible wages shock
A Slice of Britain: The women's game is getting more professional, but it's not getting silly. It's even got some ideas that the Premier League could usefully copy. And yesterday was its showpiece, the other FA Cup Final
The trophy room at Arsenal Football Club's Emirates Stadium has collected more dust than silverware of late. The much publicised drought of titles experienced by the highly-paid stars of its Premier League squad is in stark contrast to the less heralded success enjoyed by Arsenal Ladies.
It is a point succinctly made by supporter Suki Mason, 49, as she celebrated their 2-0 victory yesterday over Bristol Academy in the Women's FA Cup Final. "It's why I watch the ladies – it's the only chance Arsenal fans get to smile," she said.
The setting is a little different to the other FA Cup Final. The game is not at Wembley Stadium in front of almost 89,000 fans for a start. The venue is the 32,000 capacity Ricoh Arena in Coventry where, even though tickets cost only £5, the official attendance of 13,885 leaves more than half the seats empty. And the spoils for the victors? Aside from the trophy itself and the honour, there's prize money of £5,000 for the entire winning team. That would be less than the win bonus for a single player in the Manchester City team that lifted the men's trophy.
And you won't find any celebrity WAGs here either, although there are a few HABs – husbands and boyfriends – who are an altogether quieter breed. Queuing for his VIP ticket, Callum Convery, 23, boyfriend of Arsenal striker Ellen White, blushes when asked what it's like to go out with a footballer. "I don't see it as going out with a footballer," he demurs, adding: "I'm very proud of her and I go to all the matches I can."
And you can forget telephone-number wage packets and pushy agents. The top women's sides can have a maximum of four players on a full-time salary which, even capped at £20,000 a year, is more than most clubs can afford.
The wage capping is one of several new rules introduced to make the ladies' game more competitive after years of Arsenal domination. It has been a breakthrough year for the women's game in England, with the launch of a semi-professional Women's Super League (WSL) and a real prospect of lifting the World Cup in Germany this summer. As a result, crowds at league games have quadrupled, although average attendances still struggle to top 600.
Many of those in the stands are women and girls from other clubs, who were allocated free tickets. Before the final kicked off, they were outside the stadium, demonstrating their shooting skills using an inflatable goal.
The women's game is already unrecognisable from a decade ago, but this generation will likely witness even more changes.
Coral Hammond, an 11-year-old defender from King's Lynn, Norfolk, has come up with the Woottons Football Club. Clutching a match programme, she says: "I've been looking forward to this. I haven't seen a women's match before."
The fans in one of the supporters' coaches that have travelled from north London's Emirates Stadium are less typical. Most of them seem to be men in their sixties and seventies. Men like John Wright, 78, who is sitting at the front of the bus. The retired electrician is such a fan of Arsenal Ladies that he has stopped going to see men's matches.
"I've been following Arsenal Ladies since they started, and there's not a better team around. When we first started going to the games we had the mickey taken out of us. We were elderly gentlemen and they called us perverts. They thought we were there to look at their legs."
Weren't they? "Well, we have our favourites, yeah. Who's the one with the bust? Oh yeah, Jennifer Beattie. She used to play number 84. We called her '84 bust'. She's a cracking girl. We've got nicknames for all of 'em."
While it sounds suspiciously like the kind of commentary former Sky presenter Andy Gray might provide to a ladies' game, most of the crowd are here to see more than the players' legs. Underlining how far this is from Gray's vision of women in the game, it is apposite that it is Sian Massey, the official at the centre of Gray's dismissal earlier this year, who is refereeing the action.
Rachel Major, 38, is definitely here for the football. She's trying to raise the profile of the women's game, setting up Twitter groups that report on matches in the absence of mainstream media coverage.
"They call us The Gang. There's a bunch of us that meet up at games and Tweet live updates. You still get a lot of big games not getting coverage at all. When England played the USA, the No 1 ranked team in the world, we couldn't watch it on TV."
As Arsenal head for victory with a brace of first-half goals from Kim Little and Julie Fleeting, there is one corner of the ground that is shouting the loudest and they're dressed in Bristol's blue. These are the junior Bristol Academy and centre of excellence players who have come to cheer on their team. With their hands, faces (and in some cases, legs) painted blue, they look like an army of very enthusiastic Smurfs.
Molly Furnival-Doran, 18, plays for the Academy's under-19s side. Earlier in the game she had winced when asked about the club's chances of winning.
"Obviously Arsenal are the favourites," she said, just a millisecond before that second Arsenal header proved the point.
As Arsenal Ladies lifted the FA Cup for the 11th time, the Smurf block looked on mournfully. "It's really sad for us," says Furnival-Doran. "They're a great club, but it'd be nice to see someone else win for a change."
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