The quiet terrace revolution

The new breed of supporter is female, childless and coming to a game near you. Mike Rowbottom reports in the third part of our series
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The Independent Online
There is a new kind of football supporter in the British game. Female. Without children. Committed to a team which is hers, rather than her father's or her boyfriend's.

The evidence comes from the annual Premiership survey, the latest of which will be published later this month and which draws on 20,470 responses from Premiership supporters, 85 per cent of them season-ticket holders.

As with last year's survey, the indication is that one in every eight football supporters is a woman. It also appears to confirm that the improved atmosphere within most football grounds in the last few years has been a big factor in attracting women to the game.

But the new data, according to Professor John Williams of the Chester Centre for Football Research, offers a clearer picture of female supporters. "One of the main points the survey indicates this year is that it's wrong to equate female fans with the family," Williams said.

"Something like 55 per cent of the female respondents are in a long-term relationship or living with a partner, but don't have children. There are some female supporters whose sons or partners are not interested in football. In certain cases, we see women escaping traditional domestic responsibilities - some are going to the game and leaving their partners to look after the kids."

Before widespread jubilation breaks out over the breaking of another stereotype, however, it should be pointed out that the survey also shows traditional areas of male domination remain intact.

"There seems to be more physical and cultural space for women at the smaller clubs," Williams said. "In the big city clubs, the commitment is more intense and the culture is more masculine."

The lowest female response to the survey came, as last year, from Everton, where only seven per cent of replies were from women. At clubs such as Sheffield Wednesday, Wimbledon, Coventry, Queen's Park Rangers and Nottingham Forest, the female response rate was more than twice that figure.

One of those season-ticket holders who responded to the Premiership mailing shots was Caroline Partridge, who has been a Coventry City supporter since her grandfather took her to see reserve matches when she was five years old. "It got into my blood, and it stayed," she said. "It's a habit which doesn't die."

Now 30, Caroline works in London, where she is a deputy catering manager at a University of London student hall. Her Saturday morning shifts just about fit in with watching her favourite team - a 10-minute dash gets her to Euston in time to catch the 12.15 train to her home city.

Following Coventry's fortunes since the days of Jim Blyth, Willie Carr and Ernie Hunt has proved something of a trial for her - as it has no doubt for every other supporter. "They never seem to catch fire," she says diplomatically. The only time they did combust in a big way, when they won the 1987 FA Cup, she was unable to get a ticket as she was serving in Northern Ireland with the Army.

There has never been a question of her changing to another club. She met her boyfriend, Andy, while returning from a Coventry game.

He is a London-based Manchester City fan, but the thought that she might travel to see a different team of sky blues was not considered. "On a match day, he goes in one direction, I go in the other." Bang goes another stereotype.

When Caroline goes up for a home game, she is often joined by her mother, Sheila, and says: "The season-ticket holders next to me all move up one." But there is no convincing her father, Tony, to join the party.

"He doesn't like football," she said. "We took him to a match at Nottingham Forest a few years ago when we got squashed and couldn't see the goals because of the floodlights."

Caroline often travels to matches with Sarah Robb, another member of Coventry's London supporters group. Sarah, a 26-year-old secretary in the BBC sports department, has been watching the Sky Blues regularly since she was 14.

"At first I used to get asked why I wasn't shopping with my friends on a Saturday. But I just laughed it off. I said I would rather be here watching this."

Sarah, who edits the travel group's quarterly newsletter, Sky Blue Special, went out to Italy to support England in the 1990 World Cup and also saw England lose their crucial World Cup qualifying match in Rotterdam two years ago.

"That was the only time I've felt really threatened at a match," she said. "The Dutch fans were throwing coins at us before the match, and then they threw a flare. Some of the seats around me got thrown back. I was hiding under mine."

Such scenes, thankfully, have not been repeated within these shores, although she does take some precautions. "I don't tend to wear my colours in the North-east, because they are so fanatical up there. We might not get any trouble, but we have to think of the lads we are with."

Sarah's boyfriend, Neil, is another Manchester City fan. And no, she does not even think about going to Maine Road instead.

Football, it seems, is finding a new bedrock of support.