“The thing about Manchester is it all comes from here…”
In Scotland I’ve seen they very best the Scottish Women’s Premier League has to offer in the form of Glasgow City and knowing I was going to be at a loose end in Manchester this particular Saturday afternoon I decided to seek out another City, one of the elite in England’s FA Women’s Super League; the 2016 champions Manchester City. While both clubs have some striking similarities, including sending numerous players each to the 2019 FIFA World Cup in France, the differences between both the two sides and women’s football in their respective countries in general are great indeed.
First off is the fact that the Scottish Women’s Premier League is completely dominated by a single force, not by the Old Firm who do partake, but the aforementioned Glasgow City who are twelve in a row champions and heading towards a thirteenth title as their summer season draws to its conclusion. They have also won the bulk of cup competitions but credit to Hibernian for their Scottish Cup dominance in the last few years. By contrast the FA Women’s Super League has been won by four different clubs since its inception in 2011 with ‘The Citizens’ sole victory coming in the 2015/16 campaign. Interestingly while the SWPL title has only been won by a team with no connection to a men’s side, all FAWSL champions are the female counterparts of top FA Premier League clubs; namely Chelsea, Arsenal & Liverpool.
While the women of Glasgow City might have sore necks from the weight of so many medals their success has not made their wallets any heavier as Scottish women’s football is still an amateur sport with a wage bill of zero. No players at any level are paid a penny. By comparison it is reckoned that while there is a big difference between top, middle and bottom earners in England the top earners can make in the region of £35,000 a season and a squad the quality of Manchester City probably has quite a few in that bracket. That’s better than a kick in the arse as they say round my way, but in reality it is a few grand less than I earn as an unpromoted Scottish secondary school teacher. However if you factor in player sponsorship and appearances payments for England’s national team, full time women’s football can be quite lucrative, even if it is light years away from the pay of the men’s game.
Another disparity between the Scottish game and the English one is attendance. In Scotland I’ve seen an impressive 500 plus crowd at Petershill Park for a UEFA Champions League tie between Glesga and the mighty Barcelona Femeni, however I have also seen Rangers vs Celtic just yards away from Ibrox with only a handful of paying punters present. Down south in the Women’s Super League last season the average attendance was 833 with The Citizens often getting many more than that; since 2015, when they moved to the 7,000 capacity Academy Stadium, City have broken the league’s attendance record three times. Those achievements were eclipsed on the first day of this season when a home fixture against city rivals Manchester United was moved to The Etihad Stadium. On the 7th of September an awesome 31,213 watched on as my fellow Scot Caroline Weir scored the only goal when The Blues defeated The Red Devils. That isn’t the biggest crowd Man City have played in front of either as the Women’s FA Cup final is a major draw. They are the current holders of the cup having defeated West Ham United 3-0 back in May before a crowd of 43,000 plus at Wembley Stadium.
Finally we come to the different attitudes men have towards the women’s game on either side of Hadrian’s Wall. Going down my local I’m invariably asked one of two questions; “What game you off to this week?” or “Where were you at last Saturday?”. When I say I was at an SWPL fixture the response is almost universally along the lines of “I’ll bet that will be a guid game” or “I saw some of that on BBC Alba and enjoyed it”. On Scottish social media the same openness and positivity comes across too, even if knowledge of the grade is slim. However when women’s football is mentioned on some English internet outlets, the ‘Match of the Day’ Facebook page being a prime example, responses tend to come in the form of an avalanche of misogyny. Posts about FAWSL matches are stacked with replies like “Why are the BBC wasting time on this rubbish” or “Women’s football is never gonna be a thing, stop forcing it on us”. They rally against women pundits and commentators for men’s games because they “haven’t played men’s football so can’t understand it”, conveniently forgetting John Motson’s decades of excellent commentary, despite never playing the sport.
As to why Scotsmen take a more positive view of female soccer than our southern cousins, I’m not sure. Many up here believe we are more progressive & liberal than the English in general but I don’t necessarily buy that argument, I’m more inclined to believe it is to do with the quality of the men’s game in either country. In Scotland fitba is in the doldrums and the men’s national team is heavy pish, this means the women’s version is the only one that can give us hope of even a little glory, a chance to feel some pride. Yet in England the domestic league is ‘the best in the world’ and the boys recently came back from the World Cup triumphant semi-finalists. Perhaps insecure Englishmen believe that pushing the women’s game could become a threat to male dominance, upset the apple cart so to speak.
Despite these differences I went into this fixture sure that I would witness some of the major hallmarks of the women’s game up north. I expected to encounter top drawer footballers & athletes who play a highly technical and entertaining form of football very much in the spirit of fair play. It looked like I would certainly see a larger crowd but anticipated it being one that drives their team on, giving unrelenting support, rather than getting on their hero’s backs when things are not going their way. I imagined a family atmosphere where the connection between the players and the fans is much closer than in the more aloof millionaires men’s game. I had high hopes indeed for today and here is what I got.
Arriving in Manchester on the Friday night a veritable craft beer odessey began right next to the station at the incredible Piccadilly Tap, a stunning boozer for several reasons. Firstly there is the beer selection which was a beautiful mix of international & domestic, keg & cask including offerings from Lagunitas, Stone and Adnams. The Lagunitas IPA was stunning as was my first ever pint of perry, the unusually named ‘Lonely Partridge’ from Hogan’s.
Drinks selection aside we had a very friendly bunch of barstaff unflustered by a busy Friday night and most impressive of all stunning 70s décor. The Tap isn’t that old but great effort has been made to make it look unrenovated in fifty years with two walls clad in faux wooden board and the other stone (the frontage is glass). There are a few neon signs and a wacky shaped bar, a giant ‘L’ shape that pokes out into the main seating area.
The only downside to our visit was the middle aged couple by the bar engaged in an epic snogging session, so intertwined it was difficult to identify who’s limb was who’s. Despite ambient the music playing we can still hear them make a noise akin to walking in wellies along a muddy ditch. Dirty bastards.
Next morning I’m alone in a brand new city and as usual when exploring a town I seek out yet another BrewDog bar to add to my collection. After a fair old trek I arrive at BrewDog Manchester and instantly feel at home in an unfamiliar place with familiar surroundings. It ain’t huge, which went against my expectations for a big city venue, and is more on the friendly local pub end of the BrewDog bar spectrum.
I begin my morning with a schooner of small batch wheat beer while Danny behind the bar writes me a list of other good bars on the way to the match. This is followed by a third of an Over Works sour while we discuss the forthcoming ‘Collab Fest’ where this bar has created a ‘lemon meringue milkshake IPA’ with a local brewer. I love spending time in BrewDog bars and this was a good example of how they should be, in my opinion.
After retracing my steps back to Piccadilly Gardens and stopping for some amazing curried goat from a market stall I head towards one of Danny’s recommendations; The Northern Monk Refectory. It’s a classy wee joint, dark with jazz floating from the speakers. I spend five quid on just a third of Alvarado Street Brewing DIPA, but it is a perfect follow up to that really spicy goat. I don’t linger long, but enough to see the staff know their stuff and are passionate about what they are selling.
Finally it was a pub long recommended to me by beer fans who have visited the city; Port Street Beer House. This ain’t no modern craft beer bar this is an auld real ale house with low ceilings, regulars who look like the Cornish bloke from Time Team and an amazing thirty beers to choose from stuffed behind a wee bar. I order a cask pint of Hat-Trick from a Huddersfield brewery I really love by the name of Magic Rock. As I pay I lament to the barman that he is taking the same brewer’s Cannonball off. He tells me it is only coming off because of a tap take over later and that it is better in me than his bucket so hands me a half pint for free. I head to the tram delighted.
A short tram journey drops me off right across from The Manchester City Academy Stadium, the 7,000 capacity arena that hosts the club’s women and youth teams. Due to a terror attack the previous day in the town we queue for a while to get access as stringent security checks are carried out, but it was worth the wait to get into such a beautiful ground.
Two near identical 3,000 seater single tier stands run along each touchline while old school terracing rises behind each goal. It looks massive despite not being so, perfect for a club the size of Kilmarnock or St Johnstone I note, as it would be easy to fill and can look pretty full even when it’s not. Only one stand and terracing is in use today and with thirteen hundred paying punters the open parts look mobbed while a good atmosphere is building.
Beyond the stands there were a couple of electronic additions here I’m not used to on my travels; a big screen shows footage of the starting lineups as well as video sponsor boards, which you only get at big televised matches in Scotland. Both give a sense of the scale not only of this game but the female version of the sport in England. Dunno what the hell was going on at the ‘pie’ stall however as wraps, salads and five bean chilli baked potatoes seem to be popular fayre.
I go into the north terracing for the first half and as anticipated I am seeing fantastic football from an excellent home team. City are a tall, lean, fit looking side with captain, and England megastar, Steph Houghton pulling the strings from the back. What service she is able to give the front line, either by lofting the ball over the defence or by playing wonderfully deft through balls. That said the attackers struggled to convert those chances in the first half with the only goal coming from a deflected 22 yard stoater. Keira Walsh the scorer.
At half time I had a pint of Heineken in the ‘fan zone’ (a bar in the corridor behind the terracing which had a ping pong table and, inexplicably, three City coloured washing machines) before a more exciting second half. The Citizens were on fire after the break, hitting the post two minutes in before the outstanding Janine Beckie crossed for Tessa Wullaert to score. At this point it was really game over and I expected a rout, yet only one more goal came. In 80 minutes Lee Geum-min got her first in the FAWSL after a summer transfer from Gyeongju KHNP, a cherry on the top of a very dominant and controlling team performance.
Manchester is a craft beer Nirvana, the North of England’s San Diego. The Piccadilly Tap was good enough on its own to make me think about moving down here, then Saturday’s ‘Holy Trinity’ of bars made me wonder why all beer fans aren’t permanently camped out in the streets. If you like good beer you’ll love this city, thank Christ there are plenty more teams to bring me back down this way.
As for Manchester City Women, we have a club that has everything going for them. That stadium is perfect for their needs, the team is world class and they have a great support; a diverse bunch who appear to be largely independent of the men’s team fans. They aren’t there to see a women’s version of their club, MCWFC are their club. I’d wish them all the best for the rest of the season, but somehow I don’t think they are going to need it.
If you’ve enjoyed this my book, containing over 40 adventures just like this one, is available here in paperback or on Kindle: The Adventures Of The Fitba Nomad: The First Two Seasons https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/1086734092/ref=cm_sw_r_cp_apa_i_JmUODbVG3DNGK