by Bridie Wilkinson
Like any good North London suburban child, growing up I ‘had’ a football team. My household belonged to the red and white – to Arsene Wenger’s magic, Dennis Bergkamp’s Number 10, to the dinosaur mascot of the Gooners.
Arsenal reigned supreme on our television every Saturday. My dad would gather his beer and his Bombay Mix and park himself in front of the screen to roar at the tiny men who ran across it. Tempted by the promise of snacks and of something that seemed strangely adult, my siblings and I would usually join him. Wearing our copycat Red shirts, mimicking his shouts, arm gestures and cheers.
My brothers went to greet the team in Finsbury Park after their Undefeated 2003–2004 season, riding victorious through the streets. My dad got season tickets to the Emirates Stadium, and we all took turns joining him in the crowded stalls that heaved with loud men. We learned how to sing our hearts out as a tribe of red, the loyal fans to our majestic team.
But as much as the ‘beautiful game’ featured at home, I was never more than a spectator. And it’s pretty much stayed that way since the early days of being forced to be goalkeeper for my brothers. I can comment on footwork and formations and chant with the best of them, but get me on a pitch and I’ll be at a loss for words.
I can’t remember when I stopped feeling like sport was for me. Maybe it was being picked last in PE because I was chunkier than your average pre-teen. Maybe it was always having to do the shot put or discus at Sports Day. I tried to join the school netball team as Goal Attack, but due to my height got stuck as Goal Defence, and never got the chance to compete for my school. It’s the little things.
Eventually, the shame of being left out changed into an apathy of not wanting to be included, and I joined the hoards of other girls my age citing periods, forgetting PE kits and refusing to play any games. It’s stuck. I don’t do sports, I say, as I turn down the opportunity to go running, to ice skate, to play Frisbee in the park.
I also left Arsenal behind, a bit. You’ll still see me supporting World Cups and Euro tournaments, but I can’t get into the Premier League. Too many men being paid too much money. My dad moved to the countryside and gave up his season tickets and there was nobody turning on the TV every Saturday. But old habits die hard and for my birthday my friend bought me tickets to an Arsenal game. To be specific, the Ladies FA Cup Final against Chelsea.
“The thing that got me, though, and something that I’m going to carry with me, was how many young girls were in the stalls, wide-eyed with big smiles.”
It felt so familiar. Red shirts and overpriced drinks and the buzz, the buzz so tangible you could touch it. I pulled out all the old chants, clapped and hollered with the best of them. Arsenal won with a spectacular goal by Danielle Carter, making it the 14th time the team has won the FA cup.
The thing that got me, though, and something that I’m going to carry with me, was how many young girls were in the stalls, wide-eyed with big smiles, on their father’s backs or in groups in matching local football team t-shirts.
The organisers of the SSE League are aware of the importance of representation in the sport, and are vehemently encouraging it. The junior women’s football teams, right down to the under 12s, were all invited to the final, and walked across the match to rousing applause. The way that that made me feel, as a 20-something who hasn’t played a game of football in years; just imagine what it meant to all the girls watching.
Maybe it’s too late for me. But maybe not. Maybe with the Women’s FIFA leagues and the pioneers in the game, challenging our expectations and bringing in record breaking numbers of attendance to matches, you’ll see me having a kick-about in a park soon.
Co-founder of Dear Damsels. Very much serious about the kick-about offer. Tweet her to arrange.