I’ll always be grateful to my parents for teaching me that I could do anything I wanted. Typical modern parenting, you might think, making sure that their kids have as many career options open to them as possible, but doing what I wanted to do kicked in much earlier.
Specifically, I wanted to go to football.
My dad is a big sport fan; my mum also takes an interest, so perhaps it was inevitable that I’d catch the bug too. As a tiny toddler I’d memorise the names of players in team photos; I’d recite recent results; I’d read the match programmes my dad brought home. And then I nagged and nagged to be taken to football as well.
My lobbying didn’t have an immediate effect. Sensibly, before forking out for match tickets, my parents wanted to be sure that my interest would continue. So after being taken to the occasional game, they finally agreed to buy me a season ticket at the age of eight.
And how I loved it. Every other Saturday, my dad and I would go to the game (via the local sweet shop); when our team weren’t playing at home, we’d go and watch the reserves, which had the added bonus of being able to collect autographs.
I was always vaguely aware that not many of my female peers at school spent their weekends at football; still, not many of my male peers did either. Sure, they might have kicked a ball around after school when girls didn’t so much, but that wasn’t the same thing. I’d talk to classmates about the games I’d seen or the players I’d spoken to, and they would have literally no idea whatsoever what or who I was talking about.
It was when I moved up to middle school at the age of nine that I realised some people didn’t think football was a natural or normal preoccupation for a girl. And it was a preoccupation, it really was; I remember biting my fingers raw before an important cup game, I remember sulking when I had to go to my best friend’s birthday party rather than football, I remember carefully cutting out match reports from the Sunday papers and sticking them assiduously on my bedroom wall.
I knew how much I loved football, and so did my family and friends; but these new classmates and teachers at middle school didn’t quite comprehend. I told the drama teacher that I wouldn’t be able to play the role I’d been cast in for the Christmas show because my team had a midweek match that night; in retrospect, she must have thought I was joking until I didn’t turn up. I wanted to join in the mass kickaround every breaktime on the school field, and harangued and harangued until the all-male squad let me. Older boys tended to be slightly amused when they heard I was a big football fan, and attempted to humour me; that is, until I challenged them to a trivia contest and invariably won.
I was reminded of these episodes seven or eight years later when, in a pub quiz, my friends and I had teamed up with a couple of older male regulars who we knew by sight but had never spoken to before. When a relatively obscure football question arose, the men were racking their brains; I was adamant I knew the answer, but they refused to accept a teenage girl would have some kind of sporting knowledge they didn’t. In the end, I told them to put my answer down and if I was right they could buy our drinks for the rest of the night; if I was wrong, I’d buy theirs. Let’s just say my purse remained closed.
I continued going to football every week (making my own way to a lot of away games by myself after I turned 18) and when I wanted to earn extra cash to pay my way through my English literature degree, it was probably inevitable that I started to write professionally about football – interviewing my team’s players for the official website and covering other matches for national sports agencies when my team weren’t playing.
Since then, I’ve made a career of writing about sport – which is why I snapped up the chance to contribute sports content to Bea. I’ve reported on World Cups and Olympics, the Premier League and non-league – but invariably when I pitch articles about female athletes, I’m told either that women aren’t interested in sport unless they fancy the players, or that men won’t be interested in a female athlete unless she’s semi-naked at the very least. Or, of course, the female athlete or the female official is mocked for “not being as good as a man” – even if the commenter has never seen that woman in action. When Sky Sports’ Andy Gray and Richard Keys were recorded off-camera making sexist comments about female officials in football, my heart sank; can it possibly still be that nearly 30 years after I first went to football a woman must prove herself and her knowledge over and over again in a way that a man never does?
That very question is one of the reasons I began researching the experiences of female football fans for my forthcoming PhD thesis, and yes, it does seem that this still happens. Happily, it also seems that this happens less regularly now than it would have done 30 years ago; indeed, Keys himself has admitted that he and his colleague are ‘dinosaurs’.
That’s not to say that football is perfect. The fact that Fifa, the sport’s world governing body, has a committee largely populated by a bunch of late-middle-aged white men is indicative of just how far there is to go (although they have just appointed their first woman, Lydia Nsekera, president of the Burundi FA); ditto the distressing sight of ‘cheerleaders’ on football pitches at half-time, or the scantily-clad Soccerettes on Sky Sports’ Soccer AM, or cameramen’s irritating penchant to cut away from action on the pitch to an attractive young woman in the stands.
But it’s getting better, thanks to the increasingly visible women in the British game – people like West Ham’s chief executive Karren Brady, also known for her role on BBC One’s The Apprentice; television presenters Gabby Logan and Georgie Thompson; commentator Jacqui Oatley; and high-profile professional players like Faye White and Kelly Smith. In a world where football is the fastest-growing participation sport for girls and young women, their fandom and knowledge is finally acknowledged, accepted and welcomed. And perhaps somewhere right now a teenage girl is winning a wager with a bunch of men because she knows the right answers in the sports round of a pub quiz.
This blog appears in an alternate version in The Light Bulb Moment: the stories of why we are feminists, edited by Sian Norris, published by Crooked Rib Publishing.