Arsenal and Tottenham Women's players clash

Football has an ugly side. It’s about time Women’s Football embraced it

It happened in the 72nd minute.

Caitlin Foord had just scored Arsenal’s second of the match, a clever, quick short corner routine, ending with Caitlin sliding in at the back post to convert Viv’s low cross. Arsenal were now in firm control, and Spurs were slipping away from a game they never really had a foothold in. Josie Green, no doubt frustrated by her team’s inability to have an impact on the game, decided to make an impact of her own, right on top of Lia Walti’s knee, sending her over the horizontal and onto the turf. Cue bedlam.

Women’s Football has long been portrayed as the well-behaved, well-intentioned, well-mannered version of football. A paradisical example of what the world, or rather, the world of football, could be like if we were all positive, supportive, respectful and friendly to one another. Rival fans sit amongst one another in perfect harmony, with no animosity or hate, just a mutual love for their team and joy for the game.

There are no boos, jeers, and whistles. Just fun chants and cheers (and if you’re an Arsenal fan, you’re usually guaranteed a win). And then afterwards, once the match has finished, the players come over, sign shirts, take pictures, have a singalong & thank the fans for the support. Everyone leaves with a smile on their face and skip in their step, after a wonderful afternoon watching their team play football. And if you’re now reaching for a bucket to chuck into, I don’t blame you.

At first, I was taken in too. My first trip to Meadow Park in 2020 was such a fun, relaxing, pleasant experience, it was what made me want to go back (sadly, COVID had other ideas). It provided a glaring contrast to the atmosphere present at Emirates Stadium at the time, where animosity reigned supreme, where final whistles were greeted with boos and derision as the team’s results nose-dived and managers were being forced out the door. Flash forward 20 months, and the feeling was still the same when I finally returned.

This is what football could be. This is what football should be. Yet that is precisely what football should not be. Because without the conflict, the bite, the anger, the emotional weight, Football is a soulless experience. Imagine, if you will, an episode of Casualty where nobody gets ill. Or a Marvel film where nobody gets hurt. Or even a John Wick movie where nobody dies. There is a philosophical belief that one cannot mentally accept a world where everything is perfect, where evil is a non-entity. Sometimes in football, you need that anger and rage, that ugly aspect, especially in a fixture like the North London Derby.

I’ll hold my hand up and admit, I called it wrong. In the Cannon Chatter preview video (Do be sure to check it out if you haven’t) I stated I didn’t want the ‘toxicity’ fans can bring to games, with all the usual chants and gestures. Afterall, Women’s Football had the twin merits of being the beautiful game both on and off the pitch, in how the game is played, and how the fans conduct themselves. For the first 45 minutes, that’s exactly what happened. And it was terrible. 

Arsenal had got themselves off to a flier after only 4 minutes, Beth Mead was offered a free sprint at a Spurs backline that opted to back-off rather than engage. A cool reverse finish past Korpela finished the move, giving Arsenal a quick advantage, something they had failed to achieve in the reverse fixture earlier in the season.

The crowd roared with delight, with the prospect of more action to follow. Yet after a panicked goalmouth scramble in their own box (Arsenal were indebted to Miedema’s two goal-line blocks to prevent a quick response), the game just disappeared. For the remaining 40 minutes, the ball moved from side to side, with an occasional moment of threat quelled by astute Spurs defending. Arsenal’s play was also being broken up by persistent fouling, which was assisted by a referee preferring to keep her cards in her pocket instead of laying down the law.

The crowd went silent, watching an Arsenal team in the process of winning the local bragging rights, but not providing anything to engage with. Half Time arrived with Arsenal comfortable. But this felt nothing like a North London Derby. Arsenal had the numbers in the crowd, but nothing had managed to ignite them yet. That was, until Green’s intervention on Walti.

It was a disgusting challenge, a clear red card offense, yet the referee (in yet another example of poor WSL refereeing) bottled the decision and showed only a yellow card. The Arsenal players, rightly incensed by the verdict, pleaded the case, leading to a brawl where it appeared Katie McCabe was attempting to dish out her own justice on the matter.

Meanwhile, in the crowd, it all suddenly clicked. Still riding the wave of euphoria of Foord’s goal, which had awoken them from their slumber, the recent failure of the referee to properly adjudicate the match saw the fan’s patience snap. As one, they all stood, all 13,000+, customary scarves aloft, bellowing out the cry for all fans to stand up if they held a deep dislike for those who play at the other end of Seven Sisters Road. Suddenly, the stadium was alive, providing a noise unheard of for most of the season, and the game was far more enjoyable because of it. 

Further chants, such as what people thought of those who play in white and informing everyone what team gets battered on a continual basis, bounced around the stadium, giving the game the atmosphere, it needed. And with 8 minutes to go, the fans were rewarded for their efforts with the goal of the night, as a quick counter through Miedema and Mead ended with Foord scoring her second, a delightful curler into the far corner to seal the game.

Yet there was still time for one last twist. A late penalty almost gifted Spurs the chance to get a late consolation. Boos reigned down, both at the decision and in an attempt to disrupt Angela Addison’s effort. And it would prove to be successful, as in a manner similar to that of Bruno Fernandes’ effort only 2 weeks ago, she sent Manu the wrong way, but also saw the effort crash off the post and away.

The Arsenal fans were now beside themselves, revelling in the latest misfortune to blight their North London neighbours. The final whistle sounded soon after, securing a win that keeps Chelsea honest going into the final day. And leaving the ground, I realised that the chants, the wind-ups, the boos, the mockery, the anger, they were not to be condemned. They were to be embraced. And to many, this is a major issue.

Women’s Football is at a major crossroads in its development. The coverage is ever-expanding, and more fans are attending each season. The 13,000 that came to the game was a WSL home record for Arsenal, and with more games planned to be held at Emirates Stadium next season, that record will likely be broken very soon. Yet fans want to have it both ways.

They want games at the Emirates, but they want to stay at Meadow Park. They want more fans to attend, but they want those fans to behave in the same way they do. They want a competitive North London Derby, but without the anger and denigration. They want things to change, yet also want them to stay the same.

It’s time for Women’s Football to grow up. Like a young adult departing the safety and comfort of their parent’s home and moving out into the outside world for the first time, so too must the likes of Arsenal Women find the courage to leave the cradle of Meadow Park and its fans and embrace how football is supported by everyone else. For over 10 years, Women’s Football has lived in its perfect bubble, out of the public eye, ignored by many, and in doing so has enjoyed playing without anger and hate.

However, the North London Derby was mostly attended by fans who had never been to Meadow Park. For some fans, this was their first-ever experience watching the women play. And for the last 15 minutes, they provided some of the best fun and sound I’ve experienced at a ground in a long time. For a stadium at only 1/6 capacity, that wasn’t half bad.

It showcased where supporting Women’s Football needs to be heading. It needs to accept that fans do boo, they do jeer, they do mock the opposition and do wind up the opposing fans. And it is all the better for it. The 10 years of peace are over. It’s time to wake up. Welcome to the real world of football.