Jane Stuart – Writer

Writing about real life Up North: football, ale, food and mental health – with a good dash of humour.

A Gender for Change

The FIFA Women’s World Cup is currently drawing the world’s attention to the rapidly-growing women’s game. It is disheartening – and yet not surprising – to see and hear many disparaging comments  about the women’s game, proving that we still have a long way to go to combat sexism in football.  Women’s football was banned in this country for 50 years and I fear the fallout from this shameful act is going to take much longer to eradicate.  You can read about the ban here:

https://www.fourfourtwo.com/features/womens-football-banned-england-50-years-fa-world-cup-history

I fell in love with football at the impressionable age of 13 and there really was no going back for me.  I have been completely immersed in this male-dominated world ever since.  But, as a woman in football, I do encounter everyday sexism. Perhaps I am guilty of accepting this for the sake of a quiet life – letting things wash over me instead of getting angry about them – but really it’s not ok and much of what I hear and see and read really ought not to be happening, let alone be commonplace.  Anyone who thinks sexism no longer exists in the game is kidding themselves. 

When I first started following football, I used to travel to Bloomfield Road on the bus with my sister.  One New Years Day, when there were no buses running, my sister and I walked the eight miles to the ground, only to see Blackpool lose 5-0 to York City (those were the days!).  I also have a female friend who regularly drives 350 miles from the Scottish Highlands to watch the Seasiders.  Granted, we’re not typical supporters, but is there such thing as a typical lower or non-league football fan?  We’re all pretty unique.  If we wanted to ride with the majority, we wouldn’t be here, would we?  We’d be watching the EPL on Sky instead of living and breathing the game and being an integral part of it.

I have followed Blackpool for almost 30 years now.  Some 20 years ago, I used to write about the adventures I had travelling to every match I went to – which was over 70 games every season, including every Blackpool first team match (League, League Cup, FA Cup, Lancashire Cup, LDV Trophy and pre-season friendlies); I also went to Walsall matches (I live there) when Blackpool weren’t playing – and the odd random match just for variety.  When Blackpool were drawn against Telford or Hinckley United in the first round of the FA Cup in 2000, I decided to pop across to Telford to check out our opponents in action in the fourth qualifying round – and write about the experience for my fellow Seasiders.  As per usual I focused very little on the match itself – more on my adventures along the way (and, I seem to recall, a particularly terrifying mascot) – I only remarked that Hinckley (who had lost 4-1) ‘weren’t very good’.  My article was seen by a Hinckley fan who was most aggrieved at my summing-up of the match and subsequently commented on an online forum that, as a woman, I shouldn’t have been at the match anyway and ought to have been at home doing the washing up.  I thought this was harsh – as I literally had only said they ‘weren’t very good’ (and to be honest, that was flattering The Knitters).  It was not long before my football family was leaping to my defence, which was rather touching.  Even a Millwall fan waded in on my behalf, berating the sexism of the Hinckley fan.  One of my fellow Seasiders said that I was ‘an asset to Blackpool Football Club’ by dint of my articles promoting the club and editorship of the club fanzine.  I felt proud that I had achieved such a status amongst my peers after years of devotion and love for my home town club.  My gender was quite rightly of no consequence.  I was one of them, plain and simple.

Following a few years out of the game altogether, during the wilderness years at Blackpool, I found I missed the game more than I could bear and took at job at my local non-league club, Chasetown.  This was my first job actually within football – and, having at length been accepted at Blackpool as ‘one of the lads’,  I was instantly surprised at the sexism I was now faced with on a weekly basis.  In the two years I have been working at the Northern Premier League club, I have lost count of the number of times I have been asked: “How did you come to be doing this job?  Do you have a partner in the game?”.  I do find it odd to be asked this, as if it is an odd thing for a woman to be involved in football in her own right.  It certainly wouldn’t occur to me to ask this question of another woman – or a man, for that matter.  I am here because I fell in love with the game at an impressionable age, my home town club failed to look after me properly, I tried to find something else to do on a Saturday afternoon but nothing filled the gap, so I had to find an alternative way back into the game.  That’s why I’m at Chasetown. 

As part of my role as Match Secretary I go into the match officials’ room before the match for the teamsheet handover, together with my opposite number (usually male), the team captains and a representative from each technical area. More often than not, I am not party to the communal handshakes at the end of proceedings.  I have witnessed one woman get really angry about being ignored in such a way.  Rightly or wrongly I just look bemused and laugh about it – but I have started drawing people’s attention to it now. I’m there doing my job just like they are. I’m perfectly civil to everyone – I particularly enjoy hosting and welcoming visitors to the club and always have a smile on my face – but unfortunately this civility is not always reciprocated. But you know I will keep smiling because I bloody love my job and working in football. And slowly but surely I am being accepted as people get to know me on the non-league scene. I’m slowly becoming not a female but that one who takes photos of nice views at grounds and interviews non league dogs (@nonleaguedogs) for the programme and has constant battles with public transport and reviews non league toilets (@nonleaguetoilet) and writes about all these wonderful adventures I have immersing myself in this beautiful (if not perfect) game. I add my unique quirks to the game and my constant smiles are gaining me friends and football family across the Northern Premier League and beyond. You can follow my football adventures as they happen on my Twitter account @blackpooljane – and of course I will continue to blog about them for you.

The fact that I drink pints of mild also attracts comments on a regular basis.  At one club, when our host was handing out our pre-ordered drinks, he stopped in puzzlement when he came to hand a pint of real ale to me: “Oh…did you want a half?”.  Thankfully the beer scene in the UK is changing now (more rapidly than the football scene) – with more women and younger people enjoying real ale and craft beer.  Three years ago I went to California on what was, essentially, a beer holiday (there are 900 breweries in California).  Whilst in San Diego (excellent city, 128 breweries, great zoo, lovely people, highly recommended), my friend and I happened across a beer festival at Stone Brewery.  What I found most remarkable about this beer festival was the fact that around 40% of the beer drinking visitors were female.  I had become used to being an unusual feature at beer festivals as a lone woman.  However it is very pleasing to see the UK beer scene finally catching up with America – both in terms of beer variety and beer drinkers.  At Cannock Beer Festival last year, there were a good number of younger – and female – drinkers, and this was very pleasing to note. Can football follow suit?

Once upon a time I was married to a Walsall fan and people found it hilarious that, when Blackpool played Walsall, we would stand in different ends.  Although quite why they expected one of us to go in the wrong end completely bemused us.  Was my place at the side of my husband as opposed to supporting my own team amongst lifelong friends on a Saturday afternoon?  Nay, football was (and remains) my first love – and that was never going to happen. 

At one time I had a partner who wasn’t remotely interested in football until he met me.  We returned from one of Blackpool’s frequent visits to Wembley and headed straight to the pub (still sporting our Blackpool shirts) to drown our sorrows (we had lost on this occasion).  I found it disconcerting and amusing at the same time that the men in the pub struck up conversations about the match with my partner and not me, presumably because he was male (although granted I probably did have my unapproachable face on). 

Yet when I talk about football, my eyes light up, my pupils dilate and my whole demeanour changes.  I enthuse about the game because I love the game.  It excites me.  It is my muse and inspires me to write.  God knows I haven’t been able to stop writing since being back at Bloomfield Road.  Sometimes this body language can be misread by the person I am talking to and they mistakenly think I am attracted to them – and feel the need to throw their girlfriend/wife/significant other into conversation or, worse still, become tactile and think they’re in with a chance.  But it is the football (not the men!) that attracts me to the ground on a Saturday afternoon. I’m gender neutral at matches and football has always been the one true love of my life.

Now back at Blackpool, it has been brilliant to see a strong woman, Christine Seddon, chairing the Blackpool Supporters Trust and being very much at the forefront of the prolonged and successful campaign to win back the club for the fans. This is one amazing woman who has worked tirelessly for the cause and we ought to be so proud of her for all her efforts.  I know I am.  Bravo Christine – and thank you so much!

You see women are vital to both the men’s and women’s games. I simply cannot comprehend why women would be treated any differently to men, as we are all united in our love of this beautiful game and, frankly, our gender ought to be irrelevant.  But it is clear from the outpouring of scorn directed at the Women’s World Cup that women are still a very long way from being accepted in the game. This is a problem that is not going to be easy to eradicate. 

Ultimately, I have always done things that feel right for me – irrespective of my gender.  And there are many wonderful women keeping the game running.  At Chasetown alone, the Match Secretary (me!), treasurer, programme editor, Tweeter, photographer, sports therapist, hospitality hosts, bar staff, programme seller and caterers are all female. Women are integral to the game.  Take away the women working in football and that would be a massive loss to the game.  

So hear the Lionesses roar!  We are here – and we are here to stay. We are different but we are the same. Accept us and embrace us. We are a big (and growing) part of the game and we aren’t going anywhere – because we love football and we belong here.  

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