From 10 fans in China to 90,000 at Wembley: 15 years as an England Women supporter | Football
There were three main reasons I started following the Lionesses; a love of football, it was affordable and it gave me and my late partner the chance to see the world.
At that stage we hadn’t been on holiday for 10 years but following women’s football gave us a focus.
In the early days it was very hard to follow – we didn’t have social media then so finding out when teams were playing and where they were playing was difficult. There was a tendency to kick off early if everyone was there. They’d just go: “Oh, let’s just kick off” and you turn up at the right time and they’ve played half the match. The first England match myself and Sam attended was against Russia in 2004 and I was impressed. I saw people walking around with Rachel Unitt’s name on the back of their shirts and thought: “Oh, my God, people know who these players are?” It was difficult to know who the players were because they didn’t have names on their own shirts. Now I suspect those people were probably friends and family.
We watched the Lionesses at the home Euros in 2005. I thought it was a barbaric idea that you had to buy each ticket from each individual ground. It must have been a nightmare for travelling fans. Imagine coming from Germany and phoning up Warrington rugby club to try to get tickets? And you had to join everyone’s fan club – I still get emails off the back of buying those tickets.
We didn’t expect our second tournament and first trip abroad with the team to be the 2007 World Cup in China but that was what happened. Initially, for the group stage, I think there were about 10 fans who went out that weren’t directly connected to the players, and we were in the same hotel as all the players’ families, cheap places because the FA didn’t help families with that kind of thing.
We were all in the same places, having breakfast together, going to matches together and having dinners together so we all became really good friends. Because we had been that closely connected with the players’ families, the players knew who we were so the staff knew who we were, and we were included.
After China, when the next tournament came along, we started to organise together, all through emails because there wasn’t social media. If it was abroad Pav (the FA’s Rachel Pavlou) was quite good at getting us involved, she would say: “We’ve got a match out in Spain, there’s only six of you due to come, so do you want to come on the players’ coach?”
Obviously that would never happen now. We were lucky in that respect. There were so few of us who were the “hardened fans” that the players made sure we were looked after as well.
With it being such a small group we would share the burden of trying to work it all out. Now obviously there’s a lot more information out there, it’s a lot easier to find things, a lot more people talk about it, so it’s a lot better in that respect and that was the way we wanted things to go. But it is hard not to miss the nostalgia of it just being a few of you, of being looked after.
The growth of the game means that closeness to the players is not as strong and I miss it. For me it is something that has been lost from the game. Ultimately, though, this growth is what we were all striving for. We wanted it to be popular and that is what comes of it being popular. It’s a doubled-edged sword.
Thankfully the players now get paid an OK salary for doing what they do; they could obviously do with a bit more but it is a career now which is what it was all about – rather than them having to give up jobs and use all their holidays to be able to play in a tournament. Our sacrifice somewhat matched theirs. There was the solidarity behind it. They weren’t playing for us personally, but because we were only 20 people or so they also sort of were.
When Sam passed away suddenly with a brain aneurysm in 2014 Hope Powell, Marieanne Spacey and others came to the funeral and England sent a floral crest. Following the team gave us a purpose, took us around the world, gave us a lot of friends but perhaps most importantly it gave her a good send-off and provided a lot of support for me when I needed it most. It is strange to go to matches without her but following the team was such a positive experience I wouldn’t change in any way.
Now they have sold out Wembley. It is absolutely amazing. Obviously, like everyone else, I hope 90,000 people do turn up. Hopefully they’ll all come and hopefully they’ll win. It’s always nice to beat the Germans. But as always, as long as you put on a good show that’s the most important thing.
I think it will be emotional to a certain extent. I was in the 45,619-strong crowd for the Olympics and that was. This will be double that, so how can it not be?
It’s going to be to be weird, strange but brilliant. This is what it was all about.