English Football

A great day for an emerging sport – the selfie final

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The stadium was quiet for around 30 minutes, largely due to a rather disappointing first half hour of the FA Women’s Cup final. If anyone wanted to know what the men and women have in common when it comes to football, it was that cup finals are invariably dull. Chelsea Ladies versus Notts County’s “Lady pies” was no exception.

The crowd came to life in those latter stages of the first half, and it was triggered off by the sun coming out. “Ahhhh….”, was the collective hum as people reached for their sun glasses, sun block and took off a layer. It was the first sign of real noise from a fantastic crowd of 30,000-plus, apart from a sub-contracted band playing stereotypical football tunes to try and drum up some fervour.

These were just some of the things that made the first Wembley Women’s Cup final far, far different to the good old FA Cup. As a day in the life of human beings, it was far more civilised, genteel and incredibly more family-orientated. It was football as the FA would probably like the whole sporting community to be. Football as a smiling, child-like offering with people all enjoying themselves and filling themselves up with sponsor-endorsed product.

Jonathan Pearce said of the Women’s World Cup that the ladies game is “a different sport”, and he was not wrong. Comparisons with the men’s game are worthless, because the whole experience is not what you get at Stamford Bridge, White Hart Lane and the Emirates. If there is a benchmark, it is not to be found in Britain, but more likely in the US or Japan. Is it a world of innocence, where cynicism hasn’t yet crept in and the sport is riding on the back of enthusiasm and exploration, or is it just that women really are, true to that age old – and now inappropriate – generalisation, “the fairer sex”?.

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Everything surrounding this game was a marked contrast to the image we have of British football. It was the “selfie final”, with groups of young girls interrupting their walk up Wembley Way to have a photo taken in front of the stadium. And it went on inside the stadium. Wembley encouraged it, introducing a hashtag for people to send their self-portraits through, perhaps to be displayed on giant screens. But given Wembley is a notorious “no signal zone”, just how people were meant to post their photos remained a mystery.

But the mood was one of quiet expectation. Troupes of youth football teams, all matching track suits, were led by umbrella-wielding leaders into the stadium. A few off-season Chelsea and Notts County fans also came along, out of curiosity more than anything else. You sensed that many in the crowd had not been to Wembley before.

True to Wembley form, the pre-match entertainment rolled out a singer who had sprung to short-lived fame through winning a game show (The Voice). Whether anyone will remember Becky Hill this time next year us doubtful, but there were young girls around us who sat and moved to the sound of the music, so some people were impressed. Hill sung the national anthem, which was similarly ignored as it is in the men’s finals. And like the men’s final, the FA couldn’t resist the addition of a serviceman or two.

To the game itself. England’s success in the World Cup meant that “Lionesses” like Katie Chapman, Laura Bassett, Claire Rafferty and Eniola Aluko were all heartily welcomed by the crowd. The Women’s Super League is a small affair, with just eight teams, so it isn’t difficult to get to know the names of the players. After the World Cup, we are all familiar with some of these players.

The first half was quite dull, but in a much better 15-minute spell, inspired by Aluko, Chelsea edged in front. Aluko had gone close herself with a shot into the side-netting and then when her effort was parried by Notts County keeper Carly Telford. She also created another opening for Gemma Davison, but her shot was well wide. Then, in the 37th minute, Aluko weaved her way into the penalty area and set-up the waspish Ji So-Yun, who scrambled the ball home to put Chelsea ahead.

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Notts County, who had barely created a dent in the Chelsea defence, had a better spell after the break and Desi Scott went close when her shot from outside the area was deflected for a corner. Then a Leanne Crichton header was cleared off the line by Chapman.

The crowd started to lose interest in the second half, hence a string of Mexican waves – never a good sign. Late in the day, Chelsea should have had a second goal when a nice move involving Aluko again ended with Gilly Flaherty scooping over the bar.

That was it and when the final whistle went, you could hear the players screaming with delight. Sections of the crowd were silent or politely applauding. All very sedate. Chelsea Ladies’ first trophy, a typical cup final scoreline of 1-0.

As a spectacle, the FA will claim a triumph. It was a rather surreal experience, but if Women’s football brings some good manners, civility and old fashioned wonderment back to the game, then bring it on. I never heard an obscenity all afternoon. That can’t be bad, can it?

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