A WINTER OF DISCONTENT – time for equality of resources in the women’s game and the grassroots

By Dr Paul Breen @CharltonMen

JOHN STEINBECK once said that “a beard is the one thing that a woman cannot do better than a man, or if she can her success is assured only in a circus.” Though football history hasn’t always included herstory, women have been doing well in the game for decades. In the midst of the First World War and just after, the women’s game threatened to usurp the men’s. Not just here in Britain but across the sea in Ireland, girls had begun to show that kicking a ball around a field isn’t a gender thing. It’s generally an individual skill applied to a team situation. On a more basic human level, it’s also a game that’s about entertainment and generally the entertainment industry works best when it caters to all needs and all tastes. Economically and culturally then, the women’s game prospered in a way that it has never since to the same extent. Largely that was because the authorities of the time took measures to ensure that the ladies stayed in their place.

Proper order had to be established where football was deemed to be a game of hairy legs and the beards Steinbeck spoke of. But surely times are changing, aren’t they? We do after all live in an age of hormone replacement therapy allowing anyone who so desires to have a beard – not to make light of a serious situation. Beards are also coming back into fashion amongst younger men, alongside craft beers and cloth caps. So is women’s football. TV coverage has also increased in recent years and we regularly see female pundits on live football shows, doing as good a job as any other panellists – even if it’d probably be difficult for anyone, man or woman, to play the part of killjoy so well as Ireland’s own bearded icon Roy Keane. On the surface then the women’s game seems in a healthy state and it is heading towards what women in some other sports such as Gaelic football and tennis have achieved over the past decade. That’s even if as Andy Murray has so famously pointed out several times, we still refer to “women’s tennis” or “women’s football”, not just tennis or football.

On that basis – with none of the suave of Andy Murray but the mentality at least – I headed off yesterday afternoon to the back end of Bexleyheath on the borders of Kent and London. There, I watched Charlton Athletic playing Manchester United – treating the support of the shirt the same as any other match. This after all was a top of the table contest, part of a promotion triangle as far as I know in which Tottenham also play a major part. I’d never been to one of these games before and wasn’t sure what to expect, what the standard would be. I’d seen the World Cup on TV but then that’s always going to be a higher level, I guessed. One thing I noticed straightaway though was the amount of families and the mixing of supporters, as you’d find in your average non league match. Added to that there was no visible police presence from what I could see and a total absence of tension, which would be a fantastic achievement at all football matches.

Settling into my seat I waited for the action to begin. Come 2 o’clock, the teams came out, lined up and then separated into two ends, with the Charlton girls forming a huddle – the underdogs psyching themselves up for battle. Now – for a flash of honesty. Yeah, I did what any of my female friends and some male might do in any situation of passing time before the start of a contest between two sets of athletes. You check out the fittest ones. Denying it doesn’t make it not real. And then the game kicked off.

Within seconds the contest, the deep battle of body and spirit, not the surface appearance becomes the important thing – two sets of players, one wearing the shirt of the team you support and the other wearing a shirt slightly more famous the world over, even if they’ve never had a branch of their club store in Bexleyheath.  There was something beautifully lower league about the situation – no ranting, no swearing, nobody singing “This is a shit hole, I want to go home.” The game was played at a fast tempo, Charlton maybe shading the opening exchanges. And then out of the blue, as their other team might do with Lukaku, United launched a long ball forward. Ambitious, but effective – as United’s player managed to head the ball between Charlton’s keeper and full back Charlotte Kerr. Everyone’s eyes at this stage followed the slow drop of the ball into the Charlton net with a few expletive-free cries of “offside” to accompany the whistle.

But in a scene that would come to define the day – the crowd and then the other players slowly began to notice, Charlton’s defender had stayed on the ground in the aftermath of a collision. Here, for the first time, real differences in the men’s and women’s games began to emerge – a fact not lost on some of the crowd who like me were getting a first taste of this league.

As Charlotte Kerr stayed on the ground, everybody assumed she’d get up in a minute or so. But she stayed down, as the seconds turned to minutes and everybody started to realise something was badly wrong. Eventually, both sets of players left the pitch as medics tended to the injured player doing their best in a tough situation. Having done First Aid and being useless at the practice of it, I don’t envy or underestimate the challenges of such a situation. The tension that was absent in the atmosphere at the start was now firmly concentrated on the girl on the ground. Everyone was hoping she’d get up, maybe suffering nothing more than concussion – then sit out the rest of the game as it resumed. But at the same time you’re sitting thinking, this just wouldn’t be happening in the men’s game even if similar events have occurred and have been in the news. There’s always an ambulance at hand just outside the ground but here it was apparent there was none.

Around me, various people commented on the situation – the potential dangers to the player’s health with this going on for a very long time. Something similar had happened a few months before at another Manchester United game. Nobody knew at this stage how seriously Charlotte had been injured or even the exact nature of the injury. Worse, rumours began to circulate that there was limited oxygen available. Whether that part’s true or not, the player stayed down on the ground for almost three quarters of an hour before an ambulance got in and out again. Shortly after the ambulance had made its exit from the ground, the game was abandoned as the player got taken to hospital.

Thankfully Charlotte appears to be recovering from her injuries and has been the recipient of well wishes from across the whole of football. But at the same time, the story has made headlines across the world – even appearing in the New York Post almost as soon as it happened, faster even than the ambulance. And that’s not any criticism of those who manage Charlton Ladies, the staff at the ground or the emergency services. It’s a reflection on the fact that in an age of so much money running through football, there’s so little of it trickling down into the women’s game, into the grassroots and into all those areas of the sport that could be beneficial for society. As the ambulance arrived, a little girl  who seemed to be a junior player asked her friends “if we ever get injured, will they leave us to suffer for hours?”

Okay – it wasn’t hours and the medics did all they could to help the injured player – but you’d hope that when such kids grow up, they’ll not have to suffer because of less resources, because of perceptions about what’s important in today’s football environment.

There’s a dozen political points that could be made here about the problems with identity politics over grass roots change, trickle down economics and the fact that fifty years after Steinbeck’s death, the needs of people with beards is still prioritised – figuratively speaking. But on a human level, there is only one thing to be said and that’s the expression of sadness that these sorts of incidents are happening on the fringes of the richest sport in this country. It’s a sport where the top players could purchase an ambulance a week in a country where the very sighting of an ambulance now means somebody’s got to be seriously hurt and in some cases near the point of death.

Thankfully this time around, nobody died but it could happen. For too long, men’s football has starved the women’s game of the oxygen that it deserved to have. Situations like this shouldn’t happen and we should all be in this together to quote Dave Cameron’s fellow defender of austerity making sure it doesn’t. You don’t need a beard to play football and don’t need the absence of one to be sympathetic to female calls for justice, equality and social responsibility on the part of the men’s game.

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