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Tuesday, June 25, 2024

‘Massive final vibes’: United and Spurs fans eye Women’s FA Cup history

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A new name will be written on the Women’s FA Cup final trophy on Sunday, when Manchester United take on Tottenham at a sold-out Wembley, and the impact of both clubs reaching a final, let alone earning a first major piece of silverware, could be seismic.For Natalie Burrell, a lifelong United fan who has followed the women’s team home and away since their relaunch in 2018, there is a desire for a second consecutive FA Cup final, and hopefully a win, to force a shift in commitment to the women’s team under the new ownership structure.“I don’t think this season in the league we’ve been up to par, and I think there needs to be changes,” she says, with United sat fifth in the Women’s Super League going into the final round of fixtures next weekend. “A trophy won’t paper over cracks, but I think it will draw more people to the women’s team and increase the scrutiny. I hope it’s a catalyst and that people from Ineos are there, I hope that Jim Ratcliffe is there, David Brailsford, Omar Berrada, all of them. I know it clashes with the men’s game, but this is where I want people to be watching, this is what’s important, this could be the only trophy the club gets its hands on.”Burrell says the team’s run to last year’s Cup final, which they lost 1-0 to Chelsea, boosted the attendances at Leigh Sports Village, with an average of around 4,000 fans watching them at home across the season. She is proud of that and a win could catapult interest both among fans and players. “An FA Cup final for Manchester United, and ideally a win, is going to be fantastic and key for attracting new players and for growing the fanbase.”Sunday’s opponents are an altogether different prospect to the serial winners of Chelsea. Tottenham narrowly avoided relegation last season and have been rejuvenated under their manager, Robert Vilahamn. They sit sixth in the WSL, with 10 points more than they achieved last season and still have two games left to play.“Spurs will be tough,” Burrell says. “Robert Vilahamn is a fantastic manager and the fact he’s come in and changed the team so dramatically shows what a difference great management can make. There is pressure on United, I think the girls know they’re under pressure, but that could be an advantage.”Manchester United’s Hannah Blundell challenges Lauren James in last year’s final, which was won by Chelsea. Photograph: Darren Walsh/Chelsea FC/Getty ImagesWhere Manchester United can lean on their experience last year, Tottenham are riding on the crest of a wave having, arguably, overachieved in reaching the final. Chris Paouros, co-chair of Proud Lilywhites, the Spurs LGBTQ+ Supporters’ Association, and a Spurs women season-ticket holder, says: “When Spurs reached the final, I went away, I had a 90-minute meeting, and I came back to 234 WhatsApp messages from people saying: ‘How do I get tickets?’ That was before anything was announced.“There is just massive Cup final vibes all around the club. There were people that were women’s game regulars, but then there were lots of others who were just like: ‘Wow, it’s a Cup final, we haven’t been in an FA Cup final since 1991.’”Paouros’s late wife, Monica, played for the women’s team in the early 2000s. She has seen the team at the bottom, and followed their journey to the top. “When the women’s team won the Premier League Southern Division in 2017 and the game was played at White Hart Lane, there were about 2,000 of us there and that reignited my relationship with the women’s team. I’ve had a season ticket ever since,” says Paouros. “I’ve hung over a railing with 100 other fans in Cheshunt watching the team play in the Championship in 2019 and now we’re at a sold-out Wembley, it’s been incredible to go on this journey with the team.”Chris Paouros (furthest right), the chair of Proud Lilywhites, has followed the women’s team through highs and lows. Photograph: Andy Hall/The ObserverNew to the scene is Mark Burton, a lifelong fan of Tottenham’s men and this season a first-time season-ticket holder for the women. “Spurs women are in an FA Cup final and getting to Wembley has generated greater interest in the team,” says Burton. “I can testify to that from the chatter in my own Spurs WhatsApp group of 25 season-ticket holders and members.“Spurs for me has always been about both football and socialising. However, until this season my wife and son weren’t that interested. They knew Spurs were important to me and I’d taken them to a few games, but they hadn’t got the bug.”That all changed last summer when they were in Australia at the same time the Women’s World Cup was taking place and they got tickets to watch England v Nigeria in Brisbane. “When Lauren James walked on to the pitch it was love at first sight for my 11-year-old son and he’ll go to his grave saying her red card was totally unjustified,” says Burton. “Meanwhile, my wife screamed with joy when Beth England and Chloe Kelly slotted home. The Lionesses were magnificent (as was the Nigeria team) and before England won that game both my wife and son were hooked.”skip past newsletter promotionafter newsletter promotionThat prompted Burton’s wife to sign them up for season tickets. “‘You know it can become very addictive’, I warned. Little did I realise how accurate my prediction would be.”Sitting alongside fellow fans of the women’s team this season has opened up a new world. “Our seats [at Brisbane Road] are only a few rows back from the dugout,” says Burton. “Over the season we have gotten to know the people around us, whose knowledge of the game is extraordinarily deep.“Following the Spurs women’s team has made me realise how privileged I feel to be watching football alongside so many people from the LGBTQ+ community. I have huge respect for Proud Lilywhites and the efforts they have made to ensure everyone, and I mean everyone, feels at home watching football.“This wasn’t something I’d paid a great deal of attention to until I started supporting Spurs’ women’s team and it’s made me much more aware of football’s potential as a positive agent for change.“In addition, the camaraderie with the other Spurs women supporters has made me feel like a fan again and not a customer. Let’s be honest, the men’s team doesn’t need me. But as a supporter of the women’s team, I feel I can make a difference – especially at away games – where my voice can be heard.”Their voices will be hard to hear at Wembley among the sold-out crowd, but they will be there, part of a fresh following of women’s football that is growing by the day.

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