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England show why women’s football deserves more attention

Slowly but surely, the old stereotypes about women’s football being dull, slow and lacking in the skills department are being demolished by its growing sense of professionalism.

Attending the recent international friendly between England and Australia at Fulham’s Craven Cottage underlined this profound shift in how the women’s game is perceived.

Just over 6,000 fans gathered for the Lionesses’ first game in London for four years, and while the FA might have wished for more, the atmosphere inside the ground was fantastic.

Flags waved, drums sounded, a brass band played. The entire ambiance was different to men’s football, where mainly male crowds still indulge in the kind of tribalism that too easily results in aggressive behaviour, bad language and even violence. 

People were much more approachable and willing to speak, especially when the subject of women and football came into play. Everyone had something to say. 

As Vicky, an Australian supporter, told me: “Apart from the physical strength, the gap between men’s and women’s football is closing.”

Michael, a 45-year-old England fan, said: “I’m here to support my country but also because women football has something very special.”

Dominated

The pre-match scene at Craven Cottage

An excitable female announcer hyped up the fans ahead of kick-off, but the values of respect and fair play were observed throughout the evening.

“No matter which team I support, I just want to see a decent football game tonight,” said Elisabeth, 26, another Australia fan.

As the match got underway and England dominated, children screamed while mothers shouted even louder. Even the Australian fans applauded as the Lionesses created chance after chance, taking the lead through Fran Kirby on 21 minutes.

There were some whistles and boos from England fans as several questionable refereeing calls went against their team, but the howling rage and obscenities that often tarnish men’s matches was non-existent. 

On the pitch, another aspect that makes women’s football stand out from the elite men’s game is the respect shown by players towards each other and the match officials.

You will rarely see a bad tackle, diving and simulation are virtually non-existent, as is haranguing the referee, no matter how poor their decision.

Without all these negatives holding things up, women’s football also features more actual action and less stoppages.

Accessible

Another big difference lies in the cost of showing your support. Adult tickets to see England take on the Matildas started at £10, while under-18 and student tickets were tremendous value at just £1.

In comparison, tickets for the England men’s friendly against the USA on November 15th at Wembley start at £10 and go up to £100.

‘With plenty of media attention both before and after the game – and live coverage on BT Sport – the women’s international game is clearly on the up’

Vicky said: ‘Women’s football is pretty accessible and the FA has recently done such a great job. They develop the game by selling cheap tickets and I think it’s a really good idea.’

In terms of style of play, teams dare to play decent football. Players were always ready to make a difference and it was a pleasure to see considerable strength from both sides. The crowd was quickly won over by England’s display.

“Obviously, women are not as fast as men, but in terms of strategy and tactics, it’s very similar.” added Vicky.

Harry, a Fulham ticket season ticket holder, added: “Even though people think that women’s football is dull, I think there’s a lot of technique on show.” 

Lucy Staniforth, playing at No. 10, certainly showed plenty, with several decent deliveries into the six-yard box as the Lionesses mauled the Matildas but failed make their dominance count.

England should have been 3-0 up in the first half, but some gritty Australian defending kept things interesting. The hosts were also denied two clear penalties, but the atmosphere remained friendly and peaceful.

Momentum

Phil Neville’s side were eventually left to rue all those missed chances as Aussie defender Clare Polkinghorne rose to power home a close-range header with six minutes remaining.

England pushed for a late winner but had to settle for a 1-1 draw. Sweden are next up for them in a friendly at Rotherham as the build-up to next summer’s Women’s World Cup in France continues.

As the crowd drifted away, players from both teams stayed on the pitch to chat to fans and pose for selfies – something else you don’t see in the men’s game.

With plenty of media attention both before and after the game – and live coverage on BT Sport – the women’s international game is clearly on the up, aided by the ongoing success of an England team currently 3rd in Fifa’s world rankings.

The Women’s Super League is also gaining momentum but still suffers from negative perceptions about female football.

After witnessing England’s latest performance, more people should park those perceptions and give it chance.

Flying Fulham see off stuttering Wolves

Fulham underlined their promotion credentials with a 2-0 win over Championship leaders Wolverhampton Wanderers at Craven Cottage.

The hosts extended their home winning streak to eight games and are unbeaten in the league in 2018, closing to within a point of fourth-placed Derby County.

Rising star Ryan Sessegnon scored their first in the 38th minute, being in the right place at the right time yet again, and the second came from Aleksandar Mitrović in the 71st minute with some lovely individual brilliance to cap off a well-contested match.

Wolves managed just two shots on target and have dropped 12 points in their past eight games in all competitions, winning just three.

Slaviša Jokanović recalled Tomas Kalas, Floyd Ayite and Ryan Fredricks, which proved to be a good choice by the Fulham boss as Fredricks makes a crucial block from Helder Costa’s shot four minutes in, with Wolves quick out of the blocks.

The visitors did not have it all their own way early on, though, as good link-up play between Tom Cairney and Matt Target saw the ball end up at the feet of Sessegnon, who cut in to shoot but was crowded out by the Wolves rearguard.

In the 13th minute a shot from Cairney deflecting directly into the path of Mitrovic who managed to chip it over goalkeeper John Ruddy only to see his effort cleared by Wolves captain Conor Coady.

Increased pace

With play going back and forth in an open and fairly even first half-hour, the game was there for the taking, and it was Sessegnon who stepped up to the plate.

After a bad clearance from Ryan Bennett, Stefan Johansen and Mitrovic worked together once more to get the ball into the Wolves box, and a sloppy hold by Ruddy allowed Sessegnon to tap in for his 13th goal this season.

Wolves came out for the second half even more fired up than before, and the first booking of the contest came in the 48th minute after an obvious pull-back by Targett on the counter-attacking Costa.

Wolves manager Nuno Espirito Santo added attacking impetus in the 64th minute, with Diogo Jota and Morgan Gibbs-White coming on for Costa and Alfred N’Diaye, while Sheyi Ojo replaced Ayite for the hosts.

The changes were to no avail for the visitors, however, as Fulham doubled their lead seven minutes later. Mitrovic electrified the home fans on a bitterly cold evening with a shot from 25 yards out that went straight into the bottom corner.

A minute later, Johansen nearly made it 3-0 with an effort which narrowly skimmed past the post.

Five minutes from time, Wolves missed a golden opportunity when, with an open goal in front of him, Jota scooped the ball over the bar from five yards out.

With only two minutes of stoppage time added, Fulham’s fans celebrated in the freezing temperatures as their team sealed victory over the table-topping West Midlands outfit and kept up their own push for promotion to the top flight.

Fulham style overcomes Bluebird brawn in festive thriller

Strong winds and heavy rain dampened the Boxing Day atmosphere at Cardiff despite the Bluebirds and Fulham delivering a late Christmas in South Wales.

The Cottagers eventually ran out 4-2 winners, inflicting a first Championship home loss of the season on the hosts, with man of the match Ryan Sessegnon demonstrating why he might attract interest during the January transfer window.

The versatile 17-year-old netted 12 minutes from time to make it 3-1 to the visitors. Cardiff gave themselves hope with a 92nd minute header by substitute Callum Paterson, but Stefan Johansen struck deep into added time to send the away fans into raptures.

The conditions were horrible for both sets of spectators but made for an exciting game, with the ball zipping off the surface and presenting a tough test for the goalkeepers.

Despite their team sitting second in the table behind Wolves going into the match, the home supporters were subdued throughout, while the energy of their Fulham rivals in the stands seemed to translate to the team in white.

Celebrating

Slaviša Jokanović’s team, seeking a third win in four games, were quicker to every 50/50, moving the ball around quicker and seeming like they wanted it more.

In the fifth minute, Johansen found himself in an advance position through on goal. Bruno Manga brought him down, but the referee waved ‘play on’ as the Fulham players appealed.

Just seven minutes later, however, their fans were celebrating as Tim Reem’s back-post header put them ahead. That blow sparked the Welsh side into life, and they began to pressure Fulham on the ball, leading to a scrappy period littered with fouls.

As the half drew to a close, Fulham again found themselves bombing forward on the break with numbers supporting the attack.

The ball was pinged to Ryan Fredericks on the right wing, but his attempted cross was cut out by Sol Bamba, and Fulham had to settle for being 1-0 up at the break.

Cynical

The second half began very much like the first, with Fulham dictating the play and creating the better chances, while Neil Warnock’s men resorted to cynical fouls.

It was only a matter of time before the visitors struck again, and their pressure told in the 56th minute. Sessegnon was the provider as he coolly took the ball past his covering defender, giving him the time and space to pick out Floyd Ayité as he steamed through for the simplest of tap-ins.

This time, the celebrations were short lived, as Cardiff hit hit back a minute later with the goal of the game. A Fulham clearance landed at the feet of striker Kenneth Zohore who hit a half volley from 25 yards out which flew past Fulham keeper Marcus Bettinelli.

Suddenly, the home fans found their voices, and Fulham knew they had a game on their hands.

Warnock went for broke with a double attacking substitution in the 73rd minute, bringing on Paterson and Rhys Healey. Fulham responded by sending right winger Rui Fonte into action, with both teams chasing the win.

Consolation

Fonte quickly made his mark, playing a lovely ball out to Sessegnon who chested it down and slotted calmly past keeper Neil Etheridge, seemingly sealing victory and sending some of the home fans towards the exits.

Paterson’s late goal for 3-2 felt more like a consolation effort, and with Cardiff throwing everything at Fulham to try and get the equaliser, they left themselves exposed at the back. Johansen’s audacious chip to make it 4-2 was the last kick of the game.

Fulham simply outclassed Cardiff, bossing the midfield where the contest was ultimately decided. The win kept them in 11th place, while Cardiff slipped to third behind Bristol City after they beat Reading.

Struggling Blackburn stun Fulham with late leveller

Fulham missed the chance to move into the Championship play-off places as they were held to a 2-2 draw at home to struggling Blackburn.

A 94th minute equalizer from substitute Lucas Joao stunned the Cottage and ensured Tony Mowbray’s unbeaten run since taking over Rovers continued.

Fulham have been scoring for fun this season – only Newcastle have notched more goals in the division. But the potency that has been so apparent in recent games seemed to be lacking slightly.

After 40 minutes, the game’s best moment was referee Andy Davies stumbling to the floor as the hosts looked to counter attack, until Neeskens Kebano was hauled down for a free kick. Everyone was down, including Thomas Kalas, who kindly picked up the referee’s red and yellow cards and handed them back to him.

Slavisa Jokanovic’s side were patient and slick, without being particularly penetrative. Ryan Fredericks and Scott Malone both got forward with intent as Fulham started to step up the pressure.

Influence

Rovers looked like they were going to get to break all-square, until Tom Cairney found the one thing the visitors didn’t want him to find: space. He turned, he surged, and he found Stefan Johansen free on the left.

Sone Aluko came closest to putting Fulham ahead earlier in the half, and it was he who was on the end of the Norwegian’s cross to guide home his sixth goal of the season on the stroke of half-time.

At that point, Fulham looked on course for a win that would take them into sixth place, between Reading and Sheffield Wednesday, with the two scheduled to play each other at Hillsborough on Friday.

Only Mowbray knows the reason why Joao did not start, and it must have been a good one. The Portuguese striker was brought on with half an hour to play and looked a class above the rest as he started to influence the game.

Lively

The Cottagers have kept just one clean sheet in their last eight games, and that seemed to give Blackburn some encouragement. Chris Martin dallied on the ball on the halfway line which enabled Rovers to pounce.

Marvin Emnes, who was lively all night, was brought down in the area and Craig Conway fired home the resulting penalty with 10 minutes to go.

Fulham pushed for a winner, and Ryan Sessegnon had a few promising runs down the left side to no avail. The 16-year-old wonderkid has recently been linked with a move to Tottenham, but it was a former Spurs defender who was the white’s best player on the night.

Fredericks looked to get forward at any given opportunity and his endeavor was finally rewarded late on when he played the ball low across the six-yard box for substitute Cyriac to convert low past Jason Steele.

Stunned

Craven Cottage was rocking. The Hammersmith end went into party mode for all of about five minutes as their elation was cut short. The man that had the biggest influence for Blackburn on the night had the final say.

Joao fended off Tim Reem with ease to sweep home a Derrick Williams cross in the 94th minute, leaving the Cottage stunned. It was a third goal in two games now for the 6ft 3in forward as Mowbray’s side jumped out of the drop zone.

Joao was booked for celebrating with a little too much wild abandon. The only plus for Fulham was the draw extended their unbeaten run to eight matches, but this was definitely two points dropped for Jokanovic’s team.

A home win against lowly Wolves on Saturday would still see Fulham rise into the play-off places, but they cannot afford to drop too many more points, especially at home.

Why the FA Cup needs to be protected

The idea that the FA Cup is losing its status is more than just a theory; it has become an indisputable reality. Even the most extreme of romantics would admit that football’s oldest knockout competition is not what it once was.

Muscled out by the twin behemoths of Premier and Champions Leagues, and with even Championship clubs downgrading its importance, it is in the lower leagues where the Cup now finds its strongest allies.

Smaller clubs do their upmost to compensate for the neglect shown by the bigger ones, and that is why they need to be protected.

Wycombe Wanderers players reacting to getting Tottenham away in the fourth-round draw on Monday did the rounds on social media.

Ball number 18 was drawn out and they were off their chairs and into party mode. As a trip to the Lane beckons later this month, try telling the Chairboys that the magic of the Cup has faded.

Back seat

“The Cup is only devalued for Premier League clubs. The excitement is still there from the Championship down,” said Sutton boss Paul Doswell, manager of the lowest ranked club left in the draw, and it is hard to disagree with him.

Especially when Southend v Sheffield United in League One attracted more supporters (7,202) than the all-Premier League third-round tie between Hull and Swansea (6,808).

Admittedly, this was in part due to the ongoing battle between Hull fans and the club’s owners, but Premier League clubs just don’t care for it and it evidently rubs off on the supporters.

The absurd amount of cash at stake thanks to the current £5.1bn Sky-BT Sport TV deal dictates that Premier League clubs’ priorities lies with their league form.

Throw in European commitments for some of those clubs as well, and it’s not hard to see why the FA Cup has taken a back seat.

Squandered

And yet… Take Bournemouth for example, perched nicely in mid-table, seemingly safe from relegation fears but well adrift of a European place. Surely, the Cherries were in a perfect position to have a crack at the Cup.

“Premier League clubs just aren’t bothered unless they reach the latter stages”

Instead, manager Eddie Howe rang the changes – the whole starting XI – and they lost 3-0 away to League Two side Millwall.

Howe was berated by fans and the media for squandering what could have been a promising Cup run, but it was apparent that his and the owners priorities lies elsewhere.

Merit payments are due to every Premier League club based on league position at the end of the season, on top of their £85m equal share payout. Bournemouth currently sit in ninth place, which would secure another £24m.

To put that in perspective, the payout would yield over 12 times the amount the winner would receive for winning the FA Cup outright (£1.8m). Even nudging up to eighth would itself be worth more than that. This is huge for any club, not least for one of Bournemouth’s size.

No coincidence

Premier League clubs just aren’t bothered unless they reach the latter stages, so more needs to be done to protect the clubs that keep this competition alive.

Not scheduling Fulham away to Cardiff in an 11.30am kick-off when the earliest train arriving there from London was at 11.10am, with a 25-minute walk to the stadium.

“Man Utd got the payment instead, and it will probably just be enough to cover Paul Pogba’s wages for a week”

A club’s fans are its most valuable asset, but they given scant regard by the FA and their broadcast partners who, let’s face it, call the tune over such scheduling madness.

It is no coincidence that all of Manchester United’s past 55 FA Cup games have been aired live on TV – a big audience is guaranteed.

But 15 minutes into their third-round tie with Reading, they were 2-0 up and the game was pretty much over. Surely other ties had the potential for more excitement and upsets?

No-win situation

Take Sutton United v Wimbledon – a ‘proper’ Cup clash that saw two smaller clubs dreaming of a lucrative fourth-round tie. But then again it wouldn’t have pulled in millions of viewers from Asia, Africa and the Far East like Jose Mourinho’s team do.

The money that  Sutton could have made had their game been televised would have been like winning the lottery for the National League outfit.

New changing rooms for the kids, suggested Doswell, along with a general revamp of the facilities and a healthier-looking budget. Man Utd got the payment instead, and it will probably just be enough to cover Paul Pogba’s wages for a week.

Of course, broadcasting – like football itself – is a business, not a charity. The BBC would argue it has a right to chase for high viewing figures in return for their investment in the FA Cup.

In their defence, imagine if they had not aired the United match and Reading had won at Old Trafford. But hindsight is a wonderful thing and it’s impossible to please everyone all the time.

Replays

But the BBC is a publicly-funded organisation that should not be all about numbers; there needs to be a compromise. Live coverage of Sutton’s replay with Wimbledon is worth £75,000 – a quarter of their annual budget.

It should not be perceived as them doing Sutton a favour, it may not pull in a mass audience, but they would be airing a good old-fashioned cup tie with history behind both sides.

“The Goliaths are somewhat to blame for the magic being lost, so the Davids need to be protected for the competition’s sake”

Replays have been on the forefront of debates and continue to divide opinions. The small teams love the revenue they generate, but the big clubs would banish them in an instant.

They bemoan the fixture congestion replays cause, hence why there has been talk of them being scrapped – further evidence of finding ways to protect the interests of bigger clubs.

Surely, a better idea would simply be to put out a strong team, which would more than likely save a tie from going to a replay in the first place.

That replay away at Old Trafford or Anfield could be the biggest day in a lot of clubs’ season – or even history – the biggest game their players have ever played in and the biggest their fans have attended.

That should not be in jeopardy for the sake of shaving a game off an elite club’s schedule. The Goliaths are somewhat to blame for the magic being lost, so the Davids need to be protected for the competition’s sake.

Elephant Sport midweek Championship Podcast

Elephant Sport midweek Championship Podcast

Aaron Paul, Shan Gambling and Dan Racheter take a light hearted yet informative look at the goings-on in the EFL Championship, reviewing the weekend’s games, looking ahead to tonight’s fixtures (18/10/16) and exploring some of the league’s top news stories.

In this week’s podcast: Mick McCarthy and job security at Ipswich; Fulham’s much-needed win; Neil Warnock’s arrival at Cardiff, with an upturn in fortunes for Marouane Chamakh.

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