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The Athletic pissed off a few people this week with their article which compared the matchday experience of Arsenal women’s big game at the Emirates with Spurs men’s big game at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium. Fans complained that it was poorly-researched and patronising and questioned why it needed to be written, as though women’s football has to meet some established standard to be valid or relevant.

The writer Tim Spiers observes that instead of anxiously checking for team news on their phone in the lead up to the match, mothers were standing outside the Emirates gossiping and drinking coffee. He then notes that the one pub he went into and the streets around the stadium were dead — whereas it’d be raucous as hell if the men were in town.

It was a bit of a boring read and his account didn’t really ring true with my experience of going to the game, but I can see why he wanted to write it, because traditional football ‘culture’ in this country has been baked in for decades, yet fans of the women’s game seem to have found a way of diverging from it.

Leeds poet and lifelong football fan Keith Fenton was also struck by this and after hearing him read his poem Two Lads Kiss Outside A Sheffield Pub at an open mic, I wanted to get his perspective on the new breed of football fans gripped by the Lionesses and the Women’s Super League.

I hope you enjoy reading about our conversation and his poem, which is included at the bottom of this newsletter.

“England obviously ended up winning 4-0, but it wasn't always that obvious,” Keith told me. “No, when Russo did that, that changed everything. The joy in it. You could feel it….”

Remember England’s epic semi-final win against Sweden at Euro 2022? I do. I’ll never forget the ridiculous joy, coming to terms with the prospect of England playing in the final of this massive tournament. At Wembley, and all. It was surreal, exciting, and of course, after battering the Swedes I felt sure that when the big game came around the Lionesses would lift the trophy.
I was happy to be reminded of that brilliant night at Left Bank in Leeds a few weeks ago. The best thing about open mics is that you don’t know what you’ll get. Lots of different people bringing their stories and feelings to the stage usually makes for a vast range of themes and topics. One minute you’re getting insight into one person’s experience of smoking a cigarette, the next you’re whistling along to a nonsense poem about the sound of the wind.

Keith Fenton was one of the last performers to share. He’s a striking presence, with a big beard and a deep, booming South London accent. If I drew you a venn diagram full of blokes and poets, Keith might just be one of the only people standing right in the middle. I was surprised, then, and pleased when he explained that his next poem was inspired by the Lionesses’ semi-final win and what he’d seen at that match.

I was immediately intrigued by Keith and Two Lads Kiss Outside A Sheffield Pub, because both he and the poem capture the cultural shift the Euros brought about. In November, I spent three hours chatting all things footie with Keith over bacon sandwiches at a greasy spoon on Kirkstall Road.

The start of his love affair with football is a common tale. Keith learned it on the playground, played it in the park on the estate, got picked last for the school team and only stopped playing in net when he realised he wasn’t getting any taller. And like many little boys, Keith was an obsessive who would pore over his brother’s record of every Football League and FA Cup result since 1870.
Keith knew football inside and out, but if he imagined football had run out of surprises, the Euros were to show him another side of the beautiful game. After the final whistle went on England’s victory at Bramall Lane, Keith was standing outside The Cricketers Arms, an old boozer in the shadow of Sheffield United’s historic home ground, as crowds poured out, buzzing from the Lionesses’ victory.

“There was such joy outside, at the back of the Bramall Lane side of the ground,” Keith said. “There were other people who were drinking in the Cricketers who’d come out for a fag. There was a lot of amusement from them. They were like, "Oh lasses’ football, eh?” They’re not used to it.

“The last time I'd been for men's football, they were running battles in the streets. Pompey and Sheffield, you know, they’ve got a bit of history and it was people getting their heads kicked in. That’s what it was like.

“And then I saw those two lads I was talking about [in the poem], I didn't know they were gay when I first saw them, because they were just running down the road with their arms around each other. Even when they first kissed each other, I didn't know they were a couple because straight guys, they get over excited, you might get a kiss.

“But then there were tongues and I went, "Oh, right.”
Football can make you feel like that. Sporting moments are a fast route to a kind of love and energy that is hard to come by elsewhere. Nothing provokes hysterical delirium quite like a few balls in nets. After four of those in Sheffield, I had to spend a good 20 minutes calming down on a bench in Millennium Square before I was fit to drive back up the M1.

Our national sport fills everyone with beans, but historically the list of mandated modes of expression has been limited: shouting, singing, fist-pumping, ‘limbs’, a little post-match rough and tumble. What about all the people that want to jump and dance? Scream, cry, wear tinsel-trimmed cowboy hats? How about those among us who’d like to celebrate with a spot of tonsil tennis?

Snogs and sparkles are welcome in women’s football, but so are the old crowd, too. At the Emirates on Sunday, there were old boys with binoculars and beardy weirdy Gooner diehards. You don’t wear a hideous half-and-half shirt, a vintage number stitched down the middle to a 23/24 away kit, if it’s your first trip to the Emirates, but Katie McCabe had got him out of bed that morning despite her Premier League counterparts’ disappointing defeat to Aston Villa the day before.
Yes, some people do both. Before the Lionesses’ semi-final kicked off, Keith got chatting to a couple on the concourse who love going to watch the lads play football, as well. It’s hard though, as one of them is a wheelchair user, and they’re constantly asking people to move out of the way, whereas that night at Bramall Lane, people were pro-actively making space for her to get through.

“People seem attuned to each other, like community, properly,” Keith observed.

“In the men's game, of course there's a community — it's a very communal activity to go to the football, but it's one particular community. Are you in that community? Great, you're on our side. If you're not in that community, you're treated as either not welcome or peripheral: ‘You can go over there if you want, yeah’.

“And that was an eye-opener for me. I hadn't been to women's football before properly, and I began to realise how important it was.”

The ‘them and us’ mentality is crucial to sport. There’s no competition without opposing sides. You’ve got the blue team and the red team, or the white team and the yellow team, and there’s nothing in between. For as long as football has been played in this country, allegiance has been a matter of the heart too often told through fisticuffs.
Once or twice when I was in Australia I relished a nice cold schooner at the game, cursing the UK’s ban on drinking in view of the pitch, cursing the idiots that made it happen, who think that rivalry must eventually, inevitably lead to heads getting kicked in.

You can have one without the other. Colours weren’t so inflammatory when Keith went to watch a Group C game down in Sheffield, where the walk from the fan zone to the stadium wasn’t an opportunity for hostility but union – and the experience didn’t suffer for it.

“I followed them all, the Dutch and the Swedes, very colourful, shirts and all that, they were all together just going down to the stadium and I thought… It just wouldn't happen if this was an England game, or even if this was a game in England — they'd be going on a different thing, if it was a men's game, they'd be on a different procession.

“But they're all together, slapping each other on the back, having a good time. They go to the game, they support their own team, really vehemently. There's absolutely no bad feeling at the end when one of them hasn't got the result they wanted. There's no animosity, because there doesn't have to be.

“I grew up thinking there has to be animosity, otherwise you can't enjoy it. We'd even sit in the pub, ‘oh it's got to be that needle, if there ain't that needle, it's not football, is it?’ But it is. It's brilliant.”
Keith had been going to games for decades, but this one was different and he wanted to write a poem about it. I don’t know if you’ve ever tried writing a poem, but it’s not easy. The bigger the subject, the tougher the task. How do you sum up the joy, the surprise, the weight of history, the excitement of the Lionesses reaching the Euros final? How do you capture a moment when everything is changing?

Standing outside The Cricketers' Arms, which has served up pints to sports fans since the 1800s, Keith was inspired by those two boys’ spontaneous act.

“There's an image!” he said. “They're not women. They're lads!”

“For all I know, they go to men's games as well. I don't know. But I bet if they do, they don't do that [snog]. They may do. If they do, they’re awfully brave.

“But they didn't need to be brave [at Bramall Lane]. They knew that everyone around would be cool about it, apart from the old fuckers next to me who were having their fags going, ‘oh, bloody hell.’

‘Nothing was said exactly but it was kind of, ‘you think there's a problem with that, don't you?’ And I suppose with the way you were brought up, and that's inevitable, I guess. But the world's changing, mate, and this is it, that's the world changing.

“You should be pleased that the world isn't gonna be as dank and grey as it was for you. It's gonna be like that.”

Two Lads Kiss Outside A Sheffield Pub

and before they puckered up, they ran
the length of Bramall Lane tubbily
slubbing their England shirts, breathless, joyous...

the long weight of history,
they think it's the national game...
it is now. 1921 - “the game of football is
quite unsuitable for females and ought
not to be encouraged” - that was then

the moustachioed men who spoke
those words from deep in tailcoats,
not fit to lace their boots, and when
those words came home to roost,
interest was payable.

The flag is still St George, the anthem that
same turgid dirge, but now the fans are
the people, not just some of the people,
right now with justice in freefall,
this is what we needed.

And that kiss... clumsy, happy, these are
not tongues of promises, of performative
Adonises, the long lap of luxury in the city
apartment to come; they will lumber home

down ginnels where cats squeal, relive
that backheel from Alessia Russo, ah,
the blessings on those feet, how many lads
have since tried it without success in the street?

What happens next is theirs, their little
skirmish of a kiss was ours.
Keith Fenton
Keith hosts Sports Talk, a monthly radio show broadcast on Chapel FM, and interviews writers in the northern scene for his podcast Poets Talking Bollocks.

Things I dig this week

Quote of the Day

"If I go all Darwinism on us and speak evolutionary theory, the realities are that when there is an existential threat, you either evolve of your die it's one or the other" Emma Hayes responds to Joey Barton's insistence that women shouldn't work in men's football. You can listen to her impressive four-minute answer in full here.

Coming Up

  • Thursday - Champions League
    • Chelsea host Häcken, last season's winners of Sweden's top flight, at Stamford Bridge. It kicks off at 8pm and is available to stream free on Dazn's YouTube channel. Häcken are currently top of Group D, having beaten Real Madrid and Paris FC.
  • Thursday - Continental Cup
    • Manchester United or Leicester City could go top of Group B if they beat each other at Leigh Sports Village.
  • Saturday - North London Derby
    • Nothing could separate Arsenal and Spurs on Wednesday night as they drew 3-3 in the Conti Cup but it's round two on Sunday when the Gunners travel to the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, with WSL points at stake.
  • Sunday - West Riding County Cup
    • After a series of postponement, Leeds United might finally be back in action on Sunday, taking on Ripon City at home for a place in the third round. But don't hold your breath as the pitch is still giving pure lakeland.
  • Sunday - Women's Super League
    • West Ham are dead last and pointless in five. They have as good as chance as any to turn things around this weekend, as they face Leicester City, who have the next worst form in the division, while second-from-bottom Bristol City are unlikely to get a result from Chelsea.
    • Liverpool started the season at a canter but have dropped to fifth place. On Sunday, they visit fourth-placed Man Utd. Winning at Leigh would be a huge statement of their ability to keep pace with the big dogs at the top of the table.

More at The Square Ball

A photograph of Katie Astle playing for Leeds United Women against FC United of Manchester

Soggy bogs and misty eyes

by Flora Snelson

A non-league ground lined with golf brollies for a rainy FA Cup tie reminded me of being at Histon as an 11-year-old. This time, Leeds brought the magic.
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