Manchester United fans have been granted a segregated away section for the final day of the WSL season when the team travels to Greater London to face Chelsea next month.
The race for the WSL’s third and final Champions League place between United and neighbours Manchester City is expected to go to the wire in the final round of games, with both teams expected to win their outstanding fixtures to set up a tense finish.
Having played a game more, United currently hold a three-point advantage over City with a marginally superior goal difference. It will likely mean that Marc Skinner’s side have to go to Chelsea and win, something they have never done before, in order to stay ahead and hold onto third place.
Travelling support when it comes to United is always strong. The self-titled ‘Barmy Army’ are among the loudest and most dedicated group of fans out there and the players themselves are extremely grateful for the level of noise and support they create.
“I’ve not played against it, thank God. Touch wood, I don’t have to,” goalkeeper Mary Earps told 90min last month.
Ella Toone added: “They’re just so passionate about the club and about us as players…every time we go out [on the pitch], we want to put on a performance for them.”
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United fans have often divided opinion in the women’s football community over the vocal nature of their support. WSL matches are not segregated in the stands, with fans at most venues free to fully mingle in unreserved seating.
The ‘Barmy Army’ will often try and group together at away games to create more of a typical home vs away atmosphere but it isn’t always possible, especially when the only way to buy tickets is via the home club’s ticketing website – even having to create an account with every club, which is both time consuming and frustrating.
Sometimes being forced to mix can make home supporters feel uncomfortable with the ardent level of away support they are suddenly faced with. But it can also detract from the experience of the travelling fans who wish to shout for their team as loud as they can – that was a particular complaint from the United fans who made the long trip to Reading in March.
“As a club, we have representation for our fans. They’ll bring that to us, I’m pretty sure, and we will work on that,” Skinner said when asked about it by 90min a few days later.
“If it’s something we can continue to improve, we have to do it as a club anyway because we want our fans to grow. Us interacting with the fans is most important because no one wants to play in Covid times again without fans.
“[Away fans] is something I know each club will keep looking at and we’ve got our own fan forum. It’s part of our club and our responsibility to grow the game from that perspective too.”
There is now a welcome break from the norm for that final day trip to Chelsea on 8 May. The Blues’ website informs United fans wishing to be in a segregated away section that they have the option to purchase tickets for the game direct from their own club’s ticket office instead.
“Away ends are something that Manchester United fans have campaigned for since we started watching women's football,” vocal supporter Natalie Burrell tells 90min.
“It’s important for the players to have an [away] section that they can rely on for the most important match of our season. We need as many Reds to get down and support them – it's easy because you don't need to register though Chelsea and can do direct through United. Hopefully this is very successful and more clubs follow this lead."
The flipside is that mixing is still fine as well if that’s what individual fans prefer, especially those who might be going to the game together with Chelsea supporters.
“No one is saying you have to sit in the away section. It's just what Chelsea and United fans want. If family with fans of both want to sit together, they can, there are no issues,” Natalie adds.
The biggest issue that now presents itself to United fans wishing to travel to London to follow their team for such a crucial match is to do with the time of the game.
All WSL fixtures on the final day of the season have been brought forward to 12pm kick-offs.
There is a sound logic to the decision in the sense that there will be no clash with any Premier League fixtures that day, as there would have been with the previously slated 12:30pm kick-off. However, what stands to benefit a television audience is far from ideal for matchgoing fans.
Even the very first train of the day from Manchester Piccadilly doesn’t arrive at London Euston until 64 minutes before kick-off, with a significant hour-long journey still to come to reach Kingston upon Thames where Chelsea are based. If everything goes perfectly, United fans on a train from Manchester may just make it in time for kick-off, but such a close shave isn’t really feasible.
Matchgoing fans falling victim to scheduling isn’t new in football – Liverpool and Manchester City fans attending their men’s FA Cup semi-final will have to find a way to get to and from London later this month without any train travel at all from either city because of engineering works. But the game won’t be moved to a more accessible venue and the FA has ended up providing free buses.
The Manchester United Women Supporters Club (MUWSC) organise travel to away games by bus/coach, which is a lifeline to many fans wanting to watch the team wherever they play, as well as boosting the massive social and inclusion side of football fandom. Others may choose to drive themselves to Kingsmeadow, where parking is non-existent, but the majority will go as a group.
The fact that they can sit together as ‘away fans’ is, however, a massive step forward within women’s football that both United and Chelsea deserve praise for and should become the norm.