Football has the power to bring people together. With my family dotted all over the country and beyond, it is the one thing you can be watching from two different living rooms in two different languages, and still be seething with rage or moved with passion for. Whether it’s a World Cup final, or my dad in Bristol chatting on the phone with my uncle in Spain about Plymouth Argyle, it never goes away.
As my parents ran pubs, and loved football, it would have been difficult for me not to have grown up with the influence. My mum recalls the excitement of hosting World Cup game screenings, and the palpable energy of a huge crowd of all kinds of people coming together at the pub on a sunny afternoon to watch a game. Back then, the Match of the Day theme tune was as familiar to me as any children’s television show jingle. One of my earliest memories of living in the pub was the view of my dad sitting in his armchair in the evening, squinting over his glasses at the boxy television to read the football scores on the incredibly pixelated blue, black and yellow scrolling screen of Teletext, the furthest thing from the fancy Sky or Virgin Media TV guides there are today. Ten years later in 2010, I would be sitting in a pub garden in Bristol with my dad watching England versus Germany in the knockout stage of the World Cup, witnessing Frank Lampard’s shot in the 39th minute that was tragically not awarded as a goal, despite everyone agreeing that it clearly crossed the line after bouncing off the crossbar (we were robbed).
Attending live football games throughout my life has been the pin that connects me with the men in my family, despite generations and geographical distance. In 2016, my family and I headed to Wembley to watch Plymouth Argyle against Wimbledon in the League Two play-off final. We lost 2-0, but the atmosphere had been unreal, and for me to have been one of the guys felt like something of an honour.
When I moved to London at eighteen, my dad, brother and I began following Millwall. We’re the least convincing-looking Millwall fans you’ve ever seen, but as passionate as any of them. Initially, I didn’t know much about Millwall other than its notorious reputation, and I was surprised my dad and brother wanted the three of us to start attending games. Little did I know at the time, this was my dad and brother sort of passing me the baton. They wanted me to be part of what they always have been. I’d always loved football, watching or playing, and had always tagged along when I could, but this time I was a full member, not just the small person coming along for the ride or for the spare ticket (see that imposter syndrome speaking?).
My dad had trained at the Den several times in his football career, and I later found out that our relative, Willie Hurrell, had played for Millwall as an inside forward between 1946- 1952. The family ties, past and present, added to my loyalty for the team. Now, every few Saturdays, my dad and brother travel up to London and we meet at the Southwark Tavern for a few beers, then head onto South Bermondsey by train. The anticipation is often there from the get-go. At the Den we enjoy the game, always with a Yorkie chocolate bar at half time (my dad’s tradition), and then we’ll have a pie and a post-game drink or three in ‘Arry’s Bar at the ground. The infamous reputation that Millwall have garnered in the past is far from what we witness most games at the Den – except from the odd fight in the top seats and the tremblingly loud roar of the Lions when the game gets a little messy with a questionable ref. At least, we’re able to get away from the Den quick enough before it all kicks off. We’re there for the game and the good vibes - the spirit of it, the passion that brings people from all over the world to the Den every game day, as are most Millwall fans.
It’s conflicting sometimes. There have been so many aspects of my love for football that have made me feel almost guilty for supporting it. While I’m used to being one of the few women at the Den, it certainly came as a shock to me to begin with. It wasn’t just the lack of women, but the misogynistic language used by men in the crowds, which doesn’t only apply to Millwall, but football and lad culture in general. On top of that are the issues of pay gaps, lack of publicity for women’s teams, and the lack of spaces in which women are given to play. When I arrive at a Millwall game, the ratio of men to women in the crowd is probably about 50 to 1. It’s the only time that, as a woman, I don’t ever have to queue for a public bathroom.
I’ve played football at various points in my life. In primary school aged eleven, I was the only girl on the pitch of 22 players for the whole season, let alone just my team. At school lunch times in the playground, both in primary and secondary school, I would always try to join in with the boys, whether they wanted me to or not. The girls would often stand on the sidelines cheering everyone on, but I didn’t want to be on the sidelines. I wanted to be part of the action. The boys let me play and they seemed to like that I’d always have a go. Then one day I scored a goal and suddenly the treatment was different. I felt accepted, and it didn’t feel so embarrassing for them to pick me for their team. My secondary school didn’t have a football team, so this was the only fix I got until I got to university where I played for the women’s first team. The year I joined was the first season following the FIFA Women’s World Cup, where the success of the USA team had a huge influence on girls who liked or wanted to try football; it was a huge year for team signups by young girls.
So much of football plays against women, at every level. From the stigma around women’s football to its limited opportunities, a lot of things could be changed. At university, we were never prioritised over the boys’ team, and were allocated less than half a pitch to train on alongside two other teams. Sometimes we couldn’t even get a coach to train us, so our captain would have to take the helm. At the Millwall games with my dad, we’d joke about how even the Yorkie bars were marketed as “not for girls.”
It’s obvious, but football really does influence girls’ lives too. I have so many important memories around football, and much of the quality time I get to spend with my dad is contingent on our mutual love of football. You can create personal histories around it. Football is ultimately an unpretentious, universal game that spans generations, continents, class, and language. So much of the joy and love of football stems from memory, particularly that of the fans. What gets underestimated, I think, is the gravity that a team or sport can have on our personal lives both personally and publicly. The “Lion of London Bridge”, Roy Larner, the Millwall fan who took on three knived terrorist attackers at London Bridge last year, was celebrated for his bravery and became both a local and national hero for Millwall. For me, in the same year, it was at a Millwall game that I decided I would finally come out to my dad – the most masculine place you could possibly find me, and yet, that was where I felt most comfortable to open-up to my dad, because going to Millwall games was the thing we did together. We’ve been even closer ever since.
My dad has never suggested that I can’t do something because I’m a girl. My dad and brother have always encouraged and invited me to come along with them. If girls felt more invited and encouraged to be a part of what is such a male-dominated sphere, the misogynistic aspects of football will be forced to change, whether the “lads” like it or not. It might be a slow process, but when I go to Millwall games now, I remind myself that I am just as entitled to be there as anyone else. It can be intimidating sometimes; the hyper-masculinity, shouting, derogatory language and the general bravado. I have never had trouble at a game, although sometimes I wonder what sort of treatment marginalised people could be exposed to at the expense of gender, race, class or sexuality, let alone my own experience as a 22-year-old girl who can pass as straight in public.
It tends to be the “lads” that display that kind of behaviour. The presence of lad culture in football is still rife, but not every football fan feeds into it. Lad culture conditions men to exclude women from football, which isn’t the true spirit of the sport.
What does feel true is the importance of the game and the energy of passionate supporters regardless of race, sexuality, class, language, and nationality. As a kid, some of my fondest memories of going to football matches involved everything around the game itself. The thin, questionable meat burgers with fried onions at the stadium that just seem to taste delicious anyway, wearing the oversized football shirt over a coat, buying a new pin badge for my hat or scarf, the rousing chants, the booming music that always added to the atmosphere. The one song that always seems to follow me at football games is Rocking All Over the World by Status Quo – hearing that song conjures up a whirlwind of football-related memories. As I wrote this I listened to Three Lions by Baddiel, Skinner & Lightning Seeds, and I was taken straight back to the 2006 FIFA World Cup, the pub gardens on a sunny afternoon, those moments of adrenaline rush when the ball hits the back of the net and the crowd erupts into fierce joy. Enough elation to get you emotional. The unbeatable atmosphere, and the spirit that no matter who you are, you’re here to celebrate the same cause.