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Red Or Blue: There’s Power In A Women’s Derby

Derby matches in the Women's Super League have become an influential fixture of the UK's football calendar.
Artwork by Archie Willis.

Olivia Barber

Olivia Barber is a freelance writer, focusing on women's football. Based in London, Olivia has written extensively on the women's game in Sicily and Southern Italy. @oliviarosebarb

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND — Tomorrow, Sunday 11 December, Manchester City and Manchester United women will face each other in their tenth Women’s Super League (WSL) derby since September 2019. Over 40,000 fans will spill into the Etihad stadium, full of nervous excitement, but steadfast in their allegiance – red for United or blue for City. Few matches manifest the power of competitiveness in women’s football more than a hard-fought derby.

The formation of the WSL in 2011 and the professionalisation of women’s football in England in 2018 have made derbies a staple of the women’s game, attracting huge crowds to the terraces and taking the competitive spirit up a notch on derby match days. Nonetheless, derbies are not a new arrival on the women’s football scene – the first one on record was a clash between two London teams, aptly named ‘The North’ and ‘The South’ in 1895, which the North won 8-3. Fast forward to 2022, and the fierce derby tradition is alive and stronger than ever. Natalie Burrell, who started out as a fan of the Manchester United men’s team, but became an avid supporter of United women when the team was formed in 2018, says ‘playing Villa or Leicester is great, but a derby makes you want to give everything, it’s what gets you out of bed in the morning’.

Derbies in the women’s game get people to show up en masse. The Arsenal v Tottenham game in September 2022 brought 50,000 fans. Over 40,000 tickets have been sold for the Manchester derby and United’s away section is sold out. Catherine Cardus, founder of The Liarnesses, a women’s grassroots football team in Manchester, reflects on the significance of women’s matches being played at the big, iconic stadiums, ‘It gives women’s football a huge platform. The more people that can get to the matches, see the quality on the pitch, and enjoy the experience of being a fan, the more girls and women we can get into playing football’. Catherine adds, ‘United and City have brought a lot of local, Manchester players through and they are now the superstars in that team’. The Mancunian roots of players like Ella Toone and the Sheffield-born Esme Morgan, who grew up supporting City, bring home how important women’s football is for the city.

Charlotte Wilkins, a Manchester City supporter, explains ‘Being from Manchester, I just feel so passionate, I don’t get this nervous about any other game’. Charlotte and Natalie are close friends, but on derby days they’re arch-rivals. Charlotte wants to make Manchester blue, and Natalie wants to paint it red. Catherine will be going with a mixed delegation of United and City supporters from The Liarnesses. Though Catherine is a City Women’s supporter, she emphasised, ‘We’ll all be sat together, rivalries to one side. We’re there to support the game itself’. Catherine finds the fact that the women’s game is more friendly and mixed to be positive features of female fandom, ‘the mix of support for women’s football, through generations, genders, ethnicities, is a beautiful thing to see really’.

The chase for points in the WSL cranks up the pressure in Manchester women’s derbies. United currently sits in second place in the WSL, while City is in fourth. Last season, City finished in third place and United ended in fourth position with five fewer points. For Natalie, the points pale in comparison to the bragging rights, ‘If we beat City now, people will talk about winning the WSL title. For me, it’s about us winning because it’s the Manchester derby’. While the United men’s team finished in sixth place last season and City won the title, Natalie points out ‘in the women’s game, United and City are so close in the league, so the rivalry is much more tense’. United and City’s neck-and-neck performances show that this competitiveness exists beyond the inheritance of pre-existing rivalries in the men’s game.

The role of fandom is elevated to a whole other level at local derby battle, compared with cup and WSL matches. The electric energy of fans is essential to bringing home a derby win, ‘Fans need to get behind the players, singing their songs, cheering tackles like goals, cheering goals like they’re the best thing in the world’. Fans become as central to the team effort as the players on the pitch, ‘That’s part of your job to bring the rivalry and hostility by making noise. It’s why United fans say, let’s make our ground a fortress. You want to put the opposition off and give that extra advantage to your players because you’ve got the passion and you want to win’. Charlotte describes the ineffable magic of the derby atmosphere, ‘it’s the singing, everyone being on the edge of their seats, wondering what is going to happen, anything could happen’.

A debate ensues in women’s football over whether there should be segregated home and away ends at matches. At some WSL matches, there are no assigned seats for each side, however, there is increasing pressure on clubs from fans and managers to adopt segregated seating. Catherine says, ‘I think it’s good it’s more mixed and friendly. Obviously, it’s a competitive situation, but there can be this toxic tribalism in the men’s game. The women’s game shows there’s a different way to support sport without that toxicity’. Charlotte is of the view that the absence of away ends dilutes the competitive spirit of games, ‘in women’s football, we have mutual respect for each other, we mix and get together to support the Lionesses. Having a space where away fans can celebrate all together and support each other creates atmosphere’. As part of her role in the Manchester United Women’s Supporters Club, Natalie has consistently pushed for away ends ‘it’s about having your community together, opposing teams can still interact, but during the game, you want to have all your supporters around you’. Natalie describes that at the first Manchester derby at the Etihad in 2019, ‘there were 10,000 reds all behind the goal, there’s nothing like it’.

A big day for football in Manchester awaits. The question on everyone’s lips: will the city turn blue or red? ‘The water cooler moment on a Monday morning after the derby is significant, the local bragging rights are something that has come across from the men’s game, and rightly so. We have as much claim to them’, Catherine affirms. Charlotte recounts calling in at a pub near the Etihad stadium, where the derby will be played, ‘I asked, what time are you opening on the 11 December, they said just half twelve, I said you do know it’s Manchester derby day on Sunday?’. Catherine contends, ‘in the women’s football community, it’s the game everyone’s talking about. At training and after matches, we’re talking about buying tickets and planning socials around it’, yet, she reflects on an absence of media attention, ‘there’s coverage on Radio Manchester and it’ll be on TV but not much in the papers. It’s not directly comparable with the coverage that men’s derby gets, but it’s getting there’. Natalie asserts that it is the responsibility lies with the media and clubs to talk about women’s derbies more, ‘I want to see content about our derbies posted on club social media accounts and I want journalists to report critically on the women’s matches. I want them to be asking, could the tide be turning in Manchester, is Manchester now turning red?’. As for an answer to that, the beautiful game will decide.

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