“Twenty-six percent of the crowd watching live football are women. Maybe that could be fifty percent. This project has elevated female fans, bringing them into the realms of football culture.”
In 2013, a simple realisation heralded the birth of inspiration for Jacqui McAssey; the creation of fanzine ‘Girlfans’.
As its name suggests, the fanzine focuses on female football fans – of all ages and backgrounds – at stadiums across the nation, designed to promote positive images of ‘women at the match’.
A football supporter herself, female fandom is a topic close to McAssey’s heart and one she is deeply passionate about.
With some of her work residing in the V&A Art Library, the teacher of Fashion Communication at Liverpool John Moores University has earned merited acclaim.
Her idea for the fanzine arose outside her native Anfield. Curious to discover the facts and figures behind female attendance at live football games, she carried out the required research, discovering that 23% of the crowd were women. From that day on, while also keen to absorb from a fashion perspective, she decided to document her findings for the rest of the season.
Her ventures recently brought her to Manchester, where – along with Manchester Metropolitan University lecturer Zoe Hitchen and students from Liverpool John Moores – she captured City supporters outside the Etihad Stadium, awaiting kick-off.
Meeting hundreds of fans, she encounters hundreds of fascinating stories – from long-term supporter Mary Kelly, who follows City across Europe despite her mother discouraging her years ago from attending games because she said it was for boys, to ‘Premier League junkie’ Christina from Ohio, and Louise, who flies in from Sweden with her husband and son.
There are single mothers, families of multiple generations, groups of friends and singletons – and McAssey is inspired by them all.
“If you’re a person who goes to live games a lot, you probably won’t even think about it but in 2013 on television, you don’t often see women as football fans,” she explained. “I felt we were invisible and I wanted to put female fans into the spotlight.
“In the four or five years since the project began, images of women are appearing more and more – in vox-pops for example – but before 2013, you’d only see images of women in stereotypical roles. For example, I found a great photograph of a party for a cup final – the men on the whole were at the match while women and children were decorating the houses and making the cakes. It was quite clear cut which role you had and now it’s not.
“A lot has changed. Coverage on the TV has changed and other initiatives have started since then. There are now fashion and football magazines, targeting women, such as Season, plus other initiatives like Women at the Game, which I think is brilliant. Coverage of women’s sport is general has also improved, which helps.
“There are also a lot of influencers on social media – females that are putting themselves out there, saying ‘I’m into football but I’m also into such and such’ or ‘I have a career in this’. I wonder if it’s giving females confidence to discuss it, put themselves out there and take a photo of themselves at the match and post it?”
With thoroughly positive feedback – from both women and men, even to McAssey’s surprise – the fanzine has been very well received.
She added: “A lot of female fans have said it’s long overdue and it’s great that somebody’s championing females. I’d say the fanzine has been bought equally by men and women. That’s really interesting. A lot of guys – maybe from the creative industries as well as football – are really curious to know what it’s about.
“It’s designed to be in print. It’s designed to be a publication that references that long tradition of fanzines, which have largely been produced by men. It could easily have been produced in other ways but it’s meant to last – it might yellow; you might put it in your attic but it’s meant to denote a place in time.
“The supporters themselves have always been amazing but surprised that anybody would want to photograph them. A lot often don’t ask me where the photographs are going which I find very interesting. It’s very trusting, especially by younger supporters who control their image quite a bit on social media.
“They’re really open to being photographed, which is incredibly positive. There is a diverse crowd within any zine. We’re not targeting a particular age – anyone from babies to women in their eighties have been photographed.
“I’ve spoken to women who have been going to the match for seventy years. Imagine it: seventy years of knowledge about that Club! It’s also been nice to ask fans for their own images – they’ve been sending me photographs from their albums, which have just been lying there in people’s homes, untouched. With social media now, so many images are edited but I have beautiful images of supporters abroad, at the Old Wembley and around the country. I’m asking questions to unlock their stories. I love the idea of being able to explore them.
“You get all kinds of diverse fans. I’ve also spoken to supporters from South Korea who came as a bucket list thing, and children who are knowledgeable, living and breathing the game with their mother – not necessarily their father. That’s been one of the bigger surprises. Young girls and boys are being taken to the match by female relatives, which I think is a huge change for someone of my age. When I was brought up, you would only be taken by a male relative or hear male stories.“I went to games when I was in my teens and twenties. Some of my friends went with their dads. I was completely excluded and I was not allowed to play football in school, even though I was very sporty. I even told people I played for the ‘boys’ volleyball team’ when I actually played for ‘the volleyball team!’
“I was also really encouraged to see women go to the game on their own. It just did not seem to be an issue. There are stadiums like the Etihad that are designed to make supporters feel comfortable and welcome, such as City Square-style areas, for example.
“I met someone recently who had moved away for years and then came back and slotted right back into the matchday routine. That’s been one of the biggest issues for women in the past – dealing with life changes. I take my hat off completely to women who are at the game with a child or children. As a mother, I have a newfound respect for mothers who go.
“With the project intended to be a true reflection of women at the match, the images are completely unstaged and natural. it’s such a feel-good project and there’s more to come. I’m going to release a series of what I call ‘GirlFans: the Prequel’. It was the 25th anniversary of the Premier League last year and I want to reach out to supporters who have been supporting their club for 50, 60, 70 years, finding out about their experiences before the Premier League formed – the differences, the attitudes and the environments.
“It’s very exciting to see how the project has developed. Thank you to all of the supporters for being so generous, warm and welcoming. Thank you also to Kevin and Shirley Hughes who loaned Helen Turner’s famous bell for the launch exhibition at the Whitworth Art Gallery, and Julie Dolan and Cristina Emilia for their contribution of fan-art.
“Everything is moving in a really positive way. The number of females going to games is creeping up. In 2015/16, the figure was 26%. I’m always curious when that information comes out to find out.
“If it creeps up steadily that’s all good, and if the project helps encourage more women and girls to go then even better.”