Sports presenter Jacqui Oatley is excited to discover the impact of a Manchester Derby within women's football.
City host United for the first time in the professional era this Saturday in the FA Women's Super League opener, with a record crowd expected at the Etihad Stadium.
It's the fixture that has been on everyone's lips since the Reds entered the league and on the back of another enjoyable World Cup, Oatley - a dedicated champion of women's football - hopes the encounter will open the game to a new audience.
In Jacqui Oatley's words...
It’s the perfect time to kick off the women’s league, during the international break in the men’s season. It gives everyone the chance to focus on the women’s game and I’m very much hoping that the momentum from the World Cup continues.
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It’s absolutely essential that it does. We cannot miss any opportunity to make people aware and get bums on seats – that’s one of my big missions in life! I love to do anything I can to make sure people are more aware of what the women’s game has to offer – frankly, it’s great entertainment and we have the only fully-professional top-flight league in Europe.
It’s not just a case of having one team running away with it as is the case with Lyon in France. It’s difficult to call and that’s something I expect to be really attractive to fans. Kicking off the season with a Derby is really exciting for women’s football in England.
It’s brilliant that United have entered the league and that they’re fully on board. They have appointed a top-class manager in Casey Stoney and recruited brilliantly. It’s all systems go for their women’s team but I don’t think we should expect too much from them too soon. Casey would be the first to say: ‘Woah, let us bed in first. We have new signings and young, exciting talented players but give us some breathing space.’
As far as the fans are concerned, they now have the opportunity to support their team and continue the rivalry from the men’s team. I think having rivalries in the women’s game is essential – for the fans and for the players.
Anything that generates genuine atmosphere is good for the game – we want women’s football to be loud and noisy; we want players to play in intense stadiums and we want the football to be intense. The better the atmosphere, the more intense the game on the pitch. It’s certainly a major positive.
It’s absolutely brilliant to have the game so accessible to young people too. The reason we have had prejudice in this country is because of the 50-year ban – that’s why people like me didn’t grow up with female role models. We didn’t idolise women’s players because players of my generation didn’t even know there were women’s teams.
Faye White will tell you that she didn’t know she could play for England – but it’s not about blaming anyone now. That’s how it was and now we can change that at a very young age. Boys and girls can grow up watching City men or women; United men or women.
Equally, I’ve noticed that dads and boys are as excited about going to matches as much as girls – and that’s how it should be. Women’s football shouldn’t just be for little girls. Children should grow up seeing amazing players – no matter what their gender.
For the vast majority of them, it’s their first trip to watch football and it’s women playing in a men’s stadium. It’s normal for them – they don’t go away thinking: ‘Oh, women are good at football’ because they don’t have the prejudice of previous generations and lost players, who never got the chance to train full-time.
I look around the City Football Academy and I stare wide-eyed at the fact that players can play football as a full-time job, coming here everyday and playing in these amazing facilities. Players are given the opportunity to be the best they can be and the fans are given the opportunity to watch top-class football. The game is getting bigger and it’s a really exciting time.
Everything is so different to how it was when I first started. Growing up, I didn’t have the option to play – even at an amateur level – because there was no Club near me. I was utterly obsessed with football – I didn’t do any revision for my GCSEs or A-Levels because of World Cups and Euros! – but I never thought I could pursue a career in it.
At University, I studied a German degree for four years and I never once considered journalism. I didn’t think about it and no-one suggested it to me. Even after that, I worked for a few years in a ‘proper job’ but I realised I wanted to talk about football on the radio. I’d listened to Eleanor Oldroyd do match updates, listening to her whilst following Wolves home and away up and down the country!
I wondered: ‘How can I do that?’ and I started again: back to university, training… and I realised I could do it. Hopefully, young girls today won’t have the issue where a certain career doesn’t enter their minds. They can say: ‘Look! So-and-so is doing that. I want to do that.’
There’s no reason why girls can’t aspire to work in football as players, coaches, physios, or in the media as press officers, journalists, PR... there are so many opportunities. There are organisations like Women In Football where we have a plethora of opportunities and support, networking and championing each other.
The future of women’s football is beyond exciting. Attendances are huge and there’s a marketing drive for awareness so people know when the games are on and how to get tickets. By filling the stadia, TV companies then want a piece of the action by paying for the rights, which generates more money for salaries and facilities.
Ensuring that women’s football is self-sustaining is huge. Sponsors are getting involved too, spending money on advertising the women’s game, and the opportunities there are endless. Creating professionalism throughout the levels is important.
We have a head-start over the rest of Europe and the more self-sustaining it can be, the better for the quality of training and coaching across the leagues. There are so many Clubs and the more people who are aware of those, the higher the standard will increase.
The future of the game is very exciting.