English Soccer News

Manchester United Women: Songbooks and ‘Barmy Army’ boost Women’s Super League

Manchester United averaged attendances of more than 2,000 for home games last season in the second tier, while the WSL’s average was under 1,000
Barclays FA Women’s Super League – Manchester United v Liverpool
Date: Saturday, 28 September Kick-off: 12:00 BST Venue: Leigh Sports Village
Coverage: Live text commentary on the BBC Sport website and app

It is no coincidence that the Women’s Super League’s first season with a title sponsor and a first overseas broadcast rights deal is also the first WSL campaign that Manchester United have been part of.

On the pitch, Casey Stoney’s newly promoted side have opened with two 1-0 defeats, but they have faced last season’s top two sides – Manchester City and champions Arsenal – and impressed against both.

And it is surely off the field where, at the start of only their second year since reforming a senior side in 2018, the club the women’s game waited for in frustration for 13 years is having the greatest impact.

Their first top-flight game saw the WSL’s attendance record smashed as 31,213 turned up at City’s men’s team’s Eithad Stadium home, in a first modern-era women’s Manchester derby.

However, away from the league’s ‘big-stadium events’ boosted by additional marketing and coinciding with men’s international breaks, their regular fixture attendances are also well above the league average.

A lively crowd of 2,530 saw United’s 16 September loss to Arsenal on a Monday evening and the Red Devils are understood to be expecting that number to be surpassed when they host Liverpool on Saturday [12:00 BST] bidding for their first points of the season.

From their ‘Barmy Army’, to star World Cup signings, to extra commercial interest, what have United brought to the WSL so far?

A Barmy Army with a songbook – ‘without the swear words’

Manchester United fan Natalie Burrell leads the ‘barmy army’ through chants from her songbook

United’s season-ticket sales have more than doubled for this campaign, from 449 to 1,186.

That increase comes after they saw their home crowds average more than 2,000 in the Championship, while the WSL averaged just under 1,000.

Their largest home attendance so far came in their first home game last season, as 4,835 watched their League Cup game against Reading at Leigh Sports Village.

“That first game against Reading was a bumper crowd and there were sections trying to start singing, but it really didn’t get going,” Marc Henry from United’s Barmy Army told BBC Sport.

“Then I met some like-minded fans who wanted to generate an atmosphere at the games and we all started to congregate together and slowly more and more people joined in with us.

“Some of the Barmy Army are season ticket holders for the men’s team and Natalie Burrell came up with the idea of having a songbook so that more and more people could join in with us.

“We have changed some of the lyrics and taken out the swear words so families can join in with us. Now we take our songbooks to every game, home or away.”

As the Red Devils lost to Arsenal’s late goal last time out, their Barmy Army sang and chanted for the full 90 minutes, creating an atmosphere rarely heard at games in the WSL, which began in 2011.

‘The players deserve this crowd’

“Our fans are unbelievable aren’t they?” United boss Stoney said. “They create such an atmosphere. They are the best fans in the country.

“The players deserve that atmosphere and they deserve to play in front of that crowd. Hopefully they’ve seen a game that’s entertaining and they’ll come back.”

England goalkeeper Mary Earps, who signed for United from German club Wolfsburg this summer, added: “The fans here are serious business.

“For so many years, you play in front of fewer than 100 people and then you’re playing in front of 2,500-odd on a Monday night, it’s pretty good fun that, and 31,000 the week before.”

Arsenal boss Joe Montemurro, whose team needed a late Danielle van de Donk goal to win at United, added: “A lot of teams are going to find it very difficult here. They are a very good side.

“This is where the game is going, with a beautiful stadium, on a magnificent night, it would have looked fantastic on television and long may it last. This is what it is all about.

“This is a boutique stadium. If you can start filling these stadiums then it will grow leaps and bounds.”

WSL: Manchester United 0-1 Arsenal highlights

Henry said: “My first away game was last season against Durham, which we lost 3-1, and there were 10-15 United fans behind the goal, but the away fan numbers have grown and grown since then.

“We have had fans and management from opposing teams saying that they want what we have for their team too.”

Aside from a vocal, growing fan base, United have also brought England’s Earps and Netherlands midfielder Jackie Groenen back to the division.

Former Chelsea player Groenen, who struck the winner in the Netherlands’ World Cup semi-final in the summer, says the prospect of helping take United to the top for the first time helped attract her to the team.

“I can see where they want to go,” Groenen said before the season opener.

“[I want to] grow with something and really be a part of it. We have quality in the team; we can still grow as a team.

“It is also nice to be at a club where every game is going to be big with that factor, as you have United versus City, United versus Liverpool, and these games and names will attract people.”

And what do the key members of last season’s promoted squad feel the new signings – who also included Scotland’s Jane Ross and Wales’ Hayley Ladd – have brought to the team?

“They’ve all brought a lot of experience in,” 23-year-old defender Millie Turner said. “That’s what we needed – we’re a young team in our second year, so we needed a bit of experience coming in.”

How ready are United for the step up?

The 31,213 crowd for the Manchester derby smashed the previous WSL record by almost a factor of six

But after two opening defeats without scoring, how ready are United for the step up to facing WSL opposition?

“We’re in a positive place. The excitement for me is that it is a very young team,” Stoney added. “Some of them have never played WSL football before.

“Teams will stand up and look at us a bit more closely because we’ve pushed both teams we have faced all the way. That’s testament to the players’ hard work and they deserve more.

“I said we’d be happy with a top-six finish and that’s still our target.”

Earps, who pulled off several key saves in the loss to Arsenal, added: “We can walk away from these performances with real pride.

“If we can continue to perform at these levels throughout the season, I think we’ll be really pleased with where we end up.

“A lot of people will have written us off coming into this season, but now maybe they’ll turn their heads and think twice when they hear Manchester United Women.”

United are without a point from their opening games but have only faced last term’s top two sides so far

BBC Sport has launched #ChangeTheGame to showcase female athletes in a way they never have been before. Through more live women’s sport available to watch across the BBC in 2019, complemented by our journalism, we are aiming to turn up the volume on women’s sport and alter perceptions. Find out more here.

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