Big clubs shouldn't be scared about hosting WSL – 40,000 at Manchester derby shows why

Old Trafford
Old Trafford is hosting its first women's Manchester derby - Tim Goode/PA

More than 40,000 tickets sold for Sunday’s first Old Trafford Manchester derby is yet more proof Women’s Super League clubs don’t need to be so cautious with the frequency of matches they play at larger stadiums.

These two rivals meeting at Old Trafford is long overdue, but it will also only be the fourth time the hosts’ women have played in front of a crowd there since their debut during the restrictions of the pandemic. United - along with many others in the WSL - must now realise there is sufficient fan interest to make these games viable more regularly.

When you ask most clubs why they can’t play more women’s games at the home of their men’s side, the explanation - aside from fixture clashes - is typically based on a theory that if these events are too regular, the turnouts would be smaller. For financial reasons, opening a huge stadium for potentially just 10,000 spectators is a risk they fear, with these events bringing high costs, from stewarding to road closures and more.

But since a 20,241 crowd watched them face Everton in March 2022, Marc Skinner’s team played in front of 30,196 and 27,919 at home to Aston Villa and West Ham respectively last season, and now look set to comfortably smash those totals on Sunday.

It is time for all clubs to be braver with how often they give the WSL a bigger stage. Last’s season’s reverse fixture in the Manchester derby, for example, played at the Etihad - drew in 44,259. These are not flashes in the pan.

Arsenal have also been demonstrating in recent months that large crowds don’t only turn up for one-off, big women’s matches. They had three home league crowds in excess of 40,000 last term, and then played in front of 60,063 for their Women’s Champions League semi-final against Wolfsburg in May.

The north London club set a new WSL attendance record on Oct 1 when 54,115 turned up to see them face Liverpool at the Emirates. Despite losing that game, 35,829 fans were back two weeks later to watch their victory over Aston Villa. Those repeated large audiences surely busted the myth that ‘big stadium’ matches only work once or twice a season, in the WSL.

General view of fans outside the ground ahead of the Barclays Women's Super League match at Old Trafford, Manchester

Manchester United have a 100 per cent record at Old Trafford from their four previous games, which must be extra motivation to add further showpiece fixtures.

‘I want to sell out Old Trafford on a consistent basis’

Skinner, discussing the anticipated club-record crowd for Sunday’s much-anticipated game, said: “We have to keep growing that, I want to sell out Old Trafford on a consistent basis. That is going to be an aspiration of mine as well as winning things for the club - growing the fan base and growing the love for this team is something we need to continue to do.

“We’ve got to put on a performance that was worth waiting for. All of the hard core fans that have seen it since its inception at Manchester United with the women’s team, they’re getting to a point now where they’re going to a big stadium and their beloved team is being supported by the masses. That’s a growth moment. Hopefully in another four years time, actually that’s sold out at Old Trafford, if not before then.”

England’s record women’s international scorer Ellen White, speaking as she was inducted into the WSL’s Hall of Fame on Monday, said: “It’s about time the derby was played there.”

Former Manchester City striker White, honoured alongside fellow former England stars Anita Asante and Jill Scott at the National Football Museum in Manchester, feels both teams are under pressure.

“Manchester City are coming off back-to-back losses. Manchester United seem to be performing well, scoring a lot of goals as well. It’s a big occasion, I think they’re both under pressure,” she said. “They’re both attack-minded, which is what I’m looking forward to seeing. Maybe [sixth-placed] City have more pressure on them to get that result, especially if they’re looking at the title.”

No side has ever lost more than two WSL fixtures in a single season and still gone on to lift the title, and Manchester City have lost two already this term, following their late defeat by Arsenal and then last Sunday’s shock reverse at home to Brighton.

Head coach Gareth Taylor said on Friday: “Remaining unbeaten now is the objective for the rest of the season. That’s what I want to see with the players and I’ve seen it this week. I’ve seen the whites of their eyes, that they’re ready for this game.”