Inconsiderate kick-offs and portable lavatories: What it is like to be a travelling WSL fan

Mary Earps of Manchester United poses for a photo with a fan at full-time following the team's draw in the Women's Super League match against West Ham United at Chigwell Construction Stadium

By the time the Manchester United fans’ coach pulls into the southbound side of Watford Gap Services at 10.30am, the song-writing prowess of Taylor Swift, a conversation about a perceived lack of game time for Spanish midfielder Irene Guerrero and a Katie Zelem chant that somehow rhymes “fake tan” with “Zidane” have been heard on board. And instead of cans of beer, delicious homemade bakes have been passed around during the journey that started at 8am. This is an away day, Women’s Super League style.

Upon arriving at the away end of the Chigwell Construction Stadium in Dagenham – home for the West Ham women’s team – two-and-a-half hours later, the smell of chicken-and-mushroom pies wafts through the chilly air, stewards urge people standing in the walkway to “move along” and the queue for the women’s lavatories stretches well out the door whilst there are no queues at all for the men’s.

The away end is packed and the fans – roughly half male, half female – are in good voice despite United being held to a 1-1 draw. Before kick-off, more than a dozen supporters separately tell Telegraph Sport how much they hope the club do not allow England youngster Grace Clinton – currently impressing on loan at Tottenham – to leave the club this summer, while some have brought a “Skinner Out” sign with them (more on that later). But they also care ardently about many issues relating to all match-going WSL supporters.

Inconsiderate kick-off times and short-notice fixtures

Chief amongst their concerns are kick-off times that prioritise broadcasting over spectators and the little notice that is given for match dates. Only on Friday were March 30-31’s WSL fixture dates and times finally confirmed when the TV picks were announced.

In November, Manchester United were handed the 6.45pm Sunday evening kick-off for their away trip to Brighton. This visit to West Ham for a 3pm kick-off seems to please the vast majority, but they remember that last season this fixture was at 6.45pm.

“Just before Christmas, we played Tottenham away in the evening slot while, on the same day, Arsenal and Chelsea played each other at lunchtime. Why? They hadn’t got to travel far,” one unhappy fan says.

Telegraph Sport understands more regular Friday night and Saturday evening WSL fixtures are on the cards for next season and that possibility gets a mixed reception. Hannah, who has supported the United women’s team since they reformed in 2018 and travels to games from Wales, says: “You’ve got to look at people having to take annual leave, or if they’ve got families. It would have an impact.

“People’s dedication is there, but the kick-off times are tricky and it impacts people being able to go. Yet football is supposed to be for fans. And we always seem to find out with a few weeks to go.”

Lack of dedicated away sections

Deborah Henry from the supporters’ club is also working hard to ensure an away end is offered at every match – like at this one. “There has to be an away section for every away team so we’re not intermingling unless people specifically choose to intermingle. It can create tense moments in a game that takes away from the enjoyment,” she says.

Mary Earps of Manchester United makes a save during the Women's Super League match against West Ham United at Chigwell Construction Stadium
Earps makes a save to keep West Ham at bay as Manchester United fans watch from the dedicated away section at the stadium in Dagenham - Alex Davidson/Getty Images

“It’s about being comfortable and being able to stand with your team’s fans and be happy to celebrate a goal. Away at Leicester, for example, we were singing and there was a group of children who you could tell were uncomfortable and that could have been avoided if they were in a home section and we were in an away section.”

Facilities built for men

Various fans recall awkward lavatory-related episodes. There was the time the lights were not working in the women’s facilities at Walsall’s Bescot Stadium for a game against Aston Villa – “We used our phone torch lights to see” – and a trip to Paris St-Germain in Women’s Champions League qualifying when the women’s lavatories in the away section were not even open. However, it is the reliance on “awful” portable lavatories at Arsenal and Chelsea’s Borehamwood and Kingsmeadow grounds respectively that is bemoaned just as strongly. At least West Ham have permanent lavatory structures.

Some fans seem to enjoy the rugged feel to these smaller grounds, such as Norwegian Kristoffer, who lives in London and has been a Manchester United fan since the 1990s. He says: “It’s a bit more intimate, it brings the fans closer to the players. It’s good compared to the big stadiums. I also like the ticket prices – that makes it possible for me as a Manchester United supporter to go to Manchester United matches.”

Andy Slater, who set up the women’s team fanzine “Barmy Article” in May 2021, was a men’s team season-ticket holder for 21 years until 2017 and adds: “As a men’s football fan, I’ve been to big, shiny stadiums, but as a women’s football fan I’ve been to grounds I would never have been to before, and I like that. But some of them are quite poor.

Andy sells the 'Barmy Article' fanzine on Sunday
Andy sells the 'Barmy Article' fanzine on Sunday - Tom Garry

“When you go to a top-of-the-WSL clash and there are porta-cabins for lavatories, it needs to be better, there’s no excuse. These clubs have the money to put basic facilities together.”

One female supporter says: “You can tell these grounds are geared up for men only.”

Fans’ messages for Sir Jim Ratcliffe – and Marc Skinner

Since Manchester United reformed their senior women’s side in 2018, the supporters’ club has grown from a nine-seater minibus to frequently needing an 88-seater double-decker coach for away games. They also took seven coaches to last May’s Women’s FA Cup final at Wembley.

These fans feel, though, that the Glazers have not matched that rise in interest with enough attention on the women’s programme and so they have a clear message for new part-owner Sir Jim Ratcliffe.

Connor Roberts, who runs the All for United WFC podcast, has a simple plea: “Just invest. We’ve got a great team already, with so many good youngsters coming through, so please put a proper structure above the manager and really give it a go. because the foundations are there.”

Andy agrees, hoping for a team of women’s football specialists to get high-up, off-pitch roles, and says: “Put people in place who know what they’re doing. Let football people do football jobs.”

Ratcliffe has suggested that if he builds a new stadium for the men’s team, the women’s side could make Old Trafford their home. Zoe seems to sum up the general mood on that matter as she says: “I’d love that. There’s so much history at OT and such a legacy that I’d hate to see it disappear completely, for a potentially soulless rebuild, so if we could retain it and dedicate it to the women, that would be fantastic.”

A discussion topic where there is less universal agreement is the future of head coach Marc Skinner, whose contract expires at the end of the season.

Speaking before the game, Conner says: “It’s a tough one. You’re going to get divided opinions whoever you ask. My mind is pretty made up that it’s probably time for a change. I think a fresh start is probably best.”

One fan from Greater Manchester adds: “It’s the way he always talks about needing more investment, instead it should be about everyone feeling valued. You see players looking much happier on international duty. I think that comes down to him, a lot.”

Some Manchester United fans hold aloft 'Skinner Out' signs after the West Ham match
Some Manchester United fans hold aloft 'Skinner Out' signs after the West Ham match - Tom Garry

A group of fans brought handmade “Skinner Out” signs to the match, which was held aloft at full-time as the discontent grew. AJ from Wythensawe says: “We want the players to know we support them but we don’t support the manager anymore.”

Getting back on the coach after the game, three fans say, almost in unison: “He’s got to go.”

The coach certainly has to go and, after a debrief about the match, laughter provides the soundtrack for the five-hour journey back to the car park meeting point at Old Trafford.