Today’s a special day. While the eyes of the footballing world will be on Qatar, something seismic will take place in SW6. Fulham’s first women’s fixture at Craven Cottage in more than two decades sees Steve Jaye’s side face AFC Wimbledon in the Capital Cup. Given that the Whites were England’s first professional side, who set the game alight just after the millennium by ending Arsenal’s ascendancy before the Football Association failed to deliver on their pledge to fund a full-time top flight, Fulham fans have been waiting for this for a long time.
The fact that the women’s side is still standing, after Mohamed Al-Fayed pulled his funding, and the team was twice dissolved before being re-established as part of the award-winning Fulham Foundation, is quite something. Brought back under the auspices of the football club following an academy reorganisation two years ago, the once-all conquering Fulham team have had to begin at the bottom. They benefit from a great training ground at Motspur Park – where home matches are usually staged on Sundays – and the support of Shahid Khan, chief executive Alistair Mackintosh, head of football development Huw Jennings and his colleagues in the academy – but the players remain part-time and are currently in the fifth tier.
Even today’s opposition, the by-product of a Cup draw, couldn’t be more appropriate. The original Friends of Fulham ladies outfit, improbable FA Cup winners back in 1985, moved to Wimbledon for a more sustainable future. AFC Wimbledon, famously founded by their fans after the FA opined that retaining the identity stolen by a franchise ‘was not in the wider interests of football,’ are making their own way forward in the women’s game – with strong support from their supporters’ trust. Many of the players in white this afternoon, including the three interviewees on the Green Pole podcast this week, played for the Dons. The two sides contested a spirited pre-season draw in July, but for all the romance of Fulham’s return home, no quarter will be given when the whistle blows. Kevin Foster’s team are on a fine run of form and will relish their role as party-poopers.
And a party it should be. The summer showed that women are elite sports performances, worthy of their place in the main stage. They are no longer playing sport to offer representation and inspiration but as athletes in their own right. The England women’s cricket team showcased their style in winning the World Cup on a memorable summer evening at Lord’s in 2019 and the Red Roses came agonisingly close to defending their world title in Auckland only a week or so ago. There should be no barriers to success on account of gender – and the myths about women’s football have been broken down dramatically over the past year.
Fulham’s team might not be professional but you’d never know it. They have immense pride in wearing the shirt and are a cracking bunch of characters. There is a togetherness and tenacity that you can only admire, especially as Jaye’s team play with style as well as a smile. Perhaps most importantly for all us who used to stand at the Hammersmith End: they are led by one of our own. Captain Mary Southgate is a lifelong Fulham fan and one of the moments of last season was seeing her carry the men’s Championship trophy onto the hallowed turf. As well as being a ball-playing centre back in the mould of Tim Ream, Mary is a P.E. teacher, spending her time education and empowering a new generation.
There’s a broader context to this afternoon’s action at the Cottage. The Fulham Lillies – launched earlier this season – now give female Fulham fans a place to organise. The Fulham Foundation, who don’t get the publicity their groundbreaking work deserves, are aiming to make sure that 40% of their programme participants are female come the summer. Given that the women’s game was banned for half a century and that opportunities to play sport are still limited for young girls in the state school system in London, what better showcase is there than this afternoon for London’s oldest professional club to turn the spotlight onto women’s football at their historic home. We’ve been waiting far too long. I know the girls won’t let us down.