Superfan Natalie Burrell discusses how she’s played a massive role in building the community surrounding MUWFC and why she thinks supporting the women’s team is more rewarding.
If you would have told Burrell a few years back that she would have become this invested in the women’s team, she would have never believed you. Having been a hardcore Man United fan since she was a little girl, her full focus had always been with the men. But now there’s a new team on the block and her love for football has grown even stronger.
“Growing up in the 90s it was all about Man United” Burrell admits. “I remember… just falling in love with everything to do with United.”
Since then, her support for the team has continued to grow and she has travelled across the world to see her beloved team play, going across Europe and even the States to get a closer look at the red devils in action.
But supporting the women’s side was never something that Burrell got involved in – mainly because there wasn’t a team to get involved with. So, when United finally brought back their women’s team this season, after a 13-year absence, it introduced Burrell and her fellow United fans to a new, exciting and completely different side to football.
A new league
Burrell remembers her first experience supporting the girls at Leigh Sports Village, right back at the very start of the season in their first home game against Reading. Although the team didn’t win that day, it was the players’ engagement with the fans that caught Burrell’s attention. At the end of the game, the players came over to thank the fans personally – something Burrell had never witnessed during a football game before.
“I thought ‘this is a bit strange’ because you don’t get that in a men’s game. You don’t get that interaction.”
And it wasn’t just a first game appreciation from the girls – the players continued to interact with fans at matches and across social media, replying to tweets and sharing fans’ own photos. It’s become common occurrence for both the coaches and the players to approach the fans, showing their appreciation both on and off the pitch.
“Whether it’s your first time or your fifth time or whether you’re there every game, they come over and chat to everyone” she assures.
“It’s more engagement and that’s why I go all the time – that’s why I feel more connected to them.”
Now the community surrounding the women is at an all-time high as Casey Stoney’s team and the fans continue to unite throughout their successful first season. But how did they gain such a dedicated following?
Starting from the bottom
Bringing a new team into an environment where there is already a significant lack of support can be a challenging task for anyone. And in terms of the fanbase, there was an uncertainty in how it would all come together.
“Because it’s a new team, no one knew anyone” Burrell admits – it wasn’t like the men’s where becoming a part of the community is as easy as going down to the local pub.”
Therefore, Burrell’s first task was to attempt to transfer any men’s team supporters over to support the women’s team, as well as adding in any newcomers to the existing fanbase.
She was pleasantly surprised at how many ‘hardcore reds’ were quickly taking a liking for the women’s side and it became apparent that the passionate united supporters would gather at any given opportunity to support their club – men or women. Soon, more and more people wanted to get involved in the action and Burrell started organising the transport for away matches to see the girls.
“It just started off as five of us in a car” Burrell admits, but now there’s enough for her to organise mini buses of around 18 people, and she doesn’t expect the number to stop there.
If you do happen to follow United’s women’s team, then you’ve most certainly come across the term ‘barmy army’ – a nickname used to describe the support system the women now currently have. Of course, it was Burrell who was responsible in bringing the first ever barmy army flag to the women’s matches which read ‘Sam Platt’s barmy army’ after an old matchday pub. Since then, the name has stuck and all the women supporters, as well as the players themselves, have joyfully adopted the nickname.
“For the women’s side that’s what we call each other” Burrell confirms, “because we’re just mad- we’re barmy!”
The future for women’s football
MUWFC’s support is just one element of women’s football’s growing popularity and success. The latest headlines, such as Barclay’s sponsorship of the Women’s Super League, give you glimpse of the increased interest.
It almost seems shocking at how late United were to join the party, but they’ve nevertheless played a big role in its development, at least for Burrell: “I’m behind women’s football more now because Man United are there. When they weren’t, it was alright, a shrug of the shoulders, but now they’re there, they are my team and I want them to grow, I want them to do better.”
However, Burrell still reckons there’s more the men’s side could do to help promote the women’s team – whether it’s regular updates on Twitter or more interactions between the two sides across their social feeds. Burrell also revealed that she’s going to be partaking in fan cams after the women’s matches to talk to supporters and grow the community even further. There’s still a lot of work to do but thanks to Burrell and her fellow barmy army, they’re heading in the right direction.
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