At Champion Hill on Sunday, fans were returning to the Dulwich Hamlet ground for the first time since March.
As groups of friends made their way in to make the most of having to socialise outside, it was a familiar enough scene for it to seem like nothing had changed, writes Jessy Parker Humphreys.
Familiar until you took in the rest of it. Fans dressed not just in club branded hats, scarves, and shirts, but also face masks.
Every other row of seats was kept empty whilst the stadium announcer encouraged everyone to spread out around the ground so that they would “be allowed to do this again.”
Some changes were ingenious. A drinks trolley piled high with beer and crisps was hauled around the perimeter of the ground to ensure that no queues for a bar formed.
People were coming to see Dulwich Hamlet play Leyton Orient in the Second Qualifying Round of the Women’s FA Cup.
It was a tantalising fixture on the face of it. Dulwich Hamlet’s women’s team are at the start of their second season after AFC Phoenix merged with the club.
Playing in the fifth tier of the women’s football pyramid, they are highly rated, and had previously beaten their National League opposition Leyton Orient last season. They had already won two games to reach this stage of the FA Cup.
There is little attention paid to the earlier rounds of the Women’s FA Cup. It does not feature the big name players that the FA use to market the women’s game nor is it imbued with the romance that the media tend to reserve for the start of the Men’s FA Cup.
There has been added confusion around the tournament this year as a result of the final rounds of the 2019/20 FA Cup being played at the same time as the early rounds of the 2020/21 Cup.
With a home advantage and significant crowd support, there was a real sense that Dulwich Hamlet would be able to compete against their opponents from the division above.
The match itself was played at a frantic pace with Dulwich Hamlet looking like much the better side from the start.
However, they were undone in the 7th minute by a clever flicked on header by Nyara Denny, one of the most skillful players on the pitch, which was calmly finished by Katherine Long.
Leyton Orient were unable to use this lead to stamp their authority on the game but it did allow them to sit back. Dulwich Hamlet pushed for an equaliser and were denied only by a series of strong saves by Naomi Ogunde in the Leyton Orient goal.
In the second half, it was more of the same. Dulwich Hamlet were dominant in possession but struggled to create anything in the final third with Leyton Orient’s defence happy to frustrate them outside their penalty area.
The game finished 0-1 but there was one more important moment of the day for Dulwich Hamlet. The attendance was read out at 582 – a record for the women’s team.
After the match, a disappointed Dulwich Hamlet manager, Ryan Dempsey, tried to find some positives from the game and said:
“Hopefully, it’s a good enough performance to bring back the majority of 550 people.”
“It’s good to get the crowds back in. Get people out and about socialising. It’s the only way they can socialise.”
Dempsey did at least feel that the performance showed that his team were heading in the right direction.
“It’s pleasing that we competed with a team in the league above us – and who have been in the league above us for a number of years.”
“It’s where we want to be. We want to get promoted this season. To get into the National League” he said.
For Leyton Orient manager Chris Brayford, there was an important aspect of the win beyond just progressing to the next round as he went on to say:
“There’s a financial impact, as well. There’s a huge gap between what the men’s team get from playing in the FA Cup and winning games and what the women’s team get, but even the few hundred pounds from winning the tie helps and makes an impact.”
It is striking to hear how important the prize money is even though it is dwarfed by the prize money in the men’s game.
Leyton Orient will have pocketed £450 for winning their second round qualifying tie. If they were a men’s team that would have been worth £3375.
For losing, Dulwich Hamlet walked away with £115 – it would have been almost ten times more at £1125 if it were the men’s side.
Brayford was also enthused by the opportunity to play in front of so many people.
“It can’t help but make for a more exciting atmosphere. The players are what matter – you want them to be playing in front of those crowds because one good thing is there’ll be new people who have come there.
There will be families, kids, who’ll see the game and think ‘Orient did well and Dulwich did well and hopefully we’ll be coming to watch more women’s football games.’”
Given the fears that COVID-19 would interrupt the momentum within the women’s game with fans forced to stay away from grounds, it was a heartening sign that the enthusiasm was if anything increased. It made it feel even more essential for there to be a solution to make sure more matches like this can take place.
It also showed how competitive and exciting the lower rungs of women’s football are. It is easy to be drawn into the bright lights of the very top of the game. But football associations across the globe are being forced to contend with the notion that this sport is not just about the handful of super-rich clubs.
Whatever level you look at there are brilliant moments. That is as true in the women’s game as it is in the men’s.
Follow Jessy on Twitter at @jessyjph