As an Irish woman, Ruby Malone used to recoil at the sound of Three Lions during men’s tournaments. Now she’s one of a growing number of Celts proudly lending their support to England Women…
“Football’s coming home, it’s coming home, it’s coming…”
It’s the dreaded song that made me let out a mental sigh of relief as I boarded a plane to Ibiza in July 2018. The England men’s team had made it to the semi-final of the World Cup and the lyrics infringed upon my stubborn Irish ears everywhere I went in London.
And when I say everywhere, I mean EVERYWHERE. I couldn’t even escape them in the haven of my own flat – my English partner played the song, sang it, hummed it, shouted it – even tapped it – at every opportunity. It is no over-exaggeration to say I felt like I was fleeing to the Balearics, never to return if England lifted the coveted trophy.
As we know, they didn’t. And so, I returned to the city I love.
But then came the delayed Men’s Euros last year, and this time I couldn’t escape; Covid made sure of that. As England progressed, the renditions got louder and more erratic. It seeped out of windows and down streets, piercing through the pollution hanging in the balmy air. Whilst the majority of those in my company were buoyed on by this, I mentally formed a green bubble around me and ‘whoosah-d’ my way through.
Fast forward to July this year and it’s a very different picture. Watching the Republic of Ireland women’s team and their growth over the past few years has proven that when a national team perform well, it can have a transcendent impact on the country’s opinions of women’s football. I’ve seen people who I would never have expected to give the women’s game a second thought chatting about the Irish team and their impressive performances. Now living in London and seeing the exponential growth of the WSL, it’s clear to me how much the Lionesses have done for women’s football in this country and consequently, women within football.
So, I find myself donning an England football jersey, bouncing along to the tune of Three Lions (I haven’t quite made it to the singing stage yet) and grinning from ear to ear as I watch the English women’s team celebrate each victory.
Because the truth is, this feels different.
Men’s football has been a breeding ground for toxic masculinity, racism and the rejection of anyone that doesn’t ‘fit the mould’ for decades. Sadly, for other nations looking in, the environment around the England men’s football team has often seemed like an embodiment of this toxicity. The repugnant racism aimed at Marcus Rashford, Bukayo Saka and Jadon Sancho after the Euro 2020 final – along with the fact women were at a 38 per cent increased risk of domestic violence after the defeat – are examples of this.
In stark contrast, the air around the England women’s team and its passionate support is that of inclusion, acceptance and solidarity.Embed from Getty Images
As we approached the Amex Stadium for the quarter-final between England and Spain, I could feel positivity and unity fizzing in the air around us. English and Spanish fans stood together drinking beers and looking as nervous as each other, kids sat on the ground painting each other’s faces, and for once, the absence of a gender disparity was striking.
Inside the stadium was just as amiable – even as kick-off drew closer and the nerves in the crowd became palpable. There were no audible boos for the opposition’s national anthem (as has so often been the case at England men’s games), and an emphatic cheer resounded around the ground as the women took the knee.
I was an Irish woman watching an England football match, surrounded by thousands of people donning the St. George’s flag (some even with faces fully transformed) and I didn’t feel uncomfortable at all. Not even once in the 547 times I screamed, “Come on, England!” in my undeniably female, Irish accent.
All around us there were English men who knew the players’ names and clubs, chatting with women about tactics and changes that needed to be made. It felt like we were finally approaching an understanding after all these years: football isn’t just theirs, it’s ours.
The belief that women shouldn’t play or follow football is one that has permeated society for far too long. The boring ‘no one cares about women’s football’ opinion is finally being demoted to the pits of social media, with the deliberately controversial blue ticks and the ‘PremKing123456’s. Of course, there are still people who believe this (even if silently), but we can be content to leave them behind – the game is growing exponentially and it’s clear that this tournament will only expedite its visibility and popularity.
If England win this tournament, it will be incredible for women’s football in this country and, by extension, Ireland too. There are plenty of Irish playing in the English leagues and the more coverage they get, the more pressure the Football Association of Ireland (FAI) is under to invest in their women’s teams.
The BBC News was pushed back on Wednesday night to allow extra time at the England game to be broadcast, which felt significant. Unless you live under a rock, you know that the Women’s Euros is being played and that England are quite simply bossing it.
We can have our intense rivalries on the pitch and still be unified to achieve the ultimate objective. This isn’t about blindly supporting the Lionesses because they’re women. It’s about all the positives that come with the women’s game in this country – it’s fiercely competitive but still unified, thrillingly tense but not toxic, confident in its importance but not arrogant. People often ask what women’s top-tier football has to do to reach the level of the men’s – in many ways, I see it as the other way round. The Premier League could learn a lot from the women’s game.
So, there it is: I’m an Irish woman, proud to be cheering the Lionesses on to win Euro 2022 on home soil.
Because wouldn’t it just be incredible if after all this time – a 50-year ban and decades of being shoved back into the shadows – it’s the women who bring football home?
You can follow Ruby on Twitter @RubyGMalone