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  • Writer's pictureSuzy Lycett

How fans of Arsenal WFC are taking club rivalries in a new direction

Updated: Mar 1, 2023

Men's football is all about the rivalries. Spurs and Arsenal, Manchester United and Manchester City. Matchups where emotions run high and fans aim to outdo each other in how loudly they declare mutual hatred.


The men's game has had years of history to build on and those rivalries have become firmly entrenched. With its short history, women's football has some catching up to do.


Arsenal women supporters are getting more passionate and loud. Full on rivalries are the next step - and they're starting to develop already.


As the women's game grows, pre-existing rivalries don't necessarily translate.


The traditional rivalries are promoted strongly to boost ticket sales - the North London Derby, Arsenal vs. Spurs women, for example.


When Manchester United played Liverpool at the beginning of 2023, Marc Skinner at Manchester United said that: "Liverpool are a really good team, and going forward I think it will be like the men's rivalry."


But why should the women's teams have the same rivals as the men's just because that's what's gone before?


The animosity and rivalry between Arsenal and Chelsea women seem more real than Arsenal versus Spurs women. There, I've said it. Bold statement. Come at me.


Yes, the North London Derby broke the record for attendance in the WSL. But Arsenal walked to a 4-0 victory. It was never in doubt, at that early stage in the season with a full squad.


The rivalry between Arsenal and Chelsea can't be taken in the same light-hearted way because Chelsea have continuously blocked Arsenal's progression and beaten the team to titles.


The Arsenal and Chelsea grounds sit within the limits of Greater London - sufficient proximity to be classed a "derby" when our teams meet.


There's real tension and a need for Arsenal fans to be loud to back our team in what is always a difficult and closely-contested match.


Chelsea put in a bid for Katie McCabe in the January 2023 transfer window - and the backlash confirmed the depths of the rivalry.


This was not Jordan Nobbs transferring to Aston Villa because she wasn't getting game time - a move that was generally accepted by Gooners, who knew that it was in her best interest.


Katie moving to Chelsea would have meant an active choice to strengthen Chelsea, our direct competitors.


Although Katie's transfer bid was supposedly never discussed with her directly and was rejected by the club, the way the fans reacted was telling.


There was anger at the possibility that Katie would consider joining one of our closest competitors.


Mana Iwabuchi also moved to Spurs during that same transfer window - and felt the need to address the situation.


“I am fully aware of the rivalry between the clubs, and it was one of the toughest decisions to make in my football career,” Mana said. Yet she still went.


Fara Williams has previously shared that: “I don’t think there are many rivalries in the women’s game. There’s rivalry in terms of what happens on the pitch but if a player moves from one club to another, it’s an issue for the fans more than the players."


This may be true - and yet there was less debate and more acceptance from fans around Mana's transfer to our historic rival than Katie's rumoured move to Arsenal women's new rival. This reaction shows the new direction Arsenal WFC's rivalry is taking.


Of course, for a rivalry to exist, it has to go two ways.


“The rivalry between our two clubs is quite fierce,” said Chelsea player, Jessie Fleming, back in 2021 when it was neck and neck for the WSL title race.


Fast forward to 2023 and Arsenal pushed Chelsea at Emirates in January, looking the better team despite the draw.


Chelsea fans came armed with flags and marched to the stadium, a wave of blue, with calls on social media to compete with our sea of red and white.


Injury has hampered Arsenal's season, and the second meeting of 2023 looked far more one-sided, for the FA cup fifth round. Extra loud chants of "We've got McCabe", "We hate Chelsea", and taunts about our European success rang out across Kingsmeadow at the game.


The Red and White at Kingsmeadow
The Red and White at Kingsmeadow

The Chelsea fans even made themselves heard, very occasionally, with a chant for Sam Kerr of "Even with jetlag, she's better than you."


Lauren James then threw up 2-0 fingers at fans booing her when she fell over. As an Arsenal fan, that got my hackles up, and we pushed ourselves to be even louder in response. Yet, doesn't that just build on the banter and make a potential win even more tantalising?


Our rivalries are therefore distancing themselves from what's expected.


Fan sentiment is what controls this fork in the road, taking our top choice rivalry in a new direction - in more ways than one.


For Arsenal women versus Chelsea at the Emirates in January, supporters received an email, suggesting that our club colours should be covered while on public transport.


Why? Not because of Chelsea fans, but because the men's NLD with Spurs was taking place on the same day, and this was a solution to "avoid potential hostility".


I can't speak to how these rivalries will develop.


For now, I've never felt unsafe going to a "rival" team's grounds to watch a match, aside from that one instance which clashed with the men's NLD.


We chant, we scream, we sometimes swear during the game. Post-match, everyone goes their separate ways, one side happier than the other. The women's game is more inclusive and accepting, and that extends to our rivalries too.


Fans of the women's game can take that stick and run with it.


Expectations around rivalries may therefore have been driven by fans of the men's game. They laid the groundwork and showed those who exclusively support Arsenal women the potential of how a rivalry can develop.


These fans don't have preconceived views about the team they should dislike the most and how the fans should engage with each other. That's why and how our rivalry with Chelsea can prosper.


Just one more way that Arsenal WFC is moving out from under its counterpart's shadow.

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