Pressure, What Pressure?

This was originally going to be a straight up-and-down match report, the story of a Women’s FA Cup tie in which the favourites, Wolves, huffed and puffed a little before eventually overcoming a resilient Stourbridge team from two levels lower in the pyramid; the story of wind and rain, a sodden 3G surface in front of a Covid-necessitated handful of spectators; and the story of a Cup run consequently ending without the fanfare it really deserved.

And all of that is true, and worth saying, even if the game had that sense of inevitability that many Cup ties do once the stronger side has its nose in front.  But shortly after Wolves – to their evident relief – had eventually taken the lead with 38 minutes played something happened that changed the focus of this piece, when a bloke standing behind me passed what he probably thought was a throwaway comment.

“They’ve put too much pressure on themselves with all the talk about the game on Twitter,” was the gist of it, suggesting that Stourbridge’s pre-match publicising of undoubtedly the biggest match in their history had affected the team’s performance.

Maybe I took it personally (because – declaring an interest – that social media stuff was largely my doing), but my initial reaction was “Nonsense!”

The fact is this is a team that has gone into pretty much every League match for a season and a half expected to win – and win big.  A team that was involved in a season-long two-horse race last season in which it looked eminently possible not only that every point would matter, but every goal and every miss too.  A team whose manager openly stated at the start of this season that reaching the First Round (five wins away) was the target.  A team that played at home in front of nearly seriously expectant 300 fans in the previous round, considered favourites despite playing against a team from a higher level, and with that target dangling enticingly.

In so far as playing football is ever pressurised, that’s pressure.  A “free go” against a team dominant two levels higher, a match just about everyone expects you to lose for once, is not.

Be that as it may (and happy as I am to have got it off my chest!), beyond that initial reaction I can’t help feeling there’s something a little more insidious about that comment, albeit I’m sure subconsciously so.

It’s true, there was plenty of build-up ahead of the match.  Why wouldn’t you pull out all the stops for an FA Cup First Round tie, the first time the club has got anywhere near this stage?  Even with no spectators permitted, and therefore less imperative to “sell” the occasion, it was surely still worth celebrating to the hilt.

Stourbridge as a club takes its women’s team very seriously.  In terms of publicity and promotion they are very deliberately treated on a par with the men’s team, and Sunday’s match was heavily advertised in advance.  I don’t see anything wrong with that.

Photos: Paul Rose

Let’s make a comparison with the men’s game here.  Our men’s team has reached the First Round and beyond several times in recent seasons, and we’ve promoted the backside out of every one of those matches.  Win or lose, nobody has ever suggested that that publicity has heaped too much pressure on the players, or that we might have been better off toning it down a bit in case it came back to bite us on the bum.

Marine FC will play Spurs in the Third Round of the men’s FA Cup in a couple of weeks.  You can bet the Merseysiders’ social media will be “giving it large” in terms of the build-up to that game, and I doubt anyone will raise an eyebrow at any supposed pressure on their team as a result.

Yet when it’s the women’s team in the same position, there’s an implication that the poor dears can’t handle being shoved into the spotlight, that they must be protected and cosseted lest it all goes wrong and they get upset.  Frankly, I take huge issue with that – it’s a patronising and insulting slur on EVERY women’s team.

Turn the situation on its head and imagine a match like this which you DON’T publicise.  Surely that would suggest that you don’t have faith in your team, that you don’t believe in them, that you don’t rate them, that you don’t think they can handle being in that spotlight?  It’s a coward’s approach – don’t put yourself up there in case you fall flat on your face. 

It’s an attitude that would NEVER be countenanced in men’s football, and it’s one that is happily fading fast in the women’s game.  Clearly, it hasn’t disappeared altogether.