Liz Jones is pitch perfect:
A whole different ball game
Football has entranced Liz Jones − and broken her heart. Here she joins some of its new female champions to see if her old passion can be rekindled
Liz Jones said she fell in love with football during the World Cup of 2006
I have a love-hate relationship with football. Growing up with three older brothers, it was a constant battle over whether we’d watch Match of the Day, or the Horse of the Year Show. Football always won. I remember being forced to watch the World Cup in 1970. I found the English players far too weedy. Remember, there were no David Beckhams on offer, merely Nobby Stiles with his gummy smile. But I was entranced by the Brazilian players, and Roberto Rivelino in particular, with his 70s ’tache and meaty thighs. But then my brothers left home, and I forgot about football entirely, returning to David Broome, Harvey Smith and the dulcet tones of Raymond Brooks-Ward.
Then, 30 years later, I was force-fed football once again. I was sequestered in a villa on the island of Jamaica with my future husband. It was Euro 2000, and we watched every match, the Caribbean sun blotted out by heavy curtains. At first, I was the typical female sceptic. I would moan every time a player used a finger and thumb to expel gunk from his nostrils (‘Use a hanky!’). I called half time the ‘interval’, the players’ strip an ‘outfit’, and thought the fans changed ends at half time. During this competition, I became bewitched by the Italians.
Defender Alessandro Nesta, with his Pantene shiny hair. The Roman player with the apt name, Francesco Totti. Wow. He had a Roman nose, too.
After our divorce the following year, I
couldn’t bear to watch a single game. It was too painful. But I missed
the manly banter of MotD
I fell in love with football – and my husband – during this tournament. He was a fount of knowledge, having supported Tottenham Hotspur from an early age. And so we continued my footie education when we got home. We’d watch Football Italia late on Sunday night, in bed. Match of the Day, of course. I discovered exactly what made Zinedine Zidane a god.
But football became a source of sadness, too. During the World Cup 2006, for which I’d bought
my husband a huge LCD TV, I was puzzled he was supporting Germany, surely the most boring team of all. I soon found out why: the woman he was having an affair with, Daphne, was of German extraction. I found texts to her on his phone: ‘Germany to win the Cup!’ What a betrayal, of me and of his country.
After our divorce the following year, I couldn’t bear to watch a single game. It was too painful. But I missed the manly banter of MotD. So I decided to go along to a West Ham Championship match to see if any magic remains. To see if I could purge myself of hurt.
Why West Ham Well, Spurs was out of the question, as was Arsenal, given that my ex-husband hated them: that would be the sporting equivalent of sleeping with his brother. West Ham has a fetching claret and blue outfit, but mostly I picked them because they are in the East End of London, which is where I was happiest, and because my nephew David has supported them almost since birth.
They were also on the cusp of greatness. Relegated from the Premiership the previous year, they were poised to return to the big time. Before the game, outside the Upton Park stadium (the club might be moving to the Olympic stadium in 2014), I was shocked at the faces. All the men seemed very thin, and either very young or very old. As the players arrived in their Bentleys and Ferraris, these Dickensian faces were pressed against the wire fence: there seemed no resentment or jealousy, mainly awe.
Esha Chopra (left) works for Karren Brady
Vanessa Smit at her first game
Elisabeth Rasmussen from Norway
Paris Quinn-Smith, a police officer who plays football, with Leia Rushen, a pharmacy technician
I recognised no one on the pitch, but it was thrilling nonetheless: they were playing Brighton and to everyone’s amazement the Hammers won six-nil. Every time a home goal was scored, bubbles were sprayed from the sidelines. But what surprised me most of all was the number of female fans who turned up, despite the cold. Jenna Hughes, 18, works in childcare. ‘My dad has been coming for ever. I don’t find it sexist at all – the atmosphere is great.’ Ah, but does she understand the offside rule ‘A little bit.’
I was surprised to see groups of young women, such as Vanessa Smit, a 29-year-old manager, here for her first match, and Karin Watson, a 21-year-old dancer, both along for ‘the atmosphere’. Elisabeth Rasmussen, from Norway, has been a fan since 2003, mainly because her boyfriend grew up in the area. She loves West Ham as ‘it feels really authentic. It’s the real East End. I love it.’
Finally, after the match in the bar, I meet Emily McDermott, who is 16, blonde and stunning, and who has been ‘coming all my life, mainly with my dad. It’s just so exciting’. She is never hassled, and said she is ‘always treated with respect’.
But there are exceptions, the women along just to gawp at the players’ thighs. In the bar afterwards, players and wives and girlfriends mix. I spoke to one, Greta, 20, who looks like a model but told me she’s a student. Her boyfriend ‘has retired from the game’, she said, indicating which one he was: a great big hulk. ‘Which team did he play for’ I asked her. ‘Um, I’ve no idea!’ she giggled.
On 19 May, I went along to Wembley to watch the Championship play-off final: West Ham v Blackpool. West Ham won, but typically only in the 87th minute. The euphoria was palpable. Now they are back in the Premier League – a totally different ball game.
'I have a natural aura,' says Karren Brady, vice-chairman of West Ham United. 'You know there's a line you can't cross with me'
A week or so later, I meet Karren Brady, the poster girl for women in football, and West Ham’s vice-chairman. She’s relieved that her club is back playing with the big boys: ‘Being outside the Premier League is like being sent from Harrods to New Look.’
‘We wouldn’t say men can’t work in the fashion industry because that’s for women, in the same way as we shouldn’t say women can’t work in football,' Karren Brady
Having joined Birmingham City in 1993, Karren turned its fortunes around, enabling the club to be sold for 82 million in 2009. She took on the role of vice-chairman of West Ham in 2010. Was it hard, being taken seriously ‘I have a natural aura, you know there’s a line you can’t cross with me.’ (She does. I wish she would bottle it so I could buy some.)
She is smiley and friendly, not at all the stern businesswoman she appears on The Apprentice. ‘They edit my smiley bits out,’ she tells me. She lives round the corner from the hotel where we meet, in my favourite part of London: Egerton Street. It’s all Brazilian waxed box hedges and jaunty striped canopies. I tell her I often shop in the deli on the corner, just so I can pretend I live here too. ‘I have a flat,’ she says, ‘not a house. This is where I work. When I’m here, I don’t even answer the phone from my family. I start at 6am and finish about midnight.’
Born in 1969, she was brought up in Edmonton, North London, the daughter of Terry, once chairman of Swindon Town and director of Portsmouth. ‘My father and grandfather were passionate Arsenal supporters, with season tickets, and as we got wealthier we upgraded to a box. So I knew about football, and all our family weddings, unfortunately, were in red and white. But I wouldn’t say I had a burning desire to be involved.’
I wonder how close she is to the players (she married a Birmingham player, Paul Peschisolido; they have two children, Sophia and Paolo, 16 and 13). Early in her career, she was known as ‘the sacker’.
‘I see the players as individuals and their wellbeing is very important to me, but if one or two of them have got serious problems – their families in trouble, a health issue – they know I’m someone they can rely on. But I don’t say, “Oh, how’s training going” We don’t have those kinds of conversations.’
What attracted her to the game, she says, is that football can help communities.
‘When I was MD of Birmingham City, we employed nine full-time teachers who were educating people, taking in local truants, people with learning difficulties, language difficulties, women who wanted to get back in work. We had 35 community officers, and there are more at West Ham now. We set up initiatives for getting kids off the street, encouraging them into football, bringing in family stands – all of these things had never been done before.’
Liz Jones at Upton Park
What drove her ‘When I was younger, my goal was independence, the ability never to rely on anyone for anything. Because I went to boarding school where nothing is ever your own: not your pillowcase, your bed, nothing. I wanted to be in control of my own destiny.’
Does she fear losing what she has (another female trait) ‘No, I don’t. And that’s for a very specific reason, because I did worry about that a lot when I was younger, so I never took much maternity leave, because I thought if I stepped back I’d be forgotten. And I wish someone had told me when I was in my 20s that a career lasts a lifetime, it’s not just about that one moment. But I think when I had my brain surgery [in 2006, she was diagnosed with a potentially lethal cerebral aneurysm, and was back at work after surgery in a typically brief four weeks], it makes you realise life’s short. And there are so many different things in life to worry about, that actually what really matters is that you do something you enjoy.’
Has she ever used her looks to get ahead ‘I certainly know I’m memorable. When I’m in a room, I’m the only woman in that room. It’s so unimportant to me, what people think about how I look and dress. As you get older, comfort becomes the most important consideration, as opposed to style.’
Having said that, she says that when watching herself on The Apprentice ‘I always go on the
fat-ometer – how fat I’m looking at any particular time – which my husband and I laugh at’. Does she play herself down at home ‘My husband will say, “You do know I don’t work for you” sometimes. No, we’ve been married 17 years. We have one thing that we’re both passionate about and that’s our children.’
How about the disparity of wealth between the players and the fans I read that Manchester City player Yaya Toure is on 250,000 a week. ‘I believe in a free market. I think the only thing that’s changed is the quality has gone up.’
It’s hard to square, though, such young men on such high salaries during a recession. ‘We have an 18-year-old who works in our ticket office on 15,000 a year, and I’ve got another 18-year-old who trains for 45 minutes a day and occasionally plays a match who earns 15,000 a week. I make sure they mix so there’s an understanding that if the footballer’s not there there’s nobody to sell tickets to, and if the ticket person’s not there, nobody’s there to buy tickets to come and watch. So understanding why everyone’s role matters is really important to me.’
I tell her that after my visits to see West Ham play, I feel a bit sorry for the male fans. Football is, surely, the last bastion men have left and it seems to have been relentlessly feminised. Female TV pundits, such as Gabby Logan, Charlotte Jackson and Vicky Gomersall, are now commonplace. There is even a female assistant referee, Sian Massey. At Upton Park, I noticed signs everywhere asking men not to swear.
‘As a feminist, I think that’s great, and I don’t feel sorry for the men. I don’t think there should ever be a divide between what women can do and what men can. We wouldn’t say men can’t work in the fashion industry because that’s for women, in the same way as we shouldn’t say women can’t work in football because that’s for men. It’s the same as when male chefs came along – you don’t see Delia saying, “This is my kitchen, get out!”’
At the home game, it was clear there is a large number of female staff, from security to ticket sales and marketing, and I wonder how Karren feels about bringing on other women. Does she not get frustrated that as soon as they have extracted all your wisdom, they disappear on maternity leave ‘The only thing that frustrates me is that women don’t recognise how brilliant they are. [After having children] I chose to go straight back to work. It doesn’t make me a bad mother, the fact I spend four days a week in London and then see my kids for three days a week.’
So what does she think makes football so magical ‘In no other business do you come face to face with your hard-core consumer every week. We don’t make anything, or produce anything, other than footballers. All of our assets are people. I guess it’s a bit like if you had 22 designers in one room bantering with each other. The ability to watch them work and cut out their designs and see how they interact would be hugely of interest. That’s a bit like football.’
I love it! A fashion analogy to explain the Beautiful Game. I think I might just be ready for my first season ticket.
Women with an eye on the ball
Jacqui Oatley made headlines in 2007 when it was announced she would become the first woman to commentate on Match of the Day. She also reports and commentates for BBC Radio 5 Live.
Hayley McQueen, daughter of former Leeds United and Manchester United footballer Gordon McQueen, is a Sky Sports News presenter.
Television presenter Gabby Logan hosts programmes for BBC Sport, mainly focusing on football. She says, ‘I’m a huge football fan and it’s because of my mum, not my dad [former Welsh international Terry Yorath].’ Gabby has also been one of the BBC’s Olympics presenters.
Cookery queen Delia Smith owns a majority shareholding in Norwich City Football Club with her publisher husband Michael Wynn-Jones. She says, ‘Football is like ecstasy one minute and pain the next — it’s the whole gamut of human life.’
Former England international Hope Powell is coach of the England women’s football team and also coached the Great Britain women’s Olympic football team.
Vicky Gomersall joined the Sky Sports News presenting team in the summer of 2005. Vicky used to play football for Fulham Ladies and still plays five-a-side.