Soccer

Arsenal defender Jen Beattie admits bumper crowd attendances are ‘surreal’

Arsenal’s Jen Beattie still finds playing in front of big crowds “surreal” (Mark Robinson/McDonald’s handout)
Arsenal’s Jen Beattie still finds playing in front of big crowds “surreal” (Mark Robinson/McDonald’s handout) Arsenal’s Jen Beattie still finds playing in front of big crowds “surreal” (Mark Robinson/McDonald’s handout)

Arsenal supporters may now be accustomed to packing the Emirates Stadium for women’s matches but the experience of playing in front of tens of thousands remains “surreal” to veteran Jen Beattie.

The Glaswegian returned for a second spell with the Gunners in 2019 having previously won a league title, two FA Cups and a pair of League Cups in a four-year stint between 2009 to 2013.

On Tuesday, Arsenal announced 40,000 tickets have already been sold for their Women’s Super League encounter with defending champions Chelsea at the Emirates Stadium on December 10 – a figure which is becoming a regular occurrence rather than any kind of novel development.

Despite the large attendances becoming more routine, Beattie admitted to the PA news agency: “They’re still exciting. I don’t think it will ever not be.

“I mean I’m 32, I’ve been in the game for a long time, I’ve played in front of crowds that aren’t that big, so to still be a part of it now and to see the crowd numbers growing and becoming consistent is surreal, to be honest.

“But it’s credit to the club, the way that they’ve pushed the funding behind the marketing, behind games, and of course, the fans that have bought into what we’re trying to do.

“I don’t think selling out the Emirates will ever become normal for me. It will be just as surreal and just as exciting every single time. I don’t think I’ll ever get used to that.”

Huge crowds at the Emirates are becoming routine
Huge crowds at the Emirates are becoming routine Huge crowds at the Emirates Stadium are becoming routine (Steven Paston/PA)

The numbers speak for themselves. On October 1, Arsenal set a new WSL attendance record of 54,115 when they played Liverpool at the Emirates in their league opener, following that up with over 35,000 against Aston Villa two weeks later.

Including the upcoming Chelsea contest, each of Arsenal’s WSL matches at the Emirates Stadium since the start of the 2022-23 season – after several members of the squad lifted the Euro 2022 trophy with England – have generated crowds of at least 35,000, the club also ticking off a first sell-out at the stadium for last season’s Champions League semi-final.

The PA news agency understands Arsenal have also experienced a 314 per cent year-on-year increase in total ticket sales for women’s games between the 2021-22 and 2022-23 seasons.

Beattie can uniquely speak to what her club is doing behind the scenes. In 2022, the cancer survivor signed an extension that also saw her adopt a dual role which involves mentoring academy players and working with Arsenal’s commercial and partnerships teams.

She said: “It’s important for them to see how much the women’s side actually want to be involved in those big decisions, making the staff aware [that] we really value having an impact, because we care about it.

“I think that men’s football went on at such a fast growth so many years ago, but we wanted to kind of tailor it. I think we all just have a responsibility that we’re part of the big change that’s happening.

“There are so many similarities to men’s football, but there are so many differences, and I think it’s about things we want to make different as well. We don’t want to completely emulate the men’s game.”

Arsenal skipper Kim Little and vice-captain Leah Williamson have also been active in consultations about next year’s plan to move the WSL and Women’s Championship into an independent ‘NewCo’, which will result in a restructure of power in a move similar to the Premier League’s 20-club governance model.

Beattie, meanwhile, has been serving as a Scottish FA and McDonald’s grassroots ambassador, and believes striking the right balance between enjoyment and opportunity is pivotal when it comes to keeping girls in the game past their primary school years, when a 2022 Women in Sport survey found 43 per cent who once considered themselves ‘sporty’ drop out.

She added: “It is still a very male-dominated sport, but I think as long as fun is the number-one aspect, making it not too stressful, I think that’s what keeps kids in it, and creating a pathway up to professionalisation (and) giving support to schools, to education.

“As long as there’s a pathway and an opportunity for kids to stick to, that’s the most important thing.”

:: Jen Beattie was speaking at the annual Scottish FA Grassroots Awards in partnership with McDonald’s Fun Football. The awards recognise volunteers who are dedicated to making a real difference to community football in Scotland.