Nick Westby: Rotherham stage is the perfect setting to grow women’s game

Standing in the sunshine at the side of the pitch at the very modern New York Stadium on the last Wednesday in February, it was hard not to feel that Spring had arrived.

England woman footballers Sophie Bradley, left, and Jill Scott with tickets for their game at Rotherham United's New York ground with Rotherham United player Alex Revell and the club's chief operating officer Paul Douglas. (Picture: Chris Lawton).
England woman footballers Sophie Bradley, left, and Jill Scott with tickets for their game at Rotherham United's New York ground with Rotherham United player Alex Revell and the club's chief operating officer Paul Douglas. (Picture: Chris Lawton).

The purring of a lawn mower could be heard tending to a pitch that had just the previous evening hosted a big Yorkshire derby. The whiff of freshly-mown grass merely strengthened the notion that winter was fading fast.

It was a fitting scene for what has been a new dawn at Rotherham United.

A brand spanking new stadium that is the envy of most lower league clubs, with its impressive facade evident for a mile in all directions, has done wonders for the Millers.

The New York Stadium is a beacon, and has changed the face of the South Yorkshire town.

The stadium is also a money-maker. Conference and banqueting opportunities between Monday and Friday have exceeded all budgetary expectations, but it is the figures for a Saturday that are most impressive with the club’s move back to the town seeing a doubling of gates.

In the fourth and final season of their exile at Sheffield’s Don Valley Stadium, the average attendance was 3,498.

The average in the first three quarters of a season at the New York Stadium is 7,926. That figure is the second highest in League Two, and if they were a League One club, it would be the seventh.

All they need now is a League One team, something manager Steve Evans is desperate to orchestrate and not far from accomplishing.

Such positive vibes have not gone un-noticed elsewhere, notably at the Football Association, who have awarded the New York Stadium with the first football international to take place in Rotherham.

On Sunday, April 7, England’s senior women’s team take on Olympic bronze medallists Canada in a friendly fixture aimed at sharpening their skills ahead of the summer’s European Championships in Sweden.

The two entities dovetail perfectly, for both are on the up. Rotherham United Football Club for all of the above, and women’s football, which continues to build on the legacy of the London 2012 Olympics.

More than 70,000 fans watched Great Britain’s women team’s lose 1-0 to Brazil at Wembley in the group stage of London 2012.

Life outside the over-inflated Olympic bubble has not been as generous, with club sides like Doncaster Rovers Belles, Arsenal and Everton still scratching around for anything like those kinds of numbers.

But with the general concensus being that there has been an upturn in interest and that standards in women’s football are strong, Rotherham United hope that this fixture will be played out to at least a half-full, 12,000-capacity New York Stadium.

“We’re working closely with the FA through our links with the local schools and clubs, and promoting it among our supporters, so I think we’ll see a good response,” said the Millers’ chief operating officer Paul Douglas at the official launch of the fixture last week.

“I’ll be surprised if we don’t do at least 5,000 tickets and I’d hope to exceed that.”

For the football club, hosting this fixture is a no-brainer.

It costs them nothing, and even the bidding process, where they fended off interest from several other clubs, took less than two months from proposal to confirmation.

It also gives them a national profile, something the neighbouring Keepmoat Stadium has enjoyed from hosting England Under-19s fixtures in the past.

“I thought we’d have to wait a year while the authorities saw us bed in at the new stadium, but the FA came up and got a sense of what we’re doing here,” continued Douglas, pictured below right. “It’s going to be a great occasion. It’s lovely for the town and we’re really pleased with it.

“We’re giving our supporters and the people of Rotherham a chance to see an international fixture. If you look at Doncaster, it’s been marvellous the effect the Keepmoat has had on their club and the town of Doncaster and we believe we can replicate that in Rotherham.

“It’s a marvellous coup to get this fixture. We’ve come a long way in the last 12 months.

“Our supporters have been through more than most in the last four or five years with the administrations, the relegations, kicked out of your stadium and playing in your local rival city etc.

“For them to come back to a stadium they’re proud of, and to see we’re getting these kind of fixtures coming along, is marvellous.”

If it does a good job of hosting Hope Powell’s England against one of the strongest nations in women’s football, the New York Stadium could stage further fixtures in the future.

For the women of English football, success will also have a knock-on effect.

Defeat in the quarter-finals of London 2012 was agonising, but with the Women’s Superleague kicking off shortly after the Rotherham friendly, a successful outing in South Yorkshire coupled with a long run in the summer’s European Championships would see the sport continue to grow.

A victory in Sweden in the summer would do wonders for the cause.

England and Lincoln Ladies defender Sophie Bradley, pictured far left, said: “If we were to win the Euros it would give women’s football the lift-off we all crave, but until then we’ve got to keep picking away at it.

“The women’s game is definitely getting stronger. More people are watching it, there’s more girls taking part than ever before. We’re doing better in competitions and competing with the best in the world.

“Games like this one in Rotherham can only help.”

Tickets for England v Canada on Sunday, April 7, (3pm) are available from the club and on sale now priced £5 adults, £2.50 concessions.

and another thing...

Continuing the theme of South Yorkshire stadia, Sheffield Council’s decision to close Don Valley Stadium is a sad day for the city.

Sad because of the cost-saving reasons behind it, and sad for what impact it will have on sport in the city.

When the wrecking ball comes in to start destroying the 25,000-seater stadium, it will not only be bricks and mortar that are reduced to rubble, but a sporting legacy.

If timing is everything in sport, then this timing stinks.

Less than a year after the stadium’s great ambassador Jessica Ennis won Olympic gold, having spent hour upon tireless hour honing her skills on the Attercliffe track, it is tantamount to sticking two fingers up at those who preach legacy.

I have lived in the Steel City nearly all my life, and seen a whole variety of sporting events at Don Valley, including the 1991 World Student Games it was built for. My rates-paying Dad always begrudged how much it cost him and his fellow residents, but after paying for it for nearly a quarter of a century he had got used to it, and had come to acknowledge its importance to the city’s sporting heritage.

Because as was proven in London, investment in sport equals success. No investment will result in failure.