Why Sunday's match between Hibs and Hearts is a real watershed moment for women's football

Hearts and Hibs in action at Tynecastle Park last season in a match Hibs won 3-1 in front of a crowd of over 3,500. Picture: David MollisonHearts and Hibs in action at Tynecastle Park last season in a match Hibs won 3-1 in front of a crowd of over 3,500. Picture: David Mollison
Hearts and Hibs in action at Tynecastle Park last season in a match Hibs won 3-1 in front of a crowd of over 3,500. Picture: David Mollison
Sunday is likely to be a watershed moment in the history of women’s football in Edinburgh.

Hibs and Hearts are meeting at Easter Road in what promises to be a highly competitive contest between two rivals. With no top-flight men’s football, due to the World Cup in Qatar, both halves of the divide have strongly marketed the fixture as they look to strengthen interest in their respective women’s sides and the burgeoning game as a whole.

Part of this involved the introduction of the Capital Cup, which will be contested for the first time when the teams take to the field. It’ll work the same way the Calcutta Cup works in Rugby Union’s Six Nations. These are still league matches, but the victor will lift a trophy at the end of the contest and retain it until they are defeated. It is a little on the gimmicky side for Scottish football, and the cup itself is rather modest, but it’s the kind of thing that clubs should be trying to do in order to drum up interest. And it does seem to be working.

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At the time of publication over 11,000 tickets have been claimed for the match. It should be stated there is no guarantee this will equate a five-figure attendance when the game gets underway at 4.10pm. Thanks to the backing of Baillie Gifford, the Edinburgh investment manager company, tickets are being sold at no cost. As the Scotland women’s national team have often found when giving out free tickets to increase the support at Hampden, those in possession of a brief don’t always use it as there hasn’t already been a sunk cost.

However, the crowd still promises to beat the 5,512 all-time record for an SWPL contest, which was set last season at the same ground involving the same two teams last season. The newly set-up Gorgie Ultras have stated they will be in attendance to cheer on the Gorgie Girls, while Hibs supporters’ group and resident singing section Block Seven have also intimated they will be there. These are firsts for matches involving the women’s team and promises to add a bit of tribalism to a side of Scottish football which has always leaned towards a more friendly atmosphere. Indeed, despite the increased attention and an expected bumper crowd, the fans will not be segregated.

This reporter was once scolded by a Hearts substitute for calling the referee “a clown” following a particularly egregious error during a game once at the Oriam. It was deemed a bit “rude” for the environment. While it may seem overly sanitised to those who are used to the viciousness of men’s football with regards to what is hurled from the stands on a weekly basis, it is an aspect the women’s game would like to retain. They want it to be an inclusive experience, for all to come and enjoy the spectacle without crossing the line of what would be deemed acceptable in everyday society. Whether that satisfies those who are used to screaming abuse at opponents and officials, and are coming along out of curiosity, remains to be seen.

There is going to be a lot of pressure heaped on players from both sides ahead of this game, and not just in terms of the final result.

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As previously stated, it’ll be the biggest crowd the vast majority have played in front of. There’s also the added incentive of them doing their bit to ensure it isn’t the biggest crowd they *ever* play in front of. The burden of growing the women’s game in Scotland shouldn’t fall on the players, but pioneers always have to carry more on their shoulders. These may not be the ground-breaking women of the 1970s who organised the SWFA at a time when the game was still disgracefully banned by the Scottish FA, but this is a new and exciting era for women’s football in this country. The top three in the league are full-time teams, others (including Hearts) are adopting semi-professional status and signing full-time players for the first time, and there’s growing interest from broadcasters with the BBC screening a weekly highlights show, BBC Alba (as will be the case on Sunday) broadcasting live games and even Sky Sports getting involved.

There will be an expectation from many first-time supporters turning up on Sunday to be entertained. Often the pull of football isn’t the entertainment. Hell, this writer’s first game was a dismal 1-0 Hearts win over Clydebank in the League Cup in 1992 and yet I was hooked on the sport immediately. It wasn’t the quality on show (there wasn’t any) it was the sights, the sounds, the emotion, the drama. But while there is certainly an attempt to attract first-time supporters for these matches, the market which women’s football wants to tap into is those who watch the men on a weekly basis.

There still exists a disregard or sneering about women’s football among the average male punter. The uninitiated looking to attend on Sunday need to go with an open mind. It’s the same sport but it’s a different game, one with its own eccentricities which are there to be appreciated and respected if you give it a chance.

As for the match itself, it’s also a real watershed moment for Hearts and a chance to put a marker down. Even with increased expectations due to an aggressive recruitment drive, they’ve performed above what many envisioned and currently sit fourth in the table, ahead of their rivals with the chance to put some distance between the two clubs. Hibs, who have long been pillars of the women’s top flight, struggled to start the season but have got back on track recently and made the SWPL Cup final with a win over Glasgow City.

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It promises to be a highly-charged contest on a stage which is more fitting to the talents of these players. I, for one, cannot wait.

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