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AT 6.30am on Sunday morning, a coach of football supporters will depart from Portman Road making the trip north for the first FA Cup fourth-round tie involving Ipswich Town FC in a decade.
It is another indication of the burgeoning popularity of women’s football that a group of mainly male supporters are making the 450-mile round trip not to follow Paul Lambert’s League One side, but their FA Women’s National South-East Division league leaders.
Men’s season-ticket holder Thomas Whitby had never been to a women’s match before he attended Ipswich Town’s home match against Norwich City in September.
Fuelled by the feel-good factor generated by last summer’s Women’s World Cup, Whitby was one of 761 fans who attended the “Old Farm Derby” in Felixstowe.
“It was a great night for the club and it was also a landmark in terms of creating a good atmosphere at an Ipswich Town women’s game for the first time, so myself and a few of the others had an idea to carry it on after that.”
Following their next home match, “The Tractor Girls on Tour (TGOT)” were formed. In four months, they have created a social media following of over 1,300 and raise funds by selling merchandise including pin badges which have “sold extremely well” and stickers.
“Our aim as a group is to create an atmosphere at women’s games and inspire other clubs to do the same because I feel like there isn’t anyone like ourselves at our level in the women’s game,” Whitby explained.
“We also want to inspire younger people to try to attend games and to also go out there to play football themselves so that one day they maybe could be playing for Ipswich or another club at our level!”
TGOT may only have 30 members but their influence on Ipswich Town’s following has been dramatic. In a league where crowds are usually recorded in double figures, every Ipswich Town home game since their formation has attracted a three-figure attendance.
The fact that all but one of their members live in Suffolk has not prevented TGOT from following their team around the country. A private members group for supporters to be able to communicate and arrange transport to matches was set up.
“The idea was born to create a platform whereby supporters can exchange personal information in private to aid the travel arrangements of supporters to matches.”
Whitby personally took a car of fans to Stevenage in September and two full car loads undertook the 200-mile round trip to Wimbledon last Sunday, a match which ended the Tractor Girls’ eight-match winning streak in the league.
Ipswich captain Amanda Crump believes the atmosphere created by TGOT has played a part in the team’s surge to the top of the table. “It’s been a great boost. The Women’s World Cup has influenced a few younger people to come and watch us. At the Norwich game, we had over 700 people watching which was an incredible atmosphere for us and it was great to play in.”
Everywhere they go, TGOT take with them their drum and three custom-made flags, as Whitby explains: “The first one tells a story about our dreams, ‘We have a dream’ with an image of the WSL badge, where myself and the management at the club inspire us to be.
“The second uses our #WeLoveWomensFootball hashtag which has been used quite a bit over the different social-media platforms and finally our last flag is of our manager Joe Sheehan.”
The Fourth Round draw did not hand Ipswich the dream tie against a WSL side they craved but their match away to third-tier Huddersfield Town will be played at the 24,169-capacity Kirklees Stadium, a first for the Yorkshire club.
“I think it’s brilliant for women’s football and the girls to be able to play at a massive stadium, compared to what they are used to,” said Whitby.
“It shows that the clubs are fully behind their women’s teams. It’s a great opportunity for our girls to experience playing at a ground like this and I’m hoping that we are able to play at Portman Road in the near future!”
After an attempt to organise coach travel to Ipswich’s Second Round tie away to Chichester in December was aborted — “the response was disappointing” admitted Whitby, “not aided by the fact that the men’s team was playing in Birmingham on the same day, thus splitting loyalties” — a coach has been organised for the trip to West Yorkshire.
As of yesterday morning, 29 supporters, paying around £30 each, have so far booked a place. Tickets to the game are an additional £5.
Whichever side emerges victorious on Sunday, the Women’s National League will be represented in the Fifth Round.
Whitby believes it will be the Tractor Girls. “Hopefully it’s a day that lives long in the memories of the girls and us fans who will be in Huddersfield to watch it unfold!”
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