Only girls allowed

Turkish club Fenerbahçe hosted a historic night of football on which no men were allowed in the grou

Spending a "girls' night out" at a football match might appear to be something of an oxymoron. Yet in what is thought to be a world first, more than 41,000 women and children aged under 12 packed the Şükrü Saracoğlu Stadium in Istanbul last Tuesday evening - home to Turkish first division side Fenerbahçe - in a league match where men were banned from attending.

The Turkish Football Federation (TFF) had initially ordered that the club play their first two games of the season behind closed-doors in a bid to combat violence and hooliganism after fans had invaded the pitch during a pre-season friendly against the Ukrainian side, Shakhtar Donetsk. However authorities had a change of heart and instead decided to admit only women and children for free to the matches.

Following the game, both the players and the Turkish football authorities felt the "experiment" had gone well and called for a greater push to increase the number of women and families present at football matches. The vice-president of Fenerbahçe, Ali Koc who was speaking to CNN, described the atmosphere as being one of a kind and "historic in the sense of Turkish football as well as international football".

One fan, American-born Charlotte Surmeli told the Guardian that "grandmothers in their 70s with their daughters and their grandchildren [were present]. For these women it could be the first and only match they ever go to but I really hope they continue to do it".

Players from both Fenerbahçe and the opposing side, Manisaspor, tossed flowers to the women in the crowd and were eager to champion the whole experience as a great success. Fenerbahçe's captain, Alex de Sousa revealed that the memory of the night would stay with him forever whilst Everton loanee, Joseph Yobo said "we have to thank the ladies for coming to support us. It is difficult playing without fans." Omer Aysan, midfielder for the opposition, agreed saying it was "such a fun and pleasant atmosphere".

After reading about this historic game, it got me thinking about whether the idea would be feasible for a Premier League game. There are already a large number of women attending football matches in England. According to a Populus survey in August 2010, 19 per cent of match attendees in the 2008-09 season were women.

A stadium packed to the rafters but with no men present would certainly be quite a sight. But it would no doubt also feel strange. The man launching a foul-mouthed tirade at the ref and the guy offering his expert analysis at half-time are an essential part of the English football experience.

Hooliganism is not as much of a problem as it once was and there have been some initiatives taken by some clubs and the FA to broaden their fan base and make it more diverse. For example, at England matches, the FA has launched a discounted price for a family ticket of four, which allows the match to be enjoyed from a specially designated enclosure.

Karen Espelund, the first women's delegate appointed to the UEFA executive committee, who was speaking at a UEFA meeting in Cyprus, has also advocated the need to involve more families in the game. She said "the answer has been quite clear that the more families you have in the stands, the better the atmosphere you get".

The Premier League and other divisions should definitely learn from Fenerbahçe's experiment and attempt to increase the number of families present at football matches, but it's hard to imagine a Premier League match attended by women alone. If the scheme were ever to be implemented over here, I fear we'd have a riot from football-starved males on our hands.

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Is defeat in Stoke the beginning of the end for Paul Nuttall?

The Ukip leader was his party's unity candidate. But after his defeat in Stoke, the old divisions are beginning to show again

In a speech to Ukip’s spring conference in Bolton on February 17, the party’s once and probably future leader Nigel Farage laid down the gauntlet for his successor, Paul Nuttall. Stoke’s by-election was “fundamental” to the future of the party – and Nuttall had to win.
 
One week on, Nuttall has failed that test miserably and thrown the fundamental questions hanging over Ukip’s future into harsh relief. 

For all his bullish talk of supplanting Labour in its industrial heartlands, the Ukip leader only managed to increase the party’s vote share by 2.2 percentage points on 2015. This paltry increase came despite Stoke’s 70 per cent Brexit majority, and a media narrative that was, until the revelations around Nuttall and Hillsborough, talking the party’s chances up.
 
So what now for Nuttall? There is, for the time being, little chance of him resigning – and, in truth, few inside Ukip expected him to win. Nuttall was relying on two well-rehearsed lines as get-out-of-jail free cards very early on in the campaign. 

The first was that the seat was a lowly 72 on Ukip’s target list. The second was that he had been leader of party whose image had been tarnished by infighting both figurative and literal for all of 12 weeks – the real work of his project had yet to begin. 

The chances of that project ever succeeding were modest at the very best. After yesterday’s defeat, it looks even more unlikely. Nuttall had originally stated his intention to run in the likely by-election in Leigh, Greater Manchester, when Andy Burnham wins the Greater Manchester metro mayoralty as is expected in May (Wigan, the borough of which Leigh is part, voted 64 per cent for Brexit).

If he goes ahead and stands – which he may well do – he will have to overturn a Labour majority of over 14,000. That, even before the unedifying row over the veracity of his Hillsborough recollections, was always going to be a big challenge. If he goes for it and loses, his leadership – predicated as it is on his supposed ability to win votes in the north - will be dead in the water. 

Nuttall is not entirely to blame, but he is a big part of Ukip’s problem. I visited Stoke the day before The Guardian published its initial report on Nuttall’s Hillsborough claims, and even then Nuttall’s campaign manager admitted that he was unlikely to convince the “hard core” of Conservative voters to back him. 

There are manifold reasons for this, but chief among them is that Nuttall, despite his newfound love of tweed, is no Nigel Farage. Not only does he lack his name recognition and box office appeal, but the sad truth is that the Tory voters Ukip need to attract are much less likely to vote for a party led by a Scouser whose platform consists of reassuring working-class voters their NHS and benefits are safe.
 
It is Farage and his allies – most notably the party’s main donor Arron Banks – who hold the most power over Nuttall’s future. Banks, who Nuttall publicly disowned as a non-member after he said he was “sick to death” of people “milking” the Hillsborough disaster, said on the eve of the Stoke poll that Ukip had to “remain radical” if it wanted to keep receiving his money. Farage himself has said the party’s campaign ought to have been “clearer” on immigration. 

Senior party figures are already briefing against Nuttall and his team in the Telegraph, whose proprietors are chummy with the beer-swilling Farage-Banks axis. They deride him for his efforts to turn Ukip into “NiceKip” or “Nukip” in order to appeal to more women voters, and for the heavy-handedness of his pitch to Labour voters (“There were times when I wondered whether I’ve got a purple rosette or a red one on”, one told the paper). 

It is Nuttall’s policy advisers - the anti-Farage awkward squad of Suzanne Evans, MEP Patrick O’Flynn (who famously branded Farage "snarling, thin-skinned and aggressive") and former leadership candidate Lisa Duffy – come in for the harshest criticism. Herein lies the leader's almost impossible task. Despite having pitched to members as a unity candidate, the two sides’ visions for Ukip are irreconcilable – one urges him to emulate Trump (who Nuttall says he would not have voted for), and the other urges a more moderate tack. 

Endorsing his leader on Question Time last night, Ukip’s sole MP Douglas Carswell blamed the legacy of the party’s Tea Party-inspired 2015 general election campaign, which saw Farage complain about foreigners with HIV using the NHS in ITV’s leaders debate, for the party’s poor performance in Stoke. Others, such as MEP Bill Etheridge, say precisely the opposite – that Nuttall must be more like Farage. 

Neither side has yet called for Nuttall’s head. He insists he is “not going anywhere”. With his febrile party no stranger to abortive coup and counter-coup, he is unlikely to be the one who has the final say.