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INTERVIEW: Sarah's Story, Sutton United Ambassador

It’s a love affair that’s seen her cycle thousands of miles to away games, experience the

highs of Wembley finals and miss only two games in 19 years - one of which being when she

was giving birth.


Since her first visit to the Gander Green Lane terraces as a wide-eyed 13-year old, Sarah

Aitchison has considered Sutton United to be “home”.


Growing up in an era before mobile phones, Final Score was her only chance to catch the

football scores and, when she was too young to stay up to watch Match of the Day, she used

to listen through her bedroom wall to her brother watching it next door - envisaging every

kick of each game.


“When I was 13, my love of football suddenly ballooned into near-obsession and when I

realised we had a team just a few minutes' walk away I was desperate to go,” she recalls.


In November 1995, Sutton, who were then playing in the equivalent of the National League

South, hosted division-above Kidderminster Harriers in an FA Cup First Round replay, which

Sarah persuaded a school friend to attend with her.



“It was my first time inside a football ground and I was delighted to discover you could just

stand where you wanted.”


The game went to penalties and Sutton goalkeeper Gary McCann’s heroics saw them

progress.


“That night I fell in love not only with Sutton United, but also with the FA Cup.


“What made me go back was mainly a love of football, but what kept me going back was the

way the club began to feel like my home and my family.


“People joked that Gander Green Lane was my second home; I would retort that it was my

first, and my parents' house was my second home!


“I felt appreciated, valued, ‘one of us’ - all the things I never felt at home or school where I

never really seemed to fit in.”


From watching Sutton become an English Football League team for the first time in its 123-year history last season, to competing at Wembley in last year’s Papa John’s Trophy Final and hosting Arsenal in the FA Cup Fifth Round in 2017, Sarah has witnessed some incredible highs over the course of attending more than 1,575 men’s first team games - travelling as far afield as Barrow, Halifax and Torquay for midweek away games.


But some of the 41-year old’s best memories are from off the pitch, including cycling to every Sutton away game one season to raise more than £4,000 for the club’s community fund - a feat that won her the club’s fan of the year award and saw her crowned the National Game Awards fan of the year.


“I go to every home and every away match the men's first team plays, barring those played

behind closed doors - although I have been known to watch through holes in fences.


“Other than those, I have missed one home game, when I had Covid, and one away game,

when I was in hospital having a baby, since 2004.”


While the overwhelming majority of her experiences have been positive, the mum of two has

often witnessed and been on the receiving end of sexist comments - something that led to

her becoming a Her Game Too Ambassador.


“Mostly it's low-level stuff like people assuming I only go to football because my dad, who is

definitely not a football fan, took me as a kid.


“Some guy came up to me in the bar before a match a couple of seasons ago and said ‘I

hope you don't mind me asking but I'm just curious - what's your connection to the club? I

always see you at games - are you a player's wife or what are you?’


“I was in my Sutton shirt and scarf but he couldn't wrap his head around the fact that I was

as much of a fan as he was, because I was female.


“I remember my frustration in my late teens and twenties just trying to start conversations

about football with players and fellow fans and getting blank looks.


“I’d get sexist comments directed at me rather than to me, challenges of my right to exist as a football fan like ‘go on, explain the offside rule’’, or expressions of disbelief that I did actually understand football, could drink a pint or two and went to more games than they did.”


Fellow fans encouraged Sarah to apply to become an ambassador and on matchdays, she challenges any sexist chanting she hears and makes sure she and the Her Game Too

posters are visible to anyone who may need to report sexist behaviour.


“We have recently set up a reporting hotline, which I did push for along with extra training for stewards after seeing a female steward having to deal with sexist comments while doing her job and her male colleagues didn't really know how to respond to it.”


Sarah has also helped to secure support from a local supermarket to provide free sanitary

products in the ladies toilets, joined the club’s Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Panel and

done several media interviews about her experiences of sexism in football.


Earlier this month, Sutton dedicated their home fixture against Leyton Orient to Her Game

Too, with the onus on celebrating the achievements of the club’s women’s and girls’ teams.

Girls played mini matches on the pitch and were flag bearers, female players paraded with

trophies they had won and funds were raised for the women’s section.


A new pre-match “safe space” for female fans to discuss their experiences was also

launched and Sarah baked 60 unique cupcakes decorated with iced Her Game Too

Ambassadors from different clubs.


As Her Game Too expands into more clubs, leagues and countries, Sarah hopes more

women will enjoy the same positive experiences she has had following her team, without the

negatives.


“I would mostly just like to see a continuation of the huge amount of progress that's been made to challenge sexist attitudes and help women feel safer and better supported at

football.


“As we always say, it's Her Game Too, not instead.


“We aren’t trying to make football more of a women's thing than a men's thing, we just want to be equally as accepted and respected as they are.”



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