There’s a lot of myth and nonsense surrounding the history of women’s football. It is commonly believed, for example, that up until very recently, football in England was basically a game for men.
Huge crowds gathered at football stadia every Saturday for decades, usually in the rain, to watch 22 men in long shorts and shirts buttoned up to the neck, kick around a jet-black ball that might well have been made out of a pig’s bladder.
The people who turned up for each game were men too, apart from the handful of women whose happy task was to prepare steaming cups of tea or Bovril for those ‘menfolk’ to enjoy at half-time. Then, at some point towards the end of the last century, women were ‘allowed’ to play. They did their best, bless them, but no one was much interested and the standard was woefully…
Actually, the truth is rather different. Did you know, for example, that on Boxing Day 1920 a crowd of 53,000 people turned up at Goodison Park to watch the unofficial England women’s football team?* Better still, more than 10,000 people were turned away, by all accounts.
This team – more accurately titled the ‘Dick, Kerr and Co Ltd Ladies’ – was made up of munitions workers in Preston who formed a team in 1917 to help raise money for injured servicemen. They beat teams from all over Britain, won games in France and even travelled to the USA where they beat a men’s team 5-4.
And along the way they raised abount £70,000 for ex-servicemen and hospitals, which is about £14 million in today’s money.
And then, because the women’s game began drawing crowds larger than the male equivalent being played on the same day, the Football Association at the time became anxious that the men’s game was under threat in some way. So much so, in fact, that they barred women from playing on all FA-affiliated grounds.
Now this, of course, all happened very nearly 100 years ago, so I’m definitely not tarring the present FA by association, but it still feels a fairly outrageous reaction. And the consequence was that the women’s game went through decades of difficulty, with bumpy playing fields, no facilities, and next to nothing in the way of recognition.
This began to change when, 20 years ago, the FA embraced the women’s game once again and it’s been going from strength to strength ever since. The national team reached the final of the UEFA European Championships in 2009, and the World Cup quarter finals in 2007 and 2011. This year in the Olympics, women’s football caught the public’s imagination, attracting more than 70,000 people to watch Great Britain beat Brazil 1-0 on their way to the quarter finals.
So I think it’s absolutely great – and extremely timely – that the FA this week launched a plan for the future of women’s football, which aims to catch this wave of public interest with a programme for elite development, a better commercial strategy, a new league and a cup competition.
Ambitious but achievable targets, The ‘Dick, Kerr and Co Ltd Ladies’ would approve, I think.
*I am indebted to the BBC’s Shelley Alexander whose online article – Trail-blazers who pioneered women’s football – from back in 2005 provided the historical material for this.
Photo by Ingy the Wingy on Flickr. Some rights reserved.