Did you see any of the game on BBC2 ? I was lucky enough to be there – one of the 45,000 or so packed into Wembley to watch England go down 0-3 to Germany. A fair result? Probably. Disappointing? Definitely. But Germany is a world-class team and they showed us what we’ll be up against at the World Cup next year. It was a tough match, but at least we weren’t beaten on penalties.
I’m talking, in case you didn’t guess, about the women’s football international last month. It was great and something that, in all seriousness, should be a great source of pride for football fans all over the country.
Now, a ministerial blog is not the place to discuss footballing tactics or chew over team selections and choice of substitutes, I know. Firstly, because I’m no expert on this and my thoughts on it are of no more consequence than those of anyone else who watched the game, but also because the result of the game on this one occasion was rather less important than what the game itself represented.
And what it represented was an important landmark for women’s football in particular, and for women’s sport in general. Why? Because a huge number of people took the time and trouble to pay for tickets, and then travel from all over the country in the pouring rain to the home of the national game to see a women’s football international. On top of that, terrestrial TV took the commercial decision to broadcast it live. These things matter. They’re signs of acceptance and success and, most of all, they show that there really is an appetite for watching elite women’s sport in this country.
First World War
As well as being Minister for Sport, I’m also the minister responsible in Government for the First World War Centenary. And the two things come together in a surprising way when we think about women’s football.
As I’ve discovered during my research into the social history of the war, the years of the conflict were the beginning of a sort of golden age for the women’s game. The idea of women’s teams playing one another started not long before the war at the end of the 19th century when the aptly named activist, Nettie Honeyball, founded the British Ladies’ Football Club, and organised a league in which they could play. Ms Honeyball is quoted as saying:
“I founded the association late last year , with the fixed resolve of proving to the world that women are not the ‘ornamental and useless’ creatures men have pictured. I must confess, my convictions on all matters where the sexes are so widely divided are all on the side of emancipation, and I look forward to the time when ladies may sit in Parliament and have a voice in the direction of affairs, especially those which concern them most.”
Amen to that. But inevitably, perhaps, the women’s game was frowned upon by the British football associations to begin with, and had to carry on without their support.
The Munitionettes Cup
But the war changed all that and women’s football became more and more popular as women took up jobs in traditional male industries while the men were away in combat.
In August 1917, for example, a tournament was launched for female munition workers’ teams in northeast England under the snappy title ‘The Tyne Wear & Tees Alfred Wood Munition Girls Cup.’ One of the earliest recorded games on Tyneside saw The Wallsend Slipway Company play North East Marine to raise funds for the Queen Mary Needlework Guild. To begin with, the Press did not know how to refer to them – ‘Female Munitions Workers’, ‘Munitions Ladies’, ‘Munitions Girls’ and even, heaven help us, ‘Fair Footballers’ being some of the titles they dreamed up. In time, thank goodness, the competition’s clunky title was shortened to ‘The Munitionettes’ Cup’ and, unsurprisingly, it proved highly popular.
England won 22-0
The most successful team of the era was Dick Kerr’s Ladies of Preston, England. They, by the way, played in the first women’s international matches in 1920, against a team from Paris. They also dominated the national line-up, making up most of the England team against a Scottish Ladies XI in 1920. On that occasion, incidentally, England won 22-0.
But success and popular appeal are not always enough and in 1921, to their shame, The Football Association outlawed the playing of the game on Association members’ pitches. This, by all accounts, was because they found the game as played by women to be ‘distasteful,’ but an alternative reason is suggested by Alice Woods-Stanley, one of the players in the Dick Kerr team who said:
“I think we were getting better crowds than the men and making more money and they didn’t like it.”
We’ve come a long way. And there’s no harm at all in giving the current football authorities a pat on the back for taking a more enlightened view and – hopefully – helping to usher in a new Golden Age for the sport.