The general view is that women’s football is new. It’s not. By the time you’ve read our whistle-stop history of the game you’ll know it’s been around for as long as the men’s game – perhaps even longer.
SIDNEY’S MUM KICKS-OFF – 400 YEARS AGO!
‘A tyme there is for all, my mother often sayes,
When she, with skirts tuckt very hy, with girles at football playes.’
So wrote Sir Philip Sidney’s in his 1580 poem A Dialogue Between Two Shepherds – the first known mention of women’s football in England. Around the same time the tragic Mary Queen of Scots owned a football, claimed to be the oldest football in existence.
In those far-off days football was a disorganised village sport. Shakespeare was clearly aware of it growing up in rural Warwickshire. He mentions football in two plays – The Comedy of Errors (1594) and King Lear (1608). We can safely assume he knew women played the game too.
FAST FORWARD THREE CENTURIES
Football remained a popular pastime, but it took another 300 years for the game to be codified into a standard set of rules by the newly-formed Football Association in 1863.
Ironically, the rules were partly intended to stop on-pitch violence and make it more acceptable for women to play.
The first recorded women’s football match was in May 1881, when a supposed ‘Scotland’ women’s team played ‘England’ at Easter Road, Edinburgh. It was literally pure drama as it’s believed some of some of the players were from the theatre community.
The two teams played several matches, but two – in Glasgow and Manchester – were abandoned due to pitch invasions. However, take a bow Lily St. Clair. In the first match – which wasn’t abandoned – she netted the first ‘international’ goal in women’s football. The team representing Scotland were 3-0 winners.
VALUED BY VICTORIANS
As the 1890s unfolded, so women’s club football gained momentum. Clubs in Grimsby, Preston and Sunderland started popping up.
In London, the British Ladies’ Football Club (BLFC) was formed in 1894 by Alfred Hewitt Smith, with Nettie J. Honeyball (thought to be a pseudonym) as captain. President of the BLFC was the Lady Florence Dixie, renowned Scottish writer, adventurer, war correspondent and feminist. The BLFC staged a North v. South of The Thames clash in March 1985. 10,000+ paying spectators crammed into the Crouch End Athletic ground to watch the 60-minute match.
For the record, the North won 7-1, but the game made a wider point. It added to women’s growing calls for emancipation. The calls were getting ever louder. Ultimately, they were irresistible.
ON A WAR FOOTING
Apart from women taking on traditionally male jobs during World War One, particularly in factories, sporting activity was also encouraged to aid production and morale.
Football was a natural outlet. For example, in 1917 the munitions factories gave birth to the Munitionettes’ Cup, with Blyth Spartans Munitionettes trouncing Bolckow, Vaughan & Co 5-0 in the final.
But by far the most famous factory-based team of the time was Dick, Kerr & Co. Between 1917 and 1965 they played 833 games, winning 759, drawing 46 and losing just 28. What a record!
During and after the War, Dick, Kerr Ladies toured the country playing charity games to raise money for injured servicemen. Arguably, they were the first ‘professional’ women’s side and players were paid 10 shillings (50p) to cover their expenses.
By 1921 there were about 150 women’s football clubs. Matches were popular spectator events and some drew more than 45,000 fans. The game looked like it was gaining a foothold, literally. Sadly not…
Despite its growing popularity and the re-emergence of international matches after World War One, in 1921 The Football Association stepped in. They banned the women’s game from being played at grounds of clubs affiliated to The FA, stating “the game of football is quite unsuitable for females and ought not to be encouraged.” It also threatened the income of the Football League, which was expanding from two to four divisions at the time.
The ban meant the women’s game was side lined to public parks, massively hindering its growth. The FA ban was to last nearly 50 years.
Nevertheless, undeterred by the governing body turning its back on women’s football, around 30 teams got together later in 1921 to form the English Ladies Football Association (ELFA). Games were played at rugby venues and smaller grounds which couldn’t house many fans.
The following year saw the first and only ELFA Challenge Cup competition. Stoke Ladies lifted the trophy, beating Doncaster and Bentley Ladies 3-1 in the June 1922 final.
Overall, the game was in survival mode and survive it did.
MAN ON THE MOON BEFORE WOMEN ALLOWED TO OFFICIALLY PLAY FOOTBALL
Stifled by lack of decent-sized facilities, women’s football continued on through the ‘30s, ‘40s, ‘50s and most of the 1960s. Clubs continued to start sporadically, notably Manchester Corinthians Ladies FC in 1949.
The Corinthians went on to win an unofficial European club championship in Germany in 1957. The team was accompanied by Manchester City’s German goalkeeper, Bert Trautmann, who acted as their interpreter. More overseas trips followed, including to Portugal/Madeira, The Netherlands, South America and the Caribbean, and Morocco. They won more than 50 trophies and raised £275,000 for charity.
The mood began to change in the 1960s as women started to campaign more for their social rights. On 1 November 1969, representatives of 44 clubs attended the first meeting of the Women’s Football Association (WFA) in London.
Arthur Hobbs, a carpenter and amateur footballer, was the first Honorary Secretary of The WFA and Pat Dunn was the first Chair. In 1967, Hobbs organised a women’s tournament in Deal, Kent, with the support of local miners from Betteshanger Colliery. The Deal Tournament, played on the Colliery’s playing fields, showcased and celebrated women’s football. It was a pre-cursor to the Women’s FA Cup, which was first played in 1971.
In 1972, Hobbs stepped down as Honorary Secretary due to ill health. He was succeeded by Patricia Gregory, who had been instrumental in setting up the WFA. Gregory founded and played for White Ribbon, a team in London who participated in the Deal Tournament. She went on to have a long career in football, serving as a member of the UEFA Women’s Football Committee from 1980 to 1984.
Two months after the WFA was formed came a momentous day in the history of women’s football in England – 19th January 1970. The FA lifted its 50-year ban on women’s football. The game could once more flourish in this country and have the use of qualified referees.
Apart from league matches, one of the first signs that the game was starting to flourish was the launch of a women’s club knock-out competition, later to become The FA Women’s Cup. in 1971 Southampton won the first final. They would lift the trophy eight times in its first 11 years.
One year on and UEFA also recommended that the women’s game should be governed by national associations – then numbering 32 – across Europe. More progress.
In November of the same year – 1972 – the first official England team travelled to Scotland to win 3-2. That 3-0 defeat between two unofficial sides some 91 years earlier was finally avenged. It came exactly 100 years after the first recognised men's international, also between Scotland and England.
Now the push was on to integrate women’s football into the fabric of our national sport. That push continued to be led by the WFA, who continued to run the game until 1993.
WFA SETS SAIL FOR THE FUTURE
In 1981 the WFA opened an office, but throughout the country the sport was largely run by dedicated volunteers. The WFA grew the women’s game throughout the 1970s, ‘80s and early ‘90s.
All the while, The FA was taking a keener interest and in May 1984 the WFA was affiliated with the same status as County FAs. This opened the doors to more central FA support, but the doors were still some way from being fully ajar.
That same year saw England lose to Sweden – on penalties – in the two-legged final of the first UEFA competition for national representative women's teams, the predecessor to this year's EUROs.
1991 saw another key moment when the WFA launched a 24-club national league which was expanded to three divisions of 10 teams (Premier, Division 1 North and Division 1 South) in 1992. But two years later came a massive game-changer. The WFA voted to pass over its activities to The FA as it no longer had the financial resources to develop the game it had cherished. The FA established a Women’s Football Committee and the full-time post of Women’s Football Co-ordinator.
The 1993/94 season also saw WFA Cup brought under the control of The FA, with 137 teams entering. A year later and the WFA’s national league and league cup were also embraced by The FA. This saw the birth of the Women's Premier League (FAWPL).
A DECADE OF FIRSTS
The first plans to develop the women’s game in England, the first 20 Centres of Excellence for girls, the first full-time England women’s coach.
They all happened in the 1990s as the women’s game grew globally, culminating in a FIFA World Cup in the USA in 1999 featuring sell-out stadia and a 90,000 crowd at the final. This followed the introduction of the World Cup competition by FIFA in 1991.
The game was gaining media attention by the day and more importantly, more participants. By 2002 in England, it had become the top participation team sport for women and girls. In the same year, Lily Parr of Dick, Kerr Ladies became the first woman inducted into the National Football Museum Hall of Fame. The game acknowledged its roots, while building its future foundations.
These foundations were given a further boost in 2005, when England hosted the UEFA Women’s EURO. Attendance records and TV audiences were smashed. Crucially, the talent pool was getting deeper.
This talent pool meant there were now England teams in various age groups and the senior team – the Lionesses – were beginning to show their claws on the world stage. The 2010s culminated in the senior team reaching the final of UEFA Women’s EURO 2009, losing out to Germany, the dominant force at the time in women’s European football.
THE FULLY PROFESSIONAL ERA DAWNS
With England’s international teams getting ever stronger, it was time for the club game to step up.
As a new decade dawned, 2011 saw the sun rise on The FA Women’s Super League (FA WSL), initially an eight-team summer competition. It was to grow into the two-division professional game you see today.
The FA WSL continued as a summer competition, but by 2017 it could take its place alongside the traditional men’s professional season, with media interest, spectator levels and sponsorship income having established a solid platform.
Below the two professional divisions, the game’s pyramid – the Women’s National League – has continued to develop. It now means there are recognised pathways into the women’s professional game, with clubs themselves operating Academy structures.
THE LONDON OLYMPIC GAMES AND ONWARDS
London 2012 gave women’s football in this country a further boost, when the Team GB Women reached the quarter-finals. Significantly, a 1-0 win over Brazil in Team GB’s third Group match was played in front of 70,584 fans at Wembley Stadium. The first England women's international match at Wembley had been played against Sweden on 23 May 1989, before a men's international.
Two years on and 46,519 fans saw England Women play their first game at Wembley Stadium. The senior team was now a serious contender on the European and world stages. They took bronze in the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup in Canada, reached the semi-finals of UEFA Women’s EURO 2017, and got to the same stage in the FIFA Women’s World Cup two years later in France.
This success saw ever-increasing crowds at England matches, with 77,786 fans at Wembley to see the senior team face Germany in November 2019.
AND NOW FOR TOMORROW
Double participation, double the fanbase and consistent success on the world stage. Those were the three bold goals in The Gameplan for Growth, The FA’s first formal strategy for women’s and girls’ football in England, unveiled in March 2017.
All three goals have been scored – and now one million girls (aged 5-15) and 1.9 million women (16+) play the game in England. Numerous FA participation programmes are bringing girls to football at various age groups and the fan base continues to grow.
Following the first three-year strategy, a new one – Inspiring Positive Change – was launched in October 2020. Among its eight goals, one stands out – to give every school-going girl the same access to football as boys, whether at school or in clubs.
Attendances last season across the FA Women’s Super League and FA Women’s Championship totalled 325,617.
On the European and world stages, England’s various teams are thriving. All of them are a force to be reckoned with, wherever they play, whoever they face.
Media coverage of the game has never been higher, nor has commercial income. But behind the scenes, there’s also been another dream: to once more host a top international tournament in England.
UEFA Women’s EURO 2022 – the dream is now a reality.
AND FINALLY, OUR THANKS AND RESPECT
Yes, the women’s and girls’ game in England is here to stay. But let’s be clear. It would never have got here if it wasn’t for the dedication, passion and resilience of the women and their male allies who would not let the dream – or the game – die.
They are too numerous to mention. But every one of them holds an honoured place in the hearts of the current generation who play and administrate the game. We couldn’t have done it without you.
It’s a message to be passed to future generations. In the meantime, just like our forebears, we have a challenge – can we nurture the game while it’s in our care and pass it on in a better state than we found it?