John Williams explains why the women's game in the UK is in need of a major overhaul

According to FIFA, 20 million women play organized football worldwide. In Scandinavia, where views about women as athletes, and almost anything else, are at least post-Jurassic, football is the most popular sport for females. Most local clubs cater for both male and female teams and foreign stars such as the USA’s Michelle Akers are brought over to join the semi-professional ranks. No surprise, then, that Norway won the recent women’s World Cup in Sweden and that they and Denmark are as tough as they come in international competition. England? Well, you reap what you sow; in Sweden we were simply outclassed by, no avoiding it now, the Germans.

New ‘community’ links in football, designed to promote the game for girls and women here over the past few years have been patchy to say the least. And yet, connections between the men’s and women’s games go back a long way. Most British football fans will probably have heard of the Dick Kerr’s Ladies, a factory team from Preston, which during the First World War and the years immediately after, packed them in at Deepdale, Goodison Park (they’d give Royle’s current lot a run today, for sure) and elsewhere, raising cash for the war effort and charities. In 1920, 53,000 watched the Kerr’s v St Helens clash at Everton and, with much ballyhoo, the Preston team also travelled to the USA and France in order to establish themselves as early women’s ‘world champions’. Glory days.

In 1921, however, the always enlightened FA decided enough was enough and banned women from using affiliated venues, thus relegating the women’s game to ‘underground’ status and to swilling out from buckets of cold water at parks pitches – well, where else could they change? – virtually for the next half century. Some men in professional football continued to help out, however. After the Second World War, Tom Finney offered training tips to the women of the North West, and the wild revolutionary, Burnley’s Harry Potts, even acted as a match official in some women’s games. Manchester City’s German goalkeeper Bert Trautmann, spying no doubt for the ever-vigilant foe, also acted as interpreter for the Manchester Corinthian women, the powerhouse of the game here in the ’50s, when they played a European tournament in Berlin in 1957.

This sort of personal, ad hoc, male support for women’s football continued into the early 1970s, and was boosted by the general lift to the sport provided by the boys of ’66 when, memorably, Jimmy Hill offered a TV explanation of the offside law especially for female spectators.

Sue Lopez, now an FA Advanced License Coach, was one of those drawn to the sport by the World Cup success and in the 1970s, she and others had established Southampton Ladies as the top female club of its time. “The Saints’ Welsh centre-forward, Ron Davies, used to come and watch us play and was always willing to do offer coaching advice. The manager Ted Bates even allowed us to use the club’s gymnasium to train for an exhibition game prior to the final of the men’s Five-a-Side Tournament at Wembley’s indoor stadium and his successor, Lawrie McMenemy came up with the use of The Dell for the England v Belgium international in 1978 – the FA ban on use of club grounds by female teams had only been lifted in 1972. With this support, it wasn’t surprising that the game attracted the largest-ever post-war gate for a women’s match of over 5,000.”

Southampton Ladies won a record eight Women’s FA Cups during this period, effectively the women’s national championship as all other games were regional matches or friendlies. Despite support from the Southampton board, the FA still refused permission for the female champions to play an exhibition match at The Dell in 1977. (Appalled, Sue Lopez went to Italy for a spell as a semi-professional.)

In the more ‘enlightened’ 1990s, the professional men’s club has now formalized links with the current female club, Southampton Saints, who were promoted in 1996 to the National Division of the Premier League. Now the club boasts ‘official’ kit, youth teams, ‘girls only’ coaching activities and a page in the club’s matchday programme. Heady days.

And what, generally, of the women’s game today? Well, things looked ready for major take off as far back as 1989. Then, Channel 4, looking for cheap and ‘exotic’ alternatives to mainstream sport, showed the Women’s FA Cup Final. This was pre-Sky, of course, and fans, 2.5 million of them, a record for sport on C4, gobbled it up. The next season C4 brought coverage from the quarter-finals onwards but also offered rather too much of the human interest ‘aren’t they quaint and brave’ stuff on board the coach and in the dressing room.

But with the launch, in 1991, of the FA National League and two feeder regional leagues under the auspices of the FA itself, and with the numbers of registered teams and players doubling in five years – around 16,000 play in adult female teams now – things looked set fair.

Now? Well, serious TV coverage has pretty much disappeared. Serie A arrived on C4. The BBC, desperate for soccer action, disgracefully provided the barest highlights of the recent women’s World Cup and always around midnight. On Sky you can watch N Ireland v Scotland schoolboys live to your heart’s content, but no female coverage. Why is at least some female coverage not part of the new TV deal? The Premier League and FA is supposed, after all, to be promoting sport for all. Coverage of the National League in the national press is either rudimentary or nonexistent – though the Times of course provides copious details of the national public schools football cup. Without media coverage, serious sponsorship for the women’s game is pretty much out of the question.

While some clubs, like Southampton, have taken female teams on board, here again progress is slow and uneven. Only Arsenal offer female players a full-time paid coach/manager and a real level of integration into the male club. Not surprisingly, the Arsenal women have produced recent successes, and media coverage, to match this commitment. A few others – Wimbledon, Millwall, Wolves – have shown a real interest in the women’s game and cash and staff support to match. Often, local support for the women’s game still comes from club/local authority links, where the former need the local partner for planning or resources and the latter – almost always Labour controlled – is pursuing policies of equal opportunities.

But, at best, even large professional clubs still tend to offer a kit, use of some gym space and the occasional mention in the matchday magazine in the hope that some women will keep out of their hair and provide the club with some good PR. And, off the WFCs troop to the park or the local leisure complex to perform in front of 60-100 diehard fans and family members who can manage to track down the kick-off time. The ‘blue riband’ Women’s FA Cup Final still struggles for a prestige venue (recently, Crewe, Watford, Oxford, Tranmere, Millwall) while, recently, the German women’s final took place immediately before the men’s equivalent in the Olympic Stadium, Berlin. Ho hum.

This all provides for real equivocation about the development of the top level of the women’s game here. Is the FA devoting enough resources to the women’s game? Are we really improving and what, exactly, is the plan? On the one hand, at a time when commerce and size seems to be all in the pro game, it is great that the Donny Belles, Wembley, Garswood St Helens and the rest can all survive, independently, at or near the top of the women’s game. In just five years mighty Croydon (ex-Bromley) moved from precisely nothing to FA Cup and Premier League double winners in 1995-96. But Croydon’s success also says something about the overall lack of strength of the women’s game here and the relative lack of interest of the major professional clubs in it.

In his recent excellent book about the Doncaster Belles, Pete Davies found it hard to sustain the tension of a championship run-in when these women from the Armthorpe Welfare were clearly laying waste all around them. Where are the WFCs from the Man Utds, Blackburns, Newcastles and the rest?

One final point. The PFA’s Community Programme has done some great work in promoting football for girls over the past few years and in starting up female teams in connection with professional clubs. We have female players who could inspire the next generation. Kerry Davies and Hope Powell of Croydon and their former team mates Brenda Sempare, Doncaster captain Gillian Coulthard, and the charismatic Marianne Spacey of Arsenal have all served the women’s game here with verve and distinction. We need them, and others, working in English football as coaches. Is anybody listening? You do want to beat the Germans, don’t you?

From WSC 121 March 1997. What was happening this month

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