Which was the best goal? Lauren Hemp’s high-precision cross, headed home by Beth Mead? Mead’s left-footed shot angled past a diving keeper after a jinking run past three defenders? Or Georgia Stanway’s penalty straight into the corner of the net? England’s 8-0 victory over Norway in their second group game of the Euros had moments of individual brilliance but more striking still was the team’s sheer unstoppability. This carried through to their 5-0 win over Northern Ireland, and just about held in the quarter-final against Spain (2-1). After decades of hype about the men’s team, it would be satisfying if England’s women finally brought football home.
After his team’s defeat, the Northern Ireland manager, Kenny Shiels, said it would be a ‘massive failure’ if England didn’t win the tournament. But Shiels has a history of saying unhelpful things. The last time the two sides met, in a World Cup qualifier in April, he blamed ‘female psychology’ for another 5-0 scoreline. Women’s teams often concede a second goal soon after the first, he said, because ‘girls and women are more emotional than men.’ In her new book, Suzanne Wrack, the first women’s football correspondent at a UK national newspaper, writes that no matter the strength of the women’s game, it is always compared unfavourably with the men’s.* Twitter trolls claimed the game against Norway proved their point: how can women’s football be taken seriously when the matches are so uncompetitive? Women’s football ‘still gets attacked like no other sport’, Wrack writes. ‘Picking up a ball and heading to a patch of grass violates everything society expects of women.’
When Wrack began writing a regular column for the Guardian in 2017, England had one of the best women’s leagues in the world. The national team, which had reached the semi-finals of the World Cup two years earlier, got through to the final four at the Euros that summer too. A few months before, the FA’s chief executive, Martin Glenn, made a public apology for the harm the FA had done women by keeping them out of the game. From 1921 to 1971, it had banned women from playing on its grounds, deliberately stifling a sport that had thrived in the first decades of the 20th century.
One of the most popular women’s teams was formed in 1917 at the Dick, Kerr and Co. munitions factory in Preston. Women workers joined male apprentices playing in the factory yard during their breaks; one day, the women beat the men, and decided to establish Dick, Kerr Ladies. The plan was to play other women’s factory teams to raise money for the war-wounded. On Christmas Day that year the side took on Arundel Coulthard Foundry in front of ten thousand spectators at Deepdale. The team continued to play after the war and toured France. On Boxing Day 1920, at the height of their fame, the Dick, Kerr Ladies played St Helens Ladies at Goodison Park, drawing a crowd of 53,000. They were featured on Pathé newsreels, making some of the players, including the winger Lily Parr, into household names.
The team attracted too much attention: soon afterwards, the FA introduced its ban, claiming that the sport was ‘unsuitable’ for women. The governing body forced women’s football out of FA-affiliated stadiums and into public parks. Doctors suggested that players’ ‘future duties as mothers’ could be compromised. The ban did more than just prevent women from playing on the big stage: it buried the origins of the sport and pushed its pioneers to the margins. Wrack’s book is an attempt at restoration. It’s a long history. Philip Sidney’s ‘A Dialogue between Two Shepherds’ (c.1580) contains one of the earliest recorded references to football: ‘A tyme there is for all, my mother often sayes,/When she, with skirts tuckt very hy, with girles at football playes.’ There are accounts from the 18th century of annual matches between unmarried women in the village of Inveresk in East Lothian, played so that ‘an audience of bachelors’ could cast their eyes ‘over the footballing skills of potential partners’.
As with many other sports, football came to seem increasingly unwomanly. Ethereal femininity does not allow for shinpads and muddy leather boots. Ladies’ games, as they were called, were rare and not always successful. A Scotland v. England match – sometimes described as the first’s women’s international – was held in 1881 at Shawfield Grounds in Glasgow. The Glasgow Herald reported that ‘the Scotch team wore blue jerseys, white knickerbockers, red stockings, a red belt, high-heeled boots and blue and white cowl’, while their ‘English sisters’ were dressed in ‘blue and white jerseys, blue stockings and belt, high-heeled boots and red and white cowl’. It was all too much for the men in the crowd, who invaded the pitch. ‘The players were roughly jostled,’ according to the Nottinghamshire Guardian, ‘and had prematurely to take refuge in the omnibus that had conveyed them to the ground.’ This wasn’t the end of it. The crowd ‘tore up the stakes and threw them at the departing vehicle, and but for the presence of the police some bodily injury to the females might have occurred’. (An anticipation of fans snapping the crossbar after Ally MacLeod’s Scotland beat England in 1977.)
A common objection was that women’s matches were performative rather than competitive, an entertainment designed to titillate, to ‘gratify vulgar curiosity’ as the Manchester Guardian put it. There’s some truth in this: the Scotland v. England matches were organised by the impresario Alec Gordon, and the players were a mix of young ballet dancers and rep actresses from the Princess’s Theatre in Edinburgh. Women’s football as organised by women in this era was more interesting. Nettie Honeyball and Lady Florence Dixie began recruiting for their British Ladies’ Football Club in 1895, making no secret of their suffragist leanings. Honeyball – probably the pseudonym of Mary Hutson – told Sketch that she intended to prove that ‘women are not the “ornamental and useless” creatures men have pictured.’ The team wore gender-neutral kit (no corsets allowed) and trained next to a racecourse, having been refused access to the Oval. Their first match prompted an editorial in the Evening Standard: ‘We hope [that] in a very short time the Club will die a natural and unlamented death … it cannot be pretended that football is either a decent or an elegant occupation for girls.’
Wrack recalls being the only girl in her primary school who played alongside the boys, always with the assumption that she would ‘grow out’ of the sport. She is good on the progress – and missteps – of the women’s game since its re-emergence in the 1970s, including attempts at sexification (putting the players in hotpants), though she has little new to add to more recent controversies such as the sacking of the England coach Mark Sampson in 2017 for ‘inappropriate and unacceptable behaviour’, or the sudden departure of his successor, Phil Neville. This is surprising from a reporter who must know the inside story as well as anyone.
Money – where it comes from, the way it’s spent – will determine the future of the women’s game. Even after the FA ended its ban, women’s football was merely tolerated. Now it is looked on by some as an investment opportunity. Barcelona’s Champions League semi-final at the Camp Nou stadium this spring was watched by a crowd of more than ninety thousand, and some of the games in this Euros have had viewing figures a hundred times larger than that. Men’s football in England is bolstered by high-profile TV coverage, media reporting, sponsorship and advertising. If England win on 31 July, perhaps women really will be back in the game.
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