Could modern day Barclays FA Women’s Super League footballers really imagine being banned from being allowed to play their beloved game by The Football Association?
We take a look back in history at the daily hardships which players had to encounter many years ago just to play football. They fought and won a battle towards making the game what it is today and in this article, we give them some credit for their bravery.
The first-ever recorded international women’s football match dates back as far as 1628, nearly 400 years ago. Edinburgh then witnessed our first-ever home nations face-off when late in the 19th century, a team of English women crossed Hadrian’s Wall to battle it out with the Scots, they were led by pioneering figure Helen Graham Matthews. A crowd of 5,000 excited spectators watched on as a riot between rival fans erupted, it was shortly followed by the outlaw of women’s football across Scotland. That didn’t stop Matthews. She left for London where alongside Nettie Honeyball, they established the first-ever women’s football club in 1895. Their first match took place that year as they established an English North v South game at Crouch End, London. It attracted a crowd of 12,000.
The growth of women’s football has always walked hand-in-hand with the suffragette movement, as women seeked empowerment. Women’s football kits from those days would hold so much comedy and would be almost farcical if worn today, from the oversized knickerbockers to the ill-fitting tops, not in any way practical. The turn of the First World War in 1914 brought the spark that ignited the heightening of women’s football. As men were conscripted to fight, women had to hold their own on the home front from becoming farmers to munition factory workers. The latter birthed one of the greatest women’s teams to ever grace the pitch; Dick Kerr Ladies. Women were advised to exercise to keep in good health and factories set up their own football teams, in Lancashire, Durham and Northumberland, as well as in many other counties across the country. Preston’s munition factory saw the famous Dick Kerr Ladies come to life, a team who among many others, laid the foundations for the FA Women’s Super League and our current heroes.
Dick Kerr Ladies went from strength-to-strength as their domination grew and they became the most prominent women’s team in England. In the 48 years of their existence, they won 759 matches, drawn 46 and lost just 28. Their matches regularly attracted large crowds that would exceed the current FA Women’s Super League crowds, with matches attracting between 4,000 to a record 53,000 (on that occasion, 14,000 waited outside unable to get in!). The ladies worked to produce money for charity from their revenue, to support ex-service personnel and those families who lost loved ones in the war. The players themselves were even paid 10 shillings a week to cover their expenses.
One of the greatest players of all time played for Dick Kerr Ladies, a girl named Lily Parr. She played under the management of Alfred Frankland, having joined the club in 1920 from St Helens. It was reported that she had a stronger shot than any other player, even stronger than the men which she would often also play alongside. She once broke a male goalkeepers arm with the power of her shot but was also the first woman to be sent off in an official football match for fighting. Her career stats are remarkable, they would emulate any player of the FA Women’s Super League, or any other league for that matter. Aged just 14, she began her career scoring 34 goals in her first season. She is thought to have scored 1,000 goals in her 34-year career, which is a truly remarkable feat.
The conclusion of the war brought disaster for the thriving teams as these once empowered women were expected to return to normal domestic life, as the country mourned those lost. They returned to what was called their ‘right and proper place in society’. Football and the exercise it brought, was now no longer considered a health benefit. It was instead considered ‘unladylike’ and that the ‘physicality of the game’ was too much for women. Men’s teams were forbidden from allowing women to play, their once stars of the team were forbidden from even stepping on the pitch. The news that nobody wanted arrived in 1921, an official ban by The Football Association, which prevented women from playing on FA affiliated pitches, essentially banning organised women’s football. The ban would remain in place for 50 years.
Football once again took a backseat to it’s male counterparts, but that didn’t stop the empowered women. These women were trailblazers, they paved the way for the women that play today. They continued to play on rugby pitches and school fields. Imagine what women’s football could’ve been right now if it had kicked on from those astonishing crowds of the early 1900s, women’s football could well have been on the same level as the men’s game.