Women’s football once thrived. Can it return to glory?
The women’s game holds a special place in my heart. I’m privileged to be related to the great Kerry Davis. Sadly, not many people know her story, but put simply, she is one of the greatest football players in England’s history. Until 2010, she was the record goal scorer for the Lionesses. Not only was she a pioneer of the women’s game, but also for black players. She played for Crewe Ladies before being signed up by several different Italian teams. In Italy, she could make football her full-time job, which wasn’t a possibility in England.
Kerry Davis deserves any recognition that comes her way, alongside her teammates, like Hope Powell. They played during a time when women’s football was an afterthought. It wasn’t even run by the Football Association at that time.
The FA essentially banned women’s football, and the reason will shock you…
By the turn of the 1920s, women’s football was thriving. It was arguably in a better place than it is now. Dick, Kerr Ladies FC was the Manchester United or Real Madrid of their time. A factory team from Preston, they played against a multitude of opponents, including a French International side. They even underwent an international tour.
Following their return, there was a lot of hype around a Boxing Day fixture against their rivals, St Helens. The match was to be played at Goodison Park, which, at the time, was one of the best stadiums in the country. The match should’ve been cause for celebration, but instead, it had a devastating impact on the women’s game.
53,000 fans packed into Goodison Park—even today, this is still record attendance for a domestic women’s game in England. Gate receipts from the game went to charity and the match raised around £140,000 (in today’s money). The FA could see the growing success and popularity the women’s game was enjoying, but it took issue with it. The money that was being raised wasn’t within their control.
Around a year after that record breaking game, the FA voted to essentially stamp out women’s football. Whilst they didn’t have the power to ban females from playing the sport, they did all they could to stifle it. They banned women’s football from any FA-affiliated ground. The ban lasted for 51 years.
Banning women from playing at these grounds meant teams didn’t have access to the large stadiums the men’s game enjoyed. Without large capacity grounds, crowds couldn’t gather to watch women’s football and, over time, fans understandably diminished.
Reaction to the FA’s ban was mixed. Some newspapers were actually supportive. The Hull Daily Mail claimed it was ‘an excellent thing that the Football Association has considered the question of women playing football’, claiming the game was ‘not fitted for females’.
Reaction from the Dick, Kerr Ladies’ captain, Alice Kell, was one of shock and disappointment. She said: ‘We girls play football in a proper spirit. We do not retaliate if we are bowled over, and we show no fits of temper. We are all simply amazed at the action of the authorities in placing a ban upon the sport we love with all our heart. Surely to goodness we have the right to play any game we think fit without interference from the Football Association! We are all working girls dependent upon our weekly wages and living with our parents and others partly dependent upon us.’
Despite the ban, Dick, Kerr Ladies and other teams continued to play, though they could no longer use stadiums such as Goodison Park and Old Trafford. Instead, they were relegated to playing in parks or using smaller facilities, such as those that friendly rugby or athletics clubs provided. Despite support from these clubs, they couldn’t match the capacity of the men’s football teams, and so the women’s game dwindled into irrelevancy.
The FA are now trying to bring the women’s game back to its former glory and fix the mistakes they made, not only in the 1920s, but also as recently as the 1990s. Kerry Davis is one of the greatest footballers in our country’s history—she should be a household name, yet she’s barely recognised by anyone who’s not a historian or a member of my family.
Women’s sport is certainly on the ascent. Women’s rugby is becoming hugely popular, and with the UEFA Women’s Euro tournament being held in England this year, the sport will only become more familiar—as young girls are inspired by what they see. Games are being hosted around the country in Brighton, London, Manchester, Milton Keynes, Rotherham, Sheffield, Southampton, Trafford and Wigan & Leigh, so there’ll be plenty of coverage.
Even with these venues, I’m still quite disappointed. There are no games to be played in the Midlands. How could you not have one in Birmingham, Coventry, Wolverhampton or even West Bromwich? All of these places are home to stadia perfect for hosting an international tournament. South Yorkshire has two host venues in Rotherham and Sheffield, and whilst I’m happy being local to them, it doesn’t make sense in terms of expanding the game. The north-east is completely ignored. Why not use Middlesbrough, Newcastle, or Sunderland? The same could be said for Greater Manchester, where they actually have three host venues.
I really hope the tournament sees the popularity of the women’s game improve. The quality is excellent, despite what some people may say. So, if you can, get to one of the games, just as 53,000 did in the 1920s.
See the next Kerry Davis play.
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