The British are a football crazy nation and football fever reaches new heights whenever there is a cup final on the horizon. However, at times when our football heroes such as Harry Kane, Raheem Sterling et al, may herald a victory that brings that glimmering trophy home that signifies the ultimate goal of the national game played at Wembley Stadium during the FA Cup Final, it seems only fair to consider the part that women have played in this much loved sport of the nation. The Woman’s final between West Ham and Manchester City is coming to Wembley on 4th May. No longer contented to restrict themselves to the more traditional sports associated with women, the ‘fairer sex’ can be seen tackling, dribbling and passing on the football field with the fervour and enthusiasm of any passionate athlete. Football is no longer a sport designated to men alone. Women take their football every bit as seriously as their male counterparts. Women’s football has secured a firm foothold on the sporting calendar and continues to attract more and more girls into the game. 

However, contrary to belief, girls and women playing football is by no means new to the world of sport. Historical sources refer to women’s football teams as early as 1895. World War 1 saw the formation of women’s teams, based around the munitions factories, the most famous perhaps being Dick Kerr’s Ladies from Preston. The war years saw an enormous increase in the numbers of women’s teams nationwide. Not surprising really when women’s roles at this time had undergone such dramatic change with women taking on the jobs previously held by men as part of the war effort. By the start of the ‘roaring twenties’ women’s football held widespread appeal and attracted ever increasing crowds. Records reveal that a match at Goodison Park in 1920 between Dick Kerr’s Ladies and St Helen’s Ladies drew a crowd of some 53,000 people, a sizeable crowd by any standards. Women’s football was big and getting bigger, a situation which by all accounts did not seem to gain too much favour with the FA at that time. The war was now over and the men were back. Where did this leave the ladies? In December of 1921 the FA declared a ban on women playing football on Football League grounds.

Recent years have seen a resurgence of interest in women’s football both on and off the pitch. The Women’s FA was founded in 1969 and heralded a new era in women’s football. Pressure exerted by UEFA brought a long overdue lifting of the FA ban on women’s football in Britain in 1972. It was in this same year that the first official Women’s International in Britain was played at Greenock with England beating Scotland 3 -2. Women’s football was once more to assert itself as a sport for serious consideration in the world of sport and this was further endorsed by the formation of the first Women’s National league in 1991. That same year saw the FA lift its ban on mixed football for the under 11’s in our schools. 

In most schools, girls are welcomed and actively encouraged to participate, in what has been a traditionally male dominated contact sports. Young girls are finding themselves more and more attracted to the country’s national sport. In our schools, boys and girls may play side by side on the football field as members of the same team working towards a common goal. The emphasis at this level is clearly concentrated on the development of team spirit and co-operation. However, girls are as fiercely competitive as boys, and equally eager to show off their newly acquired skills. Today’s youngsters will grow up in a society where it is the rule, rather than the exception for girls to play football. 

In league football men and women may remain segregated for some time to come. It is still early days for the girls but the question arises, ‘ What does the future really hold?’.  In reality, it seems highly unlikely at the present time that women will play alongside men. The reason is simple. Out on the pitch there is no room for sentiment and chivalry. Football is a highly physical sport often requiring close bodily contact during tackles and the like. One has to wonder whether both men and women could rise above the ‘sex thing’. How might a woman take to being fouled by an opposing male player? How many of her team mates would be able to ignore such a situation? Of course there are those who would claim that they would play the game by the rules; rules that would apply equally to both men and women. This sort of attitude is most admirable in theory but would it work in practice? The debate goes on. Women’s football is one of the fastest growing sports in the country. New clubs are forming and the number of registered players continues to increase. It is not surprising that women’s football grows in popularity with girls now being allowed to participate as players from an early age. Increased media coverage of the sport can only add to the attraction.

The biggest move forward is the involvement of the Football Association, which in 1993 demonstrated its commitment to women’s football by instigating the establishment of a Women’s Football Committee, which would ‘ deal with all matters relating to the development of female football, including the arrangements, administration and selection of International Representative Teams, and the Coaching and Education Programme’. By appointing a Women’s Football Co-ordinator within the Coaching and Education Section, the Football Association was showing its commitment to the continuing development of women’s football. The ensuing years have seen women’s football rise up like the Phoenix from the flames. We would do well to remember those early pioneers who played the game at a time when women were still fighting for the right to vote. 

Women’s football has returned and it is staying. The future for women’s football looks remarkably good both for women, and for football. Women have balls too!

© Liola Lee 2019

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