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The Boxing Day football match that got women kicked off the pitch

Performance poets Sabrina Mahfouz and Hollie McNish bring women's football - past and present - to life. 

On Boxing Day in 1920, a women’s football match in Liverpool attracted a crowd of 53,000, far outstripping the numbers for men’s games. The following year, the Football Association banned women from playing.

It released a statement claiming “football is quite unsuitable for women” – a notion which would prove depressingly enduring, with the ban only overturned in 1971. And despite advances in recent years, the women’s game still lags far behind the men’s in terms of media attention and financial reward.

That women’s games were so hugely popular – and subsequently banned on FA grounds – is little-known today. But this story is the subject of a new play, Offside, by performance poets Sabrina Mahfouz and Hollie McNish. Taking centre stage are two players from the late 19th and early 20th century, Carrie Bousted and Lily Carr, alongside two fictional contemporary characters based on interviews with current players for Manchester City Women’s FC and Millwall Lionesses.

“No-one knows about the FA ban - I didn’t know either,” McNish tells me, when I meet the two poets. “I’ve always loved football. But I find it fascinating how, more than any other sport, it’s still seen as so masculine. It stirs up more anger than women playing other sports, and it’s still seen as stepping on men’s toes - which is what they got flack for in the 1880s and 1920s. It wasn’t just the idea that they were unladylike, it was that this was a man’s domain.”

As well as obviously stymying women’s development in the sport, that 50-year ban must surely have contributed to a more general, internalised understanding that footie is "not for girls".

“We inherit these feelings, but you need to remind yourself that these differences exist because they’ve been engineered by various laws and oppressions,” points out Mahfouz.

In the 1920s, women’s matches were run as charity fundraisers, collecting huge sums for wounded men returning from the First World War. But if such funds were initially welcomed, women’s success in a man’s field was not. Unsubstantiated rumours soon circulated that the money was being laundered, which turned the tide of public opinion against the teams.

“I guess it was bad enough that men were coming back and seeing women doing their jobs – football felt like one step too far,” suggests Mahfouz. “Everything was about supporting men, allowing them to reclaim their ‘thing’."

Offside tells the story of Lily Carr, a player for Dick Kerr Ladies, a team of workers from a Preston munitions factory who won a 4-0 victory at that Boxing Day match. A winger with a fearsome left-foot, she scored 43 goals in her first season when aged only 14, and was the first woman inducted into the Football Hall of Fame.

Even more intriguing is Carrie Bousted, believed to be the first black female footballer - photographs show the seamstress playing for Glasgow in 1881. The women’s game was particularly popular in Scotland in the 19th century, and had a political dimension: the teams grew out of the Suffragette movement, and the campaign for rational dress (no-one wants a kickabout in a corset, after all).

Little is known about Bousted, or the reactions to a black player – mocking match reports appear more concerned about gender. Male reporters simultaneously condemned women for the immorality of wearing knickerbockers and salaciously salivated over them. Some double-standards, it seems, never change.

But Bousted was too good a discovery not to use. “Because of our ridiculous, white-washed period dramas we tend to think that in those days everyone was white, which was not the case,” points out Mahfouz. “It’s really important to celebrate her, and to know that immigration and multiculturalism is not something new.”

While there are no reports of racism against Bousted, sexism frequently spilled onto the pitch itself. “The pitches got rushed a lot,” says McNish. “There were riots, and the women had to be taken out by the police because they were being assaulted basically, pawed on the pitch.”

Today’s players might not face such grimness, but sexism still lurks in the sport. In Offside, Lily and Carrie are the heroes of two contemporary, fictional young players, whose passion for the beautiful game is tested by the sacrifices and scrutiny a professional career demands.

They were drawn from hours of interviews with real players. Aside from irksomely shallow expectations about dress and appearance, the real problem is the constant comparison between the men’s and women’s game. “There are completely unfair expectations: for a woman to play professional football, except in very rare cases, they would need another job. It’s a real struggle, financially,” points out Mahfouz. "And until that gaping chasm of a wage gap is closed, women will simply be unable to devote the same time to training as men."

Mahfouz, a playwright as well as a poet, had little interest in the sport before beginning the project, but was captivated by the historical stories. Knowing McNish had a lifelong love of the game – she even trained as a football coach – she asked her to come on board. McNish had never written a play before, and was nervous. But it has proved a happy marriage of mediums: action sequences are brought to life with fast-paced, choppy rhyming monologues describing the sweaty, heart-pounding rush of a game.

“We wanted [the writing] to match the movement on the pitch, for it to feel like they would be knackered by the end,” says McNish. The actors will move in time with the words, pumped-up to deliver a rapid-fire impression of the game: “hear the speed/see it/grass slips/mud rips/sweat spits/She’s gonna get it.”

Whether its attracting admirers of McNish’s poetry (her YouTube hits stretch into the millions), theatre goers, or footie fans, the hope is that Offside will crack open the story of women’s football. “While I was writing, I went to watch the Germany-England match and the reports said ‘this is the biggest crowd we’ve ever had for women’s football,’” says McNish. “That’s just bollocks! What they should be saying is, ‘isn’t it amazing that it’s taken 70 years to get a crowd as big as it was in the 1920s?’”

Futures Theatre Company tours Offside from 24 March to 29 April; futurestheatre.co.uk