Watching my granddaughter play, I realise just how far women’s football has come

The FA banned the women’s game from its members’ grounds in 1921, when doctors warned it could ruin women’s child-bearing organs. Women’s football went to sleep, until 1993.

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When our son was 15, he got a Saturday job in a local ice cream parlour, Marine Ices. He had to stand at a fridge and give out ice cream cones. Not technically a hard job, but it could be messy so he wore a white coat, which he had to bring home and wash every day. Naturally, his mother did it. I’d catch her, ironing away at the white coat, looking wistful.

“My son the doctor,” she would sigh to herself.

I have just been to watch my granddaughter Sienna play football for her team, Alexandra Park Under 11s, in the Capital Girls League. They beat Islington Borough Ladies, 4-0. They play every Saturday and are unbeaten all season. On Tuesdays, after primary school, they have training.

I am now home, feeling wistful, thinking about the amazing changes in women’s football in the last ten years. “My granddaughter, the England star. I wonder if I will see her coming out at Wembley one day, in front of 90,000…”

The match took place in a public park in north London, not far from the scene of the first recorded women’s game, at Crouch End in 1895, when the British Ladies’ Football Club was formed. The president was Lady Florence Dixie, younger daughter of the Marquess of Queensberry, feminist and war correspondent.

The secretary and captain was Nettie Honeyball. Her name and address were given on the poster, inviting girls to play a “manly game and show it could be womanly as well”. Nettie Honeyball: it sounds straight out of James Bond. She did exist, photographs show, but the name was a pseudonym.

Women’s football had similar social beginnings as men’s – rather posh. Later, the working classes took over the men’s game, professionalism came in, and football became mass-market. For women, the switch happened during the First World War, when one million went into munition factories. They organised knock-arounds, then proper games.

The best known team was Dick, Kerr Ladies FC from a factory in Preston. In 1920, they attracted 53,000 to Everton’s ground, Goodison Park, beating St Helens Ladies 4-0.

Then, in 1921, the FA banned the women’s game from its members’ grounds, decreeing football quite unsuitable for females. Doctors warned it could ruin their child-bearing organs. Women’s football went to sleep, until in 1993 the FA relented and took it over.

Ten years ago, I’d watch the occasional women’s game on off-peak TV and think: hmm, good dribblers but they can’t shoot, it won’t catch on. Today, wow, I enjoy top women’s games as much as men’s. Who’d have thought the recent England-Germany friendly would attract 77, 768 to Wembley. Or that women’s league matches, such as Arsenal v Spurs, would get crowds of 38,000. Or that top women would earn £300,000 a year.

Their language on the professional pitch can be just as graphic but they are better behaved than men. With Sienna’s ten-year-olds, there is no triumphalism after a goal, no hugging or pumping the air. Their manager, one of the dads, is about to take his FA Level 1 coaching badge. He has come to football through his daughter.

I brought all my four granddaughters up to be interested in football. I’d sit Sienna and her sister on my knee to watch a game, getting one to shout “Come on you Blues” and the other, “Come on you Reds”. Sienna plays for her primary school as well as her Saturday club, which has proper premises and loads of teams. I expect at comprehensive school next year her interest might fade, but you never know. Both Spurs and Arsenal women have scouts all over north London, offering top-class training. Someone has to play for England women in ten years’ time, so why not Sienna?

Except she might say no. Not because she prefers to train as a doctor and wear a white coat, but she might refuse to play for England. Her dad is French Cameroon. She might prefer to represent either of those countries. With football, national qualification is pretty fluid. Or perhaps she could play for Scotland, the land of my birth. I would be so proud… 

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 04 December 2019 issue of the New Statesman, What we want