Football… Has it always been a Man’s Game?

Despite what you may imagine, football isn’t a game which is only played and watched by men. Millions of girls and women around the world have a passion for the game – an interest which is not particularly new.

Women’s football undoubtedly has become more popular. But there is still an on-going issue with the recognition that athletes and teams receive from the worldwide media, with their male counterparts receiving a higher status. 

Even with the history behind it, people are still unaware that 100 years ago women’s football was as popular as it’s ever been before, repeatedly bringing in and enticing bigger crowds than the men. A team at the centre of these glory days were the Dick Kerr Ladies.  

To gain an insight into the history of women’s football, I spoke to Gail Newsham – a former footballer and author of ‘In a League of Their Own!’.  Gail widely regarded as the go-to source for history on the Dick Kerr Ladies, having kept note and rescued a wealth of stats, facts and figures that would otherwise be lost forever.  

Gail explained that the Dick Kerr Ladies were formed in 1917 at a munitions factory in Preston to help raise money for the local military hospital.

“They played their first match on Christmas day 1917 in front of 10,000 spectators and they raised £600 for the wounded soldiers being treated at the military hospital.  

“This was the biggest day in their history,” said Gail, reflecting on the history of this star-studded team.

“The biggest crowd was on boxing day in 1920 when 53,000 people came to Goodison Park at Everton to watch them play, against St Helens Ladies. There were between 10,000- 14,000 locked out unable to gain admission. So, if they could have got everybody in there would have been well over 60,000 for a women’s football match, so that’s pretty impressive figures.” 

The biggest star at the time was Lily Parr, the winger Parr had around 1000 goals under her belt in her extraordinary 32-year old career. Putting that into perspective she’d scored over three times the amount as footballing legend Bobby Charlton, outshining his 249 goals. 

 “Lily was not a professional footballer; she didn’t get paid to play.” Added Gail.

“She came to play for the Dick Kerr Ladies when she was 15 years old, around May of 1920. During her first couple of months with the team she was playing at left back, and it wasn’t until 1921 when she was moved up onto the left wing, where she made her name as a goal scorer. 

“What made her special was that not only was she a great player with a great shot, but she played longer than anybody else did, so the longevity of her career makes her stand out more than others, and because she played for so long it enabled her to score as many goals as she did.”

To sum her up in one word, Gail simply described her as “exceptional”. 

Very few football fans have ever heard about Lily Parr, a pioneer in the women’s game who in today’s society would be praised as an icon and admired by millions of young girls. Yet her incredible talent has seemingly been wiped from the history books of English football. 

So much so that it took 24 years after her death for her achievements to be noticed, as she became the first female to be inducted into the Football Hall of Fame at the National Football Museum in 2002. 

But why did it take so long for her achievements to be recognised? This was hands down to the Football Association (FA) simply banning women from playing football, which was released in a statement on December 5, 1921.

Their statement revealing:

Complaints having been made as to football being played by women, the Council feel impelled to express their strong opinion that the game of football is quite unsuitable for females and ought not to be encouraged.

Complaints have also been made as to the conditions under which some of these matches have been arranged and played, and the appropriation of receipts to other than charitable objects.

The Council are further of the opinion that an excessive proportion of the receipts are absorbed in expenses and an inadequate percentage devoted to charitable objects.

For these reasons the Council request clubs belonging to the association to refuse the use of their grounds for such matches.

“The men were jealous that they were getting bigger crowds, The FA said that the women’s frame was not right to play football, and that it could affect their fertility and all that rubbish.” Said Gail.

“The turning point in women’s football was the Goodison Park match, when 53,000 came. I think it was a wakeup call for the established FA at the time, that women’s football was getting too popular and that something ought to be done about it.”

Whilst England continues to be known as the home of football, subsequently the country as a whole have been nurtured to believe that men are the only gender suitable to participate in the sport. Quite simply because men liked it as such so as to save it for themselves which will quite frankly forever be frowned upon by millions of females. 

You cannot rewrite history, and the records will always prove otherwise that the female footballers were more popular than the men. Consequently, the blame lies with the FA, and the sparkling heritage of women’s football will always be overlooked and helpfully covered up due to the assistance from the governing body.  

Women footballers now live in a patriarchal society in which they are undermined by their male counterparts. If we were able to go back in time and rewrite history so that the FA never released that disgraceful statement times may be different. Men and women’s football would equally prosper and succeed, developing at the same time.

Simply envision what it could be like nowadays…

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