FOOTBALL is a simple game, Gary Lineker once famously quipped: twenty-two men chase a ball for ninety minutes and at the end, the Germans always win. Except this isn’t quite correct. Football is increasingly being played by women as well as men: and when the England Women’s team played Germany at the last World Cup, it was England who won to finish third in the tournament.
Last weekend, I took my eldest daughter Josephine to Wembley to watch the Women’s FA Cup Final between Manchester City Women and Birmingham City Ladies. Manchester City are currently the team to beat in women’s football – boasting such star names as England captain Steph Houghton and US striker Carli Lloyd, the only player since Geoff Hurst to score a hat-trick in a World Cup final. They duly lived up to their billing, winning the final 4-1.
Today there are an estimated three million female footballers in England, making it the biggest women’s team sport in the country. It’s a side of the sport that boasts a long and curious history: the world’s oldest football was discovered behind the chamber of Mary Queen of Scots at Stirling Castle. Mary was known to the play the game herself, though apparently she wasn’t so good at headers in later life.
The female game grew to a peak during the First World War, with women not just taking on male roles in the factories, but on the football pitch too, pulling in huge crowds. Support for the so-called Munitionettes continued to grow after the war: on Boxing Day 1920, 53,000 squeezed into Goodison Park to watch Preston’s Dick Kerr Ladies take on St Helen’s Ladies.
But this post-war boom was to prove short-lived: in 1921 the Football Association came to the conclusion that the game was unsuitable for women (one physician of the time described it as ‘too much for a woman’s physical frame’). The FA ordered its member clubs not to allow women to play matches at their grounds – a ban that killed the female game stone dead and, bizarrely, remained in place until the early 1970s.
Such enlightened attitudes still linger today – a 2014 survey found a quarter of fathers believing the game not suitable for their daughters to play. But beyond such narrow-mindedness, new generations of girls are learning to play. In Salisbury, Laverstock and Ford hosts the FA’s Wildcats programme for young girls; community club Salisbury Rovers, meanwhile, runs regular girls only sessions for anyone interested.
With the England Women’s team one of the favourites for this summer’s European Championships, the growth in the sport is set to continue further.
Salisbury Rovers’ next girls only session is on June 11: visit salisburyroversfc.co.uk for details.