21 Nov 2014

Women’s football in 1972 – the ‘powder puff’ players?

Everyone’s hailing Sunday’s international game at Wembley, as the “coming of age” moment for women’s football. But it drew crowds in the past even before the ban. Ian Searcey delves into the archives.

Video: England’s Women hit the training ground in 1972 after the FA ban is finally lifted

As we look forward to the first international at Wembley for England’s Women, which has sold more tickets than the last men’s friendly, it is often forgotten that women’s football was incredibly popular up until 1921. This was especially the case during the first world war, with games drawing large crowds and raising hundreds of pounds for charity.

On boxing day 1920, for example, over 53,000 packed into Goodison Park to see the popular team Dick Kerr Ladies of Preston beat St Helens Ladies 4-0. The Liverpool Echo reported that: “the ladies… gave us all great pleasure. We appreciated their skill, their stamina, their determination and their manner of taking hard knocks ‘without turning a hair’.

“Sometimes the cap didn’t fit, and their hair was turned, still one must say that they all played well and hard throughout.”

FA ban on women’s football

Claiming the game was too physically demanding for the fairer sex (or, as some suspected, fearing that the post-war ladies’ game threatened to eclipse the men), on 5 December 1921 the Football Association promptly banned women from playing at any of its members’ grounds, on grounds that it was “unsuitable for females.”

This put an end to many teams, and consigned girls to decades of officially unsanctioned, poorly attended park games or jokey publicity stunt matches.

The ladies’ game never entirely disappeared however, and in 1969 the euphoria after the 1966 World Cup led to the formation of the Women’s Football Association (WFA) and after two years of pressure, the FA ban on female teams was finally lifted in 1971.

In November of 1972, ITN sent Norman Rees to Bisham Abbey to watch the England Women preparing for the first-ever officially sanctioned women’s international since the 1920s (see video above). The team were due to face Scotland at Ravenscraig Park in Greenock.

‘Who looks after the baby when you are training?’

After watching the cream of “women’s footballing talent” giving 110 per cent in training, Rees asks defender, England captain and new mother Sheila Parker, “who looks after the baby when you are training?”

Rees also ponders if these women are merely “powder puff players” compared to the men. Manager Eric Worthington boldly states that they are not as strong or as good as the male players – “and never will be”.

Former Watford and Bradford City player Worthington went on to completely restructure the organisation of football in Australia, while Parker, who led the team to a 3-2 victory in that first international, played on until 1980 and was inducted into the English Football Hall of Fame in 2013.