The Round Ball on the Square Box: Part 2 - The Women's Game

This is Part Two of a series called ‘The Round Ball on the Square Box’, based around the representation of Football in film and TV over the years.  The second part centres on the representation of the women’s game over the years.  Part One can be found here

It’s a little known fact, but the Women’s game built up a degree of popularity around the time of the First World War between 1914 and 1918 and its immediate aftermath.  In a manner very similar to the men’s game around thirty years prior, women’s football teams sprung up from Work’s teams during the Great War, as the conscription of men into the armed forces in 1916 meant that woman entered the labour force in record numbers, particularly in munitions factories.  The traditional discouragement of women playing football was spurred as it was believed that such organised sporting activity would be good for morale in wartime factories and would aid production and so was encouraged and even officially endorsed by wartime PM David Lloyd George.


An example is this occurrence is shown in BFI Footage of a game played out in Southend between a side from explosives manufacturer Kynoch Ltd from Thurrock and munitions manufacturer Vickers Sons & Maxim, based in Crayford and Erith, over the water in Kent.  One of the most famous women’s teams from the period had been the Ladies work side from Preston based Dick, Kerr & Co.  The team played in charity fixtures against similar teams around the country and raised money for injured servicemen during and after the war.  Below is Pathe News footage of a fixture against the Arundel Coulthard Factory side on Christmas Day 1917, where a crowd of 10,000 turned out for the day. 

Proceeds of the game were in aid of the local hospital for wounded soldiers at Moor Park in Preston (remembering of course that this was a good thirty one years before the existence of the NHS).  It had been the first football game to be played on the ground since the Football League programme was cancelled at the end of the 1914/15 season, due to the ongoing War and raised for the hospital what amounts to £41,000 in today's money.  After end of the First World War in 1918, many of the female munitions workers lost their employment Around three years later, Dick, Kerr’s side had by now become an unofficial England Ladies side and played out international matches. 

The side developed the first female star footballer in a fourteen year old girl called Lilly Parr. A local Preston newspaper went as far as to describe that: ‘there is probably no greater football prodigy in the whole country. Not only has she speed and excellent ball control, but her admirable physique enables her to brush off challenges from defenders who tackle her. She amazes the crowd where ever she goes by the way she swings the ball clean across the goalmouth to the opposite wing’.  She also had a shot so hard that it once broke the arm of a professional male goalkeeper!

The Dick, Kerr’s side played several charity matches across the country over the next few years to packed out crowds across the country in the tens of thousands.  On Boxing Day 1920, a capacity crowd of 53,000 people turned out at Everton’s Goodison Park to watch the side play a fixture against St Helens’ Ladies, which raised over half a millions pounds in today’s money for the Unemployed Ex-Servicemen’s Distress Fund.  An estimated 14,000 fans locked out of the game.


This had been the largest crowd that had ever watched a woman's game in England – a record which stood until the 2012 Olympic Games.  The Dick, Kerr’s side were so successful at fund raising that they had raised what equates to around £14 million in today’s money for ex-servicemen, hospitals and needy children.  By the start of the 1920s, there had been as many as one hundred and fifty women’s teams in England, mostly in the North and the Midlands. However, around the same time there began a clampdown on the women’s game.


The growth of women’s presence in the work place during the First World War saw an assertion of women’s rights’ campaigns – the highest in profile being the cause of the suffragettes, which successfully campaigned for a woman’s right to vote.

The years following the First World War saw the economic depression of 1920-21.  There had also been the spectre of the Russian Bolshevik revolution in 1917, which caused an enormous amount of anxiety among the British establishment.  What the powers that be didn’t want was a competition for employment places that would have occurred had the level of female employment remained.  There was also fears that if a high number of military trained men were subjected to unemployed and poverty, a repeat occurrence of Bolshevik revolution could have occurred on these shores.  The popularity of the women’s game had been a symbol of female emancipation, which the traditional patriarchal power structure didn’t particularly welcome.


The Football Association were also outraged when Dick, Kerr’s side played benefit matches for Miners who were engaged in industrial action in the 1921 Miner’s Strike.  This culminated in the F.A. formulating a propaganda campaign against the Women’s game.  Medical opinions were forwarded that women were more prone to injuries than men from playing the game, even female medic Dr Mary Scharlieb stating Football to be: ‘most unsuitable game, too much for a woman's physical frame’.


Arsenal boss of the day, Leslie Knighton stated his opposition to the women’s game, stating: ‘anyone acquainted with the nature of the injuries received by men footballers could not help but think – looking at the girls playing – that should they get similar knocks and buffetings their future duties as mothers would be seriously impaired’.  Also, Cambridge-educated leading Tennis player of the day – Eustace Miles – opined that: ‘the kicking is too jerky a movement for women and the strain is likely to be severe’.  In response to this comment, Barbara Jacobs, author of a book on Dick, Kerr’s Ladies side rather humorous observed: ‘That's put paid to sex, hasn't it?’  Fun was also poked at this idea back in the day, as seen from this silent footage of the day, termed ‘Quite Unfit for Females’.

The F.A. released a statement in 1921, stating: ‘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’.  The F.A thus enacted a ban on women’s matches played on the grounds of F.A. affiliated clubs – this effectively removed the ability of women to play out games in front of large crowds.  The effect of the ban was to see a sharp decline in the women’s game.  Despite this, a Pathe news piece from 1930 covered a charity Women’s game, which drew an attendance figure of 10,000.

The effect of the ban however was that by 1945, the number of women’s football teams in England had dwindled to just seventeen.  Incredible as it may seem today, the ban was to last for as long as fifty years.  Social changes began to be felt around the time of the sixties.  First up, around the time of England’s World Cup win in 1966 the game became fashionable and George Best became a sex symbol to women in a way that, say Billy Wright probably wasn’t despite his marriage to one of the Beverley Sisters, which made them a couple more glamourous than Football had been during the 1950s.

In 1969, George Best – along with Man City’s Mike Summerbee had been involved in a Women’s Charity match which had been a far cry from the day of the Dick, Kerr’s side some fifty years prior in terms of the skills and general esteem of the Women’s game.  Mainly involving the kind of ‘dolly birds’ which George surrounded himself with at the time, rather than female athletes. Rather ironically, George was actually a friend of the most renowned liberal Feminist of the day – Germaine Greer.  That same year, the Women’s Football Association had been founded. 

In 1971, under pressure from the Women’s F.A. and the European governing body – UEFA – the F.A. lifted their ban on women’s game.  The first official women's international in Britain took place at Greenock in November 1972 between Scotland and England (around 100 years after the first men’s international).  England beat the Scots 3-2.  Within five months however, the next big outing for the Women’s game in popular culture would appear on the popular, but not so politically correct LWT comedy show ‘On the Buses’.  Also making a guest appearance in this show was Arsenal and England Left Back and ITV pundit panel member Bob McNab.  The boys from the depot were on for a bonus if they could beat an opposition side called the Basildon Bashers, who turn out to be an all women side.

By the start of the 1980s, the humour of shows like ‘On the Buses’ became outdated in favour of alternative comedy, such as the BBC2 sketch show ‘Not the Nine O’Clock News’.  However, as seen from the famous Smith and Jones sketch from the third series in 1980 based on two men at a Women’s International Football Match, it seems that even with the dawn of the alternative comedy age, attitudes to women’s football were no more enlightened than they had been seven years prior with ‘On the Buses’

Within six months however, came a ground breaking movie with regard to the representation of Women’s football in the shape of ‘Gregory’s Girl’.  The film was based around a girl called Dorothy (played by Dee Hepburn) that joins the School’s poorly performing football side and changed the fortunes of the team.  Gregory, played by John Gordon Sinclair is demoted to goalkeeper as a result of her inclusion in the side, but develops a crush on the team's new player.  The film went on to win BAFTA awards for Best Original Screenplay, Best Film, Best Director for Bill Forsyth and Best Newcomer for John Gordon Sinclair.   

The film made a star out of John Gordon Sinclair who made appearances in various sitcoms, Kids TV show ‘Fraggle Rock’ and World War Z, as well as providing the vocals for Scotland’s 1982 World Cup Song ‘We Have a Dream’.  The film also gave a big break to Clare Grogan, who went on to have four hit singles during the early 1980s with post-Punk outfit Altered Images, the biggest of which was a number two hit ‘Happy Birthday’.  By the end of the eighties, she also went on to star in Red Dwarf as Dave Lister’s unrequited love interest Christine Kochanski.  For Dee Hepburn however, there would only be a role in ITV’s much maligned Soap Opera ‘Crossroads’ for three years while the show was in sharp decline, leading to its cancellation in 1988.

In another step forward for the women’s game, in 1983 the WFA became affiliated to the Football Association on the same basis as England’s County Associations.  That same year there came a made for TV Comedy Drama film which premiered on Channel Four called ‘Those Glory Glory Days’, which was a screenplay written by sports journalist Julie Welch – Fleet Street’s first female Football Writer - based on her own childhood love of the game.  It was based on a group of girls who develop a love of Football and support for Tottenham Hotspur during the club’s glory days of the early 1960s.

It was also on Channel Four at the end of the 1980s where a drama series was based around the as yet unfulfilled prophecy of a female Football Manager with Cherie Lunghi playing fictional boss Gabrielle Benson.  The first series was aired in June 1989.  Though the show failed to accurately prophesize a future female football manager, Benson highlights the poor fitness and training methods prevalent in the English game around the time.  Something which wouldn’t be fully tackled until the influx of foreign players and managers midway through the following decade.  The show also highlighted the instances of bung taking by top level managers, several years before George Graham was sacked after being found guilty of this in 1995.

The series returned in the Spring of 1990, where Benson got the club promotion to the top flight.  The show however never returned for a third series.

Two years on in 1992, at the birth of the Premiership Football era came a Screen One play called ‘Born Kicking’, based around the story of Roxy Reddy – a female footballer inducted into a top level football side and touted as the ‘new George Best’.  The play however was panned by the critics, as shown from James Rampton’s review in the Independent Newspaper which described it as: ‘rather like the England football team; pacy, intermittently skilful, but far too predictable’.  One year later, the Women’s F.A. had been dissolved and responsibility for the Women’s game had passed to the Football Association, who had only lifted their ban on Women’s football just over two decades prior.


Into the Premiership era, after a period of decline the general popularity of the game in Britain had increased to unprecedented levels, particularly so with female audiences.  The last time the game had been as popular had been back in the mid-sixties, around the time of England’s World Cup victory.  Back in the mid-sixties, there had actually been a Football related soap opera on the BBC called ‘United!’ which lasted for 147 episodes.  The show was ultimately unsuccessful as male viewers found the football scenes to be unrealistic.  The subject matter was also deemed too male orientated to appeal to female viewers.  The show was axed in 1967, with all episodes wiped by the BBC.

After the success of Euro ’96, within two years the BBC felt confident enough to reattempt a Football drama series.  In the aftermath of the Spice Girls and Girl Power, this time the BBC decided to base it around a female football side called Castleford Blues, based on a book called ‘I Lost my Heart to the Belles’ by Pete Davies, based on real life successful women’s side the Doncaster Belles.  The show was called ‘Playing the Field’, with a theme tune sung by Alison Moyet called ‘Blue’ based on her love for her local side - Southend United FC.  The show also starred big name acting figures such as James Nesbitt, John Thompson, Ricky Tomlinson, Melanie Hill, Gaynor Mellor, Brigit Forsyth, Debra Stephenson and Marsha Thomason who went on to star in hit American show ‘Lost’.  All six episodes of the first series are shown below.

The show achieved ratings around the eight million mark and was sold to Whoopi Goldberg's US production company, One Ho Productions.  The story lines however were more based around standard soap opera subject matters, rather than Football - such as infidelity, attempted suicide, lesbianism, childbirth and one character finding out her elder sister had been her biological mother.  The show however achieved a reasonable following among traditional female TV viewers.  One player for the Doncaster Belles (whom the show was supposed to be based on) criticised the show, stating that: ‘it’s too soapy and dramatized. Women playing football isn’t the main issue on the programme – it’s just a novelty topic dramatized into a TV programme’.


The show lasted four years before it was axed by the BBC.  In the year of its final series in 2002, a film was based on Women’s football and using the image of the most famous footballer on the planet at the time within its title.  Written and Directed by Gurinder Chadha, the movie was called ‘Bend it Like Beckham’.  The film was based around a Hounslow-based Asian girl on a woman’s football side that reaches the Women’s FA Cup Final against the odds and the clash of cultures with her infatuation with Premiership Football, Man United and Becks, in contrast to her traditional Punjabi Sikh parents who disapprove of their daughter playing Football. 

The film starred All Saints singer Shaznay Lewis (who played the game at the Arsenal Ladies academy) and made stars of Keira Knightley (who went on to star in ‘Love Actually’ and the ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ films) and Parminder Nagra (who went on to star in US medical drama ‘ER’).  Bend it Like Beckham’ was so successful that it went on to become the highest grossing British-financed, British-distributed film, ever in UK box-office history.  A hit also in India’s Bollywood, the film was credited with sparking the formation of women’s Football leagues across India.

Sadly, the reality of the matter in 2002 was still the case that if a woman ever was to be rich and famous as a result of Football, it was to be marrying a male footballer rather playing the game themselves.  That same year also brought us ITV’s ‘Footballer’s Wives’. The show centred on fictional side Earls Park Football Club and inspired by a book called ‘Footballers' Wives Tell Their Tales’, by Shelley Webb – journalist and TV presenter who was also the wife of former Nottingham Forest and Man United midfielder Neil Webb.  The show’s popularity peaked around the seven and a half million mark and lasted for four years and sold to twenty one countries.


The show however was far from a critical success.  A piece on its cancellation in the Independent Newspaper by Cair Byrne highlighted its sensationalist content, stating that: ‘It had exploding boobs, a hermaphrodite baby, catfights, affairs and fake tans aplenty, but was noticeably lacking in genuine sporting action’ and that the show: ‘captured the obsession with celebrity footballers and their consorts’ but ‘made even the lives of Victoria Beckham and Coleen McLoughlin look bland by comparison’.

In contrast to the world of Footballer’s Wives is acclaimed Persian-language Film ‘Offside’, released the same year as the ITV show’s cancellation.  The film was about an Iranian girl attempting to attend a World Cup Qualifying game of the Iranian National side against Bahrain, which secured Iran’s passage to the 2006 World Cup.  Females were not permitted to attend football matches and so in order to watch the game, she disguises herself as a boy.  Despite being shot in Iran, the film was banned from being screened there.  The film won the acclaimed Silver Bear award at the Berlin International Film Festival in the year of its release.

By 2014, similar issues were revisited in a documentary film called ‘Goals for Girls: A Story of women with Balls’, centring on Argentina’s attitudes to women’s football in stark contrast to the nation’s obsession with the men’s game.  The documentary maker, Emily Robbins states: ‘There are dozens of popular men’s club teams and the Argentine government recently allocated $155 million to subsidize the broadcast of men’s soccer games on television. Conversely, there are no women’s professional soccer teams and no legislation to guarantee equal funding for women’s sports’.   

In contrast, one year on the FIFA Women’s World Cup Final became the most watched Football (or as the Americans would term it ‘Soccer’) game in American history with over eighteen million viewers – more than any men’s game has accrued on the other side of the Atlantic.  Worldwide, the game managed to gain three quarters of a billion viewers.  England Ladies’ progress to the Semi Finals of the tournament managed to reach UK television audiences as high as two and a half million.  The Women’s FA Cup Final is now held at Wembley Stadium and in 2017 attained a record attendance of 35,271, in stark contrast to the paltry figure 941 which turned out for the same event at Old Trafford back in 1989.

Also, this year a coup for Channel Four was to secure the rights to UEFA’s Womens’ Euro 2017 Championships in July and August, where both England and Scotland’s Women’s sides will be competing.  Back in the 1980s, as well as producing women’s football drama such as ‘These Glory Glory Days’ and the ‘Manageress’, Channel Four had been the very first British Channel to show highlights of the Women’s FA Cup Finals (the aforementioned game with the paltry attendance at Old Trafford).  Expectations therefore, are that the channel will promote the tournament with the same vigour in which it has covered the last two Paralympic Games, very much indicating that coverage of Women’s Football is very much on the front foot in the late 2010s.


*Published 17th July 2017