BY OLLIE McMANUS

With the England’s women football team now up to second place in the world and the Women’s Super League firing on all cylinders it’s easy to forget that there was a time when women’s football wasn’t always as popular.

Back in the early 20th century women’s football pulled in crowds of up to 53,000 into stadiums to watch games up and down the country; now this was for two primary reasons both with equal importance.

The first of these was perhaps more obvious in that most of the men fit enough to play a game of football were busy fighting the First World War and, as a result, the majority of leagues were suspended but that didn’t weaken the appetite of the general public for high quality sport.

The second of these reasons was a lady by the name of Lily Parr who managed to singlehandedly transform women’s football from a sport that was met with snorts of derision initially to a game that enthused and excited the whole nation.

Parr’s claim to fame was that she once broke a male professional goalkeeper’s arm with one of her shots and whether or not that story is entirely true doesn’t really matter because it helped to catapult her and her team – Dick, Kerr’s Ladies – into the public eye.

Founded in 1917 the team was one of the first women’s football clubs in England and was set up by women who had joined the Dick, Kerr & Co factory at the beginning of the war to produce ammunition and began merely as a way of keeping morale up within the workers.

The team played across the country in charity fixtures against other teams made up of factory workers in order to raise funds for injured servicemen returning from the battlefields and drew crowds of thousands. Each of the players were paid 10 shillings for their efforts in what, unofficially, would make them the first professional women’s team in the country.

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Such was the popularity of the sport that dozens of women’s team popped up all over the country – with no official league, the games were played in an “exhibition” style – and crowds often exceeded pre-war top-flight men’s games.

And that caught the eye of the Football Association (FA) who instead of embracing this surge in popularity, took a rather dim view of the situation – admittedly this was back in 1921 so gender liberation wasn’t exactly the same as it is now – and under the ostensible pretence of “health concerns”, citing the physical disparity between men and women, the ‘Consultative Committee’ of the FA took the decision to ban women’s football from the grounds of their member clubs.

The memo passing the law stated the “…Council felt impelled to express the strong opinion that the game of football is quite unsuitable for females and should not be encouraged…” but it was evident then, even more so now, by the reaction of those at the FA and the male clubs that the main concern was the potential for women’s football to usurp the men’s game.

Banned in all but name most of the teams were forced to fold completely and the few that didn’t – including Dick, Kerr’s Ladies – had to find alternative venues that essentially constituted of playing fields resulting in an exponentially reduced gate. Indeed, Parr’s team were forced to undertake a Harlem Globetrotter’s style tour of America, and various other countries, to ensure the team would go down as trailblazers of the women’s game.

For decades women’s football was essentially non-existent, it was almost as though it was never even a thing. All this changed in 1966, after England’s men won the World Cup, when all of a sudden there was a renewed interest from women to play the game.

Such was the uptake in 1969, despite scorn from the male equivalent, the Women’s Football Association (WFA) was founded by 44 clubs, and within a year, seven regional leagues were established to provide a platform for the best players to showcase their skill.

Amid constant pressure from Arthur Hobbs, the secretary of the WFA, and a raft of campaigners, UEFA all but forced the FA to rescind the “ban” on women’s football in 1971 with sanctions threatened if they failed to comply.

For several years the WFA and FA’s only link was the fact they shared the last two words in their name and the sole nationwide competition from 1969 until 1991 was the FA Women’s Cup or, as it was then called, the Mitre Trophy.

Founded in 1970, the Mitre Trophy was actually seen as a breakthrough moment for the game because not only was it the first ever organised national tournament for women’s football, but the attraction of Mitre as a sponsor proved society was changing in support of the game.

Nearly 100 years on from the start of the ban it’s not too much of a stretch to suggest we’re only just feeling the fever for women’s football but certainly it’s been something brewing ever since the early 90’s when the first league was formed providing a regular opportunity for women’s football.

Regular is the key word in that because although the Mitre Trophy initially drew crowds of around 3,000 for the finals, the fact it wasn’t week-in, week-out football meant the audience for the game failed to stay consistent but with the birth of a 24-club National League in 1991, the potential for growth reached new bounds.

Despite the lack of big crowds flocking to see the game the quality on the pitch was one of the best seen worldwide and when the European Competition for Women’s Football – as it was so succinctly named – began in 1984, England reached the final under the guidance of Martin Reagan.

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Players such as Debbie Bampton and Linda Curl put the Lionesses on the map as a genuine powerhouse in the women’s game. Continued success in that tournament, 4th place in 1987 (out of 4 teams, but there was an intensive qualification process) and repeatedly good performances – to match the equally impressive men’s squad at the time – drew the attention of the FA who, in 1993, agreed a deal to merge with the WFA to bring both games under one umbrella and create some level of parity for the first time.

The first edition of the FA Women’s Premier League – the renaming of which was the first attempt to bring it in line with the men’s game – featured three tiers with a Premier Division at the top and a Northern/Southern Division acting as feeder leagues.

Thirty clubs took part in the inaugural leagues with top clubs such as Arsenal, Millwall, Wimbledon, Ipswich and Doncaster fielding women’s teams in the Premier Division in a clear sign of intent to grow the game.

Sponsorship was hard to come by, however, and the results were largely limited to the small print of national newspapers and the Rothman’s annual yearbook but, nonetheless, it was a distinct improvement on the previous 21 years.

Iconic players such as Pauline Cope, Donna Baker and Karen Walker were all part of the Class of ’93 who would go on to provide such inspiration for the footballers of today but all would speak of the challenges faced throughout the opening seasons – whether they be logistical, getting enough quality players or even trivial things such as kit which just went to show that progress was slow within the structural makeup of the game.

Far greater a challenge was acceptance into society that the women’s game should be accepted and judged solely on the occurrences on the pitch as opposed to what the players looked like or, as was alarmingly frequent, the fact they’re “just women”. Of course the two versions of the sport are going to differ but, ultimately, it’s twenty-two players kicking a ball trying to win a game of football.

Even further was the lack of proper media attention with the first real television coverage coming in 2007 when the BBC decided to show the Women’s World Cup live on BBC2 – the fifth edition of the WWC – and, indeed, that’s my own first memory of watching women’s football as would be the case for many, regardless of age.

The England team, now 14 years into their governance by the FA, were led by Hope Powell and training in the same facilities as their male counterparts – something which cannot be underestimated in terms of how much it benefited them because, let’s not forget, prior to the FA & WFA merger the women’s squad were still training on, essentially, any ground that would have them.

At China 2007 the groundwork was set for today’s success with Powell, then in her eighth year as manager, describing England’s quarter-final progression as “without a doubt a greater achievement than 1995” (the last time they even qualified for the World Cup).

Thanks to renewed funding from the Department of Culture, Media and Sport for the WFA as well as the Olympic 2012 bid success bringing extra exposure and money to the sport, there was renewed optimism.

Powell is, undoubtedly, an icon of the English game but during the latter years of her tenure, things started to get prickly; the 2011 World Cup saw an unceremonious exit at the hands of France, with Powell branding those who didn’t volunteer to take a penalty in the shoot-out as “cowards”.

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Two years later came the final nail in Powell’s coffin – England, the 4th seeds, disastrously crashed out of the UEFA Women’s Euros, finishing bottom of their group which contained France, Russia and Spain. England out, Powell out.

Nowadays we take success on the women’s stage for granted and, frankly, a welcome relief from the never-ending damp squib of the men’s team – it’s hard to remember that, less than 10 years ago, we were scratching our heads as to where to go next.

Mark Sampson was chosen as Powell’s successor and, together with Dan Ashworth, he set out on a game-plan based on meticulous detail, intense training and a winning mentality which, in hindsight, probably stretched a tad too far.

It brought results, however, with the players seeming to be rejuvenated by the passion showed by Sampson; the former Taff’s Well and Bristol Academy manager incorporated young talent such as Toni Duggan and Frank Kirby into an experienced squad containing Fara Williams and Rachel Yankey in order to harness a new energy within the squad.

A new free-flowing, high tempo, attacking style of play was easy on the eye to the ever-increasing number of spectators turning out to support the Lionesses and games almost always ended with goals galore. It wasn’t just attack in which they excelled; they had enough quality goalkeepers to justify rotation and boasted a back-line tighter than my wallet!

I was at the Amex Stadium when England beat Montenegro 9-0 as part of the 2015 WC qualification campaign and the atmosphere was fever pitch; the result was the headline on Radio 5Live; and 8,908 people turned out to watch the thrashing, a 60% increase on the peak attendance for the previous campaign.

When the team went to Canada they had the hopes of a nation on their shoulders and they went out there with a real desire to leave a mark on the world stage; which they duly did – bouncing back from a 1-0 loss in their opening game against France, they quickly followed up with two successive 2-1 victories over Mexico and Colombia to ensure progression to the Round of 16.

Despite going a goal behind, 2 goals in 15 minutes set up a quarter-final clash with Canada – the biggest game in the Lionesses history. Would they buckle under the pressure against the home favourites? Not a chance; a fast start put them 2 up after just 14 minutes, enabling them to withstand a late Canadian barrage.

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Then came heartbreak. A moment that will be etched into history. THAT own goal by Laura Bassett. At 1-1 with Japan, with 1 minute to go until extra time. The ball came in the box, Bassett stuck a leg out. It sailed towards the net, as if in slow motion. Surely it wouldn’t drop in? The ball clipped the bar and landed the wrong side of the line. Cue devastation.

A mere 3 days later though, they dusted themselves down and put in a champions’ display to, firstly, take deadliest rivals Germany into extra time before Fara Williams slotted home a 108th minute penalty to secure England an historic 3rd place finish – making them the most successful English team since 1966.

A feel good factor? Certainly. A whole new aura of optimism swept the nation because, suddenly, this was the team to watch, a team that are on the verge of greatness. Inconspicuous returns home were a thing of the past and their arrival home was met with thousands of fans at the airport.

The positive vibes continued into Euro 2017 in Holland where there was a genuine expectation that England could go all the way and win the tournament for the first time in their history; a 6-0 demolition of Scotland settled the nerves with Jodie Taylor in scintillating form before 2-0 and 2-1 victories over Spain & Portugal respectively completed the unbeaten group stage.

Avenging their 2015 defeat at the hands of France, a 60th minute goal from Taylor saw the English side slip into the semi-finals thanks to a 1-0 win but the 27,093 strong Dutch crowd cheering on the hosts saw England succumb to nerves and a 3-0 defeat put them out of the tournament at the penultimate stage – to the eventual champions, at least.

And what’s more impressive is that all of this happened amid the backdrop of an increasingly tumultuous period with allegations of bullying, racism, isolation, question marks over Sampson’s personal relationships and the attitude of Ashworth saw pressure piled on the FA and their governance from all corners, including the government.

Politics aside, this team were making statements.

That’s the international development but domestically there has been an absolute thunderbolt of improvement since the founding of the Women’s Super League (WSL) – the league that superseded the FA Women’s Premier League in 2010.

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Sixteen clubs applied for a place in the eight-team league and sponsorship was immediately more forthcoming than the previous incarnation with Yorkshire Building Society and Continental Tyres signing on as “Lead Partners” – Continental Tyres became the primary sponsor from 2012 in a deal that saw them enter an exclusive partnership with the national team, WSL, Women’s Cup and Continental Cup.

On top of that, ESPN agreed a broadcasting deal to televise weekly highlights and between 6-10 live games each season and whilst these two factors may seem relatively simple, the transformation it provided was incredible with up to four players per team earning over £20,000 per season and £70,000 per season was paid to each club as part of a development fund.

Arsenal continued their dominance but Birmingham City emerged as early challengers before a move from Premier League clubs to expand their appeal saw an influx of investment into the likes of Liverpool, Chelsea and Manchester City resulted in a far more dynamic league.

Such was the appeal and desire for expansion that in 2014 a WSL 2 was established to set-up a clear promotion-relegation system between the two tiers and, most pertinently, a transition from a summer league to a more traditional full season took place in time for the beginning of the current campaign.

The first season saw rather mixed pictures in terms of public appeal with an average attendance of 584, highs of 2,510 and lows of 120 – take that in contrast to 2016 (the most recent complete full WSL season) where the average attendance was 1,128 with Manchester City drawing up to 4,096 fans then you simply cannot deny how far the game has come.

You look at the quality on the pitch and the 2017-18 UEFA Women’s Champions League is a sure-fire testament to how far the quality has improved with both Chelsea and Manchester City reaching the semi-finals thus far – the only British clubs to ever reach such a stage and they’re doing so against teams from well-established domestic systems such as Sweden, France and Germany.

Admittedly the financial muscle we have still isn’t the best but it’s getting there and gone are the days where international quality footballers would quit to take up a £3 an hour job (yes, that did actually happen) and now players are bringing in up to £3.9million a year – largely through sponsorship – but Steph Houghton’s salary is reported to be in excess of £100,000 so it is a legitimate career.

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Looking to the future then and the FA have already declared themselves “confident” of sending a team to compete in Tokyo at the 2020 Olympic game and have released a “Gameplan for Growth” in which they detail their mission to double the number of female participants by 2020 and create a sustainable high-performance system capable of producing world-class talent and increasing the number of women’s coaches across all levels of the game – with an eye to having a female coach as the next England manager.

The WSL continues to develop with another restructuring taking place ahead of the 2018-19 season in which a new (up to) 14-team top tier will be created for full-time, fully professional clubs in order to make the league “the best in the world” and deliver repeated success for the national team.

Buoyed by the announcement that Manchester United will be applying to field a team, ask anyone around women’s football team and they’ll tell you they’ve never seen it so good – the passion from the fans, the players’ talent and the enthusiasm from the media.

Gone from the lexicon of footballing fans is “she’s good for a woman” and now it’s “hey, this girl can. She’s GOOD”.

FOLLOW OLLIE ON TWITTER @OliverGMcManus

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