â€œIf you say you played for Arsenal or Doncaster, people will be like â€˜oh okayâ€™ but now Croydon doesnâ€™t really ring the same bell.â€ Louise Cooper, Croydonâ€™s Goalkeeper in their initial double-winning season, speaks to a remarkable lack of recognition for the most successful womenâ€™s team of the late 90â€™s.
â€œIn their day, they dominated football.â€ Three league titles in five years. Undefeated for two of them. Two-double winning seasons. Cooper is not wrong. One South-London side led the rest in the run up to the millennium. A team established by and led by women. At a time when the management of the womenâ€™s game was dominated by men (even more so than it is now).
Yet youâ€™d be hard-pressed to find more than a couple paragraphs detailing their achievements online. Of course, this is a reflection of the digital age and the 90â€™s being a far-cry from todayâ€™s Womenâ€™s Super League in terms of recognition or coverage. But a controversial â€˜takeoverâ€™ wiping the club from existence in 2000 probably has a larger part to do with their forgotten historyâ€¦
The Early Years
Itâ€™s no surprise the team were so successful when one of its key founding members was Hope Powell, future England manager and all-round legend of the game. After winning the FA Cup with Millwall Lionesses in 1991, Powell and team mate Sue Law decided to go it on their own.
Setting up under the name Bromley Borough, they quickly rose through the South East Counties League (SECL). Scoring 142 goals in 16 matches to take the SECL Division One title and Cup without dropping a point. With the likes of Brenda Sempare joining the side, this was a team playing opposition far below their standard. A run to the FA Cup semi-final that same year demonstrated their ambition to reach the top.
â€œThey were too good a team for the level they were playing in.â€ Like many, Croydon Chairman Ken Jarvie could see this was a side to be reckoned with. Becoming chair in 1994, Jarvie instantly felt that Croydon FC was missing something: â€œA womenâ€™s team.â€ Lucky for him, there was a hugely experienced side only a few miles away. And they needed a new home.
â€œThey had ambition and the right players, the right connections, to do well. We sat down and said weâ€™d give them as much support as possible. They fitted our bill; we fitted their bill.â€
After winning the 1993-94 Division One South by 10 points, Bromley Borough would enter the Premier Division as Croydon. Jarvie and the likes of Powell forming a seemingly unstoppable partnership that would dominate womenâ€™s football for years to come. â€œI think it was a lucky coincidence if Iâ€™m perfectly honest, we were both in the right place at the right time.â€
Though it is clear, from talking to Cooper and Jarvie, that the arrival of one woman was at the heart of this success: Debbie Bampton. The England Captain, and treble-winning champion at Arsenal, joined as player-manager in 1994 with a wealth of experience and knowledge. Although she was missing credentials in one key departmentâ€¦
â€œI had no experience of managing. Obviously, they probably wanted me there for my playing ability rather than my managing.â€
Yet, it was exactly her managing ability, in its disciplined enthusiastic nature, that drove the team forward according to Jarvie:
â€œHad we not had Debbie, weâ€™d have got nowhere. She was the driving force behind it all. She had the contacts, the knowledge of the gameâ€¦ The fact is, Debbieâ€™s a good manager. She got the best out of those players. She was quite disciplined with them and she was hard with them. She was the biggest catalyst for it all.â€
It was a level above any sort of management that Cooper had experienced before:
â€œSheâ€™d give team talks where youâ€™d think like â€˜wowâ€™ you know, they were inspirational.â€ To Cooper, this was revolutionary. â€œIt wasnâ€™t as if I ever had that. At a lower level you just sort of got somebodyâ€™s dad saying â€˜go on girls, off you go, enjoy yourselvesâ€™ whereas with Bampton it was a lot more involved because sheâ€™d had that coaching and training at England.â€
After taking charge, Bampton had one clear aim for her opening campaign: â€œIt was just staying in the Premier Division really.â€ To achieve this, she set out on an impressive recruitment drive â€œTo build the team, build the club.â€
â€œThey got players from all over the leagues. One pre-season we turned up and there were 20 players that no one had ever met before.â€ Cooper distinctly remember her own call:
â€œI didnâ€™t know her; I knew of her because she was the captain of England at the time. I remember my mum shouting upstairs: â€˜Debbie Bamptonâ€™s on the phoneâ€™ and I thought â€˜Sheâ€™s got that wrong, why would the England Captain be calling me you know?â€
But she wasnâ€™t wrong, and Bampton was clear in what she wanted: â€œLook, this is what Iâ€™m going to try to do, put together a team, would you come along?â€ A message that didnâ€™t just lure in Cooper. Kerry Davis, Englandâ€™s once all-time top scorer, joined the fold that same year.
It was a drive based in the grassroots, fighting against the likes of big-name clubs like Arsenal, led by a woman who knew the game, and the players within it, better than any.
Making her England debut at the age of 17 and captaining her country at 24, Bampton had over 15 years of experience at the top of womenâ€™s football (including a professional stint in Italy). Experience that gave her a standing in the game hardly rivalled. So, itâ€™s no surprise that when Bampton came calling, many heeded that call.
For Englandâ€™s 1995 inaugural entry into the Womenâ€™s World Cup, six of the squad were Croydon players. Proof of Bamptonâ€™s incredible recruiting power to a club yet to win anything. Sometimes though, it seemed like higher forces might have been on her sideâ€¦
When thinking of signing for Croydon in 1998, Goalkeeper Pauline Cope had a few strange requests according to Bampton: â€œI remember her saying â€˜I want three things from youâ€™ I went â€˜rightâ€™ â€˜I want to find a husbandâ€™ â€˜rightâ€™ â€˜I want to win the league and I want to win the lottery.â€™ I went â€˜Right, okay then.â€
Within a year, it had all come true. â€œShe ended up meeting this fella when she signed for us and sheâ€™s now married to him. Our first game of the season was Everton and she ended up winning the lottery, winning Â£1200â€¦ and then we won the league.â€
Back in 1995, Bamptonâ€™s modest goal of staying up in her opening season was easily achieved. A respectable 4th place finish providing a solid base to build from. They wouldnâ€™t be settling for respectable though.
Storming into the 1995-96 campaign, Sempareâ€™s and Davisâ€™ goals shot Croydon into contention for both the League and FA Cup titles. Pushing aside Everton and Arsenal, they emerged as the main challengers to league leaders Doncaster Belles. Yet, one look at the table and youâ€™d have thought they were out of it. The Blues sat 13 points behind Doncaster with 5 games to play.
In reality, games in hand and a laughable fixture pile-up created this distorted state of play. Still, they would have to win at all costs and do so in exhausting circumstancesâ€¦ â€œThe FA made us play something ridiculous like 6 games in 12 days.â€ Cooper is not exaggerating. Croydon faced 5 league games and an FA Cup final in under a fortnight. â€œWe just thought â€˜this is not okay.â€
Even for paid professionals, this run-in made the festive football schedule look an easy breeze. Yet for Bampton and co, this wasnâ€™t even their day job. â€œIt was quite tough. We all had full-time jobs.â€ In Cooperâ€™s case, it was two college courses on top of a full-time job: â€œWhen you look back on it, itâ€™s quite a lot that I crammed in really.â€
And cram they did. With three wins and a draw, Croydon clawed their way back to being a win away from their first title. Only Vik Akerâ€™s legendary Arsenal side stood in their way. Though, they did have the slightly important matter of an FA Cup Final to play out firstâ€¦
Their opponents: Liverpool. The venue: The Den. Millwallâ€™s ground a fitting location for a team founded out of the Lionesses own FA Cup winning squad five years previously. For many at the club though, this would be their first chance of silverware, including Cooper.
After endless hours of nerves the night before, she recalls how an unusual discovery the morning of the final changed her nervy outlook somewhat: â€œMe and Taz (Tara Proctor) walked around the pitch and saw two pieces of paper on the floor, tiny little pieces of paper no bigger than your fingernail, that had one navy blue and one light blue (Croydonâ€™s colours).â€
â€œIt was really bizarre. It wasnâ€™t Millwallâ€™s colours. We both picked it up at the same time going â€˜I think weâ€™ve won this FA Cup.â€™ It was almost an omen.â€
Omen or not, Liverpool certainly wouldnâ€™t be relying on superstition. Runners-up for the previous two seasons, the Scousers were determined to right those wrongs. Karen Burke shooting them quickly into the lead in the 22nd minute, tucking home from Joy McQuigganâ€™s carefully weighted ball. If Cooperâ€™s prophetic prediction were to come true, it wasnâ€™t to come easy.
After impressive work from Carol Osborne and Tina Mapes, Powell reignited the dream with a 38th minute equaliser to end the first half where it started. A tight, if uneventful, 2nd half came to a close scoreless. Extra-time, and eventually penalties, would be needed.
â€œAs soon as the whistle went, I felt a massive sense of relief.â€ It would be the first ever Womenâ€™s FA Cup final to be settled from the spot yet suddenly, all of Croydon goalie Cooperâ€™s jelly-leg nerves seemed to float away… â€œThe stress had sort of gone from me. Penalties didnâ€™t faze me, I was confident on my technique and confident Iâ€™d be okay.â€
She had a reason to be. It was exactly her technique of standing â€˜slightly off-centreâ€™ that put Liverpoolâ€™s young substitute Gayle Formston off for her crucial penalty. Speaking to SheKicks, Formston recalled â€œSeeing Lou Cooper stood slightly to one side and I was like, sheâ€™s quite tall so if I donâ€™t quite get it in the corner, she could just stick her foot out.â€ She had fallen for Cooperâ€™s trap. â€œI was in two minds and as I ran up, I leaned back too far and put it over the bar and that was it.â€
Cue confused celebration: â€œEverybody sort of stopped, there was no one coming up to take the next penalty. I think Liverpool didnâ€™t realise that theyâ€™d lost, Croydon didnâ€™t realise theyâ€™d won.â€ After confirming their triumph with the referee, Cooper only had one thing on her mind: â€œI ran all the way from the goal to the half-way line to see where my parents were, I ran past all the players.â€
She calls it her â€˜Pat Cashâ€™ moment: â€œI just saw my mum in the crowd and my eyes just lit up, I ran all the way up to her, gave her a hug and said â€œIâ€™ve done it, Iâ€™ve done it, this is all I wanted.â€ Years before, sheâ€™d watched the 1981 Cup final as a nine-year-old dreaming of this day, â€œTo go and do it, fifteen-twenty years later, was an achievement.â€
Quite the achievement, for both Cooper and Croydon. Although, other than some cup-waiving out of car windows and a bit of a song and a dance, the celebrations would have to wait: â€œWe had a league game within the next couple of days to secure the league. No one went too mad.â€
To Bampton and many of the Croydon players, having to beat the Gunners to secure the domestic double made it even more personal. â€œWe had lots of ex-Arsenal players and I think that always had an edge to it.â€ So, it was no surprise that after initially going 1-0 down, The Blues werenâ€™t going to give up. Two second half goals from Kerry Davis and Brenda Sempare completing the comeback and the double.
â€œHuge momentâ€, â€œIt was a massive achievement. The first one was always going to be special.â€
Both Cooper and Bamptonâ€™s words donâ€™t quite seem to match this remarkable achievement. Itâ€™s difficult to find those that do. Less than five years into existence, Croydon had largely funded their own rise to the top of the English game, beat off the big names and achieved the pinnacle of English womenâ€™s football. Winning the double.
And it wasnâ€™t to end there. Jarvie recalls how Bamptonâ€™s goal â€˜to strengthen year after yearâ€™ became an easier task with this success. â€œOnce you won the league once, players were quite happy to come along.â€ Joanne Broadhurst, the divisions top scorer, came over from Arsenal in 1997, as did their captain Gill Wylie and Cooper left to be replaced by England No.1 Cope in 98.
They may have had to wait a couple more years to re-open the trophy cabinet, with two domestic final losses to Arsenal in the process, but an impressive squad based on strength, character and determination was being built in the background. To Bampton, Wylie was the epitome of this:
â€œI canâ€™t speak highly enough of her. She was the Arsenal captain and sheâ€™d sort of been put on the scrap heap (due to knee injuries). I phoned her up and went â€˜Letâ€™s meet up, and let me get you fit.â€™ I ended up taking her to the gym to strengthen her. It was like Physio come Manager, you know.â€ She bursts into laughter.
â€œIt was funny because I remember Hope going â€˜Iâ€™m not sure if thatâ€™s the right decision to sign Gill. And I went â€˜Okay, well, let’s see.â€™ After a couple of training sessions, she came up to me and she goes: â€˜Oh, yeah, she can play, canâ€™t she?â€
â€œSheâ€™s one of them players that would have played with a broken leg. This one time, Gill had this great big lump on her leg where her shin had been smashed basically. So, when I saw it I went, â€˜There’s no way you’re playing Gill.â€™ She went â€˜I am.â€™ She werenâ€™t having it.â€
So, in a random hotel room in Liverpool, Bampton settled on a compromiseâ€¦ â€œWe got this big bucket of ice and I went â€˜Right, in you go.â€™ She went â€˜Well, I think I might need a whisky.â€™ And then we sort of went â€˜Right. Okay. this is like a team thing. Right?â€™ She has to stick her leg in ice for two minutes so, weâ€™ve all got to do it.â€ And they did. â€œBut we didnâ€™t have the whiskies. Sure enough, she played and she played a blinder.â€
It’s a story that represents this spirit at Croydon, the togetherness and bond the players shared. â€œThat was the character of the team really. We had good times together and when things didnâ€™t go well, we stuck together as a family.â€ Something she hasnâ€™t experienced to the same level anywhere else. â€œIt was probably the best football time of my life.â€
Cooper feels the same: â€œTo have that feeling, on and off the pitch, that everybody played for each other and everyone was good friends. It was fantastic.â€
To all intents and purposes, it was a â€˜family clubâ€™. One that ran on a sense of positivity and determination as they entered the 1998-99 season. All the more shocking then that, after huge further successes, this positive energy would seem a distant memory less than two years later.
â€œHow they ever got to just take our whole club and move, I thought it was a disgrace.â€ A new millennium, an end to Croydon. Bampton had a right to be angry.
But, thatâ€™s a matter for part twoâ€¦