Report: Suffragettes of Football, National Football Museum, Manchester, 7 March 2017

Or, England’s Lost Generation tells us what it was really like

Our special correspondent ‘An Audience Observer’ writes from the front line of women’s football history…

As part of International Women’s Week, the National Football Museum and the BBC teamed up to present a discussion panel with regard to the pioneers of the women’s game. The list of attendees to the panel were Pat Gregory, Carol Thomas, Liz Deighan, Kerry Davis and Rachel Brown-Finnis, ably led by the BBC’s Eilidh Barbour.

The event opened with a short BBC film outlining the early history of the women’s game including contributions from the indomitable Gregory, Sue Lopez, Sylvia Gore and the champion of the women’s game in the day in the form of Lawrie McMenemy, who coined the phrase the “Suffragettes of football”.

Barbour then introduced the first panel which included Gregory, Thomas and Brown-Finnis. Barbour opened with Gregory who went on to tell how her father had stopped her going to see her beloved Spurs and told her that women cannot go to see football games until they were 15. The progressive Gregory simply said ‘Why?’ and, infuriated, wrote to the local paper. The response was overwhelming. Suddenly Gregory had more players than she could handle, with no pitches (the FA ban was still in place) to play on and a mass interest in the ‘man’s game’.

She moved onto the formation of the WFA. Given the youthfulness of the audience this topic was somewhat dry and was only interesting to those with a keen interest in the history of the women’s game. Gregory faithfully retold the birth of the WFA, of the scant regard from the elderly, faceless suits in the smoke filled corridors of Lancaster Gate, the lack of money, the hand me down kits from England U18 men squads and the tireless efforts of the unpaid volunteers in order to keep it going. Then in 1992, and with the sudden interest from the FA, how they were virtually all to a woman, surplus to requirements. The birth of the infamous FA statement was then coined, ‘the women’s game did not exist before 1992’. We at this web site know too better than that!

Then, following a short film, Barbour introduced Thomas as England’s most successful captain to date, with a string of other significant firsts in the women’s game, too many to mention given the time available.

Thomas recounted how her family and indeed the city of her birth, Hull, were sports mad. Footballing/rugby playing brothers and father toughened up this Yorkshire lass, and in ’66 her inspiration was complete. She recalled the early days with Flo Bilton, a stalwart of the England back room staff whilst plying her trade in the local Hull District leagues. She told how representative honours quickly followed as she reached Regional level. And the break into the England squad via the first ever all-women coaching course (She was only one of three who passed). Thomas admitted to lucrative professional contracts in Italy and New Zealand that she turned down in order to maintain the strict amateur status of the day, whilst recounting that she had to fund her England career as the WFA could only contribute to 75% of expenses.

Asked about the comments and observations of men at the time, in a very different era of social standards, Thomas in true diplomatic and England captaincy mode replied: “I’ll leave the comments we got from men to your imagination”. Thomas finished with her deepest memories of the time. The joy of being made England captain, and then the sudden realisation of the responsibility whilst still being only 21. The epic comeback at a waterlogged Luton in the 2nd leg of the 1984 UEFA Cup, winning the game, but then the dejection of losing to the curse of the English game, the penalty shoot-out. But her biggest smile was reserved for the victory in Italy 12 months later, as her England team were crowned World Champions via the Mundialito tournament.

Following the obligatory introductory film, Brown-Finnis talked about how she had bridged the gap between true amateurism and the professional game of today and the inherent difficulties that posed. Her experience of the USA opened her eyes to what the women’s game could achieve. Players were household names, with the game given equal billing in sports media facilities. She then explained her rise through the levels to England status. Brown-Finnis then told how she had ultimate respect for these early pioneers and the efforts they had to go through to get any sort of recognition.

Half time arrived and in good football parlance, two substitutions were made. Gregory and Thomas made way for Deighan and Davis.

Deighan was introduced as the Kevin Keegan of the 1970’s women’s game. She had to explain that the nickname was the result of a comment from Lawrie McMenemy. Not only did she have long, flowing curly locks, a la Keegan-esque, but she was known for those dynamic, direct, telling runs at opposition defenders often drawing fouls and creating desperate defending. Again she told how she turned down of an offer of a one year contract in the USA as her job could not be guaranteed on her return. Discretion and valour! Her fondest memory was the trip to Japan in 1981. This was the first England football team (male or female) ever to tour Japan. She remarked how kit was plentiful and the crowds were huge.

Deighan then talked about her appointment to manager of the inaugural England U21 squad. It was a short lived appointment and to this day she has never been told why she ‘lost’ the job.

Barbour introduced Davis as Kelly Smith’s idol, the player she always aspired to, true worship! She talked of her early days and her emergence into the England squad whilst being frustrated with the restraints of the local game. It was inevitable with her goal scoring talents that foreign teams with loaded cheque books would soon be knocking on her door. Davis opted for Lazio. She smiled as she recounted that she arrived in Italy with only one other English speaking player Anne O’Brien (who shortly left after her arrival) and one word of Italian, ‘Chow’. Training sessions and team talks were done via an English/Italian dictionary until the language was mastered. Her fondest memory was of the goal she scored against Denmark at Crewe. Her whole family was there and they were able to celebrate en-masse.

Davis was asked about female coaches and like all present agreed that only two coaches have made it to the top level, Hope Powell and Marieanne Spacey, and that this was not acceptable given the status of the game.

Brown-Finnis then finished the panel with the sad reflection of so few women coaches at the top end of the game. She also remarked that too many players, such as those on the panel, who have reached the top international level, were and are allowed to walk away from the game. Their potential to put something back at the top level is critical, not only as coaches and managers, but as mentors to players because only ex-internationals know and understand what it is like to play at that level. She reminded us, that it is in this area that there is massive difference in approach to the Germans, who are fast to take advantage of that experience, male or female. Who could argue?

The day finished with a Q & A session. Given the age of the audience it was inevitable that they could relate to Brown-Finnis with the usual: best player? Hardest worker?, etc. Brown-Finnis cleverly turned it on its head when she asked the representative of the Manchester United Academy why they were still the only Premier League club without a women’s team? Whilst being fully embarrassed and expressing her frustration at losing players at 16 to join arch rivals City, her response would have been somewhat comical had it not been serious. She informed the audience that money was not an issue! (Well strike me down with a feather. I would never have guessed that!) but that it was being discussed at the higher levels. (One can only say, what a truly enlightened approach by, if not the largest, then one of the largest football clubs in the world!)

Observations from the audience


It was clear from the onset that Gregory remains the one genuine archivist of the women’s game from the late sixties to the creation of the WFA in 1969 and its ultimate demise in 1992. It is unbelievable that the FA have chosen not to take advantage and embrace this walking encyclopaedia of women’s football facts, statistics and events. Just think how much more meaningful the women’s section of the FA website could be with just a removal of the blinkers and the employment of her knowledge.

Gregory indeed expressed her own dismay and frustration and hinted that she is already working on her own website. In true Gregory style, unlike this site, it will not be a vehicle for discussion and debate, it will be a comprehensive repository of facts, figures, statistics and significant events with regard to the era late 60’s to 1992. All information will be backed up with hard copy evidence or reference to other official websites. Sadly, there is no funding and she is totally reliant on the likes of Thomas, Deighan, Davis and the rest of the players and administrators of that era to compile all the information. We wish her luck with this enormous task and this website and like everyone else involved in that era, awaits its launch with anticipation and appreciation.

The players talked eloquently and confidently of their pride of representing their country of birth and their own individual and the England teams achievements. At no point did any of them express any jealousy of the facilities, earning potential and social status of the current (and future) crop of England internationals. To a woman, they took pride in the path they had walked to create the current standing of the women’s game in this country and beyond.

As the audience listened, ones in the know could only draw the conclusion that there is a massive yawning gap in the women’s player history. Quite rightly the early pioneers of Gore, Parker and Lopez have been justifiably recognised for their part in kick starting the game onto the international scene. Also the likes of Coultard, Bampton, Spacey, Powell and beyond have been rightly rewarded for their plethora of caps and achievements within the game. However, the class of 74 to 85 seem to have been whitewashed from women’s footballing history.

Bearing in mind this squad, built by Tranter and Reagan, remains England most successful squad to date (Home Nations champions 1976, UEFA runners up in 1984 and World Champions in 1985, and more topically, the last England team to beat France in 1974!) it is incredible that they have been overlooked. We are left to wonder where exactly the women’s game would be now if it were not for the legacy and platform this lost generation of internationals left.

It was very fitting that the presentation finished with a collage of events from the two legs of the 84 UEFA Final and the closing words of the day were left to Thomas. A mud-splattered, dejected but smiling England captain reflected in the post-match touchline interview at a rain sodden Luton:

“Excellent, if people don’t come to watch women’s football after that, then there is something wrong with them!”

Given 33 years of history and the millions of girls and women around the globe now participating in the game at some level, incredibly prophetic words!

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