Hull recognises late WFA icon Flo Bilton with a plaque
Born: c.1947, London
Occupation: BBC Sport special projects manager (1993, 2005)
First, an apology: until now the entire Women’s Football Archive project has been a pathetic joke. That’s because it has purported to tell the story of women’s soccer in England… with hardly any mention of Pat Gregory! This article is a small step towards putting that right.
Patricia Alice Jane Gregory took over as WFA secretary from founding father Arthur Hobbs and later served as chairperson. Alongside Flo Bilton and June Jaycocks in a small band of dedicated volunteers, she kept the light of women’s football flickering through its dark days. She remained involved even after the FA takeover in 1993.
Gregory founded White Ribbon FC in June 1967 aged 19 and got involved in the South East of England League setup. The team debuted at the Deal Tournament at Betteshanger Colliery.
Sue Lopez’s Women on the Ball (1997) relates the tale of a schoolgirl Gregory writing to the local rag asking why women can’t play football. This sparked an influx of letters from other girls wondering exactly the same thing.
White Ribbon were named for Tottenham Hotspur – Gregory’s dad was a Spurs fan, but her brother supported Arsenal. And Gregory herself was a Chelsea fan!
As a footballing force White Ribbon never scaled the heights. Although they got out of their regionalised group in 1971’s Mitre Trophy, they were pasted 23–0 by eventual winners Southampton in the quarter-final.
While playing for White Ribbon, Gregory also took ballet dancing lessons. “I wasn’t good at either,” she lamented. White Ribbon fizzled out after eight years. It was off the field where Gregory’s mark would be made.
In Kicking Against Tradition (2005), Wendy Owen related an anecdote about touring England players hiding stinging nettles in Gregory’s bed as a mischievous practical joke.
With the unnamed culprit(s) giggling behind the door, stoic Gregory denied them their punchline: de-nettling her sheets without so much as a tut, then swiftly nodding off.
Although not much older than some of the England players, level-headed Gregory kept them in check by enforcing curfews and the like. Owen concluded that Gregory “had a wry sense of humour, which was probably just as well.”
That sense of humour was in evidence again in May 1979, when England went to play a friendly in Denmark. On arrival the team trained in monsoon conditions – in what turned out to be the only kit they had brought.
Cue Gregory and her fellow WFA stalwarts frantically legging it round downtown Copenhagen in search of a launderette. England lost 3–1 in driving rain and the puny crowd of 300 or so was the lowest yet. But at least they didn’t debut a soggy, all-brown England kit.
Away from the practicalities of running a national football team on a shoestring budget, Gregory also developed a sideline in polite-but-firm letters. She fired off missives right, left and centre. Eventually, she prevailed on moderate elements within the FA – in 1970 Sir Denis Follows tore up the infamous 1921 woman ban.
A regular column penned by Gregory in the WFA’s newsletter sometimes posed bold questions, such as why were 14 of 19 regional leagues chaired by men? Pretty mild by today’s standards but radical stuff in the 70s.
Gregory was no revolutionary. She wanted the best for women’s football but her demands were modest: “Women who finish playing football should not be allowed to fade away; they are probably able to combine running a home with some administrative work for a club or league”.
Nor did she shy away from voicing inconvenient truths. Speaking to Donna Woodhouse in 2003, Gregory gave her withering verdict (“real dross”) on all too many male coaches taking up space in women’s football. This was coloured by personal experience at White Ribbon, who suffered: “a succession of appalling managers”.
On the other hand she was a long-time ally of Martin Reagan, a qualified and dedicated coach whose gracious personality was a perfect fit for the WFA.
Even the famed sense of humour had its limits. In 1988 fuming Gregory gave Linda Whitehead both barrels for unilaterally moving the WFA operation from London to Manchester.
She was also left raging at her replacement on the UEFA Committee for Women’s Football after 14 years. Following the FA takeover in 1993, Gregory still went to the meetings but found men increasingly colluded to keep women out.
The UEFA snub stung because, along with her German counterpart Hannelore Ratzeburg, Gregory had rebooted the committee in 1981. The original ran from 1971 to 1978 as an all-male affair, mandated to nip any chance of progress or development in the bud.
Ratzeburg and Gregory immediately got a Euro Championship up and running, then dug in for the long game: scrapping for every incremental improvement. Ditching Gregory for a stuffed County FA blazer was a step back to the dark ages. It was symptomatic of the FA’s disastrously high-handed approach since taking over.
Ever since the 1990s Ratzeburg’s Germany have battled the United States for world supremacy. Meanwhile, with Gregory and Co sidelined, England rapidly hit the skids: pig-headedly repeating the same mistakes, heads stuck in the sand like ostriches.
“When you trundle through life you don’t always realise that what you are fighting for will have an impact on so many others.” – Pat Gregory in 2013
In 2013 The FA presented Gregory and Linda Whitehead with a polished stone at the annual women’s football awards, to be stuck to the Bobby Moore statue outside Wembley.
Given the FA’s shoddy treatment of both the WFA and Bobby Moore when they were around, the edifice stands as truly breathtaking in the scope of its revisionism and hypocrisy.
Gregory was chuffed with the belated recognition, though: “It was a lovely event and something we could not have imagined ever happening. I couldn’t believe the number of people who came to say thank you for what we had done all those years ago.”
A letter to erstwhile FA supremo David Bernstein earlier in 2013 seemed to be behind the gesture. Warning against “whitewashing” the WFA’s achievements, Gregory had told Berstein: “It’s a bit sad and disappointing that what the WFA did for so many years has just disappeared in to the ether.”
Born: 1947, Southampton
Position: Press and media officer
Occupation: Restauranteur (1983), Jewellery shop proprietor (2008)
Of all the challenges facing the newly-formed WFA in 1969, the issue of media coverage was perhaps the most pressing. As the first England boss Eric Worthington put it on taking charge in 1972: “the thought came to me that perhaps what the Association needed most of all was a full time publicity manager rather than a team manager!”
Of course England did have a press officer, in the shape of Ebben. He was young, bright and keen, but was purely voluntary, as were the other officers at that time.
Wendy Owen’s Kicking Against Tradition (2005) remembered Ebben at an early England training camp at Loughborough in 1972. A faded black and white photo shows him in evidence at the 1976 Pony Home Championship.
Roger Kift Ernest Victor Ebben, to use his Sunday name, had been a Redcoat at Butlins Minehead in 1968. Unconfirmed reports suggest he worked for Reading FC at some stage.
In 1983 he emigrated to Aalborg, Denmark and spent a decade running the restaurant at Denmark’s Museum of Modern Art (Nordjyllands Kunstmuseum) alongside his Danish wife.
In Denmark Ebben became a tractor pulling enthusiast. No, not a euphemism, but a bona fide sport where souped-up tractors, er, pull heavy loads before enthralled crowds.
At one stage he sent tractor pulling mainstream by inking a sponsorship deal with Philip Morris tobacco. The smoking barons sorted out a TV deal in Pakistan, where tobacco advertising was legal, and the spectacle was beamed into millions of households.
He later worked as an English teacher and voice-over artist, then remarried a Chinese lady and together they ran a fashion jewellery shop in Aalborg, Smukke Verden.
In the nicest possible way, Ebben was perhaps a slightly wacky oddball. Like many of us drawn to women’s football’s strong counter-cultural aspect. His contribution in those difficult early days will never be forgotten.
Roger died on 11 July 2014 in his beloved Denmark, following complications from a heart op.
The smiling public face of the Women’s Football Association from 1980 to 1993, who later served Millwall Lionesses and Arsenal Ladies with distinction. Whitehead is a diligent and well-regarded sports administrator. With her contribution stretching across four decades, icon Whitehead is often hailed the greatest living authority on English women’s football.
In late 1980 a Sports Council handout let the Women’s Football Association hire its first paid employee: an ‘Administrative Assistant’. Blackburn’s bright and ambitious Linda Whitehead swept into the WFA’s swanky Westminster offices, wowed the interview panel and got the job.
In her 2013 interview with the estimable Girlstalkfooty website — delivered in flat vowels betraying her North West roots — Whitehead admitted her surprise at getting the gig.
Whitehead’s CV boasted a football background through short spells as PA to the commercial manager at Blackburn Rovers and Bolton Wanderers. After quitting teacher training college, she also spent a year on Mothercare’s management development programme and worked as a secretary for an engineering firm in Blackburn.
A football fan (Blackburn Rovers, with a soft spot for Birmingham City), Whitehead never played the game herself – her genius is for sports administration. On occasions when a ball came near her, she would even pick it up and chuck it back instead of kicking it.
Up against it from the start, Whitehead and the WFA operated in an extremely hostile environment for women’s football. Loons would send in rambling letters about Deuteronomy 22:5. Others found outlets for their antipathy which, while not as overtly deranged, were no less dangerous. Whitehead also copped some internal flak as the only salaried employee in what was always a completely voluntary organisation.
She must have needed thick skin and – at times – sharp elbows. But Whitehead quickly shored up her power base and by 1982 was the WFA’s secretary as well as administrator.
Life at the WFA was never dull. In April 1988 the Football League held a ‘Mercantile Credit Football Festival’ at Wembley and told the WFA to get a friendly organised. Holland had already been pencilled in when the organisers announced that the slot was only 15 minutes each-way.
The fiasco drew a stinging response from the Dutch FA: “women’s football is not a circus”. Whitehead took a more considered line, telling the Football League that the cancellation knocked a potential 5,000 fans off the event’s puny attendance. The 15 minutes each-way match went ahead though, with plucky Ireland standing in at late notice.
Barnsley-supporting women’s football historian Donna Woodhouse (2003) reported that Whitehead controversially moved the WFA’s offices from London to Manchester’s Corn Exchange in 1988.
To Whitehead it was a no-brainer to leave behind the Big Smoke’s exorbitant rents and life as a small fish in a big pond. But it put her at loggerheads with the other WFA officers, who were said to be hopping mad.
The Sunday Times Sportswoman of the Year Awards, the brainchild of pioneering sportswriter Sue Mott, made Whitehead their 1989 Administrator of the Year.
In 1986 Whitehead had invited the Football Trust’s Richard Faulkner (later Baron Faulkner of Worcester) into the WFA. A Labour Party grandee and quango regular, it was a major feather in the WFA’s cap to have someone of that calibre in the ranks.
Little did Whitehead know then that she had signed the WFA’s death warrant. Faulkner promptly set about rerouting Sports Council and Football Trust funding through the FA. In 1991 he deliberately nobbled the WFA by quitting as chairman, leaving them high and dry and making his goal of an FA takeover inevitable.
Many men view attempts by women to take up playing the game as tantamount to an invasion of privacy — Linda Whitehead, 1988
The potless WFA then spent a year or two drifting, rudderless. In an unguarded moment Whitehead’s frustrations boiled over: “it’s always the men who cause the problems,” she snapped. Woodhouse (2003) reported that the FA already had sneaky tentacles in women’s football since at least 1990, through their competitions department.
When the FA finally stepped in and wound up the WFA in 1993, Whitehead was made redundant. A folly which enraged the managers of the leading clubs, set things back many years and made the FA look profoundly clueless. Sadly, the pattern was set.
It speaks to Whitehead’s dignity and character that she stayed on as unpaid secretary of the National League in 1993–94.
When the FA took over direct running of the Women’s National League in 1994–95, an influx of County FA blazers dominated the new management committee. Much impetus was lost and progress stifled.
Although Whitehead and one or two other stalwarts remained, they were marginalised and not allowed to rock what became quite a cushy boat. Chairman and vice Chairman Peter Hough (Dorset) and Ray Kiddell (Norfolk) are still snoozing through meetings and munching complementary sandwiches 20 years later!
Football’s loss was athletics’ gain as Whitehead was soon snapped up by the South of England Athletic Association (SEAA), which remains her day job. A confirmed workaholic, she considers it a perk that the SEAA later let her carry on her football commitments in her own time.
Football was in her blood and in 1998 Whitehead was installed as Millwall Lionesess secretary. She had a tough act to follow: replacing Sue Prior who had been ousted in the most shameful episode in the great club’s long history.
In 2001 Arsenal Ladies boss Vic Akers headhunted Whitehead for a match day administrator and UEFA co-ordinator role. She became a valued part of the club’s expensive off-field operation and scooped an FA Special Achievement Award in 2007. In recent seasons Arsenal hit a slump and failed to qualify for Europe, scaling back Whitehead’s involvement somewhat.
She proudly attended Buckingham Palace in 2013 as one of 150 volunteers to be honoured as part of the FA’s 150th anniversary. Also that year Whitehead and Pat Gregory were presented with a commemorative stone at the FA Women’s Awards, belated and inadequate recognition of the WFA’s achievements against all the odds.
When England debuted at the new Wembley in November 2014, being horsed 3–0 by Germany, Anna Kessel’s pre-match article in The Guardian said of Whitehead:
The answer to almost every question regarding the history of women’s football since 1980 is “You’ll have to ask Linda Whitehead for that”.
Women’s football pioneer Gero Bisanz has died of a heart attack aged 78. He was manager of the German women’s national team between 1982 and 1996.
The architect of countless painful drubbings for England’s WNT, Polish–born Bisanz played for FC Cologne and coached Bayer Leverkusen in the early 1970s.
He was the West German FA’s director of coaching when he was tasked with putting together a women’s national team in 1982.
In 1981 an invite to the Taiwan Tournament caused red faces at German soccer HQ because they had no women’s national team to send.
Bisanz was the top coach in the country — an indication that the Germans meant business with their new venture.
From a standing start the Germans quickly challenged the Scandinavians and Italians, seen as the leading lights of the day.
Meanwhile England have NEVER beaten Germany since the first ever meeting, a 2–0 reverse at the ‘Mundialito’ in August 1984.
English counterpart Martin Reagan could only dream of the fairly mild backing Bisanz got from his association.
Bisanz cracked it in 1989 — winning the Euro Championship on home soil. Rivals Norway were seen off 4–1 before 22,000 fans in Osnabrück.
Notoriously, each member of the winning squad was rewarded only with a naff tea set by the West German FA.
Miffed Gero later saw the funny side and donated his to the German football museum.
He stood down after the inaugural women’s football tournament at the 1996 Olympics. Sidekick Tina Theune was anointed his successor and continued German domination of women’s football into the 21st Century.
Born: c.1921, Hull
Occupation: Factory Worker (1963)
An influential player in the formation of the Hull Women’s FA in 1968 and the WFA in 1969, Bilton served as WFA membership secretary for many years and was a plucky and resourceful “all–rounder” in the team of volunteers who kept women’s football in England going despite a lack of funding or official support.
After the formation of the women’s national team in 1972, WFA committee member Bilton washed and laundered the players’ kits by hand. She obtained a men’s England cap from Hull neighbour Raich Carter and reverse engineered it, producing copies for the female England players.
As part of her various assignments she also stitched badges onto the kits, chaperoned the players, met foreign dignitaries at airports and put together the WFA Newsletter.
Even after roping in other stalwarts like June Jaycocks and Pat Gregory, it quickly became clear that stitching caps for every player after every match would turn into Bilton’s life’s work! Instead the WFA produced a cap to mark each player’s debut and when they retired they got a big wooden shield complete with little silver badges to mark each appearance.
Players sometimes slipped through the net: Wendy Owen (2005) recalled that Josie Clifford (née Lee) of QPR played five times in the 70s and didn’t get a cap.
On England’s first trip to Italy in 1976, vigilant Bilton had to constantly ward off representatives from pro Italian clubs who were trying to “tap up” England’s players.
Bilton remained in two minds about players going abroad: she wanted the players to better themselves and knew better than anyone about the hostility and derision they faced in England.
But it left the WFA trying to market, arguably, a second-rate product. Also, the miniscule grant given by the Sports Council (now Sport England) was given on the basis that women’s football was an amateur sport. Even these crumbs from the table may have disappeared, if the powers that be got wind of England players pulling down bumper salaries in Italy.
The English party in Rome were granted an audience with Pope Paul VI. Unmoved by the experience, straight-talking Bilton later described: “a visit we had been told would take one hour but in fact took two”.
Bilton played hockey, netball and cricket for the Reckitt & Colman factory in Hull where she worked. She was already 40 when the factory leadership tasked her with forming a women’s football team for a charity game in 1963. With Bilton as goalkeeper, Reckitt’s saw off rivals Smith & Nephew 2–1 on 19 April 1963.
Support from the factory continued and Bilton’s team eventually produced future England captain Carol Thomas (née McCune) as well as Doncaster Belles and England striker Gail Borman.
Bilton’s protégée Thomas, a sturdy full-back, made her England debut in 1974 and entered the Guinness Book of Records as the first Englishwoman ever to get 50 caps.
She looks like everyone’s favourite granny, but gentle natured Flo Bilton can put the boot in with more crunch than Vinny Jones — WFA News, March 1989
In summer 1987, the WFA’s class of FA Preliminary Coaching Badge hopefuls descended on Lilleshall. As always, Bilton was on hand with a kind word and a smile to keep morale high. Her chocolate eclairs and banana cake reportedly went down a storm too!
The lack of media coverage and derisory crowds at women’s matches routinely broke Bilton’s heart. But her steely resolve kept her at the forefront for over 25 years. Other lesser personalities would surely have walked away.
In Women on the Ball (1997) Sue Lopez wrote of Bilton: “She is respected by everyone in the game and the players were always certain that she had their interests, and that of the game, at heart.”
As a plain-speaking Yorkshire lass, Bilton had always let much of the petty bickering which marred the WFA go over her head. But she was never afraid to speak up when required. Many of her ideas were ahead of the curve and found some traction many years later. She understood the power of TV and predicted “North and South Super Leagues for the top clubs.”
Bilton remained on the WFA’s board when the FA took over in 1993. Sadly the FA promptly ‘chucked the baby out with the bathwater’, completely ignored everything which had gone before, and then did … nothing much.
Flo died in Hull on 22 July 2004, aged 82. She had bravely battled Parkinson’s disease in her later years.
To this day, the Flo Bilton Trophy is still contested by girl’s football teams in the East Riding of Yorkshire. Her place is enshrined forever in women’s football lore.