Patricia “Pat” Firth: Wunderkind striker and pioneering female coach
Born: c.1957, Leeds
Debut: Scotland (H) 23 June 1973
Occupation: Production worker (1976)
Firth’s footballing story began with Swillington Saints aged nine, before, in time-honoured tradition, she was booted out at 12 for being a girl.
A women’s team in nearby Kippax took her on but they were not yet affiliated to the WFA and only played charity matches at a dismal standard.
Sheffield League team Fleece Fillies, based in Ossett, swooped to sign the precocious talent in 1970 – just in time for the historic lifting of the FA’s 1921 woman-ban.
Despite their preposterous name, derived from a local boozer, Fleece Fillies were one of the top teams in the area. Firth’s reputation grew and she was soon on the radar of England’s national team selectors.
On a scorching hot day in June 1973 Yorkshireman John Adams, England’s stand-in coach, handed Firth her Lionesses debut against the Scots at Nuneaton.
It was a massive vote of confidence in the youngster’s abilities, given Pat Davies was moved out wide to accommodate her and the powerful Eileen Foreman dropped to the bench.
Showing the fearlessness which flows from youthful exuberance, Firth famously rattled in a hat-trick in England’s 8–0 win. The Nuneaton Evening Tribune hailed the prowess of England’s new star, a: “short, stocky, chestnut-haired forward” who had only just turned 16.
Keeping her place under new coach Tommy Tranter, she went on to form an “effective strike partnership” with Elaine ‘Baddy’ Badrock according to Wendy Owen (2005). While Sue Lopez (1997) recalled: “Pat had a tremendous shot and was an excellent header of the ball”.
She started the 5–1 win over Northern Ireland at Twerton Park, Bath, on 7 September 1973 under the floodlights. Firth wasn’t just a poacher; although she didn’t score she laid on the opening goal for Jeannie Allott.
Firth scored in a 5–0 win over Wales at Slough in on St. Patrick’s Day 1974, a match sponsored by an egg firm who gave all the players a carton of half-a-dozen eggs.
A carton of eggs! Given that this week Norway started paying its women’s national team players the same as the men it’s perhaps sobering to reflect on the progress made in recent times.
The Wales match programme listed Firth as a Fleece Filly but the following month she played for Foden’s in their 2–1 WFA Cup final win over Southampton.
Her England team-mate Sylvia Gore had apparently rounded up some of England’s top young players, including Firth and Liz Deighan, to bolster Sandbach-based Fodens’ chances of knocking dominant southerners Southampton off their perch.
The iconic Gore remained a friend and mentor. While managing the Welsh national team in the 1980s, she handed Firth a role in her coaching set-up.
By the Home Championship in May 1976, Firth had moved to Doncaster Belles – kick-starting the Belles’ fine tradition of supplying players to the England national team. She opened the scoring in the 4–0 win over Wales in Bedford.
Boasting a prolific nine goals in her 11 England caps, disaster struck for Firth when she blew her knee out while playing for Doncaster. She got the news NO footballer wants to hear when docs vowed she would never play again.
Firth had already clocked up a lot of football in those young legs. If her talent ran ahead of her physical development, perhaps her knees paid the price. Sports Science was in its infancy then, particularly with regard to female athletes.
The lure proved too strong and Firth was soon back involved, this time as a coach with Rowntrees LFC of York. She made a tentative playing comeback, then blew her other knee out.
But she had already put together a competitive side which, by 1983–84, included England captain Carol Thomas, her former Belles team-mate Gill Coultard and fleet-footed future England international Gail Borman.
Complemented by a smattering of competent regional-level players, like future Doncaster Belle Lorraine ‘Polly’ Young, Rowntrees reached the 1984 WFA Cup semi-final. They were edged out after a replay by eventual trophy winners Howbury Grange.
Despite her two dodgy knees Firth had kept goal for Rowntrees in the Howbury Grange games, as she extended her playing career by donning the gloves.
Also in 1984 Firth joined the small band of women with the FA Preliminary coaching licence, passing the course at Leeds alongside her old England skipper Sheila Parker and St Helens stalwarts Chris Slater and Yvonne Gagen.
Under Firth Rowntrees played attractive football; Leeds United and Scotland great Eddie Gray was known to take in their home matches on occasion. But their success rather fizzled out when Thomas retired due to pregnancy and Coultard went back to Doncaster Belles.
In January 1987 Firth made history when England coach and national coaching boss Martin Reagan appointed her regional coach for Yorkshire and Humberside, making her the first female to coach at such a senior level in England.
Romantically-named club Bronte was Firth’s next port of call. It was a change of scene as they played in the North West League despite being based near Bradford, West Yorkshire.
They must have been no strangers to the M62!
When long-serving gaffer Chris Beaumont left to take over at a local male team, Firth took the coaching reins. Again she combined her role with goalkeeping duties.
Bronte were solid in defence, boasting the talents of cricketing/football legend Clare Taylor, Scottish international Lorraine Kennedy (daughter of Bobby) and ex-England sweeper Eileen Lillyman.
In 1988–89 Firth’s charges won through to the WFA Cup semi-final at Sincil Bank, Lincoln, after shocking fancied Millwall Lionesses 3–2 in the quarter final.
But they missed out on an appearance at the televised final at Old Trafford, losing 3–0 to Friends of Fulham, for whom Livvy Hughes, Terri Springett and Hope Powell did the damage.
Flo Bilton penned a warm tribute to Firth in the April 1982 edition of the WFA’s Northern Newstime: “This remarkable girl took the international scene by storm … Pat’s first love has always been football … they did not take into consideration the determination of the lass … as with everything Pat does, she made a great job of it too.”
A small place in Rugby League history
Firth sprang from Rugby League country and cropped up in the memoirs of eminent Castleford Tigers historian Dr John Davis.
In Never to Be Forgotten: Memoirs of a Cas Follower to 2015, Davis briefly recounted his modest soccer exploits with Escrick in the “Charles Rice Under-13s Selby League”.
He recalled: “Swillington Saints had a girl playing on the wing who could dribble and cross like no-one else. They beat us 24–1 but I scored with my only shot of the game (a 100% strike rate)”.
Never mind John, that girl was no ordinary player…
Carol Thomas (née McCune): England’s unsung heroine
Born: 5th June 1955
Debut: France (7th November 1974)
Last game: Republic of Ireland (22nd September 1985)
Occupation: Clerk (1974–85), Lunchtime Supervisor (1993–2001), Village Postie (2001–2013)
On 30th July 1966 football history was made at Wembley, but further north, a few days later, football history of a different kind was made. A young Carol McCune, inspired by those World Cup heroes, played her first competitive football game for a local side, BOCM. The shy 11 year old youngster started as a free scoring winger with a boundless appetite for the game. This talent was soon recognised by WFA stalwart and member of the England backroom staff, the late Flo Bilton. Flo quickly snapped up Thomas for her own team, Reckitts. After a couple of seasons, Thomas joined local rivals, Hull Brewery and it was there her career took off. She played in a variety of positions, which only served to enhance her all round knowledge and understanding of the game. Over time, it quickly became evident that those early days on the wing had seen her unwittingly assimilate the necessary skills to later become a world class full back, internationally respected throughout the women’s game.
AN ABILITY RECOGNISED
Her blossoming career was soon rewarded with representative honours – gaining a regular place in the Hull District representative side, quickly followed by the North of England squad whilst still being a teenager. She quickly secured the right back position as her own in the Northern regional squad, playing alongside England captain Sheila Parker. In August 1974, still only 19, she was invited to Lilleshall to take part in the first coaching course for women run by England manager, Tommy Tranter. This has to be put into context. Women footballers were still usually met with derision and scepticism, but the thought of a woman football coach was not only uncharted territory but sheer heresy. Coaching was viewed as sacrosanct, being considered fairly and squarely the sole preserve of men. Thomas gained her FA Preliminary Badge, one of only three who passed, along with then England physio Jane Talbot and Pauline Dickie, thereby becoming the first women coaches in England. During the course, Tranter recognised a like-minded footballing brain, with natural ball skills and a deep understanding of the game. As a result and following a successful Regional Trials campaign, it was little surprise that Thomas was invited to join the next England squad to play France that November at Wimbledon. Thomas made her first appearance coming on as a second half substitute at right back. A second substitute appearance against Switzerland followed, before the right back position was secured. In 1976, just 18 months and six caps into her international career, Thomas was surprisingly named the new England captain, replacing the England ‘taliswoman’ Sheila Parker.
On 31st October 1978, Thomas became the first captain to lead out an England side to play on a Football League First Division ground at the Dell, Southampton FC. She introduced her England team to the England manager, Ron Greenwood. A record crowd of 5,471 then saw England beat Belgium 3–0 with Thomas providing the cross for Elaine Badrock to open the scoring. In 1981 she became the first captain to lead an England women’s team outside of Europe, when they took part in that year’s Mundialito tournament in Japan (called that year, Portopia 81). At the height of her career Thomas turned down offers of full time professional playing contracts in Italy and full time player/coach roles in New Zealand in order to maintain her true amateur status and thereby ensuring a long international career.
In her 11-year England career, Thomas became at integral part and then leader of a truly great England squad which in tournament terms has an outstanding record to this day. With one of the meanest defences in the world, during Thomas’s time as captain, in 29 tournament ties, they lost only five games (two of those on penalty shoot outs) and conceded less than a goal a game.
It is testament to her abilities, and the respect that she had gained, that she continued to captain the England side under four successive managers, Tommy Tranter through to Martin Reagan. Whilst in the early days, she played alongside the likes of Sue Lopez, Sheila Parker and Sylvia Gore, she later captained Hall of Fame inductees Hope Powell, Debbie Bampton, Gillian Coultard, Marieanne Spacey and Brenda Sempare.
Described as anything from an uncompromising fullback to cultured defender and everything in between, the truth is she was all of the above and more. Those who watched and, particularly those that coached her, knew that she was a true football thinker and intellectual in possession of that perfectly timed and fearless bone shuddering tackle. A total of 56 caps (51 as captain) were gained over a period of 11 years. Thomas only missed one international against Wales in the Isle of Man, just two days before the 1985 Mundialito – along with most of the northern-based players due to logistical and financial restraints – during that period (what would that equate to in this modern era?). She became the first ever English woman to reach the 50 caps. Indeed, Thomas actually played in 56 of England’s first ever 63 internationals.
THE RELUCTANT WANDERER
At club level, Thomas had to follow where the footballing competition was the strongest, yet within a realistic travelling distances from her home town. The days of true amateurism: where players held down full time jobs during the week, training as many times as possible on weekday nights and playing on a weekend, paying all their own expenses!
She was fortunate to be allowed to train with the Hull City Juniors (men’s under 18 level) alongside future professionals such as Andy Flounders and others, attaining a very high level of fitness for the then women’s game. She made occasional guest appearances for Tottenham Hotspur Ladies, and for a season played for Preston Ladies, making the trans Pennine journey on the M62 every Friday night and returning late Sunday evening after the game. Also, CP Doncaster Ladies for a number of seasons before finishing her representative career at Rowntree’s Ladies coached by former England international forward, Pat Firth.
THE BIRTH OF INTERNATIONAL TOURNAMENTS – THE HIGHS, LOWS AND HIGHS
During Thomas’s era, international competitions were unofficial, invitation or in their infancy. Thomas started her reign as captain in fine style. In the 1976 Pony Home Internationals, England ran out as comfortable winners in a three sided affair against Wales and Scotland. This set a standard for the next nine years of Thomas’s captaincy. In 1979, England were losing semi-finalists against a strong Italian side in the Unofficial European Cup. There then followed a period of transition and consolidation under new manager Martin Reagan, having been retained as captain under Reagan, the period 1982 to 1985 saw glimpses of the successes to follow.
In all, Thomas captained the England side in seven consecutive tournaments, including three ‘Mundialitos’ (1981, 1984 and 1985 as winners), three European Championships (1979 as semi-finalists, 1982-84 as runners-up and 1985-87, before retiring in September 1985) and the 1976 Pony Home Championship (as winners). 1985 saw Thomas at the pinnacle of her footballing career. After two unsuccessful Mundialito campaigns, and the disappointment of the 1984 European Championship final defeat, Thomas led her England charges to Italy and ultimate victory in that year’s Mundialito tournament.
The creation, development and establishment of the English women’s game was well and truly cemented. A side formed from a ‘disparate band of sisters’, brought together in 1972 by Eric Worthington, developed by Tommy Tranter and refined by Martin Reagan, to winners of the ultimate world trophy of its day and international recognition, in just over 12 years. Thomas had been there for 11 of those years, leading the side for nine of them.
ON THE LIGHTER SIDE
In possession of a dry northern sense of humour, she was often heard to repeat Jack Charlton’s infamous, “the ball may get past me, the player may get past me, but never the two together!” followed by a wry knowing smile and wink.
The phrase “sports mad” became well and truly justified in 1979 following her marriage to her husband. After the wedding, Thomas had a moral dilemma: should she go on honeymoon with her new husband or join the England squad for the European games in Italy? It was no contest, in truth the ‘result’ was never in doubt. Finland and Switzerland were to suffer!! Even in retirement, Thomas often jokingly says that her eldest son is, “the only man to have played a full women’s international, without kicking the ball ………… do the maths!”
ACKNOWLEDGEMENT WITHIN AND BEYOND THE GAME
By the 1980’s her achievements were finally beginning to be acknowledged, both inside and outside the game. In 1978 and 1979 she was invited by the BBC to star in the popular sports show, Superstars. As an ambassador for the women’s game, in 1983 she received the Vaux Breweries North Sportswoman of the Year Silver Star Award. She was frequently in the local and national media (and when abroad, international media). In 1984 she became the first woman player to be interviewed on national television appearing opposite Frank Bough and Selina Scott on breakfast TV following the 1984 European Championship Final. In 1985 she was awarded the Sports Council Sports Award in recognition of her achievements in women’s football.
Post retirement her achievements were still being recognised. In 1986 she became the first woman footballer to have an entry in the Guinness Book of Records having become the first English woman to gain 50 caps, with entries to follow in subsequent years.
RETIREMENT… OR NOT?
In 1985, having successfully led her England team to three straight victories in the 1985-87 UEFA Cup, at the age of 30 and 11 years of international football, Thomas finally retired from the international football scene to have her first child, Andrew. However, for this football fanatic, it was never going to be for long. In 1993, five years after the birth of her 2nd child, Mark, she was persuaded out of ‘retirement’ to help local side AFC Preston. The ‘Corinthian’ arrangement was quickly dropped as the football bug once again bit. On becoming a regular player, she helped with coaching and team selection and was always heard encouraging and developing those around her. Meanwhile she set up a soccer club for youngsters aged five to ten years old in her village for the local children of the surrounding area and helped her husband coach their sons from the under 7 age group to under 18 level.
Her ability and reading of the game had not been lost and was soon to be recognised again when the East Riding County FA created its first women’s representative side in 1995. Although aged 40, she was a natural selection for the captaincy of the side, she worked with the management and coaching staff and again assumed a role of helping to develop players from the ‘middle of the park’. She remained playing at this level until 2002, when a second retirement followed. In 2004 she was again asked to be involved in the building of a new side, Bransburton Ladies. In 2009, she finally hung up her boots aged 54!
Her interest and involvement in the game continues to this day. She gets great pleasure in watching and encouraging her grandsons from the touchline.
FROM THE TOP OF THE WORLD TO… THE ROOF OF THE WORLD!
Outside the game, and with a desire for that ultimate challenge, Thomas has since developed a fervent interest in long distance walking/trekking, fell climbing and mountaineering. She has completed all 214 Wainwrights, the National Three Peaks Challenge and the Coast to Coast walk twice (in both directions) in Britain.
Further afield, her long distance trekking and mountaineering has taken her to Peru, Morocco, Nepal and India. She has successfully scaled peaks in the Andes, the Atlas Mountains and five in the Everest region of the Nepalese Himalaya. In addition she has traversed numerous high passes and is regularly found at altitudes in excess of 18,000ft. She has developed a passionate interest in the people and cultures of high altitude, and in particular helping and supporting the people of Nepal especially since the tragic earthquake of April 2015.
It is not difficult to put into words her footballing achievements. In pure domestic terms, trophies were confined locally, as the national competitions were dominated by the footballing powerhouses based in the north-west and south of England. This reflects the deep loyalty she possesses with regard to the local teams and individuals she respects and to those who have helped and stood by her throughout her career. It is safe to presume that top teams anywhere in the world would have welcomed her into their ranks.
Her international achievements need little elaboration as they speak for themselves. They surpass those of any of her predecessors and of her generation but equal many of those of the modern era. During her career at international level she became the second England captain at the age of 21, widely respected and accepted throughout the women’s game as one of the best defenders in the world, gaining a number of very significant firsts in the English women’s game over an 11 year period.
It is also safe to say that many local youngsters got their first experience of organised football through her local club, whilst many women players and teenage boys benefited from her coaching and guidance both on the pitch and from the touchline.
However, it is the off field role that she perhaps had her greatest and unquantifiable impact for the women’s game, leaving a genuine but little acknowledged legacy. As captain, she was a central figure representing international and regional players (particularly the North) during the transition of the fledgling organisation created in 1972, the amateur based WFA (which was given scant respect or regard by the FA, a shoestring budget and run by a band of tireless, unpaid volunteers, administrators and unsung heroes) into the emerging, and now fully backed, properly financed, media savvy, professional organisation of the current day.
For nearly ten years Thomas was the public face of the women’s game. She promoted the game with pride, passion, dignity and no little skill through her many media and function appearances at local, national and international levels, which continue to this day. She led England with a quiet, steely determination to succeed whilst displaying tact and diplomacy in her role. With these qualities, it could be said that she provided the blueprint for every future England captain. However, above all else, she always ensured that her performances on the pitch were her most important asset, responsibility and gift to the women’s game.
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Ex-England skipper breaks cover for local radio chat
On a cold Monday night in November BBC Radio Humberside pulled off a significant coup, securing Carol Thomas as the guest in their 6pm nightly phone-in ‘Sports Talk’. In trying her hand at punditry Thomas proved herself an eloquent standard bearer for women’s football and sport in Hull. The episode link was here, but sadly is no longer available.
The programme began with a doleful air, as we learned England’s rugby league lads had been roughed up and thrashed by Australia the day before.
Although a tedious minority sport performed by inflated muscle men, rugby league still enjoys plenty of traction in its traditional heartland of the M62 Corridor.
Host Mike White softened studio guest Thomas up by underarming a nice gentle opener(!): “Why do England’s sports teams always fail and how can we change it?”
It came couched in a five-minute ramble, culminating in a closed question. Of course, poor Thomas could only reply: “Dunno”.
C’mon Mike, if she knew that, she’d be a Sir Clive Woodward-style guru. She’d be strutting about in rimless glasses, babbling business-speak and banking exorbitant consultancy fees.
The next segment contained an interview with Paddy Madden, an amiable Dubliner who – we were told – had been among the goals for Scunthorpe United.
There followed some toe-curling banter between host White and Madden, the latter in his lilting Irish brogue. Typical fayre, perhaps, for a lower-league footballer and local radio sports presenter.
Thomas was brought in for a snap verdict on the facile premise that teams do better when they have good team spirit. They do, she quickly agreed.
Next up was Mr Emma Byrne himself, Marcus Bignot, who cut his management teeth with Birmingham City Ladies but has now popped up in charge of Grimsby Town.
An ebullient Brummie, Bignot was on sparkling form. He sung the praises of Omar Bogle – The Mariners’ free scoring forward and former Celtic youth player.
Hull City Heartbreak
With casual listeners’ interest sagging at this point (33:30), the spotlight finally moved to Thomas with an extended interview of ten minutes or so.
We learned that she went to her first Hull City game with her dad in 1966 and had remained a passionate and loyal fan ever since – that is, UNTIL this summer.
All through the tough times the McCune/Thomas clan had been there. They must have stood at a crumbling Boothferry Park, in tiny crowds marred by a stubborn infestation of far-right terrace thugs.
Then there was a decrepit Mark Hateley thundering about up front while ‘managing’ a team of no-hopers to the foot of the basement division. Dark days indeed.
With foreign investment, a shiny new ground, Wembley Cup finals and Premier League football, Hull’s recent renaissance should have fans walking on air.
But – Thomas explained – a contentious season ticket policy has many Hull City die-hards taking the painful decision to turn their backs on the club they love.
It sounded like a sort of football ticketing poll tax: the better off better off, but no discounts for those who can’t pay full whack. Legions of kids and OAPs have been priced out.
“Simpler and fairer” according to the owners’ PR doggerel. But like many thousands of others Thomas isn’t swallowing that and won’t be back until the hated policy is gone.
Thomas spoke well on an inflammatory subject, getting her point across in measured terms. She eschewed hyperbole in favour of diplomatic understatement.
That must be part of the reason England bosses Tommy Tranter and Martin Reagan saw her as captaincy material all those years ago.
Memories of a Lifetime in Football
While interviewer White lacked women’s football knowledge he accorded Thomas due respect throughout. He came across as a dedicated pro with an ear to the ground of his local beat.
The name Gail Borman was thrown into the mix – she’d been a pal of a pal at his school in Hull.
Donny Belles legend Borman must have been a tough player, ventured White. “A tough player to defend against,” said Thomas.
Thomas then recalled her spell across the Pennines with Preston Rangers and that she turned out for the Belles’ hometown rivals CP Doncaster.
As the pre-eminent northern club, Donny Belles were conspicuously absent from her CV. This mirrors Clare Taylor, who famously snubbed the Belles in a personal quest to knock them off their perch.
Thomas worked in the offices of Northern Dairies (who became Northern Foods) and turned out for teams including Reckitts, and Rowntrees (of York), who like CP Doncaster were factory teams.
Kindly Hull City youth team boss Pete Sissons let Thomas do her fitness training at Boothferry Park alongside the boys in his charge.
She spoke about going on a tour to Switzerland with Spurs, explaining that the WFA would allow two ‘guest players’ to go away on member clubs’ foreign jollies.
Although the date of the tour wasn’t mentioned the Spurs link may have come from the England goalie Terry Wiseman, or Vicki Johnson who was Thomas’s national team understudy at right-back.
She spoke of her pride at captaining her country and of bowing out to have sons Andrew (1986) and Mark (1988). Unable to shake off the football bug she was soon charging about at grassroots level.
White contrasted Thomas’s era with the much-improved lot of today’s top female players. He plucked from somewhere a fanciful FA funding figure of £17m.
“Oh that we had £17m back then!” said Thomas, casting her mind back to the days of the potless WFA.
National Hall of Fame
There was a hint of behind-the-scenes moves to induct Thomas – belatedly – into the National Football Museum’s Hall of Fame.
Clearly this year’s entrants, Rachels Unitt and Brown-Finnis, are in on merit. In Unitt’s case Thomas herself would appreciate a full-back with such consistency and tactical discipline.
Questions continue to be asked about the Hall of Fame’s opaque selection policy, though, and the continuing absence of pioneering greats like Thomas…
Come on, whoever you are, enough’s enough – make it happen! Get Carol Thomas in there!
A Carol Thomas Wikipedia page has recently materialised, which lays out her credentials in more detail.
England ‘keeper Sue Whyatt: Forget me not!Embed from Getty Images
1972 England goalkeeper Sue Whyatt recently got in touch with Women’s Football Archive:
Hi I am Sue Whyatt, I played goalkeeper for Macclesfield Ladies and alongside Janet Bagueley also from Maccs team. I also played for England. I was on the first England squad in 1972 and won 1 cap playing against Scotland. I was the reserve goalie. I seem to have been missed out of all the history of England Ladies. I still have my cap and a scrap book though I can’t find my picture of us at Wembley when we were issued with bags and boots, all of which we had to give back !!
That’s Sue on the right, leaning over to share a joke with Macclesfield pal Bagguley. Both sport the controversial barely there knicker-shorts issued to the squad, while a trendy platform shoe lies discarded by Sue’s foot.
Beside her, footballing ex-nun Paddy McGroarty beams as she rips open her on-loan Mitres. The late Sylvia Gore is in the corner, beside the obligatory tea urn. Young Maggie Kirkland (later Pearce) sits behind Bagguley on the floor.
Thanks for getting in touch Sue – it’s always an honour to hear from players who played their part in making the game we all love into what it is today.
Irish football great Anne O’Brien dies in Italy aged 60
The Dublin factory team where O’Brien played her early football was Vards, named for Julian Vard furriers.1
Vards played their home games on public pitches in the vast Phoenix Park, and took their place in the vibrant Leinster Ladies League which sprang up at the end of the 60s.
As well as O’Brien, Vards boasted the talents of prolific twins Joan and Jacinta Williams – who spelled double trouble for opposition defences.
The Williams’s honed their soccer skills on the streets of Ballyfermot with the lads – including the brothers Furey, who grew up into diddly-dee music megastars.
Joan went to a Fureys gig in Wales some 30 years later and beamed when they recognised her from those marathon childhood kickabouts. Her hard-won soccer reputation undimmed by the passage of time.
Vards’ sworn rivals were Bosco, of the St John Bosco Youth Club in Drimnagh.
O’Brien’s first serious column inches came in 1971 when she let fly at Bosco with a sensational hat-trick in Vards’ 3–2 Drumcondra Cup win at Tolka Park.
Reims come calling
The story of Reims unearthing O’Brien on their 1973 Irish tour has passed into soccer lore. But a controversial final fixture in Bray almost threw a spanner in the works…
Still smarting from a 2–1 reverse at Kilkenny dog track – reportedly their first defeat in two years – Reims’ fiery Gallic tempers boiled over at the Carlisle Grounds, Bray.
O’Brien scored once and Carol Carr twice as Ireland snapped terrier-like at the heels of their French opponents, who led 4–3.
Carr was an exceptional attacking midfielder, or inside-forward in old money, who many rated just as good as O’Brien. But she was a couple of years older and Reims passed on her.
The Irish papers relished this “past it at 20” angle and linked Carr with lucrative switches to AS Roma and Standard Liège, but it was not clear if she ever took the plunge.2
In Bray, Carr looked poised for a hat-trick when she won Ireland’s second penalty of the match. Instead it sparked an undignified free-for-all.
Raging Reims boss Pierre Geoffroy legged it onto the park, “struck” the ref and led his side off before the penalty was taken.
That led to scuffles between the players and amongst the 1000-strong crowd, who marauded onto the pitch.
Impugned local whistler Harry O’Reilly demanded satisfaction from Geoffroy in the form of an apology. When none was forthcoming he abandoned the match with four minutes to go.
Geoffroy said his beef was with the pitch having no markings and ‘homer’ O’Reilly making two nonsense penalty calls.
It was a storm in a teacup, albeit with elements of black farce; the sort which continued to dog the women’s game for many years to come.
Irish squad player Margaret O’Driscoll reckoned the French were fed up at facing the same seven or eight Dublin-based national teamers in every fixture.
After all, the tour matches were supposed to be against local selections in rainy outposts like Dundalk, Kilkenny, Waterford and Limerick.
Familiarity seemed to breed contempt when the piqued French party gave the post-match cuisine at Kilkenny a swerve.
But Geoffroy wanted to run the rule over all the best Irish players. O’Brien recalled many years later that she had seen out the tour being taken around as a guest of the French club.
Anne seals the deal
The contretemps in Bray was soon forgotten and Reims snapped O’Brien up for their assault on the newly-formed national league in France.
She had just turned 18 and would be trousering £75 per-week with a gig in the club owner’s leather jacket factory.
Never a big drinker, in the heart of Champagne country she would have been forgiven for quaffing a celebratory glass or two.
By 1970s standards, O’Brien had already attained women’s soccer nirvana. But Reims was only the first staging post in a footballing journey which secured her place among Ireland’s all-time greats…
1. The suggestion that O’Brien played for Julian Bars seems to have originated from an interview she gave in Italian to Nicholas Pascale in 2013. Pascale, a temperamental genius of women’s football history, may have misheard or may have made an assumption that a bar would be involved – based on the famed Irish proclivity for booze! ↩
2. A Carol Carr starred for Doncaster Belles during the South Yorkshire giants’ golden age, but that was a different player who was a few years younger. ↩
Morag “Maggie” Pearce (née Kirkland): England’s original and best left-back
Born: c.1957, Southampton
Debut: Scotland (A) 18 November 1972
Occupation: Schoolgirl (1972)
A 10-year-old Pearce was spotted charging about on the green in front of her house. She soon found her way to Southampton WFC, whose manager Norman Holloway saw “a little shrimp” with potential star quality.
Pearce was not in the Southampton team which carried off the first ever WFA Cup at Crystal Palace in 1971. The full-backs on that day were Pat Judd and 14-year-old Karen Buchanan.
She was not listed in the team for the 1972 final either: Judd and Buchanan remained in the line-up, while Pauline Dickie wore the number 3 shirt.
So Pearce must have come from virtually nowhere to catch the eye of England boss Eric Worthington during that summer’s national team trials. An inter-League tournament sponsored by Lillywhites whittled down about 300 hopefuls to a provisional squad of 25 who met at Loughborough College in September.
Lionesses team-mate Wendy Owen recalled Pearce was “already an accomplished overlapping full-back” by the time of England’s debut match in Greenock. Playing behind fellow youngster Jeannie Allott, Pearce was one of four Southampton players to start England’s 3–2 comeback win over the Scots.
The following year’s return match in Nuneaton saw Scotland whupped 8–0. Margaret Miks of Coventry Bantams came in for a debut cap at right-back, giving England two Maggies as their full-back pairing.
Southampton-born Pearce lived in Weston-Super-Mare at the time of England’s 5–1 win over Northern Ireland at Twerton Park, Bath. Always hungry for a local angle, the Bath Chronicle branded her a “West Country Girl”.
A 2–0 win over France at Plough Lane in November 1974 saw Carol McCune debut as England’s new right-back. Over the following decade, Yorkshirewoman McCune (later Thomas) replicated Pearce’s consistency over on the other side of the Lionesses’ defence.
England were progressing nicely until a comprehensive 2–0 defeat by Sweden in June 1975. Pearce missed out as she was reportedly sitting her ‘O’ levels. Coach Tommy Tranter handed out another four debut caps.
Judging by the dates it seems more likely she was doing her ‘A’ levels, unless they were re-sits. In any event Tranter lamented his teenage left-back’s absence: “The inexperience told then. And with Morag concentrating on her ‘O’ levels we had little to offer at the back.”
In summer 1977 she tied the knot with Gordon “Gordie” Pearce, taking his surname having hitherto been billed as Maggie Kirkland. Some Programme lists shortly after the wedding spelt her new moniker ‘Pearse’ but this usage soon died out.
Gordie was fully supportive of Maggie’s soccer endeavours and was himself gaffer of local no-hopers Redbridge Rovers.1 He altered the course of football history when he interceded to get Sue Lopez back into the Southampton WFC fold in 1976.
There had been some sort of bust-up or drama behind the scenes, so – reading between the lines – Lopez had gone in a huff for a year. She still played for England, but as a Totton player.
Accordingly, Lopez doffed her cap to Gordie in Women on the Ball (1997): “I will always be grateful for the way he resurrected my Southampton career”.
“Flattering comments were often made about Maggie and none sums up her talent more than when people genuinely and complementarily said ‘she plays like a lad’.” — Sue Lopez (1997)
In the 1976 Cup final, Pearce’s Southampton beat sworn rivals QPR 2–1 after extra-time. Lopez was off the scene but later recollected that Pat Davies hit the extra-time winner.
The annotations in the ITN archive attributes the winning goal to Pearce, but the footage shows the slight figure of number 9 Davies emerging from the bottom of the celebratory pile-up.
Jeannie Allott’s departure to Dutch football in 1976 gave Southampton southpaw Pat Chapman her opportunity with the Lionesses. Renowned motormouth Chapman had sky-high standards and could be demanding to play alongside (Sue Lopez quipped she was sometimes glad to be deaf in one ear when lining up alongside Chapman).
But Pearce proved an excellent foil for Chapman’s bountiful talents and the duo soon struck up a firm understanding, to the benefit of club and country.
In October 1976 at Ebbw Vale, buccaneering Pearce punctured surprisingly stodgy Welsh resistance when her “pinpoint cross” was turned in by Droitwich’s Rayner Hadden for the opening goal. The Lionesses departed with a narrow 2–1 win.
In the 1978 Cup final, Southampton avenged their 1977 defeat by QPR with a stirring 8–2 win over the same opponents at Slough. Neat interplay down the left from Pearce and Chapman laid on the second goal for Lopez, before Chapman hit an astonishing double hat-trick.
Lopez (1997) recalled that Maggie’s proud husband Gordie Pearce was left purring: “Ten more trophies should have been made, for in fact, this was a complete team performance.”
In-form Pearce started England’s 3–0 win over Belgium at The Dell in October 1978, bouncing back after Alison Leatherbarrow had taken the left-back berth for the 6–1 win over Ireland at Exeter earlier that year.
At club level classy Lancastrian Leatherbarrow turned out for Foden’s, Welsh cracks Prestatyn, and St Helens. She mounted a strong challenge for Pearce’s place in the national team under Tommy Tranter.
In the 1979 unofficial European Championships, Pearce was first-choice. But when she was crocked in the semi-final defeat by hosts Italy, Leatherbarrow came in for the third place play-off.
Incoming England manager Martin Reagan was apparently less taken with Leatherbarrow, who drifted out of the reckoning and later won caps for Wales as a centre-forward. But Reagan retained Pearce, impressed by her level-headed dependability.
She played in a 1–1 draw with Sweden at Filbert Street, Leicester in September 1980. But she sat out the 1981 England games and Southampton’s last Cup final due to pregnancy. While England toured Japan in September 1981, Pearce that month welcomed daughter Laura Jane.
Another bruising friendly with Sweden in May 1982, a 1–1 draw in Kinna, saw Pearce make a swift return to the team. During Pearce’s absence England had found another option at left-back in the shape of Angie Gallimore.
But for the UEFA Championship qualifiers Pearce came back in, with Gallimore moving inside to centre-half and Linda Coffin dropping out. Reagan hailed Pearce as “outstanding” – her left-footed distribution “out of this world” – in the decisive 4–0 win over Scotland in Dumbarton.
In the UEFA 84 final first-leg against Sweden, Pearce was part of a disciplined and compact Lionesses rearguard.
In the debit column, she will have been disappointed that the goal came down her side: Swedish defender Burevik lumbered forward with Pearce temporarily posted missing and measured a fine cross onto Pia Sundhage’s head.
After England’s penalty heartache in the return leg, Pearce retired from international football. She was presented with a shield by the Mayor of Preston at Deepdale on 17 March 1985, after England beat Scotland 4–0.
The November 1984 edition of WFA News carried a warm tribute from Martin Reagan:
“Maggie Pearce always appears to have things under control, and few can suspect the fighting temperament there is under that calm exterior. A very cultured left foot, one of the best in women’s football, made her a difficult player to beat. […] One of Maggie’s greatest delights was to score a goal in a practice match, with her right foot. The determination of this young lady, was typified when she retired to give birth to her daughter, and then took up the game again and fought her way back to the top.”
The 1984 Mundialito tournament in Italy saw a first call-up for Norwich’s Jackie Slack, an excellent left-sided defender in her own right, who had to bide her time for a chance with England.
Maggie’s younger sister Heather Kirkland was also a Southampton player. Heather started out as a full-back like big sis, but was repurposed as a forward when Southampton’s fortunes began to wane.
The WFA News of June 1985 congratulated Pearce and Gordie on the recent birth of their second daughter. Pearce was not among the exodus to the Red Star club when Southampton WFC folded in 1986, instead she focused on coaching her other great sporting love, netball.
Pearce was later (2010) a primary school teaching assistant and made the local press when trapped in the Costa del Sol by unpronounceable Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull.
Women’s Football Archive Verdict:
It’s always poor form comparing women players to the top men. That’s why Lorraine Hanson‘s article contains no mention of her illustrious forerunner in the centre-back/centre-forward stakes, John Charles.
But in this case the Southampton WFC players themselves widely acknowledged their debt to England’s heroes of ’66. So it’s not gratuitous to say Ray Wilson’s calm demeanour was reflected in Pearce’s play.
In football’s family tree Rachel Unitt was perhaps Pearce’s god-daughter, Claire Rafferty and Alex Greenwood her impetuous grandchildren.
1. Not to be confused with the fictional team of the same name in the recent Craig Cash television comedy “Rovers”.↩
Lorraine Hanson (née Dobb): Belles and England great
Born: c.1959, Worksop
Occupation: Sales receptionist (1983, 1985), Clerk (1986)
A Worksop-born Sheffield Wednesday supporter, Hanson cut her teeth in street football with the boys in a Nottinghamshire mining town, much like future team-mate Jackie Sherrard.
As a bright prospect with Carr Fastener (a factory team from Stapleford) she made Tommy Tranter’s England squad for the 2–0 win over France at Plough Lane, Wimbledon, on 7 November 1974.
She sat on the substitute’s bench alongside Carol Thomas and Liz Deighan, who came on to make the first appearances of their illustrious Lionesses careers.
At just 14 years old Hanson was there for the experience. But if she did make it on the pitch she must be England’s youngest ever senior player.
The programme for England’s match against Sweden at Ullevi on 15 June 1975 listed ‘Loiraina Dobb’ at number 7. The Swedes won 2–0 to inflict England’s first defeat.
Hanson’s opposite number Ann Jansson hit both goals in the game played over 30 minutes each-way before a Swedish WNT record crowd of 2,963.
Fifteen-year-old Pia Sundhage debuted for Sweden, the first of many duels Hanson fought out with the all-time great. Hanson later put on record that Sundhage was the best player she ever faced.
At the 1976 Pony Home Championships, schoolgirl Hanson was attached to Nottingham Rangers. She joined Notts League rivals Doncaster Belles in 1977.
In the 3–0 win over Belgium at The Dell, Hanson won a 14th cap. It was England’s first match on a top tier ground and attracted a record crowd of 5,500.
Hanson then quit England duty for a spell. She snubbed the unofficial 1979 Euros, being described as “retired” in Sue Lopez’s Women’s Football magazine report (Lopez’s scare quotes).
A few England players drifted away at this stage, disgruntled at the sport’s lack of progress. UEFA’s women’s sub-committee (all-male) had folded, so the prospect of proper tournaments receded.
In 1979 Eileen Lillyman of Bronte was drafted in as a replacement sweeper, but broke her leg the following year.
Hanson was recalled by England boss Martin Reagan in May 1982 for a friendly with Sweden in Kinna. Reagan made changes after seeing his side horsed 3–0 by Norway at Cambridge in October 1981.
She formed a front three with Tracy Doe and Janet Turner as England took credit from a bruising 1–1 draw.
Swedish FA records attribute England’s goal to Hanson, but Reagan’s report in the WFA News is clear that Doe did the damage.
Lorraine married Belles gaffer Richard Hanson on 20 November 1982 at Worksop Priory Church. On the first day of their honeymoon she played for the Midland region vs South East region at Leicester!
Romance had blossomed when her car broke down and Richard swooped with the offer of a lift to training and matches.
That season she put the Belles in their first ever FA Cup final, heading the winner in a tense 2–1 semi-final win over Friends of Fulham at Imber Court Metropolitan Police Ground.
The programme for the 1983 Cup final at Lincoln’s Sincil Bank named Hanson as the only England player in Donny’s squad.
She wore number 9, leading the line in the Belles’ 3–2 victory. But for England she nailed down a spot at centre-half during the Euro 84 qualifying campaign, alongside Angie Gallimore.
According to Cathy Gibb’s match report, Hanson conceded a “dubious” penalty in the Euro 84 semi-final at Crewe, despite her “faultless” performance.
Hanson played well in the final but suffered heartbreak when her kick was stopped by Elisabeth Leidinge in the Lionesses’ shoot-out defeat at Kenilworth Road, Luton. It was her 27th cap.
She scored both Donny’s goals in their 2–4 1984 final defeat by Howbury Grange. She was denied a hat-trick by a “last minute despairing Sallie Jackson tackle”.
In 1985 she played in the final at Craven Cottage, but England midfielder Brenda Sempare led the Belles a merry dance in Friends of Fulham’s 2–0 win.
Hanson started England’s first two Euro 87 qualifiers, but was absent from the 85 Mundialito. She also missed the Belles’ 1986 Cup final defeat by Norwich, as she was three months pregnant.
After welcoming daughter Jenna, she came back in 1986–87, only to find Kaz Walker installed at centre-forward. Walker promptly hit the goal trail, and didn’t let up for 20 years!
Doncaster Belles recaptured the Cup in 1987 at the City Ground and retained it the following year with a 3–1 over Leasowe at Gresty Road, Crewe.
Hanson left Donny after 12 seasons in 1989 and is believed to have hung up her boots.