Hull recognises late WFA icon Flo Bilton with a plaque
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!”
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.
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.
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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© 1974-2016, Thomas Family Archive, All Rights Reserved
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.