Hull recognises late WFA icon Flo Bilton with a plaque
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.