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…
Yvonne Baldeo hits winner as Lionesses stun Belles and seize Cup
Classic match report: Millwall end Belles hoodoo to win their first national Cup
…Back to the football then (craving your indulgence Eni!) England kick-off their latest bid for World Cup glory at Tranmere Rovers’ Prenton Park, in an opening qualifier against Russia later this month. And that’s all the excuse we need to recall Prenton Park’s first big women’s fixture; this classic Cup final in 1991 between Doncaster Belles and Millwall Lionesses. Odds-on favourites Donny lost out on a fifth win in their eighth final, as Yvonne Baldeo’s 65th-minute winner handed the spoils to first-time finalists Millwall.
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Women’s Football Archive sounds the pibroch for footballing justice
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Our special correspondent ‘An Audience Observer’ writes from the front line of women’s football history…
The event opened with a short BBC film outlining the early history of the women’s game including contributions from the indomitable Gregory, Sue Lopez, Sylvia Gore and the champion of the women’s game in the day in the form of Lawrie McMenemy, who coined the phrase the “Suffragettes of football”.
Martin Reagan (1924–2016): The man who stepped up to save women’s football in England
Women’s football lost one of our own with Martin Reagan’s recent passing, but his deeds will never be forgotten
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.