In my family, it was always the women who were the avid football fans – my mum, my auntie and my grandma. All for Scotland; all for Newcastle United. They instilled in me a love of sport – especially football – for which I will be eternally grateful. (Mind you, they were a bit put out when, at 6 years old, I decided to support Liverpool! Over 35 years later, I still do. And Scotland, of course.)
March 12, 2014
Sport brings people together. Commonwealth Games, Olympics, World Cups. We support our own country, or the underdog, and take great delight in teasing our friends who have different allegiances. As a proud Scot, living south of the border, I frequently rib friends who support England. But I have a guilty secret. I too am an England supporter! Not of the men’s football team, I hasten to add, but of the women’s team. Let me explain how it came about.
When I was young, women in Britain did not play football. As with so many other sports that had been gender-specified, it was considered a male domain. While I liked hockey and netball, I adored football. But the only footballers were boys and men, so I had no female role models that I could identify with. Yet another aspect of my life in which I felt like a social misfit. In those days, girls who liked football were labelled ‘tomboys’ and regarded with suspicion – the more conservative members of society viewed tomboys as the lesbians of the future. (I’m happy to say, I proved them right! *Look of defiance and pride.*) Accordingly, many girls who thought about taking up football thought twice, then didn’t bother.
Then, in the 1980s as far as I recall, something changed. Strong women who did enjoy football decided that they wouldn’t be sidelined any longer and started forming women’s football teams locally. Women’s recreational football leagues began to spring up, and some Football League clubs began to have women’s as well as men’s teams. It was at that stage, when teams like Arsenal Ladies, Doncaster Belles and Millwall Lionesses were developing, that Channel 4 and the BBC began televising the Women’s F.A. Cup final. As this became an annual event, I started to recognise the good players who regularly cropped up, most of whom were English: Julie Fleeting, Rachel Yankey, Kelly Smith, Ellen White, Faye White, Sue Smith et al. At last, young girls who were prospective footballers had quality role models. But there was one ex-footballer who, while not on the pitch, was instrumental in the rise and rise of women’s football. That person was Hope Powell.
Hope’s considerable list of accolades, as both a player and a manager, can easily be found on the F.A. website and Wikipedia, so I shan’t cite every single one here. In a nutshell, she played as a successful midfielder for Millwall Lionesses, Fulham, Croydon and Bromley, over 20 years, from 1978-1998. Moreover, she has 66 England caps, scoring 35 international goals. Yet the reason why I find her so inspirational is not her playing career, impressive though it was, but what she did afterwards. That is why, during Women’s History Month, I want to make others aware of how she helped raise the bar for women in sport.
Having trained as a coach since she was 19 years old, and after gaining a degree in Sports Science & History, Hope was appointed England manager in 1998, aged 31. This put many noses out of joint, but made her the youngest ever England coach, the first and only black England coach, as well as the first and only female England coach. Furthermore, she became the first woman to earn the UEFA Pro Licence – the top coaching award possible. Indeed, she is a pioneer in many ways. (To put this into perspective, even in the all-male territory of the English professional football leagues, I can only think of 2 of the 90+ clubs currently having a black coach – namely, Chris Powell and Paul Ince.) Then, as the Guardian phrased it (Anna Kessel: 22.8.2013) “Powell took on the pale, male and stale suits at the F.A.” In this respect she was a visionary – determined to enhance the progress of women’s football not only in the short-term, but for many years to come, by setting the groundwork in place for those who came after. By the time her 15-year tenure as coach had ended with the sack, she had managed 162 senior international matches (of which approx 75% were wins or draws ). What’s more, she had set up and overseen U15s/U17s/U19s/U21s/U23s national squads and a coach mentoring scheme. This was in addition to working with the F.A. Centres of Excellence, the ‘Kick it Out’ campaign, and the Women’s Sport Foundation.
Hope forced the F.A. to take women’s football seriously, to fund it to a semi-professional level, and raised possibilities for / expectations of female athletes. This, in turn, has led to the development of the F.A. Women’s Premier League and elite Women’s Super League in England. The latter has received greater television coverage than has previously been enjoyed by the women’s game in the U.K., albeit in the form of weekly Match of the Day-style reviews, rather than full matches being broadcast regularly. The importance for British women and girls, though, is that football has been ‘normalised’ as a sporting option for them, by women such as Hope Powell. There is no longer the same social stigma attached to female footballers, and young girls now have visible, successful role models available to them.
Sadly for Hope, despite all her success as a player and coach, she was not considered for the F.A. role that she herself had insisted on being created – that of ‘first director of elite women’s football’. Had she rubbed too many “pale, male and stale suits” up the wrong way? Had the issues surrounding her player management style come back to haunt her? We’ll probably never know. But what of the future? If men like Andre Villas-Boas, who was never a top professional footballer himself, can get to coach an English Premier League club, then why not Hope, with all her experience? If men like Vic Akers and Mark Sampson can coach top women’s teams, why shouldn’t she be considered as a manager for men’s teams? Perhaps that’s the next barrier that needs to be overcome where women in football are concerned.
Finally, I want to acknowledge @PlanetCath, who pointed me in the direction of a recent article in The Independent entitled, “The wartime women footballers: Remembering the days when 50,000 fans would turn out to watch” (Johnathan Owen: 24.2.2014). Essentially, as a tie-in to the centenary of WWI, it relates how the game of football blossomed among those women left behind in Britain, keeping the country going, while men went off to war. Huge crowds, the size of which are only seen in large Premier League stadia today, watched these women’s games. So in effect, women’s football now can be seen as a resurgence of what went on 100 years ago. Perhaps, without those female footballers of the early 20th Century, girls and women nowadays would have had an even harder battle on their hands. We have them to thank, and hopefully the female footballers of the 22nd Century will have us to thank, in their #Women’sHistoryMonth.