Goal driven: five players who have shaped women’s football

‘Phil Neville says I’m the best player in the world’: England defender Lucy Bronze. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod/The Observer

The Women’s World Cup kicks off next month – and England might even win it. Mark Bailey interviews five key players from different generations to chart the unstoppable rise of women’s football

The future of football is feminine,” pledged Sepp Blatter in 1995, shortly before he was named president of Fifa. Nine years later, the head of global football suggested “pretty” female players could wear “tighter shorts. The history of women’s football mirrors the same familiar trend of hopeful peaks and promises followed by troughs of sexism and lack of interest. But for the first time in history, England will send a fully professional women’s squad to the World Cup in France this summer. While past generations worked part-time, today’s England stars, such as Steph Houghton (Manchester City) and Lucy Bronze (Lyon) are not only paid, but supported by physios, coaches and analysts, and – despite Blatter’s blunder – a performance-focused kit designed exclusively for them.

This is a recent revolution. Central contracts, funded by the Football Association (FA) to help England’s female players earn a living, were introduced only in 2009, and are now worth £30,000 per year. The national Women’s Super League (WSL) finally turned professional in 2018, with players earning on average £26,752, compared to the £2.64m earned by players in the men’s Premier League, though routine WSL attendances average just 953, compared with 38,297 in the Premier League. But this nascent professionalism is enabling England’s players to take on the best in the world.

Women’s football was huge during and after the First World War, drawing crowds of over 50,000. But from 1921 to 1971 women, deemed unsuitable, were banned from FA-affiliated pitches – a decision which demoted women’s football to amateurism and obscurity for decades. The damage is now being reversed. The Women’s Euro 2017 semi-final between England and Holland attracted 4m UK viewers. A record 45,423 fans attended the 2018 Women’s FA Cup Final between Chelsea and Arsenal. Women’s football is even reshaping popular culture, from the surprise $76m success of the 2002 movie Bend It Like Beckham (which inspired England player Alex Greenwood to play football), to the 2016 introduction of women’s teams into the Fifa video game franchise. Football is now the top participation sport for women and girls in England.

To celebrate the progress of women’s football, we speak to five England players from five generations who have changed the history of the game.

Lucy Bronze, England defender, Champions League winner

England 2013-present; 66 caps, age 27

‘I have the utmost respect for the women who came before me’: Lucy Bronze. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod/The Observer

Women’s football in England has progressed so much that we’re now one of the favourites for the World Cup. The main difference is that we’re professional, so we can train full-time. I play for Lyon in France, where we use the same training ground as the men’s team and play in front of 15-25,000 fans. But all my England teammates in the Women’s Super League back home are now professional, too. We now know we can beat any team in the world.

Growing up in the northeast, I started playing football with my older brother. I played in the back garden. With the dog. At school. I was the only girl, but I never felt like the odd one out. As kids you have little perception of gender or race. And my generation had good role models: I remember watching Kelly Smith and Rachel Yankey play for England on TV and I wanted to be like them.

Even in my era I wasn’t allowed to play mixed football for my school team when I turned 12 [in 2015 the age limit was raised to 18]. But I am lucky that my mum, auntie and grandma are the most headstrong women I have ever known. Their view was: “Nobody is telling our little girl she can’t play football.” So my mum took me to play for Sunderland. It was tough: I spent hours stuck in the car, and I was very shy, so I joined my local team, Blyth Town, for a few years, then rejoined Sunderland when I was older. I started playing in their first team when I was 16.

By now there was a special programme at Loughborough University where 10 girls were accepted to play football and study, but I was turned down. So my mum Googled “best places for girls’ football” and found the University of North Carolina in America. I went to a soccer camp there and I was offered a scholarship in 2009. It was another world. At Sunderland our kit was five times too big and we got the local bus to games; in America I got bags of Nike kit, flew to away games and played in front of thousands of fans. It opened my eyes to what women’s football could – and should – be.

When I came back to play for Everton in 2010, the new Women’s Super League had arrived. I was paid £100 per game or £50 as a sub. It was pocket money, but it felt like a big deal. I worked in Domino’s, which was fun and meant I got free pizza, and I pulled pints in a bar. I moved to Liverpool in 2012 and they were really ambitious, bringing in top players. In 2013 we beat Arsenal – who seemed invincible – 4-0. It was the shock of the century.

That result changed women’s football. Teams like Chelsea and Man City suddenly thought: “We want a piece of the pie.” It was like a chain reaction where all the teams knocked each other forward. We won the league in 2013 and 2014. When I moved to Man City – where we won the league in 2016 – we had cameras analysing every pass in training and even someone to wash our kit.

I made my England debut against Japan in 2013. Hope Powell, our manager at the time, always demanded the best. She had quite a stern approach… She’d look at you over her glasses sometimes. But when I made my debut she put her arm around me and said, “Lucy, go and have fun.” I couldn’t believe it. If you got picked for Hope, you did well. She really pushed things on.

Finishing third in the last Women’s World Cup in 2015 was amazing. I scored a cool goal against Norway in the last 16. It was the first time an England women’s team had won a World Cup knockout game – we knew we had changed something for ever. I also scored the winner against the hosts, Canada, in the quarter-finals in front of 55,000 fans. A few years before we were playing in front of 100 people, so even though the Canadians were shouting “You’re rubbish!” we loved it.

Since joining Lyon in 2017 I have been playing alongside the best players in the world. To win the Champions League last year was incredible. And it was amazing to be nominated for the Ballon d’Or Féminin – the World Player of the Year award – last summer. My England manager Phil Neville says I’m the best player in the world, but I don’t believe him! Compliments just drive me to get better.

I’m so excited about the World Cup this summer, but I have the utmost respect for the women who came before me. Each generation has added something to help the next. And girls growing up right now will reap the benefits of anything we achieve this summer. It’s a rite of passage for all women to make sure the next generation is in a better place than you. I will play my part.

Rachel Yankey, first female professional footballer in England

England 1997-2013, 129 caps, age 39

‘I pretended to be a boy for my first team. It was just easier’: Rachel Yankey photographed in London at the Hive stadium. Photograph: Sarah Cresswell/The Observer

Women’s football was growing when I was a kid kicking a ball around the parks of northwest London, but I didn’t even know England had a women’s team. I just watched men play football on TV. I even pretended to be a boy for my first team. I shaved my head and called myself Ray – my initials. I didn’t want to be a boy, it was just easier when people thought I was. Nobody frowned. And if people commented, it was usually about how well I was playing.

When people found out, my manager Tony Chelsea – who knew I was a girl and really supported me – found me a girls’ team called Mill Hill. So now I was playing with girls, but I looked like a boy. People made horrible comments. Some parents even thought I should prove I was a girl. So I felt more comfortable playing for the boys’ team. Over time I realised people were being horrible because I was a good player. But it was brilliant to finally discover other girls played football, too.

In 2000, at the age of 20, I became the first female player in England to sign a professional contract. I had been playing for Arsenal for four years, but Mohamed Al-Fayed, Fulham’s owner, was launching the country’s first professional women’s team. The FA had said it would create a professional league within three years and he wanted a head start. We won the treble in 2003, but then the FA backed out of its plan and we had to revert to being semi-professionals. In 2004, I rejoined Arsenal – where we won six Premier League titles and nine FA Cups in total, including the quadruple in 2007 – but we were part-time so I made money by launching my own coaching business for kids.

I was proud to get 129 caps for England and overtake Peter Shilton’s record of 125. But I am in awe of Gill Coultard, who got 119 caps even though England only played a few matches a year back then, and Hope Powell, who fought for our central contracts – until then, some women had to book unpaid work leave to play for England.

There were other changes during my career. I started appearing at England kit launches alongside the men. There was more media interest and fans recognised me in the street. Today, I love working as manager of London Bees, but women’s football still needs more publicity. If we can get more fans to women’s games in England, better atmospheres and strong supporter loyalty, like for the men’s teams, things will really push on.

Hope Powell, first woman to play for and manage England

England 1983-1998, 66 caps, age 52

‘In my day we paid to play. The kit was bad; crowds non-existent’: Hope Powell. Photograph: Richard Ansett/Camera Press

In the 1970s I played football on a concrete pitch inside a “cage” on an estate in Greenwich. I thought I was the only girl on the planet who played football. My parents are of West Indian culture so it wasn’t the norm for girls to play football – it was more about domesticity. At first, the boys didn’t want to pick me, but they soon realised I was good.

It was my dream to play for England, but I was banned from playing for my school. The other school complained, because you couldn’t play mixed football aged 12. Another girl and I were the best players and, because we won, it was embarrassing for them, so they made an issue of it. The story even made the press.

I joined Millwall Lionesses when I was 11 and I represented them for most of my career, as well as Friends of Fulham and Croydon FC. A highlight was captaining Croydon to a league and cup double in 1996. But it was purely amateur. We paid to play. The kit was bad. Without full-time training, we even looked different to players today, who are more athletic. Crowds were non-existent. When I played on Clapham Common people would think, “Oh my God, women!”

Getting my first England cap against Ireland in 1983, aged 16, was very special, as was playing in the 1984 European Competition for Women’s Football when I was 17. I also loved playing at the Women’s World Cup in 1995. But we still had to work. I washed dishes, washed toilets, worked in shops. I did anything really.

I tried to change things when I became the first female England manager, from 1998 to 2013. I took a multi- disciplinary approach, with physiologists and nutritionists, and I introduced centralised contracts which meant players only had to work part-time. Things improved and we made the final of the European Championships in 2009. I was also the first woman to achieve the Uefa Pro coaching licence.

I am still trying to influence change today as manager of Brighton in the Women’s Super League. The league is fully professional but I’d love to see the tier below, the FA Women’s Championship, become fully professional, and we need a broadcast deal and bigger crowds. We still have a long way to go, but I am proud of the changes I have been a part of.

Gill Coultard, first woman to reach 100 England caps

England 1981-2000, 119 caps, age 55

‘I would love to have been a professional. I can’t help wondering, What might we have achieved?’: Gill Coultard at home today with some of her trophies. Photograph: Tom Martin/The Observer

I grew up playing football with my big brothers in Thorne, Yorkshire. I was never interested in dolls. A few girls raised their eyebrows: “Why aren’t you playing netball?” But my mum didn’t mind. She’d just say, “Don’t smash my windows!” I played alongside the boys for my school, but back then girls were not allowed to play mixed football after 12. I was devastated… I’d grown up with the lads. They said: “Why can’t she play? She’s just as good as us, if not better!” I was told it was because of the physicality. So my PE teacher took me to Doncaster Rovers Belles – an adult women’s team. I thought: “Hang on, I am not allowed to play schoolboys but I’m expected to play women in their 20s and 30s?” I couldn’t get my head around that.

The Belles really looked out for me. They made sure I was safely on the bus home and it meant the world to me. But when I watched the boys play in school matches, I wanted to join in. I played for the Belles as a midfielder for most of my career and won two women’s Premier League titles and six FA Cups. It was all amateur level. Women’s football in England was like a minority sport. In the 1980s you’d get bursts of progress – like when Channel 4 showed the Women’s FA Cup finals – then it’d stagnate again.

I made my England debut in 1981, aged 18. It was the best feeling of my life. I later captained the team. And I scored England’s first ever goals at a World Cup finals, in 1995. One was a dodgy penalty, the other was a header, and I came off with a shiner. When I became the first woman to reach 100 caps, Bobby Charlton sent me a message: “Welcome to the 100 club.”

Because we never got paid, I worked in warehouses, electronics factories and even a plastics company. Today I work at Rolf C Hagen, a pet accessories supplier. I would love to have been a professional. I can’t help wondering, “What might we have achieved?” I think it’s very important we remember the women who have carried the football flame. Despite all the bans and the dodgy pitches, a lot of women before me made sure that flame never went out.

Sheila Parker, first England women’s captain

England 1972-1984, 33 caps, age 71

‘When I did my first slide tackle I was over the moon’: Sheila Parker. Photograph: Tom Martin/The Observer

I used to play football with the boys on the recreation ground near my home in Chorley, Lancashire. This was the 1950s so I was the only girl. The boys probably thought: “A girl? Really?” But soon I was just another player. My family was surprised, but they knew I loved it. I used to watch Chorley Football Club and copy the players’ skills. When I did my first slide tackle I was over the moon. I loved to kick the ball past a player and run around the other side. I wore thick shin pads and boys would ask, “What are they for?” I said, “In case I run around you and you kick me.”

I started playing for a well-known local team called The Dick, Kerr Ladies when I was 13. Women were not allowed to play on FA pitches back then, so when I later joined the amateur team Chorley Ladies we played on pitches like farmers’ fields and got changed in a hen hut. But we didn’t mind, as long as we could kick a ball. In 1974, with Fodens Ladies, we won the Women’s FA Cup and in 1975 I scored 51 goals in 14 games. I played centre half, centre forward – anywhere but in goal.

When the FA ban was finally lifted I was about 24. I was asked to captain England in the first official Women’s FA match, against Scotland in 1972, which we won 3-2. Then it hit me: “Gosh! How well you have done!” I was a mum, too. Normally if a girl got pregnant, she gave up football, but I used to take my son Darren to games. I especially remember scoring the winner against Italy in 1977.

We were amateurs, so I used to work as a telephonist and I still do today. After I retired from football I became a Sunday League referee, just to stay in the game. How I would have loved to play professionally today. My message to England’s World Cup girls is, “Enjoy it and you will play well. And if you get beat, stand tall and try again. Smile and never forget why we do this.”

When I was nominated for the English Football Hall of Fame in 2013, I was speechless. What a moment after all these years. Women’s football has really grown and I’m so proud that my granddaughter now plays football at Preston. I never talk about myself, but all my grandchildren were amazed when they found out: “Oh my God! Grandma played football for England!”

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