Tim Tate’s excellent new study of the history of English women’s football opens, perhaps surprisingly, with a figure who seems the antithesis of a women’s football hero: Sepp Blatter. It’s a remarkably fitting commencement, though, as Tate’s study goes on to detail the administrative pressures and pronouncements that took women’s football from a peak at which it attracted crowds in excess of 50,000 in the 1920s to a state of perpetual marginalisation by an out-of-touch and fearful governing body.
What is remarkable about Girls with Balls isn’t only the sheer numbers involved (the leading team of the post-WWI period, Dick, Kerr Ladies, raised sums totalling the equivalent of £1m for charity) but the manner in which an early-Edwardian, puritanically-led crackdown still couldn’t keep some of the country’s most talented footballers from winning the hearts and minds of the British public.
As an avowed rugby fan, Tate approaches his subject matter with a refreshingly socio-academic tone, concentrating more on the broader social and societal factors that created a gap for ‘professional’ women’s football (not least the Mutionettes and the country’s financial and productivity hardships during WWI) than the football itself: hardly surprisingly when contemporary media attention was grasped more by the spectacle of women’s football, and latterly its charitable endeavours, than the football itself.
This isn’t a perfect study. The characters of the players themselves, with a few notable exceptions (the perhaps-fictious Nettie Honeyball, Lily Parr and Alice Woods) are largely hidden from view and it is frustrating that the impact of women’s football overseas – touched on in fixtures between Dick, Kerr and France, but not explored further – isn’t detailed to a wider extent.
As a brief history, not just of women’s football but also of football itself, the social fabric that surrounded it and the administrative diktats that have arguably undermined its successes within England since the early days, though, Girls with Balls is a superb book. Accessible, engaging, frequently hilarious, occasionally heartbreaking and entirely worth a ready for anybody with an interest in the early days of women’s football.
Image from thesun.co.uk – Thanks!