WORDS: LUKE JAMES and DOMINIC BLISS
Women’s football is growing fast in Britain thanks to the displays of Team GB at London 2012, but they have a long way to go to reach the heights scaled by early Twenties superstars Dick, Kerr’s Ladies, who played to 50,000 crowds before crossing the pond to take on the best the US men’s scene had to offer
At a time when the idea of women voting or becoming doctors still got right up the nose of your average man, you can only imagine what the reaction would have been to a ladies football team emerging and threatening to become as popular as the leading men’s sides.
Well, in the aftermath of World War One, that’s just what happened when the women on the works team for Dick, Kerr’s factory in Preston grew so popular they had not just the ball, but also the world, at their feet.
In fact, the British Ladies Football Club was originally formed in 1895. The first game was played in Crouch End and 10,000 people showed up, probably including a good number of blokes looking for a laugh, something that might well have been facilitated by a ladies kit consisting of shin guards, night shirts, and knee-length skirts.
But the ladies persisted. World War One was the first mechanized war and, while the men went off to fight, and die, the women worked the munitions factories. And this broke a pattern, it changed women’s place in society, for the first time giving them access to the men’s world.
By the time the war ended, with almost a million men killed, women had begun forming their own football teams. As with the men’s teams they came out of their factories and played against other women’s football teams, often in front of large crowds. In many ways, it worked in much the same way as it had done when the teams were made up of men, except now the money raised from the games usually went to the families of those men lost during the war.
The most famous of all women’s teams, Dick, Kerr’s Ladies, formed in 1917 out of a factory owned and operated by two Scots, W.B. Dick and John Kerr, makers of tramway and light railway equipment.
In 1920, Dick, Kerr’s Ladies invited a French Ladies team to play four games in England. The tour opened in Preston and a crowd of 25,000 saw the hosts win 2-0.
Attendances were to get higher still later that same year. One of the most popular women’s games on record was played on Boxing Day, 1920, at Goodison Park – a spectacular game on what was then England’s biggest soccer ground.
Dick, Kerr’s Ladies beat Lancashire side St. Helen Ladies 4-0 in front of a capacity crowd of 53,000 people. What’s more, there were more than ten thousand fans locked outside the ground, unable to get in due to the demand to see these world-beaters in skirts.
It may well have been the size of the crowds and the success of this game in particular that eventually pushed the Football Association to ban women from playing on men’s team grounds in 1921.
Part of their statement read: “Complaints having been made as to football being played by women, the council feel impelled to express their strong opinion that the game of football is quite unsuitable for females and ought not to be encouraged.”
Incredibly this ban would last 50 years.
Dick, Kerr’s Ladies, however, were not so easily stopped. In fact, the ban spurred them on to perhaps their most impressive feat as they began to look for new, exciting challengers outside the jurisdiction of the draconian English FA.
Unable to play on the men’s sports grounds at home, they simply upped sticks and went to play elsewhere. One such visit, to the USA, saw them break yet another taboo – they lined up against the men.
In September and October 1922 – a year in which they also won the European women’s championship in Paris – they embarked on a whirlwind tour of the States, lasting a little over a month. Dick, Kerr’s Ladies played nine games against men’s teams, underlining their quality by winning three and drawing a further three. And their opponents were no mugs either – one of the men to face the formidable female stars would go on to play for the USA side who reached the semi-finals of the first-ever World Cup in 1930.
And they say girls can’t kick!
The media Stateside were excited by this group of women who arrived unbeaten in 59 matches to take on the cream of the US men’s soccer scene.
“The fair visitors from overseas will face a hard test,” reported the New York Times ahead of the first leg of their tour, against Paterson Football Club, in New Jersey, on 24 September.
The prediction turned out to be correct as Paterson emerged 6-3 winners, but the next day’s column inches were taken up by the fascination aroused by seeing a team of British women take on a US men’s XI. Clashes of gender and sporting culture were both on show in this tour debut.
“Jauntily togged out in light athletic suits familiar to the followers of soccer football, the women, bobbed hair held in restraint by outing caps, trotted out to the tooting of horns and wild acclaim,” the Times reporter observed.
“Winning the toss, the women kicked off and displayed expertness in the free, open style of the play which distinguishes the English from the more aggressive and somewhat rougher Yankee tactics.
“But there was no roughness yesterday. The Jerseymen contented themselves with copying the methods of their gentler opponents and they were thorough gentlemen.”
That sort of gentlemanly behavior was not always reciprocated, however. A one-armed Paterson forward, named McGuire, found himself floored by ‘sturdy’ centre-half, Annie Woods, who reportedly “seemed just a little proud” of the rough justice she had doled out.
Woods wasn’t the only powerful woman on the side, either. Their goalkeeper, Carmen Pomies, was spotted playing for during a tour of England with her French team in 1920 and, as well as being the only foreign player in Dick, Kerr’s Ladies, she was also the best javelin thrower in France!
She appears not to have fared so well in the third game of their increasingly publicized tour, as Kerr’s Ladies (curiously referred to as both Dick, Kerr’s and Newcastle United Ladies intermittently by the American press) suffered their second defeat, losing 7-5. But by now they were looking at two-column match reports in the Times.
Centro-Hispano Men, runners-up in the Metropolitan Football League, may have taken the game at New York Oval with a 7-5 victory, but it was suggested the result could be explained by the simple fact that the men had superior speed and strength on their side. Praise was heaped on Dick, Kerr’s Ladies for their passing style and fighting spirit and they were fast becoming minor celebrities in the nation that was quite happy to see them ply their trade in front of large crowds.
“What the girls lacked in fast foot work they made up in combination and their clever passing repeatedly brought them salvos of applause. The big crowd, in fact, was with them from start to finish.
“Clad in black-and-white sweaters and blue running trunks, the Englishwomen… immediately became targets for a dozen cameramen.”
It was only fitting that the women who had come to dominate the sport at home, before they were disgracefully banished by a backward association, should prove themselves so emphatically, not least against male opponents, overseas and, ironically, end up giving a good name to English ladies football abroad!
In the course of their 48 year existence as a club Dick, Kerr’s Ladies played 828 games of which they won 758, tied 46 and lost just 24. In the process they scored 3,500 goals.