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Last Updated: Tuesday, 14 November 2006, 13:05 GMT
Don't call them WAGs
Dick, Kerr's Ladies team in 1925
Dick, Kerr's Ladies team were the unofficial England women's team

By Denise Winterman
BBC News Magazine

Luton Town manager Mike Newell may have apologised for his "sexist" remarks about a female football official, but his tirade is a reminder of the mountain women have struggled to climb to be accepted into the football fold.

Boxing Day, 1920 at Everton's Goodison Park ground. More than 53,000 fans are already inside and a further 12,000 are stuck beyond turnstile, desperate to get in.

Among the attractions is a chance to glimpse the visiting side's 6ft goal machine, who scored 43 the previous season - all at the tender age of just 14. One shot was so powerful it broke a goal keeper's arm.

The team generating such excitement that day was made up of 11 women from a factory in Preston and their teenage sensation was Lily Parr. They did not disappoint. The Dick, Kerr Ladies beat St Helens Ladies 4-0.

1972 England team
1972 England team prepare for a match

These days, the focus of women's involvement in the beautiful game tends to be little more than the perma-tanned, label-fixated WAGS (wives and girlfriends) who hang off the arms of their Premiership partners. But women have been involved in the game for over 100 years.

The first recorded ladies' football match took place at Crouch End Athletic Ground in north London in March 1895. But it was during World War I that the game really blossomed in England, when women not only took on men's jobs but their places on the football field.

More than 150 teams played regular matches in front of decent crowds. The response of professional football's governing body, the FA? It banned women from FA-affiliated pitches and forbade its male referees and linesmen from officiating at their games.

Struggle

Despite the ban, women continued playing and some of the biggest names in the game officiated at women's matches, including Bill Shankly and Tom Finney. The Dick, Kerr Ladies were a team until 1965 and won 758 of the 828 games they played - a record any male counterparts would be proud of.

But with little support the women's game slipped into obscurity. The FA's ban was eventually repealed in 1971 when it recognised the Women's Football Association (WFA) two years after its formation.

By the mid-80s the WFA had become an affiliate of the body and elbowed its way to a seat on the FA's council. But in the early 90s it handed over day-to-day running of the game to the organisation.

It takes a strong-willed woman to exist in the game
Tony Leighton
Sports writer

But the battle for acceptance was still far from won.

While an estimated 1m is spent annually on developing the game - said to be the most popular female sport in England - the recent unguarded comments of Luton Town FC manager Mike Newell, about a female assistant referee, reveal ingrained prejudice still exists at the top level.

"It is bad enough with the incapable referees and linesmen we have, but if you start bringing in women, you have big problems," said Newell. " I know that sounds sexist, but I am sexist." He later apologised for the remarks.

Tony Leighton, who writes the only weekly national newspaper column on female football in The Guardian, says Newell's outburst is revealing.

"It takes a strong-willed woman to exist in football. There is still a lot of aggression against women in the game," says Leighton. "I think it is part of the national psyche. It's not the same in the US because historically no one sex has played the game."

Newell's comments come after Sepp Blatter, the president of the world governing body Fifa, suggested a few years ago that female players wear tighter shorts. Just last year the Uefa president, Lennart Johansson, said women's football should be sold on sex appeal with "sweaty and lovely looking" players.

Dick, Kerr's Ladies
Dick, Kerr's Ladies were stars
"The really sad thing is that women in football only make the headlines when some man has made a sexist comment," says Marianne Spacey, former England international and now women's development officer at Worcester FA.

"We have our own premiership which plays every Sunday, how often do you read about that? It's still a huge step for some women to get into football, comments like this make them shy away."

A major step forward has been the development of a system that can take a promising school girl from the playground to the national team. But there are still no professional women's teams. Fulham tried but the team folded two years ago, after it was directed to become financially self-sufficient.

Most female players have to work. Germany's Birgit Prinz - last year's Fifa Women's World Player of the Year - holds down a part-time physiotherapist job. Her male counterpart, Ronaldinho, earns a reported 13.3m a year from the football.

Trouser ban

Some players for the bigger teams, such as Arsenal Ladies, have jobs with the club. As well as earning a wage, it allows them all the time they need to train and play.

"No-one is saving enough money so they can retire in a few years and will never have to earn again," says Mr Leighton.

When it comes to promoting women in football, possibly the biggest PR opportunity in the game will come next year. For the first time in 12 years, England have qualified for the women's World Cup finals in China.

Marianne Spacey
Spacey played for England
It will face teams like Germany, current women's World and European champions. The FA in Germany took responsibility for women's football back in the mid 70s and has been developing it over a long period of time.

"That only happened in 1993 in England," says an FA spokeswoman. "But we now have a pathway for those with talent to work their way up."

But while England may be lagging behind other countries in so many ways, times are changing and it is the younger generation of female footballers who are benefiting.

"At my school girls play as much football as boys," says Katherine Cuthermore, 11.

"Playing at lunchtime doesn't depend on you being a boy or a girl, it depends how good you are. I would love to play for England when I grow up. It's a dream for girls as well as boys now."

It's a far cry from the Dick, Kerr Ladies' Boxing Day match, when they were banned from wearing trousers travelling to and from the game.


Come on, then, BBC. Although your own sports website does have a women's football section, it's the 24th item on the main football menu, some way below "Gossip and Transfers". Perhaps there should be two main menus - men's and women's football, right alongside each other. That would sure help.
Sarah, Dartmouth, Nova Scotia

Mike Newell was correct to say that women should not officiate in professional men's matches. Firstly, women cannot be expected to keep up with the pace of the men's game, especially when running the line, which requires very good acceleration and top speed to keep up with the last defender. Secondly, genuine football fans reading this will remember the appalling performances of Wendy Toms who ran the line in the Premiership a few years ago, clear evidence that positive discrimination had been employed in her promotion.
Neil Talbott, York, England

After just finishing a course myself(that was very demanding)i know just what it is like to sit and pass a course. So who cares wheather the official was a woman/man/boy/girl, if she has done the course and met the grade requierd to do the job then she has the right to do it .If we got on an airplane to go on holiday and the pilot was a woman would all you moaners get off the plane, so lets give this lady a break , like i say if you meet the grade then you have the right .
Richard Wright , Birmingham

After just finishing a course myself(that was very demanding)i know just what it is like to sit and pass a course. So who cares wheather the official was a woman/man/boy/girl, if she has done the course and met the grade requierd to do the job then she has the right to do it .If we got on an airplane to go on holiday and the pilot was a woman would all you moaners get off the plane, so lets give this lady a break , like i say if you meet the grade then you have the right .
Richard Wright , Birmingham

As long as a person can do the job then they should be given the chance to do it, regardless of gender. And the same applies in reverse: if any official, male or female, isn't up to it physically they shouldn't be doing it. But let's kill off this idea that women can't do the job because they are physically weaker. I've trained against top female players overseas who were as quick as most men. And let's face it, how many MALE officials are as quick as top Premiership defenders? It's as much about judgement and positioning as it is about pure pace after all.
Gareth, Leeds, England

I remember watching a women's FA cup final match a few years ago and it was really quite exciting stuff. The final score was 4-0. Perhaps because the game is not as mature and there isn't so much money in it, the play is more open and less constrained by tactical dogma. As for the BBC, why don't they use the same commentary team for women's matches (when they are rarely televised) as they do for men's? I think if Gary Lineker et al were there offering punditry it would actually lend a fair bit of credibility and interest to the whole thing.
Peter Saffrey, Glasgow, Scotland

What rubbish written by Neil Talbott... are you seriously saying that women can't run/accelerate as fast as men, when you have female athletes who can clock 10-11 seconds over 100 metres? Are you also saying that all the men who run the line in the Premiership always put in a spotless performance? I think not. Even if positive discrmination had been employed to promote a female official, which I seriously doubt, it doesn't mean women can't do the job.
Dean, Rochester, England

"Uefa president, Lennart Johansson, said women's football should be sold on sex appeal". This is indeed sexist, but isn't this how David Beckham was sold to the public and, specifically, to women?
John Rogers, Bristol, England

What twaddle from Neil Talbott ! I am a rugby referee in Somerset, where we have a lady referee, Clare Daniels, who recently officiated in the Women's World Cup. Ask any man who has played in a match refereed by Clare and they will tell you that she is top notch. Keeping up with play is 90% about alertness, not speed, hence the success of Bobby Moore...
Graham Turner, Bath

Neil Talbott's comment is exactly the point of this piece. How many 'bad' decisions are made every week by male officials? I don't remember anyone suggesting that their mistakes mean that no men should be on the pitch. Referees make errors - male or female. And as for women's fitness, that's just a non-starter - clearly they can keep up, or they wouldn't be judged match fit. As long as people like this are still Neanderthal about women playing football, nothing will ever change.
Chryseis, Greenwich, UK

From my observations, many male fourth officials cannot keep up with play, hence the numerous dodgy offside and penalty decisions...
Emma, Liverpool

Come on Neil, you know as well as anyone that professional referees are fitness tested regularly. If any official, male or female, failed to pass the bleep test for a certain level, they wouldn't be able to play at that level. That's a poor excuse to disguise what you really mean - that you think women don't have a place in football. And what positive discrimination was employed in the promotion of Graham Poll to World Cup standard?! Amy Rayner on the other hand is regarded as one of the best Conference refs, and lads like Poll need all the competition they can get!
Catherine , Exeter

Very few people in this country pay attention to women's football. The Women's FA website states that in December 2001, 4000 people watched one Southhampton ladies game (and appears to be the record for attendance at a ladies game). Imagine if a male Premiership club had got an audience of 4,000 for a game around Christmas; they would never live it down. We should not pretend that women's football is anywhere near as popular or as skilled as the men's version. As to having female referees, I have no problem so long as they meet the same standards as men do.
Michael Slater, Devizes, Wiltshire, UK

The stupid and offensive comments made by Mike Newell should not be tolerated. Personally I think he should be sacked but at the very least his comments should be roundly condemned and disciplinary action taken against him. Given the existence of something called the Sex Discrimination Act, what Newell was proposing was totally illegal anyway. The FA should deliver a clear message that there is no place for such blatant sexism in football.
Lauren Thompson, London

Come out of the dark ages Neil Talbott. If linesmen were expected to have very good acceleration and top speed to keep up with the last defender 90% of the fat middle aged blokes running the line every weekend in this country would have to give up! Just like male officials, there are good and bad female officials. The more women officials you see in the game, the more you'll realise this. Come on FA more competent officials whether they're male of female.
Gill O'Brien, Liverpool

Mike Newell had it about right although he could have said it better. Women aren't interested in football until it gives them something to rant on about to do with equality and all that rubbish. Women's football does not belong in the spotlight as there is not enough interest to sustain it. Lets try to keep some perspective and let women have their fun on their own time and away from the public glare.
Tim, Paignton, Devon

Since I began watching football 40 years ago almost all officials have been male and most have been awful. Can women be any worse? At least they may do less ego tripping than some of the men officiating these days.
Roy Smith, Birmingham

As a female, I suppose I should be expected to object strongly to Mike Newell's comments...but having seen Ms Amy Rayner 'officiate' at 2 games for Kidderminster Harriers I would like to say that she is simply not good enough. This is yet another example of positive discrimination gone wrong. At Conference level, she has proven again and again that she is not up the grade yet she is rewarded by running the line at Luton. Maybe the point here isn't so much she can't adequately do the job because she is the female...the point is she cannot do the job adequately full stop. Personally, I think her appearance at a Kiddy Harriers game, officiating in any way would spark a mini-riot. She's just not good enough...
Chris Williams, Kidderminster

I'm sure Neil Talbott could outsprint Kelly Holmes. No need to ask him to run the line with such a dinosaur attitude.
Mark Batty, Keighley, W Yorks

I'd rather see women officials than some of the myopic and subjective specimens on display at the moment. As for running the line, I doubt Paula Radcliffe's running abilities are unique among women. The male players are probably scared of being told off and not knowing how to answer back.
Jeremy Broadribb, Horsham UK

I always find this argument interesting, do men want to watch women play football? Women do if they like football, but men proclaim that women are no good at the game, so therefore they are not fun to watch. I feel that if any of the women's football teams of Britain were given the same amount of pay and the same devotion to training, they could be equally as good as any man. If Beckham or any other top male player had to work parttime etc, he would certainly not be the man he is today.
Heather, Wolverhampton

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