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Last Updated: Friday, 3 June, 2005, 10:24 GMT 11:24 UK
Trail-blazers who pioneered women's football
Dick, Kerr's Ladies team dated 1925
Dick, Kerr's Ladies team were the unofficial England women's team

By Shelley Alexander
Assistant editor, Football Focus

It was a full house on a remarkable Boxing Day in 1920 when 53,000 fans packed Goodison Park to watch an English football team at their best.

In fact, one player Alice Stanley recorded in her diary that another 10,000-15,000 supporters were turned away.

Yes, amazingly, it was a women's football match.

Because if you wanted skill, passion and entertainment in 1920, then you watched the Dick, Kerr's Ladies - England's unofficial team.

Dick, Kerr's was the name of the Preston munitions factory where the women worked during the First World War.

Dick, Kerr's captain misses her French counterpart in a match played at Herne Hill on 12 May 1925 in aid of shipwrecked mariners
Dick, Kerr's played France at Herne Hill on 12 May 1925 to raise money for shipwrecked mariners

In 1917 a team was put together to raise money to help injured servicemen - it went on to beat opposition from all over Britain, to win in France, and to snatch a 5-4 victory against a men's team in the United States.

I first came across this marvellous story more than a decade ago when I was researching Kicking and Screaming, the BBC's history of football documentary.

Gail Newsham, a Preston footballer herself, had just written the story of the Dick, Kerr's Ladies: "The team not only regularly drew large crowds but raised more than 70,000 for ex-servicemen, hospitals and needy children", she explained.

That's about 14m in today's money.

Ironically it was this popularity - their crowds were often bigger than men's games being played on the same day - which played a part in the downfall of women's football.

Not only did many at the Football Association think that the women's game was becoming "too showbiz", there were also mutterings of the rough and tumble not being good for lasses.

Dick, Kerr's Ladies (in white) v France dated 1925
There were mutterings of rough and tumble not being good for lasses

So less than a year after the Goodison game, the Dick, Kerr's Ladies, as well as all the other teams that had sprung up around Britain, lost their official recognition.

Not actually barred outright, but banned from all FA-affiliated grounds.

This sent the women's game onto muddy fields and into obscurity until the ban was rescinded in 1969.

It was a setback that did huge damage to the women's game in Britain - it was left to struggle on its own until as late as 1993 when the FA took over its administration and funding.

And it left an enduring legacy that can at least be partly blamed for the fact the sport still has a battle for credibility that simply does not exist in other countries such as Scandanivia and the USA.

Twelve years ago, I had the privilege of meeting Dick, Kerr's right half Alice Barlow, then in her eighties.

Players from the German national team - the top side in the world
The sport has come a long way since the 1920s

Alice recalled the day in 1921 when the team was told of the FA's decision.

"It came as a shock...and we could only put it down to jealousy. We were more popular than the men and our bigger gates were for charity.

"I don't swear so I can't tell you what some of the team said but it was sad because it had been such happy times"

Alice went back to being a spectator on the terraces at Preston North End but not before the team organised a float to Blackpool where they displayed all their cups.

"A group of ex-serviceman saw us and they all stood up and saluted us. It made it all worthwhile."

Shelley Alexander is the assistant editor of Football Focus. She is writing a novel based on the women footballers of the 1920s.

The Dick, Kerr's Ladies story will be featured as part of the BBC2 coverage of the Women's European Championship which starts on Sunday 5 June in Manchester.

The National Football Museum in Preston is running a special exhibition on women's football during the tournament.

If you have any stories, memories, photos or information about women's football in the early years, let us know using the form below.

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