The year is 1920. It’s Boxing Day and Goodison Park stadium in Liverpool is packed to the rafters with 53,000 supporters.
As many as 14,000 fans have been left outside, unable to get into the ground.
However, this capacity crowd is not there to see the male players of two-time First Division and 1906 FA Cup champions, Everton.
Instead, they have come to catch a glimpse of an amateur women’s team, albeit arguably the best women’s team of all time, Dick, Kerr Ladies.
Yet, despite the people voting with their feet by flocking to see them play across the world, what should be looked back on as one of the crowning glories of football instead holds bittersweet memories as that success sowed the seeds for a ban that would devastate the women’s game for half a century.
Women’s football was pushed to the fore in the early 20th century.
During World War I, with men taken from factories and sent to the killing fields of the Western Front, women stepped up to take their place to ensure Britain’s industrial might was repurposed to supply troops on the continent.
As the female workforce grew — particularly in munitions factories, where they were referred to as the Munitionettes — a large number took up football as a form of after-work extracurricular activity.
There were knock-on effects on these new teams.
Since 1915, men’s league football in England had been suspended, leading to a dearth of sporting entertainment for those at home.
With funds for military hospitals running desperately low, female factory teams were approached to play fundraising — and morale-boosting — football matches.
They proved to be very popular.
In Dick, Kerr Ladies first match against Arundel Coulthard Foundry, 10,000 supporters flocked to Preston North End’s Deepdale stadium on Christmas Day, 1917.
The match raised a colossal 600 pounds — which equates to roughly 26,358 pounds today ($46,800) — for the local Moor Park Military Hospital.
The ladies never looked back.
Gail Newsham grew up in Preston, a stone’s throw from the site of the Dick, Kerr factory.
Despite being a local, she knew little of the world-famous trailblazers that lived and played on her doorstep until a chance meeting with a former player in 1991 sparked a drive to preserve the team’s memory.
After two decades of research, Newsham said there was one reason for their success. Their ability.
“When I was doing my research in the early 90s, I met a couple of gentlemen who had seen the Dick, Kerr Ladies play,” Newsham said.
“I asked one of them why he wanted to watch the Dick, Kerr Ladies.
“There was nothing gender related, wanting to see women in shorts, anything like that. It was the quality of the football that made him want to go, and that’s why he went.”
He was not alone.
Dick, Kerr Ladies became a big drawcard across the United Kingdom and overseas, as one of the first recognised women’s international teams.
The team hosted a French side from Paris in the north-west and London, raising money for the National Association of Discharged and Disabled Soldiers and Sailors.
They then travelled to France, becoming the first women’s team from the UK to partake in an overseas tour, playing matches in Paris, Roubaix, Le Havre and Rouen in front of a total of over 62,000 spectators.
Back home, they played the first-ever women’s match under floodlights at Deepdale — for which they borrowed two anti-aircraft lights with permission from the secretary of state for war, Winston Churchill.
A world record crowd at Goodison Park
With support for Dick, Kerr Ladies continuing to grow, the team met St Helens Ladies on Boxing Day 1920 at Everton’s Goodison Park.
Crowds had always been healthy for these charity matches, but the Goodison game was something else.
“I don’t think anyone dreamt at how big it would be,” Newsham said.
The 53,000 fans in attendance that day set a record for women’s football that was only beaten last year, when 60,739 people saw Atlético Madrid host Barcelona at the Wanda Metropolitano in March 2019.
The Boxing Day match alone raised 3,115 pounds for charity, or 140,143 pounds in today’s money ($248,830).
Newsham said there was not a lot written about that particular match, but there were still some interesting subplots.
Star striker Florrie Redford missed the train to Liverpool, leaving Dick, Kerr Ladies with something of an issue up front.
Jennie Harris was moved to centre forward and scored the only goal of the first half to give Dick, Kerr Ladies the lead at the break.
In the second half though, a hat-trick from “captain fantastic” and right back Alice Kell completed a 4-0 victory.
Throughout 1921, the matches came thick and fast for Dick, Kerr Ladies, but storm clouds were brewing for the women’s game.
League football had resumed in 1919 after the Great War, with men coming back from the front to resume their former lives.
However, in every aspect of life in 1920’s Britain, women were finding their voice in society. Suffrage had been granted to women over the age of 30 in 1918 — although genuine equality only came in 1928 with universal suffrage for those aged over 21.
However, in sport, patriarchy still ruled.
The Football League — men’s, there was no women’s league despite its evident popularity — at that point was made up of 44 teams, in two divisions of 22 teams each.
In 1920/21, the Football League absorbed the Southern League to create the Third Division, increasing the number of clubs playing nationally to 66.
The year after, they added a further 20 clubs and split the Third Division into North and South regions.
The pie was being sliced into increasingly smaller pieces — and the game’s powerbrokers felt that the women’s slice was getting too large.
On December 5, 1921, just under a year after the spectacularly successful match at Goodison Park, the Football Association (FA) banned women from using its grounds, saying football was “quite unsuitable for females and ought not to be encouraged”.
The FA did not recognise women’s football again in any form until 1969, almost 50 years later.
Incidentally, Australia’s governing body followed suit in 1922, although Fiona Crawford and Lee McGowan write in their book, Never Say Die, that the “fragmented state-based structure … meant the ban was not directly or effectively put in place”.
Newsham believes it was likely that the success of the match at Goodison Park was the “death knell” for the women’s game in England.
“It’s only my personal opinion, from talking to the women who played before the ban, but they said they thought the FA were jealous because they were getting bigger crowds,” Newsham said.
“I don’t know the crowd for the men’s game, but even so, whatever it was, they were coming out the following day in those numbers to watch a women’s football match. I think that may be the start of it.
“It’s just my view, based on what the women who were there told me.
“It would have sent shockwaves across the country.”
Contemporary newspaper reports showed the FA’s decision was met by backlash from male sports stars, but their pleas to let the women continue to play fell on deaf ears.
Dick, Kerr Ladies soldiered on despite the ban — helped by the company owning a modest ground that the ladies were given permission to use, as well as playing in rugby grounds or even inside greyhound tracks.
“A lot of them said they would carry on playing as long as the charities needed them and as long as the public wanted to come and watch them, which they did,” Newsham said.
With home fields all but barred to the Dick, Kerr Ladies, the team toured the United States in 1922.
The team was renamed as Preston Ladies in 1926 and continued to provide a home team for talented players right the way through until the team folded in 1965.
“Lizzy Ackers, who played for St Helens before the ban, told me that she felt a bit inferior to the players when she joined,” Newsham said.
“She said, ‘We were famous and everyone wanted to see us’. I can still see the glint in her eye when she told me that.”
A century before the all-conquering US Women’s National Team, Dick, Kerr Ladies could lay claim to being the best women’s team of all time.
Its players were stars, be it centre-back and captain Alice Kell, through to goalscoring duo Florrie Redford and Jennie Harris.
Then there’s Lily Parr, the first woman to be inducted into the National Football Museum’s hall of fame in 2002.
She even had a statue commissioned of her — another first for the UK — and in 2021 will have an entire exhibit dedicated to her.
Rachel Maidment from the Association of Independent Museums, which helped fund the exhibit, described Parr as “an inspiration to generations both on and off the field”.
However, the truth is that with the ban in place, women like Parr were hidden away, unable to become the role models they could have, and perhaps should have been.
“Imagine saying to Sam Kerr, or Steph Houghton, or Megan Rapinoe, ‘That’s it, you’re not playing any more. You’re done’,” Newsham said.
“Imagine saying that to them. Because that’s what happened to those women. Is that fair?”
A double-edged sword
Newsham said it was about time the trailblazers of women’s football were now being recognised, not just Dick, Kerr Ladies.
With women’s football now soaring in popularity across the world, Newsham admitted to being envious of the current crop of players, who are being embraced and made into the stars they deserve to be.
“It’s a double-edged sword really,” Newsham said.
“I’m thrilled because nobody can tell me women’s football isn’t entertaining.
“I’ve been a flag-waver for women’s football all my life … and I remember how it was for us.
“We had nowhere to go. We had no role models. If I were playing as a kid, I would be Bobby Charlton.
Newsham has dedicated herself to ensuring people know about the women that the officials forgot.
It’s her research, through her book and website, that resulted in Lily Parr being recognised as a genuine footballing pioneer, alongside her teammates.
She said people needed to be reminded of the history to appreciate the present.
“Generations of people in this country have been brought up believing that football is not a game for women,” Newsham said.
“It’s been perpetuated throughout the generations and that’s how we’ve been brought up, and a lot of people still perceive it to be like that today.
“Only when you realise how great we once were, can you understand how great we can be again.”
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