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Illustration by Mali Read

The FSA - supporting the women's game

On Boxing Day 1920 53,000 supporters packed into Goodison Park to watch Preston’s Dick, Kerr Ladies FC take on St Helens Ladies. Yet within a year the FA had banned women’s football, arguing it was “unsuitable for females”, a ludicrous decision which wasn’t overturned until 1971. 

The FSA marked this anniversary by planning a series of activities throughout the year designed to raise the profile of the women’s game and support matchgoing fans. Read on for our round-up of the year’s highlights and activities…

Spring

The first few months of the year saw the FSA’s Women’s Game Network (which had been formally established in December 2020) get to work, making big plans for the year ahead.

The FSA is firmly committed to raising the profile of the women’s game and, as part of that process, we were really pleased to hold our first ever women’s game specific Parliamentary event in April. Tracey Crouch MP was joined by DM Withers (Bristol City Supporters’ Club & Trust), Rodney Cyrus (On And Off Pitch podcast) and Suzy Wrack (The Guardian). 

Summer

In June supporters on our Women’s Game Network met with Tracey Crouch’s fan-led review to talk about the big issues facing the sport. “The fan-led review was a great opportunity to voice some of the concerns we, as supporters of women’s football, have about the current status of the game,” said D-M Withers of Bristol City Supporters Club and Trust.

Things really started to ramp up in August as the FSA took part in a double-header of pre-season games in Manchester and the south east to promote our community-owned clubs and the women’s game by celebrating the 50th anniversary of the ban on women’s football being lifted.

FSA Women’s Game Network manager Deborah Dilworth said: “We spoke to a number of supporters on the day who were not aware of the ban and were quite shocked by it and the history around it – this is the exact reason we were there, to help spread the word.”

Did you know women’s football was banned for 50 years? It’s a story that wasn’t really known but, thanks to the growth in popularity of the women’s game, more and more people are asking why such a thing happened and what its long term effects were. There are now loads of plays, performances, books and videos on the subject which we promoted here.

We regularly survey members and 86% of supporters in the women’s game told us they were excited to return to football for their first full season since the pandemic started in 2020. Supporters said that the matchday atmosphere was what they missed most (88%), followed by celebrating goals with friends and family (75%) and socialising with friends and family (39%).

Autumn

Next summer will see the Women’s European Championship taking place in England – and we asked FSA members if they’d like to be one of UEFA’s 1,500-strong volunteer workforce.

Of course the FSA will be running our own initiatives for the Euros too. So when England and Northern Ireland faced each other in October it presented a dry run to prepare for the same fixture at next year’s tournament – and it was a pleasure to welcome the Amalgamation of Northern Ireland Supporters Clubs.

In late November we also reported on the FA’s new Women’s Professional Game Strategy which committed to working with supporters’ organisations and growing the game.

Deborah Dilworth, women’s game development lead at the FSA, said: “We believe this is the FA’s first commitment directly relating to fan groups in the women’s game, which is vital as we believe supporters should be part of the decision making process in football.”

The annual Women’s Football Weekend took place 14th-15th November and, if the FSA’s Twitter feed is anything to go by, it’s getting bigger and better. Our timeline was swamped by so many good images of supporters at games, displaying FSA-created banners. Brilliant.

November also marked a significant moment as the Women’s Game Network continued to build influential links within the game when it met with Baroness Campbell, director of women’s football at the FA.

Winter

As the year came to a close we were delighted to team up with the National Football Museum to mark Sunday December 5th 2021 – an historic day in English football, 100 years to the day since the FA banned women’s football from its clubs’ stadiums in 1921.

A panel discussion, hosted by Anita Nneka Jones, featured Carol Thomas (NFM Hall of Famer, former-England Captain), Liz Ward (director of programmes at Stonewall) and Professor Jean Williams (author of ‘A History of Women’s Football’). With further contributions from (National Football Museum curator) Belinda Scarlett and the FSA’s Deborah Dilworth.

FSA associates Since 71 also came up with some nifty limited edition shirts, designed by Kit and Bone, which are well worth a plug. All profits are reinvested in the women’s game.

The Fans for Diversity campaign continued to support women’s football too, creating some warm up shirts for Pilkington FC Women to mark the lifting of the ban. 

Our associates #HerGameToo inspired many girls and women to get involved in football this year as well, a good example being the student reporter initiative at Wycombe Wanderers which saw three pupils produce weekly match highlights video reports for the club’s women’s teams.

Why this matters – a case study

We’d also like to finish our annual round-up by pointing out that while much of the discussion around the women’s game ban might feel historic, the effects still reverberate to this day. Speak to female fans who lived through that and their experiences become clear.

Anne Ellwood is vice chair at Accrington Stanley Community Trust but back in the day she was a goalkeeper for the famous Preston North End Ladies. 

“My journey in the world of football began in the 1960s, in an era when girls and women playing football wasn’t the ‘norm’. I recall a memory of being told that had I been a boy, I’d have been sent for a trial at Everton! But the opportunity to play for a [youth] team just wasn’t there.

“There was a lack of support for the women’s game,” says Anne, who decided to do something about that. “In 1979 I gained my FA Level 2 coaching badge with the Lancashire FA, becoming the first woman in the county to gain it.”

Following that Anne spent her life volunteering across the game – playing once the ban was lifted, reffing in the junior leagues, coaching, working in boys and girls youth football and, more recently, establishing the Accrington Stanley Community Trust Ladies team.

Anne’s attitude to adversity is amazing but how many young girls from the 1920s to the 1970s – when women’s football was banned – were lost to the game? How many elite players, coaches and generations of fans just never got the chance to experience football like boys did? 

Football has a duty to invest and promote the women’s game to make up for those lost decades and help it take its natural, high profile, position within the sporting landscape. 

The FSA is fully committed to that – here’s to more of the same in 2022.

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2021: An historic year for the women’s game

On Boxing Day 1920 53,000 fans, with more supporters waiting outside, packed into Goodison Park to watch Preston’s Dick, Kerr Ladies FC take on St Helens Ladies. Rather than build on that popularity the FA chose, within a year, to ban women’s football from its clubs’ stadiums.

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