Women’s Football before there was money in it

To mark the Women’s Final, here’s a piece I wrote about Arsenal Ladies, in 1996, for the Telegraph Magazine. I went to see them play a match at Highbury. They were never really welcome there, but it was United Nations’ Day. Politicians love football.

I’ve included the little bit of correspondence with my then commissioning editor. Will eventually went to Saga, or which I wrote a number of rejected pieces.

If anyone would like to check out what happened to some of these wonderful athletes, go ahead. There’s a nice follow-up for you right there. Free ideas: please take one.


From John Morrish 0181 852 6912

Will, I have rejigged this along the lines you suggested and added a few paragraphs to answer some of the queries you raised. All this has made it a bit longer, unfortunately, so feel free to prune it back. 


Arsenal Ladies

It’s the fourth round of the Cup, Arsenal are at home to Manchester United, and the fans are eagerly awaiting the kick-off. What a pity there are only about 60 of them. 

Still, 60 is a start, and they don’t look as insignificant in the little stand at Bromley FC as they would at Highbury. Arsenal Ladies play most of their home games at the non-league club’s south London ground, miles from their north London roots. The ground is small, but big enough. Women’s football has yet to capture the imagination of the sporting public. 

For all their efforts, men refuse to take the women’s game seriously, seeing it as a novelty event of the sort you might put on for charity, like sitting in a bath of cold baked beans or having all your hair shaved off. 

Seeing how small and slight most of the Arsenal players look, it is easy to underestimate them. Early on in the cup game, the ball goes high up in the air and a burst of knockabout comedy seems in prospect. 

Instead, a slim blonde in a red shirt positions herself at the end of the ball’s trajectory, catches it delicately on the inside of her right foot and brings it instantaneously to the ground, where it lies, as fat and motionless as a bag of cement. At this point it becomes apparent that a rethink is in order. 

Women’s football is growing fast. FIFA, the ruling body of world football, says it is now the most important team game for women, with some 20 million women registered as players. This summer, it makes its debut as an Olympic sport. 

In England alone there are said to be 500 women’s teams and 15,000 players. Increasingly the top women’s teams are attaching themselves to the men’s professional clubs. Croydon, Wembley, Ilkeston Town and others still survive in the women’s National Premier League, but more and more the names, and the shirts, are those you see on Match of the Day.

Taking this route has opened the door to sponsorship. Every home game costs Arsenal Ladies at least £200, including paying for the officials and refreshments for the visitors. Previously the players paid this themselves, but a sponsorship deal now takes care of it. The drawback is that they have to wear shirts that say “Ooh Ahh, Daily Star.” 

Some of the big clubs have a slightly distant relationship with their women’s sides for fear that they could prove an embarrassment, either by their behaviour, their results, or the way they play. This is not the case with Arsenal Ladies. Under the wary eye of their manager, Vic Akers, the women conduct themselves rather better than their counterparts in the men’s side. 

Manchester United Ladies, meanwhile, arrived for the UK Living Women’s FA Cup game in a coach with a couple of little notices stuck up in the side windows: “Tarts on Tour”, on one side, “Trollops on Tour” on the other. A harmless enough bit of fun, but you probably wouldn’t find the Arsenal Ladies doing it. 

For Vic, working for Arsenal is the fulfilment of a childhood dream. He sees himself as a representative of the club, and so must the girls. “What they do reflects on the club,” he says, “Whether it’s getting off the team bus and throwing something in the bin or drinking a cup of coffee and conversing with people in a roadside cafeteria in the right manner. 

“We are trying to sell the game. If other clubs take on the same kind of role we are going to get further in terms of sponsorship than we would if we go round as a rabble.”

Last season Arsenal Ladies won both league and cup. This year they had a poor start, but are now coming into their own. Certainly they dispose of Manchester United Ladies with ease. Despite the promise of their name, they are two divisions below the Arsenal side, and lose 10-0. 

Arsenal Ladies are a credit to their manager, who stresses the necessity to keep the ball on the ground, to pass and to move intelligently. A former professional with Cambridge United and Watford, he claims to be the only salaried manager in women’s football in Britain. Arsenal pay for him to run four women’s teams as a mark of their commitment to the women’s game and the local community. But even before his appointment he was working part-time with the women’s sides. His first Arsenal Ladies team began playing in 1987. 

Not for Arsenal Ladies the trench-warfare game traditionally played by their male counterparts, in which defenders spend half their time waving their arms around to call attention to the offside trap and the other half hoofing the ball somewhere, anywhere, up the field. 

“Theycoulddo that, but that’s not the way they’re taught,” says Akers. “It has always been based on passing and getting wide players involved. We’ve been playing that way for five years now, and now Premier League sides are starting to play that system as well. I find that a bit of a compliment, really.”

Playing this system, however, demands good technical skills. The women play every weekend and train twice a week on Arsenal’s indoor artificial grass pitches. Unfortunately, they aren’t allowed into the training centre until everyone else has finished with it. This means that twice a week they are having to find their way home at 10.30 or 11.00 at night, which worries the avuncular Akers, especially as some of his players are not out of their teens. 

Many of Akers’ players have come straight from school to join the under-14 team, or they have been seen playing for smaller teams and invited to join Arsenal, or they have turned up for the club’s end of season “trials”. Two of the first team squad have come further still. Rosa Serra, the goalkeeper, came over from Barcelona after being promised work by the club and somewhere to live. Conchita Sanchez, also Spanish, came in from the Italian professional league. 

Several of the current first team were successful in other sports before turning to football. Sammy Britton, a tigerish midfielder, represented Yorkshire in netball before switching to football and eventually coming south. Yvette Rean played lacrosse for England before giving it up to concentrate on football. 

“They’ve got that grounding, an eye for a ball,” says Akers. “Football comes as a secondary thing. 

“Joanna Broadhurst [an Arsenal and England midfielder], for instance, you could have put her on at half time with a ball-juggling act. There wouldn’t be many men that could do the things she does with a ball, including myself,” he says. 

“She should have been a boy,” he laughs. “In a TV programme once she stated that she was at school with a lad who went off to be a trainee at Sheffield Wednesday, which is the area she comes from, and she said ‘I was a better player than that.’ That’s probably right.”

He stresses, though, that while some might consider that a shame, the girls themselves are entirely realistic. “They would like to have a professional league, probably, but some of them won’t ever see that. But at the end of the day they want their own identity, they want the women’s game to be the women’s game; they’ve got no thoughts about playing against the men or with the men. That’s the furthest thing from their minds,” he says. 

The players are amateurs, which means they have to hold down day jobs as well as making a huge commitment to the team. Some work for Arsenal itself, which helps, but the rest have to fit their work around the demands of football, which can be difficult. 

Linda Watt, a diminutive midfielder with Mariella Frostrup hair, is a postwoman. She is on a permanent night-shift, and uses her one evening off every week for training. 

Captain Sîan Williams is a supply teacher in the gaps between Arsenal and England commitments. Yvette Rean is a doctor, currently doing psychiatry as part of her GP training. Uniquely, she played for St Thomas’s (male) second XI while at medical school.

“Yvette is built on different foundations,” explains Vic, judiciously. “I don’t think I’d like to run into Yvette. She is a real strong person. I’ve seen her run in for two challenges recently and sadly clash with the opposition, after which I’ve ended up taking one off with a split eye and the other with a broken nose.”

Women’s football at this level is different to the male game, but not in a bad way. “It’s more controlled, the aggression,” says Akers. “Although there’s no question of them not showing full commitment, they also have massive control of themselves. 

“Obviously you get the odd spark that goes up, but in the main they go in, they tackle and they get up and they get on with it. Which is good for the game, because it’s played in the right spirit.”

It is a credit to the Arsenal side’s spotless reputation that the FA decided to use one of their games as its contribution to The Day The World Played Football, an event organised to mark United Nations day last December. The idea was that matches would take place all over the world at hourly intervals across a whole weekend. Arsenal used the occasion to stage a league game against Liverpool, and were given permission to play at Highbury. 

The club kindly offered free seats in the upper part of the East Stand to any locals who wanted to attend, so attendance was higher than it often is at Bromley. The remaining three stands were totally empty. But atmosphere isn’t only about crowds. When the floodlights came on, and with the air sparkling with ice crystals, it was thrilling enough just to stand next to the touchline. To be on the pitch must have been something else again, although no-one was overawed. 

One amusing complication of the women’s game is that the managers tend to be men. Just before the Highbury game, the Liverpool manager could be heard tapping on the door of his side’s dressing room and asking “Are you decent?” This is not a phrase that’s often been heard in that setting, it seems safe to say. 

Vic has a well-worked routine. “It’s all about being sensible,” he says. “I go in and have a team talk, they are told what their numbers are, and then I pop outside while they are getting their kit on. I give it five minutes or so and then knock on the door and do strappings and things.

“There are occasions where we arrive late at the ground or something and I have to stay in the dressing room and start doing the strapping straight away. They’ll just get on with the changing and totally ignore me, as I will them. Because I’m also a physio as well: I just get on and do my job. And they know I’m not some sort of crank, anyway.” 

During the game, which Arsenal win 3-0, Akers is constantly on his feet, but his comments tend to be constructive. There are no Graham Taylor-style obscenities, nor is there any of the escalating destructiveness (“Tackle back! Close ’em down! Cut him out! Chop him! Break his legs! Kill him!”) that is so prevalent even in boys’ football.

Instead we get: “Claire, play the way you are looking … Turn it, see it early … Think, Kelly … Speed up!… One touch, go again. Feet!… In the hole, in the hole!” and other expressions even more abstruse. 

At one point, rather alarmingly, he shouts “Come on! Cheat!” It turns out that he is addressing Conchita Sanchez. At 35, Sanchez is not just the oldest player in the squad, she is also the most experienced, having played professionally in Italy. Sammy Britton, who has 20 England caps at the age of only 22, has high hopes of going abroad to play for wages, but hasn’t done anything about it yet. 

Sammy is the living reply to those who say the women’s game, though stylish, has no element of aggression. This was a good-humoured match between clubs with a tradition of friendly rivalry, but still she hobbled off with her legs a mass of ugly bruises, stud marks, scratches and grazes. “I’d like to give rugby a go,” she said afterwards, while examining her war wounds. “I like the physical side of things. Even when I played netball I found myself barging into people.”

“She’s a no-holds-barred tackler, Sammy,” says Akers, with some understatement. “She will go in where others fear to tread. But that’s always been her game; that’s her nature.”

Every team needs a couple of players like that, but for captaincy different qualities are required. This season’s captain is Sîan Williams, a 27-year-old midfielder who has not only played for England but has played professionally in the Italian women’s league. 

Her story is quite typical. She started off kicking the ball around with other boys and girls, and never quite stopped. “It wasn’t until I was about 12 that I suddenly realised that everyone else was a boy. I hadn’t thought twice about it until then.”

Luckily, her youth centre had a girls’ five-a-side team, and from there she was discovered by Millwall. 

At 18, she was on a tour of Italy with the club when a team in Calabria asked her to stay and play in their women’s league. She stayed for a couple of years. Since then she has been to Loughborough University and become a teacher. 

She joined Arsenal six seasons ago, and when she is not playing she is evangelising for the game in schools, where girls have traditionally been pushed towards hockey. “When we go into schools and introduce them to football they really enjoy it,” she says. “Anyone can kick a ball, but in hockey a lot of them miss it.”

Of course, there is kicking and kicking. The Arsenal women’s technical skills are excellent. What they lack is the sheer brute strength of the modern male player, but that’s probably a good thing. “It’s as good as the men’s game, but slower and with a bit less power,” says Sammy. “In a way I’d say it’s a better spectator sport.”

Nor is there the constant niggling that mars most men’s games. “There are some players that are a bit dirty and go in hard, that sort of thing,” says Sian. “But there are probably only one or two players in the whole league that will go out to try and hurt someone. Whereas in the men’s game you have got one or two in each team.” 

Another difference is the air of quiet concentration that accompanies the action. True, the spectators make a bit of noise. 

For the Highbury game, the East stand seemed to be largely filled with schoolchildren, and as the game progressed their voices became louder and more shrill. 

At “home” in Bromley, the sound you most hear is Vic’s voice from the touchline. That’s because unlike men, the women play quietly. “We haven’t got as many egos,” says Sian. “You find with men’s football, if someone makes a mistake they shout at everyone around them, like it’s everyone else’s fault. In women’s football you tend to find the opposite: if someone makes a mistake they’ll put their hands up to acknowledge it.”

This has caused a few problems of adjustment for Akers. He denies that he addresses the women any differently than he would men, but some of the older players tell a different story. “When Vic first started to take over,” said one, “because he’d been in men’s football, he’d played and he’d coached, he would scream at someone. In women’s football you can’t do that. Either they’ll lose confidence or they’ll answer back and it just doesn’t work.”

Vic says it’s all about management (“I say man-management, but I shouldn’t say that.”). “Some men’s managers have problems communicating because they try to shout at people who can’t take it. Some people you have to take aside and put your arm around them and talk to them one-on-one.”

This has been a difficult season for Arsenal Ladies, who like to win every game. Over the summer, Akers lost his captain, Gill Wylie, with a Gazza-style cruciate ligament injury. Then his keeper defected to Millwall. Then his England left back Michelle Curley sustained an injury. 

Finally Vic had a problem with his leading striker, Marie-Anne Spacey. She scored 15 goals in the first eight games of the season — and then announced she was pregnant. George Graham never lost a player like that, that’s for sure.