England Women

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A Brief History of the Women’s Game

Women’s football in England has been through huge contrasting extremes; from being very popular in the early twentieth century to falling into near oblivion following the World War. It faced jealous scaremongering, sexism, ridicule and a ban with little or no help from the Football Association for many decades. With the game at its peak, in the 1920s the FA prohibited all women’s teams from playing on their affiliated grounds citing football as “quite unsuitable” for the female body. Teams were forced into disbanding at a time when they were pulling in crowds as big as the top men’s sides. The consequences were felt for pretty much seventy years as the game struggled to recovere. Without the FA’s backing, they had to create their own structures as, firstly, The English Ladies’ Football Association then, in 1969, The Women’s Football Association tried to resurrect the game. A national team and a League existed but was largely volunteer based and received no television exposure. Contrast this to the men’s game when national and regional highlights were booming on both BBC and ITV following England’s 1966 World Cup victory. UEFA stepped in to try to remove some of the FA’s restrictions on the women’s game; a national Cup was formed in 1970 – now known as the Women’s FA Cup – and slow progress was underway to get the sport on its feet again. On a couple of occasions, brief highlights of the Final were shown during the men’s equivalent on BBC Cup Final Grandstand in 1976 and 1977 but seemingly that was it. Under the stewardship of the WFA, the England Women’s team played their first ever official international fixture; winning three-two against Scotland in November 1972 (pictured below, footage from Associated Press), exactly a century after the first men’s international. A handful of international friendlies were played in each subsequent year across Europe before UEFA began their first formal tournament in 1984; the European Competition for Women’s Football. Although this received no televison coverage in this country, England actually reached the two-legged Final and only lost to Sweden on penalties.

England Women v Scotland Women 1972

Britain’s second commercial broadcaster, Channel 4, launched in 1982 with a remit of providing alternative programming with a focus on minority groups.  Eventually this moved round to getting in on the football act with highlights of the Women’s FA Cup Finals broadcast on their service between 1989 and 1993. At the same time the men’s game was about to embark on a meteoric rise which changed the face of the sport forever, with the launch of Sky Sports and the Premier League. In 1991 the Women’s National League was formed, which would go on to become the Women’s Premier League under the FA’s guidance the following season, as the assocation finally got back on board and formally lifted their ban. With their support and resource the women’s game would make huge strides throughout the 1990s both domestically and internationally. In 1995 the England side reached the Quarter Finals of the Women’s World Cup and gained national exposure on the BBC, albeit through brief late-night highlights after the men’s matches. Sky added Live Women’s FA Cup Finals and England internationals to their ever-growing portfolio of football from 1994, beaming domestic fixtures direct to living rooms for the first time. By the dawn of the new Millennium research figures from the FA told of close to a quarter of a million women were playing football in the UK, compared to just seven thousand a decade earlier. The sport was on the up and benefitted further in 2002 when the BBC began broadcasting the Women’s FA Cup Final Live on free-to-air television. The showpiece event remained with the Beeb until 2009 where ITV took over, before ending back up where it began on Sky in 2010 for a further three seasons. As of 2013 the FA Cup Final was back Live on the BBC again with Wembley hosting from 2015 (pictured below), marking a new era for the domestic game.

WFAC 2015 Final

At international level, after reaching the Final in the inaugural European competition in 1984, subsequent UEFA tournament appearances in 1987 and 1995 didn’t bring too much joy and zero media exposure for England. The competition didn’t really find its feet until the 2001 event when it expanded from four to eight teams and was held centrally over the course of a few weeks instead of sporadically across the season for the first time. England didn’t win a match but were given the honour of hosting it four years later. Euro 2005 was a landmark event in the coverage of the competition in the UK, as host broadcaster British Eurosport showed every match Live whilst the BBC brought England’s matches Live to a terrestrial audience for the first time. They also showed the Final along with nightly highlights programmes. The men had enjoyed this sort of coverage for decades but this demonstrated a huge leap forward for the Women’s Euros, even if the hosts didn’t fare too well. England improved dramatically on the international stage over the next decade, reaching Quarter Finals of World Cups and the Final of Euro 2009. BBC output concentrated largely on England’s matches during this period, with mixed reviews of the coverage. Whilst the Lionesses were roaring, the FA were keen to capitalise and expand.

2011 saw the rebranding of the top flight – the FA Women’s Super League. Prior to this restructuring, League fixtures had never been shown Live on television. Satellite broadcaster ESPN covered six to ten Live matches each season before they were consumed by BT Sport two years later, who continued to grow the sport on their screens. The 2012 Olympics in London provided another huge platform for women’s football at Team GB competed for the first time. Hope Powell’s side beat Brazil at Wembley (pictured below) in front of 70,000 to reach the Quarter Finals, where Canada ended the dream. With a side made up of mostly England players pulling in the crowds, it was clear there was a real apetite for the women’s game in this country. The BBC comprehensively covered the 2015 Women’s World Cup, with all games available across their digital platforms. As England won Bronze in Canada, television audiences stayed up late in big numbers to cheers them on. This set the blueprint for future tournaments to come, with proper coverage of the whole thing instead of just selected tidbits and ad-hoc deals. By 2018 the WSL expanded to a fully professional top-flight for the first time, supported by a fledgling second tier Championship. Live games were available every matchweek as well as regular magazine programmes and national media coverage. The women’s game worked extremely hard to get to that point and television, eventually, played a big role in pushing it to the next level.

GB Brazil 2012

Introduction Sources; University of Leicester publication, Wikipedia, New Statesman article, England Lionesses website

 

The trophies below link to pages chronicling the England Women’s team at tournaments.

For the European Championships, click the silver trophy. For the World Cups, click the gold trophy.

Womens Euros             Womens World Cup 


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Here, I chart my own adventures attending matches following the England Women’s team. Without a designated home stadium, the Lionesses travelled up and down the country and what better way to start showing my support than at my club Brighton’s magnificent arena.
#1 Montenegro (W9-0) Saturday 05/04/2014

#2

Argentina (W1-0) Friday 14/06/2019 DJVL3667.JPG

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The Amex, Brighton World Cup 2015 Qualifier

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Stade Oceane, Le Havre World Cup 2019 Group D
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