If there’s one thing football fans love to do, it’s to argue about their favourites in the context of the best players of all time.
Even with “Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo?!” dominating conversation for the last decade, greats from past eras like Pele and Johan Cruyff will always feature high up such lists. Even though many were not around during Pele’s heyday, there is an understanding that he and Brazil teammate Garrincha were two of the greatest to take to a football pitch. So too, there are fans who may only know Zinedine Zidane as the Real Madrid coach with a penchant for impossibly tight trousers, but there is at least clear footage of the former player doing what he did best with the ball.
So, for some, there is simply the legend around a player’s name, and for others there is at least video of their highlights, but that’s only true in the men’s game. For women’s football — for so long confined to the shadows and one line or two on a result if you were lucky — there is merely misty-eyed memories of those who were around to see the forbearers of the modern game.
Some in England may know vaguely of Dick, Kerr Ladies FC, who were all but one of the first unofficial England teams. The names Lily Parr or Alice Kell may ring a distant bell, and had it not been for the tireless work of historians like Professor Jean Williams, their legacy would be all but lost. Yet, as never officially recognised by the FA, England’s governing body of football, that once-great team and those who played as employees of the Dick, Kerr & Co. exist in a grey area, a handful of black-and-white photos and century old Pathé newsreel.
The year after Dick, Kerr held the first international game of women’s football against a French team circa 1920, The FA banned women’s football — a ban that remained for the next 50 years, pushing the sport into the shadows and recesses of history. Fans now wearing Lucy Bronze and Alessia Russo shirts aren’t going to think to add Parr and Kell to their list of the greatest female players.
However, even many of those who fly under the banner of official England players and have recently been recognised by the FA for their commitment to the badge will be beyond the periphery of many fans. For those who have revelled in the Lionesses’ Euros victory this summer, some may not have been lucky enough to see Kelly Smith before she hung her boots up in 2017. The former England and Arsenal star is widely regarded as one of the greats of the modern game, yet for new fans, she might as well have been from the same era as Alfredo Di Stefano.
As a show of respect and thanks, the FA set out to bring in from the cold, as it were, those former Lionesses who had never fully been honoured for their work and celebrate all those who had represented England at senior level. The celebration was intended to (almost) align with the 50th anniversary of the first official England international match after the ban on women’s football in England was lifted: a 3-2 win over Scotland (who else?) on Nov.18, 1972.
A handful of the former players — some from that early ’70s squad through to those playing in the late ’90s — were in attendance at England’s training base ahead of their friendly 2-1 win over the U.S. last month. With all who were available brought out at half-time of that match, the former players, young and old were allowed to do a lap of the Wembley pitch, behind the advertising boards, well away from the hallowed turf.
There was also a small ceremony with players from that first official squad presented with caps to commemorate the achievement. But at half-time on a cold October evening, many of the fans in the stands had already gone inside in search of food or toilets, making the token gesture seem all the more hollow.
In Carrie Dunn’s 2019 book, “The Pride of the Lionesses,” former England No. 1 Pauline Cope-Boanas is quoted as saying: “I’d like to think the squad that went out to ’95 [the Women’s World Cup], if we’d had the training they’ve got now, I reckon we would have won it. I’ve spoken to a couple of ex-players who think the same as well.”
It’s a sentiment that is oft found around the game: so much of the modern infrastructure the current England women’s team enjoy were the things of dreams for former players. For many, it’s not even about the support staff or understanding of proper nutrition and rehabilitation, but simply being able to train on a flat pitch or wearing boots that fit properly.
As Tracy Scragg (nee Davidson) told journalists on the day she and some of her former England teammates were invited to training: “When I played [circa 1987], we’d meet the Friday night for a game on Sunday because everybody worked, so if we’re playing at home we’d meet on a Friday night… and I remember one Friday we were around Leeds and the manager said, ‘Right, we’re just going to go for a little walk around to walk off the car journey’ and we did.”
She continued: “We were walking down a cul-de-sac, and we kind of stopped at the end and we’re stretching… imagine opening your curtains on that day and seeing like 20 England ladies in shell-suits! But it just goes to show how far the game has come and what you can achieve when you do have that support and that backing.”
The former goalkeeper went on to joke that it could have been her on “Strictly Come Dancing” rather than Alex Scott. But there remained the unanswered question: What if? What if she’d been playing in a time when she could be a full-time professional like the current players?
The tone from all the players who spoke with the media that day was of the pride they hold dear knowing they, at one point, got to wear the three lions on their chests and sing the national anthem. Being able to represent England — be it in the ’70s, ’80s or ’90s — was enough, as Wendy Owen, who was part of the first official squad, said: “We weren’t feeling hard done by — we didn’t know any different.”
Pat Chapman, another former Lioness, told ESPN: “It’s quite funny really — when we went to the last England game, I was talking to Brenda Sempare… and she is one of the best midfielders I’ve ever seen… now the difference is these [current players] are athletes, but the girls [I played with] were natural athletes.”
The words of the left winger were echoed by an unnamed journalist who, when the FA would hold charity matches featuring former players, would wax poetic about the natural ability of those who’d long since hung up their boots.
Even a long-time retired, injury riddled or out of shape (or all of the above) player — the type who blazed the trail for the current crop — those from the ’70s through to the ’00s tended to possess that magic something you’d associate with a Roberto Baggio or Franz Beckenbauer. It was a sense of the effortless in their play, even though they were never granted the chance to play professionally.
Even for fans and pundits who have been around long enough to remember watching Kelly Smith, there are those who won’t know of attacking midfielder and striker Marieanne Spacey’s exploits on the pitch. A Gunner like Smith, Spacey — who now coaches Southampton in the Women’s Championship — was one of the most gifted players to ever turn out for England, but even only having retired in 2005, her legacy is one that is known only to a select few.
There is a strange quirk in North London whereby if you mention you’re involved in women’s football to anyone, they’ll tell you their children have been coached by Rachel Yankey. For many, the former attacker who was at one point the most capped player, man or woman, to represent England is a coach and has more often than not had a hand in the development of their kids. The player who only retired in 2016, is now thought of as a coach of younger players when for so long she was one of the most intelligent players on the pitch and a player who scored some sensational goals over the years.
Before Yankey were the likes of Gill Coultard, Carol Thomas and Sheila Parker (among plenty of others) — players who’ve been remembered after their playing careers ended. They are players who still remember their days representing England with a tremendous pride, but who so few fans got to enjoy whilst they were playing. These are players who will rarely be mentioned when fans argue about the greatest players of all time.
As Pat Chapman said last month: “Lynda Hale, she had the hardest shot and if we had all this… God knows how good we would have been because we were good for our day but we were natural players — we could just play it. Do you know what I mean? No one had to teach us, we could just play it. It’s funny, isn’t it?”
On the eve of the 50th anniversary of the first official England Women’s game on Friday — that Nov. 18 game against Scotland in 1972 — the FA has tried to repair the damage done over the years by their apathy towards their women’s programme.
Beyond fully embracing the team and pushing the professional standards that have allowed the current generation to fulfil their potential, the federation made a show of recognising the work of those who went before, celebrating them at Wembley last month and introducing legacy numbers to all who’ve earned an England cap — 227 women and counting. On Thursday, the FA also announced that the results of every England women’s national team game going back to 1972 is now available online with scores, opponents and locations.
As Kay Cossington, head of women’s technical at the FA, said in a statement: “Every former player has played their part in the team’s journey and the introduction of legacy numbers is a permanent reminder of their impact and the history of the England senior women’s team. All 227 players are valued members of the ‘England family’ and we hope they can reflect with pride on being part of a small group of women who have transformed football and made an everlasting impact on society.”
So, whilst the FA have taken steps to honour those who walked the less-than-smooth path to allow the current crop of players to flourish and to tip their hats to the trailblazers, the softly spoken what-ifs will never have a satisfying answer for those who were, for so long, the forgotten Lionesses.