Women's football in England
- For more in depth, albeit general information see Football in England.
Although women's football was originally very popular in the early 20th century, after an almost terminal decline it has only been since the 1990s that the game has seen a large increase in female players, as well as in female spectators, culminating in England hosting the Women's European Championships in 2005.
It is impossible to say at what point women began to play football, just as much of the history of the men's game is uncertain. While medieval football is generally believed to have been a men's game some small evidence does exist that women were occasionally involved, with the 16th century Sir Philip Sidney briefly mentioning it in his poem A Dialogue Betweene Two Shepherds and with a ball formerly in the possession of Mary Queen of Scots believed to be the oldest football still in existence.
As football developed from a disorganised village sport into a codified game with more spectators than players at the end of the 19th century, women's football similarly developed. With women's football in Scotland seemingly more widespread than in England, a team of English women travelled to Edinburgh in May 1881 to play a short series of games against a representative Scottish side led by Helen Graham Matthews, who would end up being a pioneer for women's football south of the border. The matches served as an inauspicious start for women's football, with a riot breaking out among the game's 5,000-odd viewers, spilling onto the pitch, ending the game and shortly thereafter resulting in women being banned from playing the sport in Scotland. The ban did, however, result in Graham Matthews moving to England, where she set up a side known as the Lady Footballers, with assistance from her opposite number during the Edinburgh matches, Nettie Honeyball. Hiding her identity to avoid being linked to the disruption, she went by the name of 'Mrs Graham' until her identity was discovered in 1900.
In this period, it was not only Helen Graham Matthews leading the way for women in football, however. Honeyball herself would found a team in 1894 called the British Ladies' Football Club, a team which would have as its president Lady Florence Dixie, daughter of the 8th Marquess of Queensberry. Evidently a number of other teams existed as the Lady Footballers and the British Ladies Football Club were able to tour England, playing teams across the country. Women footballers in England were not entirely able to operate without prejudice, however, as evidenced in the way many - not least Graham Matthews - elected to play under assumed names to avoid reprisals for their participation.
The budding interest in football amongst women may initially have been seen as a benefit by football clubs. In 1885, seeking to curb the more boisterous behaviour of male spectators, Preston North End began offering free admission to women in the hope that their presence would restrain the men. This was successful, attracting 2,000 women to Preston's next match, and was rapidly adopted by other clubs around England. It became, perhaps, too successful, since by the late 1890s free entry had been entirely discontinued as clubs realised how much revenue they were losing. As women's teams continued to grow in reputation, some began to stage games on grounds used by teams of their all-male, and longer-established, counterparts, often reaching respectably high attendances. Notably, a game played in 1895 at the home of Reading and featuring the British Ladies Football Club managed to draw a crowd higher than the previous highest attendance for the men's team.
First World War
As the First World War began in Europe, women's football games began being played for charity, their profile helped by the way that, when women started to work in the munitions factories, they also began to be invited to join the remaining men's kick-arounds outside working hours. Football between men and women at work indeed spawned one famous team; observing some of the women staff having regular competitions with men over who could hit cloakroom windows more accurately during their lunch breaks, an Alfred Frankland suggested that the women form a team to play charity games. The team took the factory's name and became the well-known team Dick, Kerr's Ladies F.C.. This team would end up playing 828 games between 1917 and 1965 and raised tens of thousands of pounds for charity in its first few years, a sum equivalent to tens of millions in the 2010s. One match featuring the Dick, Kerr's Ladies team from Preston, played at Goodison Park, Liverpool on Boxing Day 1920, attracted a crowd of 53,000 with another 10–15,000 reportedly turned away because the ground was full. In north east England, the Munitionettes Cup contest in 1917-18 was another very popular event, including star goal-scorer Bella Raey.
After the First World War the idea of women's international games emerged. In 1920, Alfred Frankland arranged for a women's team organised by a French sporting governing body to tour England which was scheduled to play Dick, Kerr's Ladies at four venues in Preston, Stockport, Manchester and London. Playing to crowds in the tens of thousands, the first ever international matches between women's clubs resulted in two wins for the English side, one for the French and one draw. The series was popular enough to result in Dick, Kerr's being invited over to France for a corresponding away tour. Going unbeaten in France, the team returned home to cheering crowds lining the streets, the equal of any accolade a men's team had received.
Banning, decline and reappearance
In 1921, however, as war faded into the background, there was renewed concern about the presence of women in football. Rumours - true or not - circulated that not all the charity money raised by their teams was reaching the intended destinations. However, in a move that was widely seen as caused by jealousy of the crowds and interest in women's games which frequently exceeded that of the top men's teams, or simply fear of the renewed gender liberation campaigns, the Football Association banned all women's teams from playing on grounds affiliated to the FA because football damaged women's bodies. While a handful of teams, such as Dick, Kerr's, were able to find alternative venues, this made most teams disband and reduced spectator numbers for the few who remained.
For several decades this decision meant that women's football virtually ceased to exist. It only reversed from 1969 when, after the increased interest in football caused by England's 1966 World Cup triumph, the Women's Football Association was founded, although it would take a further two years - and an order from UEFA - to force the (men's) Football Association to remove its restrictions on the playing rights of women's teams. In the same year, the Mitre Challenge Trophy was created as the first national cup competition for women's teams in England, a competition which would eventually morph into the FA Women's Cup. It would take a further twelve years before the WFA was able to affiliate to the FA.
With women's football only growing slowly, the FA finally took a step further and brought all women's football under its direct control in 1993, although by this time the WFA had already created the Women's National League, which would become the Women's Premier League in 1992 to parallel the renaming of the top level of men's competition. As most professional men's clubs chose to create, or affiliate to, a women's team and with the sport gradually growing, in 2008 the league system received a shake-up with the announcement of a new top-level competition - the Women's Super League - which took the best eight teams following sixteen applications, placing them into a no-relegation single division, designed to draw greater exposure and money into the game. The founding of the WSL did not run without problems, however, with the league having to be delayed a year until March 2011, due to the financial instability lingering following the 2007 global recession. Nevertheless, the WSL did launch at its anticipated 2011 start date, and was successful enough to expand to a two-division, 20-team set-up in 2014.
Today, the FA directly runs the top women's competitions. The most significant national competition is the national cup, the FA Women's Cup, followed by the top national league, the FA WSL (Women's Super League). Before the formation of the WSL in 2011, the top flight was the FA Women's Premier League National Division, which later become the second-level league and has now been reorganised into the third and fourth levels of the pyramid. Originally, the Premier League champion was the only English representative allowed in Europe. When the UEFA Women's Cup was relaunched as the UEFA Women's Champions League for the 2009–10 season, England became one of eight nations with two Champions League places, a status it has retained ever since. In the first two seasons of the new Champions League, England's two places were filled by the Premier League champion and the FA Women's Cup winner. For 2011–12, the two finalists in the 2010–11 FA Women's Cup earned the Champions League places. Starting with the 2012–13 Champions League, the two berths were initially planned to go to the WSL and FA Women's Cup champions, but the FA chose instead to send the top two teams from the WSL. Women's football also has two significant secondary cup competitions. The FA WSL Cup, contested by the WSL teams, is held after the league season. The Premier League Cup, limited to the teams in the Premier League and its regional subdivisions, is held during the league season.
It should be noted here that the WSL and Premier League operate on different season structures—the WSL conducts a summer season contained entirely within a calendar year, whilst the Premier League continues to operate on the traditional winter season spanning two calendar years.
The women's football pyramid was significantly reorganised in 2014. The WSL added a second division known as WSL 2, with the original WSL becoming WSL 1. The Premier League's regional North and South Divisions became the third level of the pyramid, with the Combination Women's Football Leagues becoming the fourth level. Further changes came in 2015; the FA announced that both divisions of the WSL would expand by one team in 2016, and WSL 2 would also add a team in 2017. Significantly, the new WSL 2 entries will come via promotion from the Premier League, connecting the WSL to the rest of the pyramid for the first time.
To promote women's football, the FA allows cup finals to be held at various men's Premier League/Football League stadia throughout the country (as opposed to men's finals which are usually held at the national stadiums). In the 2013–14 season, the FA Cup final was held at MK Dons's Stadium mk, the WSL Cup final at Wycombe Wanderers' Adams Park, and the League Cup final at Burton Albion's Pirelli Stadium.
The Women's FA Cup secured its first sponsorship deal with SSE as a sign of the huge resurrection women's football has seen since London 2012. Despite sponsorship, entering the tournament actually costs clubs more than they get in prize money. In 2015 it was reported that even if Notts County had won the tournament outright the paltry £8,600 winnings would leave them out of pocket. The winners of the men's FA Cup in the same year received £1.8 million, with teams not even reaching the first round proper getting more than the women's winners.
Towards the top
The women's game in England took a hit following the 2012 Olympics after England was unable to advance from the group stages at Women's EURO 2013 in Sweden, which led to Hope Powell's departure as manager and the appointment of Welshman Mark Sampson. However, England then gave the women's game a boost that may be even bigger than the Olympic boost when they stunned many both at home and abroad by finishing third at the 2015 Women's World Cup in Canada. Along the way, they beat Norway for their first knockout stage win and then host nation Canada in front of a capacity partisan crowd in Vancouver. Following a devastating loss in the semis against defending champion Japan after a Laura Bassett own goal, the team rebounded to beat Germany for the very first time in women's football after a 1-0 extra time win in the third-place game. It meant that England had finished as the top European team at the World Cup and had recorded the second-best World Cup showing by any England senior team behind only Sir Alf Ramsey, Bobby Charlton and Bobby Moore's England men's squad famously winning the 1966 World Cup as hosts.
Many English fans spoke of being revitalized by the women's team after the men's team had crashed out of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil at the group stage, and captain and defender Steph Houghton spoke at the beginning of the tournament about how they wanted to "inspire a nation." It was also announced that the 2015 Women's FA Cup final between Chelsea Ladies and Notts County Ladies will be held at Wembley Stadium for the very first time.
The national league system in women's football in England is currently operated by The FA, with the WSL at the top. For its first three seasons (2011–2013), the WSL was operated on a licence system with no promotion or relegation, similar to the system used in rugby league's Super League. The WSL replaced the FA Women's Premier League at the top of the system. Its teams also compete for the Continental Cup.
The Premier League is divided into six leagues over two divisions: the FA Women's Premier League Northern Division and the FA Women's Premier League Southern Division sits above four Division One leagues. Teams in these two divisions compete in the Premier League Cup.
Below the Premier League are eight regional leagues. Below the regional leagues are the county leagues.
As in the men's game, some Welsh women's football clubs compete in the English pyramid. The most successful are Cardiff City and the now defunct Barry Town, both of which have played in the Women's Premiership.
With the introduction of the WSL the top four levels looked like this over the past years:
|2014 WSL 2 created
WPL National Division scrapped (2013/14)
Combination restructured into WPL (2014/15)
|1||WPL National||WSL||WSL 1|
|2||WPL North&South||WPL National||WSL 2|
|3||Combination||WPL N&S||WPL N&S|
|4||Regional||Combination||WPL Division 1|
|5||Regional Div. 1||Regional||Regional|
|1||S1||FA WSL 1
|2||S2||FA WSL 2
|3||W1||FA Women's Premier League Northern Division (WPL)
|FA Women's Premier League Southern Division
|4||W2||WPL Northern Division 1
|WPL Midlands Division 1
|WPL South West Division 1
|WPL South East Division 1
|5||W3||North West Women's Regional Football League Premier Div||North East Regional Women's Football League Premier Div||West Midlands Regional Women's Football League Premier Div||East Midlands Regional Women's Football League Premier Div||Southern Region Women's Football League Premier Division||South West Regional Women's Football League Premier Div||Eastern Region Women's Football League Premier Division||London and South East Women's Regional Football League Premier Div|
Feeding to North West Women's Regional Football League Premier Division:
Feeding to Southern Region Women's Football League Premier Division:
Feeding to North West Women's Regional Football League League Div 1:
Feeding to Southern Region Women's Football League Division 1:
Feeding to Cheshire Women's Football League Div 1:
Feeding to Hampshire WFL Div 1:
Feeding to Sheffield & Hallamshire WCFL Div 2:
Feeding to West Riding WFL Div 2:
- Football in England
- List of women's football clubs in England and Wales
- England women's national football team
- FA Women's Super League
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