From Lily Parr to Lucy Bronze: the evolution of England's Lionesses

At the World Cup, England are making up for lost time after a 50-year ban on women playing football competitively. This is the story of a blooming women’s soccer culture in the early 1900s that was stopped in its tracks by the country’s own FA.

"Are you ready to win a World Cup?"

Those were the words from head coach Phil Neville to his players after England’s convincing 3-0 win against Norway in the quarter-finals of the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup.

It didn't quite happen this time, as a heartbreaking 2-1 defeat to the United States saw them go out at the semi-final stage for the third major tournament in succession.

A marginal offside decision on VAR, ruling out Ellen White's goal, and Steph Houghton's missed penalty, cost the Lionesses dear.

But England showed why they are one of the top teams in the world with their exploits earning Great Britain a place at Tokyo 2020.

And former Manchester United and England men's utility player Neville has boldly stated his team's aim to "bring football home”.

The phrase 'Football's Coming Home' was coined by comedians-turned-singers Baddiel and Skinner in their number one song 'Three Lions', released ahead of the men's European Championships in 1996 held in England.

It referred to "30 years of hurt" since England's 1966 World Cup triumph.

That 30 is now 53 with the men's team falling at the semi-finals last year in Russia under Gareth Southgate.

The women's team, coach by his former international team-mate, also fell in the last four at a World Cup.

It will be 54 next year when Neville bids to win Olympic gold with Great Britain and deliver long overdue success for the home of the most popular football league in the world.

England team v France at 'Le Tournoi' in June 1997 with Gareth Southgate (#5) in back row and Phil Neville in front (#14)
England team v France at 'Le Tournoi' in June 1997 with Gareth Southgate (#5) in back row and Phil Neville in front (#14)England team v France at 'Le Tournoi' in June 1997 with Gareth Southgate (#5) in back row and Phil Neville in front (#14)

But this is about more than just a recent upturn in the fortunes of the side.

This is the story of how a nation rediscovered its love of women's football after it was cruelly cut off in its prime by sexism in the corridors of power at the English Football Association (FA).

The rise and fall of English women’s football

Women's World Cup year has seen the game gain huge interest in parts of the world, with Atletico Madrid's Liga Femenina clash with Barcelona attracting a record crowd for a women's club game.

Madrid plays host to women's club football history

Madrid plays host to women's club football history

The English Women’s Super League has also thrived in terms of professionalism and popularity, with the FA announcing its first ever title sponsor from next season.

But you don't have to go back too far to find an FA which was openly hostile to the women's game.

Women's football is finally blooming again in the cradle of association football, after it was banned from 1921 until 1971.

Yes, you read that correctly. Women's football was banned in England for 50 years by the FA.

According to History Extra, the roots of women's football run deep in Britain.

In the 18th century in the Scottish city of Inverness, "single women played an annual match against against their married counterparts".

Some accounts of these games state the majority of the spectators were single men who hoped to find a wife based on their footballing prowess.

South of the border in England, women's football later established a strong supporter base.

And the beginning of World War One heralded a boom in soccer (a shortened form of association football and not an Americanism as widely thought) among female players.

The Harrodian Ladies team gather for training in Barnes, SW London in November 1917
The Harrodian Ladies team gather for training in Barnes, SW London in November 1917The Harrodian Ladies team gather for training in Barnes, SW London in November 1917

The men's Football League was suspended after the 1914-15 season with most of the players joining the British forces in WWI.

Women signed up too, with many of them working at munitions factories to produce the weaponry used in the war effort.

Like the men before them, they played football in their lunch breaks and eventually started to have organised matches.

The most successful club was Dick, Kerr Ladies FC, the works team for the locomotive company Dick, Kerr & Co.

Founded in 1917, they drew a crowd of 10,000 on Christmas Day at Deepdale, the home of Preston North End, when they beat Arundel Coulthard Factory 4-0.

In 1920, after WWI had ended, England had around 150 women’s teams.

That year, at least 10,000 fans were locked out of Everton's Goodison Park as Kerr's Ladies attracted a capacity crowd of 53,000 to the Liverpool stadium.

They then played what has gone down as the first women's international, against a French side hailing from Paris.

Dick, Kerr Ladies' FC (white) take on a French women's team at Herne Hill, London in May 1925
Dick, Kerr Ladies' FC (white) take on a French women's team at Herne Hill, London in May 1925Dick, Kerr Ladies' FC (white) take on a French women's team at Herne Hill, London in May 1925

In 1938, after a fall-out with the factory's ownership, Dick, Kerr's Ladies changed their name to Preston Ladies.

Lily Parr - Pele and 'Pinoe wrapped into one

The Kerr’s side had a superstar in the shape of Lily Parr.

Lily Parr with a javelin while training with Preston Ladies in 1935
Lily Parr with a javelin while training with Preston Ladies in 1935Lily Parr with a javelin while training with Preston Ladies in 1935

Openly gay, uncompromising, and blessed with a powerful left foot as well as a wicked sense of humour, Parr could be described as the Megan Rapinoe of her day.

Her goalscoring record and longevity was second to none, despite a chainsmoking habit which led to cigarettes being part of her payment.

According to Britain's National Football Museum, Parr scored "around 1,000" goals in a career spanning 31 years, although other sources claim that total was nearer 900.

On a tour of the United States with Kerr's, who played nine men's teams on their travels, she was described in a newspaper report as "the most brilliant female player in the world".

That tour in 1922 was supposed to cover North America but the Canadian FA, at the behest of the English FA, prevented them playing.

Parr once struck a penalty so hard she broke the arm of a professional male goalkeeper, and was the first woman to be sent off in an official game for fighting.

Women's football had arrived, but the FA - an organisation then largely concerned with the men's game - was unhappy at its potential for prompting a decline in Football League attendances.

On 5th December 1921, it banned its members from allowing women’s football to be played at their grounds, spelling the end of bumper crowds at the likes of Deepdale and Goodison Park.

"The game of football is quite unsuitable for females and ought not to be encouraged." - extract from FA statement banning its members from participating in women's football

All FA members were also forbidden to referee or run the line at women's matches, essentially allowing women only to play for fun.

The ban lasted 50 years.

Preston Ladies FC pictured training in 1937
Preston Ladies FC pictured training in 1937Preston Ladies FC pictured training in 1937

Respite, at last

It took England's World Cup win in 1966 (the men, obviously) to rekindle the flame which had been extinguished 45 years earlier.

The Women’s Football Association was formed in 1969 with 44 founder member clubs, [but the FA still refused to lift their ban](the game of football is quite unsuitable for females and ought not to be encouraged).

They eventually relented in 1971, ending restrictions on women playing at its grounds, with UEFA recommending that each national football federation should be responsible for women's football.

Even that process took longer than necessary, with the FA not taking control of the English women's game until 1993.

The time in the wilderness left England lagging behind their rivals on the international stage.

And the country that Lily Parr and Dick, Kerr's Ladies toured almost half a century previously - the United States - went on to become the global superpower in women's soccer.

The USWNT won three World Cups and four Olympic titles while England's women have yet to reach their first major final.

Defending champions USA aim for redemption at FIFA Women's World Cup

Defending champions USA aim for redemption at FIFA Women's World Cup

Time to shine

While other teams have had the Olympics as a goal, that has rarely been an option for English women since its Games debut at Atlanta 1996.

England do not compete at Olympic events as a standalone entity. Instead, Great Britain are represented, comprising England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland.

Those four nations take part in FIFA events separately and, to ensure their independence with football's world governing body, a British team have never previously attempted to qualify for the Games.

They did play at London 2012 where, as hosts, no qualification was required. After cruising through the group stages, Team GB were knocked out 2-0 by Canada in the quarter-finals.

Team GB players commiserate with each other after their London 2012 quarter-final exit to Canada
Team GB players commiserate with each other after their London 2012 quarter-final exit to CanadaTeam GB players commiserate with each other after their London 2012 quarter-final exit to Canada

This Women's World Cup acts as a Tokyo 2020 qualifying event for European nations.

When Phil Neville took charge of England, he stated that a joint-British team for Tokyo 2020 was "absolutely fundamental" for developing the women's game.

And ahead of this World Cup, the four national associations agreed that England - as the highest team in the FIFA world rankings - should compete for an Olympic berth on behalf of Britain.

With the top three European sides guaranteed to go to the Games, England reaching the last four, coupled with USA's quarter-final win over hosts France, secured Britain an Olympic spot.

With Lucy Bronze - who Neville called "the best player in the world" in France - and London 2012 survivors including Jill Scott, the prolific Ellen White and Scotland star Kim Little, perhaps Team GB's women can end '54 years of hurt' in Tokyo.

Champions League winner Phil Neville inspires England women

Champions League winner Phil Neville inspires England women

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