How One Woman Became a Fan of Women’s Football
By Karen Dobres, Director and Volunteer Equality FC Campaign Manager and, Lewes FC Women
My Dad never liked it, and my Mum, sister and girlfriends weren’t fans.
In the ‘70s at primary school the boys had kickabouts on the field, but us girls challenged each other on hopscotches chalked on playground concrete. Football just passed me by.
Perhaps if I’d had brothers I might have played. But one thing’s for sure, there were no footballs on my nightdress, just the pink roses; and my dolls wore dresses, sometimes swimsuits – never football kits.
Could it be that ball-kicking is hormonally-dictated then, or is it something I was steered away from as a girl, more subtly than girls experience today?
At secondary school in the early 80s only netball was on offer for us ‘ladies’. Nicknamed ‘Lanky’, I was an obvious choice for Goal Keeper, Shooter or Defence, but the extra inches didn’t compensate for a lack of skill at the sport. Or any other really. Neither was I encouraged to try harder: sport didn’t seem important for girls back then.
The only time I took any notice of the World’s favourite game was when we visited my cousins. The two boys would be glued to the telly if Liverpool was playing, and our gender-free Monopoly set was rudely pushed aside for Kenny Dalglish and bacon sandwiches on my Auntie’s lounge floor. I quickly learnt that football took up too much of people’s good time, and, post-match, had the power to dramatically change a man’s mood.
Later in life I married the proud owner of a Southend United season ticket. Shortly after we met in the early Nineties, he surprised me by saying he had tickets for ‘something at Wembley’. Although aware he was a football fan, it didn’t occur to me that our date would be anything other than a concert. All day I fantasised about going to see Prince or Madonna in action, but instead it turned out that good money had been paid, and distances trekked, to watch grown men shout obscenities at an outsized lawn, and yet other grown men kick a ball around according to obscure rules I hadn’t a clue about and never wanted to. This was England v USA (really?) and when the person to my right loudly ordered a fallen player to ‘Get up you Tart!’, my date (rightly) shot me yet another guilty look. Looking back, it’s surprising our relationship survived.
Some are nourished by the power of the beautiful game, hearing its irresistible tribal call and revelling in the prowess of its god-like practitioners; others loathe it, resenting the theft of family weekends, the overpaid Jacuzzi-loving stars, the loutish followers, and the constant bloody drone of it on the TV in the background. Usually when there’s a good film on the other side too.
Until July 2017, with only negative - and frankly male-referenced - football-related experiences under my belt, I was in the latter camp. But that was the month my local football club, Lewes, announced its ‘Equality FC’ campaign. With a sense of rebellion, (our Sussex town is after all the one-time home of historical political activist Thomas Paine, and infamous for effigy-burning, rabble-rousing bonfire processions), Lewes Football Club boldly proclaimed that it was to pay its women’s team the same as its men’s. A world first.
Closing the gender pay gap on the football pitch? Surely the male bastion that is football would be the last place for cracks in the glass ceiling to appear? And it was news to me that women seriously played football. As in, did it for money? Curious, I visited Lewes’ ground, The Dripping Pan, to watch a women’s football match. If they were making international headlines down the road, then I wanted to see what was going on.
I admit, I’d once watched a men’s match at ‘The Pan’ - under some duress - but despite the undisputed charm of the surroundings, my confirmational bias had indeed been confirmed. Nothing personal to the quality of the teams playing - I just couldn’t relate to it at all.
But this felt different. I bought a cup of tea, sat in the terraces with about 120 others - some on their own like me, some in groups - picking up on a palpable feeling of camaraderie. Lewes FC Women (changed from the anachronistic ‘Ladies’ back in 2016) were pony-tailed and uniform in their kits. They came on to the pitch holding hands with ‘mascots’ - little girls gazing adoringly at them and shyly at the crowd. The away team followed them on, and there was a buzz in the air as opposing players shook hands before retreating to huddle together tightly with team-mates, preparing for kick off. By the time the starting whistle blew and play began, I was unexpectedly captivated. These women, pounding the pitch, with shorts, knee-socks and unguarded determination, were amazing to me, had become heroes in an instant. I had yet to figure out why.
Against an old flint wall in the warmth of the afternoon sunlight I chatted pleasantly with my neighbours. Together, we followed the players’ moves, clapping enthusiastically whenever Lewes seemed to have an advantage or scored a goal. The refreshing sight of young women using their bodies powerfully and purposefully had me hooked, and the enjoyment around me was infectious. With every tackle, every dribble, every well-planned pass, one hundred plus strangers and I were rooting for our red and black striped ‘Rooks’ (nick-named after the birds which nest in the nearby trees).
My inner fish-wife appeared some time into the second half. ‘Come on you Rooo-oooks!’ I chanted along with the others in the terraces where we’d moved as the sun did. I was buoyed by the example playing out before me, in this most public of arenas, of unselfconscious women being strong and assertive - not giving a damn about how they were ‘presenting’ – and was uncharacteristically keen to yell my support.
As I walked home, through the very town whose name I’d been shouting to a sunken area of grass, I had a word with myself.
‘You do NOT like football’, I said.
‘But that men’s football!’ I helpfully reminded myself– ‘and I had thought all football was men’s!’
At that, I reassessed myself ‘a raving sexist’- obvs.
What a brilliant thing it would be, I pondered, if my kids (daughter and son) and their teenage friends, had grown up with posters of these women footballers on their walls instead of Little Mix and Cara Delevingne? I was excited by the idea of a new kind of role model who didn’t look like she’d spent an hour ‘contouring’ before the photo, because maybe she’d had other things on her mind. I was surprisingly inspired by watching female football from my female perspective, and already willing into existence a different kind of poster girl - made viable by Lewes’ closing of the gender pay gap.
My unlikely journey with women’s football continued, literally. Travelling to away matches with die-hard fans I learnt that whilst the FA Cup prize for Women’s football is £25K, the male winners get £3.6 million. With a lack of resources, money and media coverage, I came to understand just what an after-thought the women’s game in 2018/9 still was.
And at this point in my schooling as a football fan I got a jaw-dropping history lesson about women’s football: namely that it was actually banned in 1921 by the then FA, and the ban not effectively lifted until 1971. In fact - according to Tim Tate’s book “Women’s Football, The Secret History” - the FA disallowed women from playing on FA-affiliated pitches or with FA-affiliated coaches for mysterious and alleged ‘gynaecological reasons’, deeming it ‘unsuitable for females’. This was at a point when women’s football was attracting unprecedented crowds of tens of thousands.
I was now firmly radicalised. Friends and women’s groups were outraged when I told them about the ban. They resolved to try watching a Lewes FC Women’s match in solidarity with the cause for equality. By buying a ticket to a game played by the only fairly-resourced female footballers on the planet, they’d be taking action against sexist culture and helping level a playing field rendered uneven by a history no-one seemed aware of.
Virginia Woolf lived in Rodmell, a brief walk over the rolling downs from The Dripping Pan, and she famously concluded in A Room of One’s Own, that women needed space, time and education to write. Surely something similar might be said for women and football? Decent grounds, encouragement and hard cash will increase involvement in the game - with all its inherent power to connect, unite and influence. Surely girls need an educational and social environment that doesn’t divide us by gender from the start? The unspoken plight of women in football has influenced the quality of the game they produce for too long. And now a change is afoot (forgive me). So whereas it would have been unlikely for a woman to bend a ball like Beckham in the time of Beckham, as the women’s game grows and inequalities lessen, we may enjoy a future in which a smashed glass ceiling heralds the kind of female champions recognised by those starry-eyed little girls, (and us middle-aged women!) cheering from the terraces. One thing’s for sure, I’ve booted out any personal doubts that football isn’t a game for women, and were I back in that playground today I’d be heading it like Hegerberg and curling it like Carli.
(Photos by James Boyes and Charlie Dobres )