When I was growing up, I went to a very small secondary school in Suffolk where the girls played hockey in winter, tennis in summer and sometimes, when it rained, had to stay indoors and do something called Country Dancing. I liked hockey, hated tennis and got thrown out of country dancing for not taking it seriously. Then, one day, we asked the PE teacher if we could play football like the boys.
No, she said. Football was not suitable for girls, it was too physical, we could get hurt.
We didn’t understand. How were we more likely to get hurt playing football than hockey, with its hefty wooden sticks and rock hard ball that came hurtling through the air at a hundred miles an hour? We were constantly getting our shins and ankles whacked to pieces and the only protection for the goalkeeper was a pair of ill-fitting cricket pads strapped to her poor cold legs. But that was that. Football was Not For Girls.
We knew it wasn't true. We knew that girls had always kicked balls around in parks and playgrounds just like their brothers. What we didn't know was that there was a time when they played the game seriously. A time when they formed their own teams and leagues and played on some of the most famous grounds in the country, often in front of bigger crowds than the men's professional teams.
It started in 1914, at the beginning of World War One. When the men and boys went away to fight, women and girls took their places in the munitions factories, making the bombs and bullets that were needed to win the war. They became known as munitionettes, and for many of them it was the first time they were able to earn their own living, spend time away from their families and, of course, play football. All over Britain, female factory workers started to form their own teams and organise matches for charity. At first it was seen as a novelty, a bit of a laugh, to go along and watch a load of girls kicking a ball about, but gradually people started to realise the girls could really play and more and more people started to go to the matches. Then in 1915, when the Football Association suspended the professional men's game for the duration of the war, the girls started to play on their grounds, attracting crowds as big - and sometimes bigger - than the men's game.
The most successful team of all, the Dick, Kerr Ladies from Preston (the comma isn't a typo - it was originally a team of workers from a factory owned by a Mr Dick and a Mr Kerr), drew huge crowds. The biggest was a crowd of 53,000 inside the ground with over 14,000 locked out - a record for a women's match that wasn't beaten until the 2012 Olympics when England played Brazil. Ladies' football was a success.
So what happened?
Well, the war ended. The men and boys needed their jobs back. The women and girls got kicked out of the factories. And the gentlemen of the Football Association decided they didn’t like the idea of females playing football after all, so in 1921 they made their announcement:
'Complaints having been made as to football being played by women, the Council feel impelled to express their strong opinion that the game of football is quite unsuitable for females and ought not to be encouraged.'
They went on to say that they would expel any club who allowed ladies' teams to play on their grounds.
And that was that. Some teams in the north of England continued to play on rugby league grounds but most disbanded. The days when women's football attracted crowds of over 50,000 people were over.
Of course, my friends and I didn’t know any of this when we asked our PE teacher if we could play football, and the first time I heard about it was only a few years ago when my friend Tony wrote a show featuring a very tall lady footballer called Gerty Naylor. I was intrigued and started to read about the women and girls that went into the factories during the war and formed their own football teams.
And that's when I found out about the Rockets.
Although the Royal Arsenal in Woolwich was the biggest munitions factory in the country, and its men's football team went on to become one of the most famous in the world, not much is known about their ladies' team. I don’t know if they ever played the Lyons' Corner House Ladies and I don’t expect they had a very tall goalkeeper who went on to play for Spurs. My Lily Dodd might not have existed, but there were lots of other Lily's (and Jess's and Peggy's and Polly's) who did. In fact, I borrowed my Lily's name from a Lily that some people think was the greatest female player of all time.
Lily Parr started playing for Dick, Kerr's Ladies when she was only fourteen. She scored forty three goals in her first season and went on to score nearly a thousand in her playing career. Like my Lily, Lily Parr was a tall girl, nearly six feet, who was said to have a harder shot that most male players. One of her team mates wrote that she'd never seen any woman - 'nor any man' - kick a ball like Lily. When a professional male goalkeeper challenged Lily to get a shot past him, she accepted and went on, not just to score, but to break his arm with the power of her shot. So I didn't just borrow Lily Parr's name; I borrowed a story about her. I don’t think she'd mind.
Lily Parr didn't stop playing football when the FA banned the women's game. She went on to play for Preston Ladies until she was forty five and lived long enough to see the day in 1971, fifty years after the original announcement, when the Football Association finally lifted the ban on women's football.
When I said that many people think Lily Parr was the greatest female player of all time, I should've added two words. So. Far.
Lily Parr was the greatest female player in the world so far.
Now it’s your turn.