England’s women stand a great chance this week of winning Euro 2017 and claiming their first major silverware. They almost became European champions in 1984, but you could be forgiven if you didn’t know about it given how much the competition passed under the radar – in England at least…
On Thursday night, thousands are expected to be in attendance as England take on hosts the Netherlands in the semi-final of the European Championship. Back home, many more will tune in to Channel 4 or Eurosport to watch the match live. Players such as Steph Houghton have become familiar faces to beyond just aficionados of the women’s game, earning a professional living from the sport and making far more media appearances than past generations of female footballers. ‘Lionesses’ trends on social media when the side play, with celebs and plenty of former players from the men’s side among those posting good luck messages. While the attention may not be on a par with when England’s men reached the semi-final of major tournaments, it is hardly going unnoticed either.
But back in 1984, England went all the way to the final of the forerunner to the current European Championship. Not that it’s exactly widely recalled across the country. If you weren’t one of the 2,567 fans watching England and Sweden slug it out in the rain and mud during the second-leg of the final at Luton on a Sunday afternoon, then the odds are you saw very little of it given the lack of TV coverage in the UK. As we will recall, the advancement in media attention is not the only measure which shows how far the tournament and women’s football has progressed in the past 33 years.
A forgotten English run
Although there had been previous European tournaments, the first officially recognised competition to decide the queens of Europe would run from 1982 to 1984. The European Championship? No, it was given the far less memorable name of the ‘European Competition for Representative Women’s Teams’. UEFA’s involvement was a sign of the women’s game starting to be welcomed more by the establishment, although as less than half of its member countries entered the competition could not be granted official status as a UEFA tournament.
In keeping with how the female game was governed at the time, the England side fell under the Women’s Football Association rather than the FA and the team did not play in the same kit as the men. The women’s game in this country lacked the funding and external support that some of the more progressive nations such as Sweden were enjoying. There would also be no tournament as we would know it in a neutral country, not even for the final four sides. Instead matches would be played over two legs. In all, this was a competition well away from public view in England.
England’s class of ’84.
The prospect of women being full-time professionals in England back then seemed inconceivable. The player profiles in the programme for the home-leg of the final sum this up, with such careers listed as commercial artist (Terry Wiseman), office clerk (Carol Thomas), civil servant (Linda Curl), sales assistant (Brenda Sempere) and, more unusually, electronics test engineer (Liz Deighan). Football would not be supplementing their income and leading players from that era would often face struggles getting time off work to represent their country.
It was in keeping with how, because of their gender, they had encountered obstacles all along the way towards playing and would resent how boys could play football at school while they were made to play sports such as netball. Women playing football would attract bemusement and scepticism from some quarters, not least those in authority. A lengthy and controversial ban by the FA on women’s matches taking place in its affiliated stadiums was not lifted until as late as 1971, just eight years before Britain first had a female Prime Minister. Far few women’s teams existed then than now and media coverage was very limited, save for perhaps the odd short feature where the novelty of women playing football often seemed to be the emphasis.
But for whatever scepticism was directed towards women’s football back in the early 1980s, it did not stop the England team being among the best. Some of the lesser nations would come in for thrashings when they took on the English and the side could hold their own with the more powerful names in the sport. It may not exactly have been front page news, but England’s women were making big strides towards potentially becoming European champions. The finals tournament at Euro 2017 has contained 16 teams after a further 30 went out in qualifying; back in 1982-84 there were just 16 entrants – a competition basically containing nations from Scandinavia, the British Isles and mainland Western Europe. There was not a single Eastern European representative, while Wales were among the absentees. The traditional European football minnows of the time – such as Cyprus, Luxembourg and Malta – did not feature. There were four qualifying groups, with the winner from each making the semi-finals. England were in a group with British Isles rivals Scotland, the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.
A dominant group stage
England’s campaign began in September 1982 with a home game against Northern Ireland and the 7-1 win set the trend for a dominant qualifying group display. They went on to win all six games, averaging four goals per game and not conceding any after that first match. Sweden, Italy and Denmark won the other three groups and it was the Danes who England would face in the last four over two legs. The home leg was played at Crewe, with just 1,000 fans seeing a 2-1 win that was followed up by a 1-0 triumph in the return. England were through to the final against Sweden.
The first-leg of the final was played at one of Sweden’s leading stadiums, Ullevi, which just a year earlier had hosted Aberdeen’s victory over Real Madrid in the European Cup Winners’ Cup final and in 1992 would stage the final of of the men’s European Championship. For England’s women in 1984, who were accustomed to playing internationals at lower league grounds, this was a big stage to appear on. A goal from Pia Sundhage gave Sweden victory, as England goalkeeper Terry Wiseman kept the score down with some vital saves.
England and Sweden prepare to meet in Gothenburg.
The difference in attitudes towards women’s football in Sweden and England was clear. The sides may have been fairly equal on the field but off it the way women’s football was approached could barely have been different. Former England boss Hope Powell, who was a teenage England player in 1984, writes in her autobiography: “Swedish football was so far in advance in terms of its development, it was almost embarrassing.”
There would be envious glances from the England party as they saw how popular the women’s game was in Sweden, with plenty of support given to help with the progression of the sport and thousands of females participating in it. Powell would note how the match received an hour’s TV highlights in Sweden, with extensive newspaper coverage provided by the Swedish media after the return leg. By contrast, in the UK it was barely mentioned. The Times, for example, included a mere paragraph after the second-leg at the end of its round-up of the latest football news.
The first-leg of the final was televised in Sweden.
But that was accepted as the way things were at the time. And the women’s game suffered a further struggle when the WFA sought to find a London venue to host the second-leg and were knocked back by all professional clubs. “We’d played out of our skins to get to a prestigious European final and we weren’t even offered the incentive of a good ground to play on. It was an embarrassment,” wrote Powell. “The Swedish FA arranged for their women to play the first-leg in their country’s most prestigious ground, the national Ullevi Stadium in Gothenburg. We couldn’t even get a Fourth Division London team to offer us their facilities.”
Mud, mud, inglorious mud
Eventually a club would come to the rescue, as Luton Town’s Kenilworth Road was made available. It was at least a top-flight stadium, albeit one hardly held in the same esteem as the homes of the nation’s glamour clubs. To add to the gloom, torrential rain turned the pitch into a quagmire.
Wherever you looked in the match programme there was a sense that women’s football in England deserved better. WFA secretary Linda Whitehead wrote: “We hope that this will be the turning point for women’s football in this country and that the players begin to get the recognition that they rightly deserve.” In another article, Cathy Gibb rued how the sport was “continually snubbed by the British mass media and unaccepted in the majority of schools” and she added: “May both teams continue to excel in their footballing achievements and succeed in breaking down the code of sexual prejudices that prevent women’s football from naturally growing as a viable sport, particularly in Britain.”
England manager Martin Reagan would speak of the differences he saw in attitudes to women’s football in Sweden compared to back home, recognising how the work being done by the Scandinavians to develop youngsters would benefit their national team – and potentially punish England – in years to come. He wrote: “In England, there are few opportunities for girls under 16 to play football. In fact, many of them are actively discouraged from playing; even after that age, it can be far from easy to take up the game. Potentially we have in women’s football one of the largest team sports in this country, but unless we revise some of our attitudes towards it, we will have to watch our colleagues abroad draw further and further away from us.” Reagan, a war veteran who had played professional football for clubs including Shrewsbury Town and Norwich City, would thankfully see the progress he craved before he died last Christmas – but changes would not take effect overnight.
The Swedes had deserved to win in the first-leg but England proved tougher opposition at Luton, taking the lead on the day through Linda Curl. With the aggregate scores level, the match went to penalties. Much has been made over the years about England’s men failing in shoot-outs but the women suffered such heartache first. During the third-place match at the European Competition for Women’s Football in 1979 in Italy – considered an unofficial tournament as UEFA were not involved – England had lost on penalties to Sweden. The Swedes would again triumph in such circumstances at Kenilworth Road, Curl and Angela Gallimore failing to convert their penalties as England lost 4-3 and missed out on lifting silverware.
For all the recent success of the Lionesses, 1984 remains the closest they have ever been to becoming European champions – a fact they will want to change in the coming days. When the tournament was next played in 1987 the Swedes again proved England’s nemesis as they beat them in extra-time in the semi-final. England only reached the semi-finals once more before 2009 when they made the final in Finland, only to be crushed 6-2 by Germany. A disappointing tournament in 2013 marked the parting of the ways with Powell and perhaps showed how much more attention was now being paid to women’s football than almost 30 years earlier. Success for England this week can lead to that interest growing further.
This week we turn the spotlight on women’s football and review the recently released autobiography of Hope Powell, who managed England from 1998 to 2013 after previously enjoying a lengthy international playing career. The book provides an interesting insight into someone who came to symbolise progression for the women’s national team but also for the stature of the female game in England…
Hope Powell last month celebrated her 50th birthday and it has been a life in which she has often found herself fighting the odds. Her childhood was not always easy, growing up in a household where her mother was the victim of domestic violence. As a girl growing up playing football Powell was very much in the minority, her younger days falling into an era when females playing the sport would attract derision and be viewed with perplexity.
Even when she made it to becoming an England international it was a world away from the professional women’s game that has now developed, having to pay to play at club level. Powell would be a role model for any black girls looking to make it in the sport, having to deal with an instance of racism in her playing days. And she is also one of the most high-profile openly gay figures in English football, snubbing an approach in recent years to manage Nigeria’s women for reasons including the nation’s policies towards same-sex relationships.
And even as a female manager within the women’s game she found herself in the minority, Powell blazing a trail by being the first – and so far only – woman to manage the England side. A constant theme of Hope: My Life in Football is how she has had to fight for equality, resenting the way men are given managerial jobs in the women’s game but not the other way round.
“We need more women in the top jobs,” she insists, while also reminding readers that her successor Mark Sampson is “less experienced and less qualified than me”. She was once linked with the manager’s job at Grimsby Town, but maintains she neither applied for the post nor received any contact from the Mariners about it. There was an approach from non-league Windsor which she considered taking, but the timing was not right for her. Powell would become the first woman to gain her UEFA pro-licence qualification, working closely with such established football names as Stuart Pearce to achieve it. Kevin Keegan emerges in the book as a supportive figure of England’s women, while a converted Howard Wilkinson would also prove a particular ally of Powell’s.
Standing up for herself
Powell certainly gives the impression she is not a woman to be messed with. During the book she recalls clipping an un-named member of Team GB’s men’s football team around the back of the head for ogling her players; of putting Derek Fazackerley straight when he thinks she is the new office girl at the FA, rather than the women’s team manager; and of standing up to a misogynistic man in Jordan who pushed in front of her, leaving him mumbling apologies. Most significantly she managed to help free her mum from a life of domestic violence, putting her own personal safety at risk to confront her mother’s partner and involve the police to ensure her mum could move on to enjoy a happier life. Any football challenge has been minor by comparison, although it has been far from straightforward.
Powell found herself banned from playing football with boys as a child, so she ended up defying her mum’s orders and joining Millwall Lionesses. By the age of 14 she was playing first-team football and she would quickly break into the England squad. In 1984 she helped England reach the European Competition for Women’s Football against Sweden, Powell getting an unwelcome insight into how conservative England remained about women’s football compared to elsewhere. The first-leg in Scandinavia was a big deal to the locals, the return game so insignificant to most of English football that no ground in London was made available by the clubs to stage the match (it was eventually played at Luton). Powell writes: “Swedish football was so far in advance of our own in terms of its development, it was almost embarrassing.”
For an English women’s footballer in the 1980s there was little glamour, even if playing for leading clubs such as Millwall Lionesses and Friends of Fulham as Powell did. She writes: “A lot of the games were watched by two men and a dog – sometimes it was just the dog. When I look back at the conditions we used to put up with, we really had a lot of dedication and determination. Many of the pitches we played on were disgusting mud-heaps, on which the ball just about rolled.” An appearance at Old Trafford in the Women’s Cup Final saw less than 1,000 spectators dotted around the ground for the showpiece of the domestic game. When she played for England at the 1995 World Cup in Sweden, the team endured sleepless nights travelling on trains between venues and Powell says she was left out of pocket by the trip – a tournament that attracted little interest in the English press.
Fast forward 18 years and things had well and truly changed, as Powell began to feel the amount of media intrusion towards her players at Euro 2013 was an unwelcome distraction. As she herself admitted it was a case of being careful what you wish for, having sought for so long for an increased profile for the women’s game and then discovered the negative elements of it.
That level of increased interest was at least partly down to Powell, who since 1998 had been in a job where success was judged on more than just results. She also looked to increase interest in the women’s game and see youngsters develop. Given the end results she can be seen as having succeeded in all fields, England qualifying for several major tournaments (and reaching the Euro 2009 final) as they began to find themselves in the top bracket of women’s sides. Young talent would emerge and perhaps most significantly, the English female game became almost unrecognisable from years before in terms of interest and status including the creation of professional leagues. The presence of a Team GB women’s team at London 2012 – led by Powell, who as with when she was unexpectedly offered the England job in 1998 initially considered turning it down – would also help increase the profile.
Yet for all her achievements, it was reported when Powell was sacked in 2013 after a poor European Championship that many players were not sorry to see her leave and saw her management as a “dictatorship”. Powell’s claim that there was “cowardice” from her players who backed away from taking penalties in the shoot-out against France at the 2011 World Cup – comments she says in the book were said in the heat of the moment and not meant for publication – could not have helped the situation. Critics may happily point out that Sampson took England further in 2015 than Powell ever did at a World Cup (Powell refuses to take any credit in the book for that third-place finish). Powell also believes certain people at the FA resented the level of control she had been allowed to gain over its female international football structure, something she puts down to the organisation getting her “on the cheap” and expecting her to be responsible for all levels.
But even those who fell out with Powell would surely concede that she helped the women’s game progress in England, being ready to take on the conservative elements of the FA and fight for improvements to the sport. She writes: “When you’re working class and black, never mind having a same-sex partner, you learn early on in life that you’re going to have to fight for everything you achieve… you will come up against people who have a total sense of entitlement and privilege. They pretty much run everything, from the government to companies and organisations, including the FA, who are threatened by people like me. We don’t fit their mould and, when we get into positions of authority, they’re not really quite sure how to deal with us. Throughout the time I worked at the FA, they were legion.”
Powell did not in any way fit the stereotype of an FA employee and she was anything but a yes-woman, continually fighting the establishment and seeking to strengthen the women’s game. She was not without her critics as England boss but Hope did indeed help give hope to many girls and women that they could make it in football – and enjoy a much more attractive career than the one she had on deserted mud-heaps in the 1980s. Her story is one that has been worth telling.
- Hope: My Life in Football by Hope Powell with Marvin Close, is published by Bloomsbury.