Women’s Football

Book Review – Hope: My Life in Football

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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.”

Changing times

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.

Football and Team GB at London 2012

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With the Olympics currently taking place in Rio, today we broaden our horizons slightly from our usual recollections about England and instead focus on the presence of Team GB in football at London 2012. For any England fan, the tournament carried a familiar feeling as Team GB’s men exited on penalties. The competition helped raise the profile of the women’s game, but the British would again fall during the last eight…


We’ll come to the women in a minute but Olympic men’s football struggles to capture the imagination on these shores for several reasons. It is not perceived as the pinnacle or even remotely close in status to the World Cup; Team GB are not normally able to enter a team (this is perhaps the key turn-off here in the UK); the restriction for all bar three players to be under-23 means few nations are fielding their strongest possible side; it takes place just after the European Championship so many star names are absent even if they are eligible for it; and it regularly clashes with the start of the domestic season so is viewed as a bit of an inconvenience by clubs.

And all this adds up to a perception in the UK that football isn’t really an essential part of the Olympics. It is perhaps the opposite situation to normal, with football considered a bit of a minority sport during the Games and tucked away on the red button channels. Some might argue that if rugby sevens is a part of the Olympics, then alternative versions of football such as six-a-side might be a better option than the current offering.

But having been contested at every Olympics bar two, the heritage of football at the Games isn’t in question. “Just because the Olympics is not part of our footballing DNA in Great Britain does not mean it is not very important,” said BBC pundit Garth Crooks in 2012. Nor should we forget that Great Britain won gold in both 1908 and 1912 before the World Cup had been conceived, while Matt Busby managed the amateurs to fourth place in the 1948 Olympics on home soil – an achievement worth hailing as most squad members were playing lower league or non-league football, whereas some opponents could field their full international side if professional football was not permitted in their homeland.

Hope Powell (women’s) and Stuart Pearce (men’s) were in charge of Team GB’s footballers at London 2012.

In 2012 Team GB would be entering teams in the football competitions, the first time for 40 years when the amateur era was still in place (professionals were first allowed to play in 1984). From the moment London was selected as host in 2005 the team’s revival became a source of debate, the football associations of Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales concerned at the potential ramifications if their players were part of the  Team GB football team. It seemed a sport editor’s go-to subject for a slow news day, with someone invariably speaking out about it.

After a lot of talk, eventually the men’s team would consist predominantly of players from England with five from Wales. Northern Ireland and Scotland were not represented. With England having gone to Euro 2012 a few weeks earlier, manager Stuart Pearce – who was also the boss of England under-21s – was left to pick a fairly inexperienced squad containing some players such as Scott Sinclair and Marvin Sordell who have never been capped at full level.

Perhaps the main intrigue concerned the selection of the three over-23 players. Craig Bellamy and Ryan Giggs of Wales would finally get the chance to appear in an international tournament as they neared retirement, while discarded England defender Micah Richards was the other ‘veteran’ at the ripe old age of 24.

Becks is axed

But the main talking point over the squad choice concerned the non-selection of David Beckham, some adamant he merited his place for his efforts over London 2012’s bid and for the experience he would provide. Respected football writer Henry Winter certainly takes Beckham’s side in his new book Fifty Years of Hurt. “It’s a snub for a popular footballing figure whose persuasive qualities helped bring the Olympics to London,” he writes. “It’s a no-brainier, a tap-in. Beckham will bring substance to GB football, an ersatz operation at the best of times. The former England captain deserves a place on footballing grounds.”

Winter notes the unhappy reaction of some FA personnel to Beckham’s snub, but he believes the subject should have been raised with Pearce when he was offered the job. The manager had the final say and would not budge. Pearce said: “In regard to ticket sales or merchandising or whatever, I’m a football man. I pick solely on footballing ability and I have to back my opinion. I feel very sorry for David, I know how much it meant to him.”

Big turnouts

Despite the perception that football in the Olympics carries limited appeal, some of the attendances suggested otherwise. On the first Sunday of both Euro ’96 and London 2012, this blogger was at Old Trafford to watch matches. In 1996 there was a crowd of 37,300 at the stadium to see Germany beat the Czech Republic, the two eventual finalists; in 2012 more than 66,000 watched Brazil’s men beat Belarus in an Olympic group game at the same stadium (with Egypt against New Zealand in the first part of a double header also well-attended).

Even accounting for Old Trafford’s capacity having grown since 1996 and ticket pricing issues during Euro’96, that was still a major increase in attendance – particularly considering the Olympics is generally viewed as a less prestigious football tournament than the Euros. The rare chance to see two matches back-to-back and the eternal pulling power of Brazil helped, but perhaps more significantly football was the one event that people in the north-west could easily access – and the same applied elsewhere in the country too. So many people simply wanted to say they had been a part of the Games, without necessarily having the time or resources to head to London. Three of the four men’s quarter-final matches attracted official attendances of more than 70,000. Olympic football might be easy to dismiss, but the public turned out in big numbers on plenty of occasions.

Girl power

The other main beneficiary of football in the Olympics was the women’s game. Without the age restrictions of the men’s tournament, it effectively acts as a second World Cup and a chance for women’s football to enjoy a place in the spotlight. Team GB had never participated in the Olympics before.


Team GB’s women come unstuck in the quarter-finals against Canada.

This was virtually the England side under a different name, manager Hope Powell’s squad being entirely English apart from two Scottish players. She resisted picking any Welsh players despite the team’s first two matches being at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff. With England having reached the quarter-finals of the World Cup in 2007 and 2011 and the final of Euro 2009, the team would fancy their chances of earning a medal on home soil.

The team had the honour of kicking off the Olympics with a win over New Zealand, then defeating Cameroon before more than 70,000 saw them beat Brazil at Wembley as they advanced with a 100% record from the group stage. But until last year the quarter-finals were England’s nemesis round at the World Cup and it would spread to Team GB at the Olympics, as they lost 2-0 to Canada at Coventry. “We wanted to be in it for the long run,” said Powell. “We have raised awareness but we would have liked to take it further.” Canada then lost to USA, who would beat Japan in the final in front of more than 80,000 at Wembley. 

The same old story

Think the night of Super Saturday in 2012 and the first names that come to mind for most people are Jessica Ennis, Mo Farah and Greg Rutherford. Not too many will say Daniel Sturridge, who as the nation was rejoicing over triumphs in athletics was missing the decisive penalty as Team GB’s men went out to South Korea at the Millennium Stadium. It was the same old story for anyone who considered the team as an extension of the England side, with Team GB crashing out on spot-kicks in the last eight. For Pearce it was yet more international heartache from penalties, having played in defeats to the Germans in 1990 and 1996 and as a manager his England under-21 side had lost an epic shoot-out to the Netherlands at the 2007 European Championship.

Team GB had topped a group containing Senegal, United Arab Emirates and Uruguay (featuring Luis Suarez) before their shoot-out disappointment in Cardiff. The defeat denied them a glamour semi-final with Brazil at Old Trafford, a match which might just have triggered national interest in the football competition. Brazil comfortably beat South Korea but lost the final to Mexico, meaning the Brazilians have still yet to win the football tournament as they look to end the hoodoo on home soil this time around.

For most of the English members of the party it was not the passage to international success they might have hoped for, although Sturridge, Ryan Bertrand and Danny Rose would all be part of England’s Euro 2016 squad. But for the young Welsh contingent the tournament experience arguably proved more vital.  Joe Allen, Aaron Ramsey and Neil Taylor would all go on to help Wales reach the semi-finals of Euro 2016. Allen had inadvertently been listed as ‘English’ in the first programme for the tournament, although the fuss over that was nothing compared to the blunder committed when the South Korean flag appeared rather than North Korea’s on the scoreboard before a women’s match at Hampden Park! 

He may be wearing Team GB’s colours but Daniel Sturridge gets to experience what plenty of his England predecessors have been through over the years.

For both manages of Team GB, the tournament should have provided welcome experience for them to build on in their roles with England. But for Pearce and Powell things would soon get  far worse. Dreadful European Championship tournaments in 2013 for England under-21s and the women would see both leave their respective positions. Powell had been touted as a potential manager in the men’s game a relatively short time earlier, but she would be left watching on from afar as Mark Sampson led England’s women to the World Cup semi-finals for the first time in 2015.

When people get misty-eyed about London 2012, it is unlikely to be about football – particularly the men’s team. The Games brought countless moments to savour and, ultimately, football struggled to register in the same way that so many moments of British glory did. But as we’ve seen it did allow a wider audience to attend Olympic events and helped the profile of women’s football. For that it served a positive purpose and there has been criticism over the women being absent in 2016. If Team GB are to be represented in football at the Olympics again any time soon, we suspect it won’t be the men doing it.

A different world – England’s women at the 1995 World Cup

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We take a break this week from looking back at the past fortunes of England’s men. With the Women’s World Cup soon to begin in Canada, it seems a good time to recall how England fared in a previous tournament so we turn the clock back 20 years to June 1995 when they first appeared in the finals. The female game in England has come a long way since then….

In 1991, there was a big breakthrough for female football when the first official Women’s World Cup was held in China. England failed to qualify for it, but four years later they did make it to the finals in Sweden. While the publicity surrounding England’s women at this year’s World Cup may not be close to being on a par with the hype afforded to the men when they feature in the finals, it has certainly improved a lot in the past 20 years. This year matches will be shown live on the BBC, but back then fairly brief highlights was about the sum total of coverage of England’s women after the men were shown more extensively playing in the Umbro Cup. 

With the men’s Rugby World Cup taking place at the same time in South Africa, it’s fair to say how England’s women performed in Sweden was not dominating the back pages. It would be wrong to say the tournament was ignored by the media, but it was certainly given limited exposure compared to today and this was in keeping with the way women’s football as a whole was covered back then – prior to its Football Italia days, Channel 4 had broadcast a few women’s highlights shows in a rare foray into football broadcasting, but little else had been seen by the masses.

Women’s football was not professional in Britain back then, meaning key players such as stalwart Gillian Coultard, captain Debbie Bampton and goalkeeper Pauline Cope would have to take time off work to participate. Head coach Ted Copeland combined managing the side with being a Football Association regional director of coaching. The previous two years had seen England’s women become world champions in the traditionally male team sports of cricket (1993) and rugby union (1994). One player who had featured for England in their cricket triumph was part of the World Cup football squad. Clare Taylor would be looking to complete the most unlikely of double triumphs, with comparisons drawn with Tony Adams when it came to playing style. But Adams wasn’t combining playing football with driving a van for the Royal Mail. “The amount of time I spend away on unpaid leave has got beyond a joke,” Taylor reflected later in 1995. 

        
Future England manager Hope Powell (left) was part of the 1995 World Cup squad, along with goal machine Karen Walker (right).

The 20-strong squad also contained probably the two best-known English women’s footballers of their generation in Marieanne Spacey and Karen Walker, whose goalscoring record had attracted attention beyond just the hardcore ranks of women’s football followers. Bampton had recently taken over the captaincy from Coultard, who remained at the heart of the squad. “It was difficult, especially as Gill and I were room-mates and at that point the squad was split,” Bampton recalled later. Future manager Hope Powell also took her place in the squad, a survivor of the 1984 European Competition for Women’s Football when England had lost to Sweden in the final. The 1995 World Cup would come a couple of years too soon for future star names such as Sue Smith, Faye White and Rachel Yankey, while 16-year-old Kelly Smith stayed in England sitting her GCSE exams. Her time on the world stage would come later.

A winning start

With an awkward number of 12 sides in the tournament, the top two teams in each of the three groups would go through to the quarter-finals along with the best two third-placed sides. England were realistically capable of getting out of the group stage and they took a big step towards achieving that with a 3-2 win over Canada in their opening match. It should have been more convincing, the Canadians mounting a late rally with two goals in the closing minutes after Coultard (2) and Spacey – including two spot-kicks – had put England three up. In another measure of how much women’s football has grown since then, the crowd was just 655.

In the same group, Norway had opened with an 8-0 thrashing of Nigeria. The Scandinavians were at the forefront of women’s football and this was a golden period for Norwegian game, coming just over a year after their men had appeared in the World Cup finals in the USA at England’s expense. It perhaps showed that England were not lagging that far behind the leading lights in women’s football that they only lost 2-0 in their second group game against Norway, who finished the group with 17 goals for and none against. Despite this loss, England were realistically going to go through and a win against Nigeria would guarantee second place in the group. They duly got it as they again triumphed 3-2, with the Swedish-based Karen Farley scoring twice and Walker netting the other goal. 

The curse of the Germans

If Germany have proved a perpetual thorn in the side of the England men’s team, then it has been even worse for the women. Time and time again the Germans have thwarted England over the years, most notably dishing out a 6-2 thrashing in the Euro 2009 final. Only last year the Germans won 3-0 as England’s women played at the new Wembley for the first time. A few months before the 1995 World Cup, England’s UEFA Women’s Championship dream ended at the semi-final stage with defeat to Germany – less than 1,000 seeing the sides meet in the first-leg at Watford. And therefore it was no surprise they would end England’s 1995 World Cup challenge in the quarter-finals with a 3-0 win, with goalkeeper Cope earning praise for helping keep the score down in both this and the Norway game. Germany went on to reach the final, where they lost to Norway. England had come up against both finalists and kept their pride intact in a memorable tournament for several nations.

England could return home content with how they had performed. But they would have to wait another 12 years for a further crack at the World Cup finals, their hopes of making it in 1999 cruelly dashed once they were drawn in the mother of all qualifying groups with Norway, Germany and the Netherlands. They would also be absent in 2003. The 2007 finals saw far greater media interest than in 1995 and the potent Kelly Smith was elevated to stardom, appearing as a guest on Friday Night with Jonathan Ross after England returned home with their pride intact.

But, not unlike their male counterparts, England’s women have found the quarter-finals to be a continual barrier they cannot cross. They bowed out to the USA in 2007 and France on penalties in 2011. The women’s game has come a long way in the 20 years since England made their Women’s World Cup debut. Under Mark Sampson can they finally go beyond the last eight this time around in Canada?