Girls With Balls: A Secret History Of Women's Football - Review

Prior to Euro 2013 I wrote an article concerning the growth of women's football in England during the last 20 years. Whilst highlighting the obvious talents of Kelly Smith, Rachel Yankey and Steph Houghton, it was briefly mentioned of the talent of one former player which had in particular given reason to delve into the history of the women's game deeper than before. The player was Lily Parr, albeit from a lot further back than 1993! The recent release of "Girls With Balls: The Secret History Of Women's Football" by author Tim Tate has provided an accurate insight in to the former height of the sport, perhaps even greater than the days of the United States' Mia Hamm and Kristine Lilly.

The period Tate is referring to sets its scene in interwar Britain, a time which saw, as well as the then rapid growth of the men's game, the rising popularity of their female counterpart's footballing traditions. Until recently any female football prior to 1980 has been given little publicity. Why? The reason stems from the Football Association's decision to shut the women's game down in 1921 and the cruel sanction of not allowing a female team to play on a FA-affiliated ground.

When reading the opening pages of the book I, at first, was sceptical. The admittance of Tate to a limited footballing knowledge and preference to Rugby Union made me unsure as to what I should expect. However, once deeper into "The Secret History Of Women's Football" it became clear that the author was undoubtedly in touch with the Women's game, both past and present. The unravelling of the vast secrecy concerning female football in Interwar Britain left me, as I'm sure it will others, intrigued and inspired.

The main vocal point of the book is the Dick, Kerr Ladies football team - a contemporary Barcelona of the Women's footballing world. The team got its unsual name from the Dick, Kerr and Co. Ltd Munitions factory in Preston and were in short made up from full-time workers. The notion of a "works" team itself however should not be viewed as unusual. In the men's game, sides like PSV Eindhoven and Manchester United both owe their foundations to work-related establishments. The Dick, Kerr Ladies were also recorded by many as the "Unofficial England Women's National Team".

Dick, Kerr Ladies
As Tate chronologically research's through newspaper articles and other pre-World War I literature, we eventually find ourselves with the Dick, Kerr Ladies. Through the use of contemporary evidence it becomes clear of the FA plans to end the practice of women's football in England. Starting in 1917 during the First World War, the Dick, Kerr Ladies were originally seen as "no more than public entertainment aimed solely at supporting Britain's fighting men". The men's Football League had been suspended in 1915 due to military conscription which left room for the women's game to flourish in its new found freedom.

The Dick, Kerr Ladies were, as Tate describes the major "catalyst" for the change in tolerance of the football authorities towards the women's game following an at first patronising approach. The team was pioneered by Grace Sibbert, a factory worker, whose colleagues had previously only had kickabouts in the factory yard. In December 1917 however came Sibbert's first game as "leader" came against another female factory XI on Christmas Day. In total 10,000 people arrived to watch the match at Preston North End's Deepdale ground. The aforementioned suspension of the men's game had "left a gap in the market" of which ladies teams began to fill, albeit at first seen only as a novelty.

Dick, Kerr Ladies with manager Alfred Frankland
Sibbert was a pioneer, but perhaps the greatest was to be found in Lily Parr, a forward for the Dick, Kerr Ladies. Parr is described by Tate, when she was fourteen, as a woman who "smoked, swore and spat as fluently as any man" would become England's greatest ever goalscorer, mentioned by the author as a "natural and powerful player...her shot was - even by male standards - remarkably mighty." Originally playing for St Helens Ladies, it wasn't until 1919 she was asked to play for the Dick, Kerr Ladies following an encounter in which her shot broke a male goalkeeper's arm. Lily was in the media spotlight from an early age but initial development was hampered by the FA's decision to close down the women's game on FA-affiliated grounds. However, following the controversial act, Parr would go on to score over 900 goals for the "Unofficial England Ladies."

The previously mentioned controversial act of closing down the women's game to the vast attendances it attracted, opens a whole new chapter in Tate's book. Despite just two years after women gained the vote in Britain, the use of newspapers begins to highlight a relapse of previous misogynistic stances towards women's sport and a general support for the FA. Tate calls the FA ruling as part of an "anachronistic vendetta" in reference to Modern Historian's pro-women's football stance. However, the ban finally sees questions of financial discrepancies concerning the Dick, Kerr Ladies begin to appear.

Modern Face of English Football:
Kelly Smith
"The Secret History of Women's Football" does not just centre all of its attention of Parr and the Dick, Kerr Ladies. It also provides an accurate insight into of the origins of women's football in Britain. The foundations of the sport are found as early as 1881 from contemporary newspaper articles from the Glasgow Herald, Nottinghamshire Guardian and the Leeds Mercury to name a few of the many media pieces Tate has used to his undoubted advantage. The papers mentioned offer a great deal of detail concerning early internationals between England and Scotland, which occur just nine years after the first male international match between the same nations, surprising, given the social misogyny at the time.

Internationals aside, the book highlights another of the game's early pioneers, Nettie Honeyball, albeit the name being possibly a pseudonym due to her absence in the 1891 census. Tim Tate writes that Honeyball was the "originator and driving force behind women's football" but the mystery of just who she was is the most interesting. Tate supplies numerous outcomes as to who the British Ladies Football Club founder was and delivers his own thorough assessment into the enigma of Nettie Honeyball. His final judgement? Read the book to find out!

Finally, in reviewing "Girls With Balls: The Secret History Of Women's Football", I have managed to discover a whole footballing world unknown to me just two weeks ago. Tate in his 273-page record of the early pioneers, scandals and globetrotting contemporary megastars has been enlightening and intriguing to read. His use of numerous primary sources of evidence and biographies of the Dick, Kerr Ladies and Lily Parr has provided the most accurate insight into the infancy of women's football to date.

From the elusive Nettie Honeyball's founding of the British Ladies Team to Grace Sibbert's Dick, Kerr Ladies and the resulting controversy involving the male-dominated Football Association, Tate leaves no stone unturned. I would highly recommend purchasing the book and like me, discovering the secret history of women's football.

Rating: *****

Written by Ben Jones (@Benny_J)

To purchase Tim Tate's "Girls With Balls: A Secret History Of Women's Football - visit - £17.99


Unknown said…
The picture of the team with what is said to be their manager Alfred Frankland - looks very like the team filmed in 1925 with entertainer George Robey, who kicked off the game. See BFI archive

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