Witness history: A ground-breaking Manchester Derby

‘Sorry, no girls allowed.’

It’s the phrase that has haunted almost every sports-playing young woman at some point in her life – and sometimes, even omitting the apology. It’s the reason women’s sport has lagged so far behind its male counterpart for so long, and the reason why so many budding female sports stars give up on their dreams entirely and embark on a new – and often more ‘traditional’ - path.

Whether you are a women’s football fanatic or an intrigued newcomer, one thing everyone can agree on is that the women’s game has been grossly underappreciated and undervalued. As we ready ourselves for arguably the most exciting season in the English game, with anticipation and interest at an all-time high following another enjoyable World Cup campaign, it is difficult to digest that this was not an option a matter of years ago.

After all, women’s football was banned for 50 years in 1921, despite the fact it had been pulling in crowds of 50,000 and more during the First World War. The justification for the ban? Football was deemed ‘quite unsuitable for females.’

Half a century later, the ban was thankfully lifted… but it begs the question: where would the women’s game stand today had it been allowed to progress? Even almost two decades after the ban was lifted, it was only ever viewed as a recreational activity – certainly not a career.

Last year, City celebrated 30 years of women’s football at the Club. Back in 1988, Manchester City Ladies was launched as a City in the Community initiative by CITC employee Neil Mather, in a bid to offer regular playing opportunities to women.

Although the decision proved a success with phenomenal interest, even Mather himself believed it would only serve as a hobby. The team played in old kit from the men’s youth team, had to borrow a minibus, play on uneven, grass-less pitches and experience the delights of some far-from-luxurious changing facilities.

“People asked me years ago: will women’s football ever become professional? I said: ‘Absolutely no chance!’” he recalls. “Here we stand, 30 years later with a fully professional Manchester City Women’s team and even now, I’m still pinching myself.

“I watch the women’s team play regularly at the state-of-the-art Academy Stadium and I can’t quite get my head around it. When I visit the Academy and see the way they train – the professionalism – I can’t believe that it’s happening, and I’m so pleased.

“One of the big deals for me, as a father of a six-year-old girl who plays football for fun, is the thought that she has women to look up to as her inspirations – not just men.”

Three decades on, and the progress is remarkable – and not just for City. The English women’s game boasts professional leagues and teams, with full-time players and staff – and much-improved facilities.

Women’s football is finally being taken seriously and what an impact its development has ignited – both on and off the pitch. Coupled with the record-breaking viewing figures of matches now broadcast on mainstream television and radio channels, plus advertising funding, the women’s game is gradually becoming ‘normalised’, whilst shining the spotlight on successful and inspirational females – in all aspects of the game: the players, the staff and the media.

Young girls are being introduced to new opportunities, new hobbies and new potential career paths – and the proof is in the pitches. In addition to increased match attendances, more and more local girls’ teams are being launched, while youngsters – both male and female – are proudly sporting women’s players’ names on the back of their shirts.In today’s world, this is quite normal – but the rapid development of the game just over the past five years was once wholly unthinkable. Few people knew who managed the England Women’s team – never mind who their local team were, when their fixtures took place or who held the captain’s armband.

With little to no media coverage, British role models were scarce. Those who broke the mould to become household names within the English game were few and far between. Personally, I had heard of only Rachel Yankey, Faye White and Kelly Smith – purely because they had been recognised for their services to sport in the New Year Honours lists.

In fact, this teenage female footballer (sadly, it didn’t work out) was first introduced to Fara Williams at the age of 14. Fara – who has amassed a sensational 170 caps for her country – visited my local girls’ team to promote England’s upcoming Euros game against Finland at the Etihad Stadium in June 2005. Although aware we did not recognise her, she shared with us tales of life as a female footballer (one of several jobs the players held), whilst handing out signed merchandise which included the tagline: ‘A more beautiful game’ – hardly an empowering or equalising image of the women’s game.

My interest in football-centric children’s films ensured I had a wider knowledge of American female soccer players. Even the award-winning British comedy drama Bend It Like Beckham (who?!) showcased only US stars in action, as Jess and Jules idolised those who were able to carve a career in the sport – a dream that could only have been realised in America.

Thankfully, that is no longer the case, and those young girls who wish to fulfil their ambitions of playing the sport they love are no longer forced to pack their bags, bid farewell to their families and travel thousands of miles across the Atlantic to create a new life for themselves in the States.

When California-born goalkeeper Karen Bardsley arrived in England, she was disappointed to discover the limited opportunities for young girls playing the sport she loved, having been widely encouraged to follow her ambitions in her homeland.

“When I first came over here, I felt like I never really heard much about girls playing football,” she admitted. “It wasn’t in conversation and you didn’t really see organised teams. One of the major differences was that growing up in the States, I saw really strong female role models. There were people who were doing what I wanted to do. I saw them on TV and I knew there was something out there for me.

“That’s something that was lacking in the past, especially here. There were no female role models. The media attention wasn’t as prevalent as it is now so there wasn’t that kind of awareness around the game and people didn’t know football was a potential career opportunity.

“It all comes down to changing the perception of people. It’s a hard one to break as it’s so deeply ingrained but I think exposing people to good quality women’s football is important.”

City and England’s teenage starlets – the Georgia Stanways, Keira Walshes, Lauren Hemps et al – perhaps do not know how lucky they are, as the more experienced members of the squad frequently remind them! When Jill Scott broke into Everton’s starting XI as a semi-professional, the midfielder still lived in Sunderland and juggled two other jobs to make ends meet. Full-time, paid employment as a female footballer in state-of-the-art facilities with top level resources to hand were unimaginable before the league – and City – became professional, as Jill remembers.

“I feel like I’ve been part of a journey from day one and what a journey it’s been,” she reflects. “When I first signed for City, there was a lot promised to us in terms of facilities and full-time training, and the move has exceeded its expectations in a lot of cases in terms of nutritional help, physio help, sports science and the coaches.

“I’m very honoured and privileged to be able to train at these fantastic facilities. The amount of knowledge at this Club is incredible – you walk around and have conversations with people, and walk away knowing more as both a player and a person. It's all on another level for me and I feel I've really improved as a player since I've been here.

“Over the years, I’ve seen how the game has grown. Players of 17 and 18 are being given full-time contracts. It makes you a little bit jealous because I wish I’d had that! But what an amazing opportunity for them and that’s where we want the game to be.”

Incidentally, that England game which Fara Williams encouraged me to attend at the City of Manchester Stadium back in 2005 attracted a crowd of just under 30,000. Fast forward almost 15 years and the Lionesses are on track to smash their attendance record for November’s friendly clash against Germany at Wembley Stadium with 50,000 seats already snapped up.

The FA Women’s Cup Final – of which City are the reigning Champions – is now also staged at the country’s national stadium and continues to break attendances with each passing year with kids (the next generation of budding stars) often invited to watch for free.

The history books are continually being torn up and rewritten – and it’s a joy to be part of. As we gear up for the eagerly-awaited, new 2019/20 campaign, there is a chance to witness history in the flesh once again at the home of Manchester City. For the first time since the game turned professional, City will lock horns with Manchester United in the maiden Super League Manchester Derby on Saturday 7 September in a 3pm kick-off.

It’s the fixture everyone has been discussing since United launched their women’s team last season. Promotion from the Championship earned the Reds a place in the top-flight and what better way to kick-off the new season than with a hotly-contested clash at the home of the Fourmidables?

With a typically family-oriented audience, rivalry within women’s football has been limited, but Janine Beckie believes the introduction of neighbourly competition will benefit the sport.

“Growing up in the US, the hype is different around European football so to be part of it and to see how much it means to people is really cool,” she declared. “The girls on our team – me included – are so happy to have the opportunity to be part of history in the first professional game against United. It’s a home-grown rivalry that runs deep with the men’s team so to be able to create that with the women’s team is really good.”

With kids invited to attend for free and adult tickets priced at just £7, a total of 22,000 tickets have already been sold for the mouth-watering curtain raiser – yet another record for English women’s football. The encounter, presented by kit partners PUMA, who are equally committed to championing women’s sport, is set to be a truly special occasion and certainly, one not to be missed.

Hopefully, it will prove to be another springboard which thrusts the women’s game deeper into the spotlight and a portrayal of just how far the sport has come. For captain Steph Houghton and her team, the ability to play the game in the state-of-the-art facilities and to be paid for the privilege is not the sole purpose they put their hearts and souls into the game – they do so to inspire the next generation. Belgium Women’s all-time top goalscorer Tessa Wullaert has ‘girl power’ tattooed on her ankle for that very reason.

Utilising their role model status for the good of the game is a goal those hardy souls, who sacrificed so much to pursue a career, are especially passionate about and Houghton has often spoken of the importance of ‘leaving a legacy.’

“People only tend to remember the short-term history in terms of the last five years and how we’ve built the Club to where it is,” she stated, “but when we put that shirt on, we’re always grateful to those who came before us. They left the shirt for us to take and that’s the way we think – in years to come, if we can leave the shirt in a better place than it was five years prior, we’ve done our job. We’re thankful for the journey they’ve been on and the journey they’ve allowed us to be part of.”

With a glittering CV, City and England skipper Houghton has experienced so many unforgettable footballing moments. Leading out Nick Cushing’s side at the Etihad Stadium in front of a record crowd for the first professional Manchester Derby, with the atmosphere crackling with excitement, will certainly create another to add to the collection…