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City DNA #5: Ladies to League Champions

CITY DNA: Examining the history of our remarkable women's team
Almost three years to the day since our first FA Women's Super League title success, we celebrate the history of City's remarkable women's team in the fifth instalment of our new series...

City’s women’s team has a long and distinguished history and was established as a City In The Community (CITC) initiative in 1988.

At that time Neil Mather, working for CITC, organised a women only five-a-side tournament based on similar competitions they had organised for local businesses. The first competition was won by a team called Szererlmey Restoration who beat the Midland Bank following an exciting penalty shoot-out.

Several tournament players discussed with Neil the opportunities – or lack of them in some cases – for women who wanted to play on a regular basis. 

READ: City DNA #5 | Don Revie: The man with the plan

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The competition had been successful and Neil considered expanding CITC’s commitment to women’s football. He formally suggested the setting up of a women’s team under the control of CITC and approval was given by the Manchester City senior management.

The first published mention of the idea came in a newspaper article on 16 September 1988 which discussed the five-a-side tournament.

Various appeals and practice sessions occurred in October and November, with 33 women and girls at the first session and 70 turning up for the second. The club, delighted with the interest generated, organised its inaugural game to take place at Boundary Park against Oldham Athletic Ladies on 27 November 1988.

The first goal scorer was Donna Haynes, who also scored City’s third in a 4-1 victory, while former Redstar midfielder Heidi Ward also netted twice. The team comprised of a number of experienced players and many were well known in women’s football at the time after playing regularly for existing North West Women’s Regional Football League sides such as Chorley, Redstar, Wigan and Woodley Ladies. Others were relative novices, attracted to the team due to their support of the City men’s side.


                        Donna Haynes scored in the first City womens game in December 1988
Donna Haynes scored in the first City womens game in December 1988

The progress of the team was reported regularly in the MCFC match programme during the 1988-89 season, with Neil Mather, his coaching team and the players themselves, working tirelessly to promote the club and women’s football in general. Neil met with the Women’s FA, at the time based in Manchester’s Corn Exchange, and they were supportive, helping the club join the North West League Second Division in 1989. They also perceived City as a pioneering club.

Linda Whitehead, WFA secretary, publicly praised the club in 1990: “Manchester City, one of the first professional Football League clubs to form a women’s team and affiliate to the WFA, have worked hard over the last 18 months to promote the club and women’s football and we are extremely grateful for their support.”

It is worth noting that by January 1990, 14 Football League clubs had set up women’s teams affiliated to the WFA, and back in 1988 some reports claimed City were the fourth team, after Millwall, Bradford and Hull, to set up a female team. This point is often forgotten today when some in the game talk of the history and heritage of more successful clubs.

Under the original title of Manchester City Ladies Football Club, the women’s side joined the North West League Second Division in 1989.

They ended their first league campaign fourth, narrowly missing out on promotion but had already attracted national attention with various TV features including a popular appearance on the children’s show WAC90. That feature included interviews with first team players and was used to encourage girls and young women to take up the game.


                        Women's games were mentioned in the men's programmes
Women's games were mentioned in the men's programmes

The club participated in tournaments, including one at another relatively new club Arsenal Ladies, and Neil Mather organised friendly games, which often tied in with the male first team fixtures such as against Brentford prior to a men's FA Cup tie there and against Bradford City on the morning of the men’s promotion game in 1989.

City Ladies were viewed positively by CITC and the main club at the time, playing and training at City’s then first team training complex at Platt Lane, although they later found a more suitable venue for league games. The parent club provided kit initially, and first team star and Scottish international Colin Hendry became the women’s club’s president in March 1990.

He had watched the team defeat the leading side in the region, St. Helens, 3-1 in a cup competition.  At the time, Hendry commented: “I hope that by becoming president, it will encourage more publicity for women’s football.”

Former City and Burnley midfielder Kevin Glendon was the club’s first secretary, followed by goalkeeper Alex Williams in 1990. 

Articles appeared in the programme and in newspapers, and the team was used to demonstrate how football clubs were moving away from their 1970s/80s image of a male dominated environment, leading to an appearance on the Granada TV documentary series World In Action.


                        Lesley Peters and Lesley Wright
Lesley Peters and Lesley Wright

Like most women’s clubs of that era, the team was supported at each match by a dedicated group of supporters that included parents, husbands, partners, children and friends.

Leading striker Donna Haynes commented in 1990: “My boyfriend never misses a game. I want to get to the top and he supports me. Women can be just as good as men, and we can’t wait to prove it.” 

That year two of the club’s players, Joni Davies and Rachel O’Shaughnessy, were selected for the Welsh squad. Of the original City squad, Rhoda Taylor, Gail Redston (formerly Rothwell) and Lesley Wright remained involved for many years.

The team had many ups and downs over the years that followed and was typical of many clubs before the advent of professionalism. The women who played for Manchester City and their coaching staff worked tirelessly to promote the club and the Blues enjoyed several prominent successes and experienced many trials and tribulations along the way.

In August 2012, a formal partnership with the men's team was announced, and the Club relaunched as 'Manchester City Women's Football Club' in January 2014 with the team unveiled to the world at anevent held at the Etihad Stadium.

It was the Club’s stated intention at this time to achieve entry to the FA Women’s Super League and in April 2013, this was granted. City made our statement of intent clear, signing experienced England internationals Karen Bardsley, captain Steph Houghton and Jill Scott, who remain at the Club to this day.

Nick Cushing's side competed in the top-flight as a professional team for the first time in the 2014 campaign, earning a mid-table finish and clinching a first piece of major silverware with a memorable 1-0 Continental Cup Final triumph over Arsenal.

The result came as a shock to the footballing world - no least to City, as Bardsley recalled.

"We had an idea when we first came to the Club of what we’d like to achieve in our first three years and we’ve gone above and beyond," she reflected. "There’s a lot more to come – we haven’t reached our full potential yet, and it’s exciting to see what’s around the corner.

"The first year was a pulling together of a philosophy, a Club, individual players and coaching staff in a bid to try to mould a group that could be cohesive and successful on the pitch. We completely overachieved by winning the Continental Tyres Cup and that was a massive stepping off point for us as a team, with what we had at the time and what we managed to do."

WATCH: MCWFC v Arsenal Ladies: Highlights

A top-two finish in the league would follow the year after, securing Champions League football for the first time, and City would emulate that achievement in 2016, claiming a league and cup double with our first Super League title and second Conti Cup success.

In 2017, we won our first FA Cup at Wembley Stadium, defeating Birmingham 4-1 in the Final, and reached the semi-finals of the Champions League in our maiden European campaign, edged out by eventual winners Lyon in the semi-finals.

We would repeat that feat the following year, and regained both domestic Cups in the 2018/19 season, lifting the FA Cup and Continental Cup with triumphs over West Ham and Arsenal respectively.

What a journey - and with Cushing's side on the hunt for all four trophies this term, who knows what could be accomplished in the coming years...?

Gary James is a Honorary Research Fellow at De Montfort University. His current project focuses on Manchester City’s women’s team and he is keen to interview former players, coaches and management from every era of the Club’s existence. You can contact him via twitter: @garyjameswriter Facebook.com/garyjames4

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