If this were a film it would start in silent black-and-white. Maybe with the subtle sound effects of wind and rain – and jeering. Casey Stoney, of Arsenal and England, was remembering the “old days”. Men’s kit, rubbish-strewn pitches, picking off the dog excrement before matches could start. Kate Richardson-Walsh, Olympic gold medal-winning GB hockey captain, goes all the way back to men’s polo shirts and sewing your own skirt for the national team. Katy McLean, the captain who led England to Rugby World Cup triumph, played with the boys – no girls’ team existed – and juggled sport with a full-on career as a primary school teacher. The kids loved her black eyes, but she did nothing but travel, teach, train, play, sleep. Her mum did her washing.
It sounds like the Victorian era, let alone just last century. Women’s team sport lived utterly in the shadows. Unfunded, unwatched, invisible, except to those who played for the love of it. Look at them now. The black-and-white has ceded to vibrant technicolour and the noise turned up to rock concert-decibel cheering. It’s raining medals. The GB hockey triumph in Rio is just the latest episode of an unfurling sporting revolution. It’s boom time for women’s team sport.
We’ll look back on the days when it was “not done” with mystification. The FA ban on women playing football until 1969 will seem as weird and draconian as denying them the vote until after World War One. There was, in the lifetime of those old enough to remember the England men’s team winning the World Cup in 1966, a visceral fear and loathing of women getting together to play sport. It is not something entirely explained by the man of the household fearing delays to his meal on the table.
The best analogy is probably with women vicars. The idea was insupportable to many, both men and women. It flouted convention, tradition, practice and The Bible, where the Disciples were all uncontrovertibly male. Then a clergy shortage arose and the Vicar of Dibley was aired. In other words, a gap in the market and Dawn French arose. Women vicars were allowed. Nobody died.
This is the territory that women’s team sport now gloriously inhabits. It’s having its Vicar of Dibley moment. In 2016 alone: the dramatic women’s hockey triumph was watched by nine million viewers; the Women’s FA Cup final drew a record crowd of just under 33,000; the Yorkshire Rows – four mums in a rowing boat – set a world record crossing the Atlantic. England women’s rugby players will stage one of their autumn internationals at Twickenham in November. Women’s cricket, netball and hockey are teaming up to promote each other’s hosting of major events between 2017 and 19. No genie is going back into any kind of bottle.
Women’s team sport is collaborative, competitive, communicative. Where’s it been all these years?
There are drawbacks, flaws and much development work to do. It’s about 200 years behind men’s team sport in terms of development. Or possibly 1.3 million years if you count the slight bias towards strength imposed by homo erectus. So the crowds are less dense, the commercial deals less blinding, the exposure less everywhere, the religious fervour less fermenting – but the unwavering commitment to The Team is just the same.
The GB women’s hockey team were devout in their adherence to three goals. “Be the difference, Create History, Inspire the future.” The extraordinary sight of goalkeeper Maddie Hinch calmly taking up her position between the posts to face a Dutch onslaught in the penalty shoot-out was ultimate proof of the absorption of those goals. Training, cerebral, physical, emotional, had been brutal to get to this point – the squad had even done stand-up comedy routines to get properly battle-hardened – and the Netherlands visibly quavered in response.
That shoot-out was a great moment in British sport – what difference the sex of the protagonists?
It all changes from here. Children will devour a different message to those of a previous generation. Girls and boys will not just see but admire women playing team sport. The option of joining in will be laid before them. Right now, if you’re a female international footballer you’ll earn up to £70,000 a year; if you’re a male it could be £70,000 a week. But you’ve probably got more chance of winning the World Cup with the women.
On a Radio 5 Live show this week, Tracey Neville, the England women’s netball coach, told a great story. So under-resourced was the international squad in ancient times they didn’t even have their names on the back of their flapping shirts. Their opponents – the Australians – did. So, next best thing, they found scraps of material to make their own headbands and scrawled their names on the front. Job done.
When the film of the breakthrough of women’s team sport is eventually made, let’s hope footage of that moment survives. A new world is dawning thanks to the fighting spirit and perseverance of a player in a bandage called “Neville”.
To listen to the podcast of Radio 5 Live’s programme on women’s team sport click here.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Sue Mott is an award-winning sport journalist who has worked on radio, TV and the written press. Sue’s latest articles