The Lionesses are building upon the platform and legacy established by players from the past like Gillian Coultard. The former England captain tells The Mixed Zone’s Katie Whyatt about football in her day and how the game has progressed almost out of recognition
The European Championship, currently being played in Holland, is the epitome of a modern football tournament. It is organised within an inch of its life, played on pristine pitches and broadcast live across the continent on television and other media platforms. It wasn’t always thus. Gillian Coultard, a former England captain, can recall playing in the first, albeit unofficial, Euro final back in 1984.
“The game should never have been played,” she begins. “We played at Kenilworth Road, Luton Town’s ground. We played Sweden, played away first. It rained – bucketed it down for three, four solid days. We thought the game was going to be abandoned – in those days, you didn’t really carry it over. The pitch was like a mud bath – but I thoroughly enjoyed it, and I played alongside some great footballers who never seem to get a mention these days.”
The predecessors of the present-day Lionesses won that game in Bedfordshire 1-0, but having lost by the same score in Sweden, the title was decided in a shootout. And in an eerie echo familiar to all followers of the game in this country, England lost on penalties.
Coultard was in the early years of a career that spanned nearly two decades, during which time she became the first player to pass 100 caps for England. Her memories of a game more than 30 years ago contain a hint of nostalgia, laced with realism, and encapsulate the gritty reality of women’s football from a different, almost forgotten era.
Because only sixteen teams took part in that inaugural tournament – less than half the then-membership of UEFA – the tournament was not accorded official status. However, unlike large chunks in the history of women’s football in England, at least records are available for this one. They underline the legacy of Coultard’s days. “We were probably the platform,” the midfield player says. “I’m proud of what we started from and what we went through to get where we are today.”
Indeed, Coultard’s generation were particularly hands-on in laying the groundwork. She spent cumulatively 15 years of her playing career over two spells with Doncaster Belles, and recounts stories of “selling Golden Goal tickets, selling raffle tickets, selling lottery tickets. Going to games was self-funded – petrol money, people using each other’s cars. When we got success and we were going to cup finals, we had a bus, which was a little different, staying in a hotel. As the years went on, it got better, but you look at those days and you think, ‘God, how did we survive?’
“The pitches – you look at today’s football and that’s one of the things we remark about – when it came to winter, it wasn’t a pitch, it was just a pool of mud. It was park pitches: making sure there’s no dog excrement, putting your own nets up, corner flags, grass that’s never been cut for weeks. It was a bit of an eye-opener compared to what it is now.”
Even so, there will be many current players who can empathise with her plight. Sunderland Ladies, for instance, reverted to part-time status this year, and their players now face the challenge of shoehorning jobs, training and travel into already crammed schedules. Coultard worked full-time in electronics and plastics factories in Castleford, training four times a week and taking annual leave to play for England.
“I played under what was then the WFA [Women’s Football Association],” she says. “The work that they did [was] to try and get us some funding from Sport England and various other companies to get us to where we needed to be. It was a struggle.” Meet on the Friday, play on Sunday, return to work on Monday. Repeat. “That’s how it worked and that’s what we got used to. It was a bit surreal, a little bit like, ‘Where’s that weekend gone?’ I was very grateful to the people I worked for: they were very understanding when I got into the England set-up, very understanding of what I was trying to do. Some girls were using their holidays a year in advance to go away and represent their country. For us to have a couple of extra days when we had the funding was a dream come true, really.”
In the two decades since the FA took over governance of the women’s game, the sport’s profile has grown considerably, but the switchover was painful initially. Lydia Whitehead, WFA secretary for 13 years, was made redundant. “It wasn’t what they wanted to do; it was the way they did it. They just rode roughshod all over us,” she said in 1994. The WFA’s history, as far as documentation goes, is sketchy. Whole chapters are missing, not helped by the fact that the whereabouts of the WFA’s archives are unknown.
So does the FA do enough to acknowledge this history? Coultard is unequivocal in her response. “No. That’s my bugbear – definitely not,” she says. “The FA have been fantastic – I’ve had a fantastic career under the FA and the WFA – but at times I get frustrated because they tend to erase the era of the WFA. But if it wasn’t for that era, we wouldn’t have got what we’ve got today.
“All you can do is keep knocking at the door. [We need] the people of that generation to remind them. We celebrated 150 years of men’s football, and went back over those years, but we don’t celebrate the history of women’s football. We remember the Dick, Kerr Ladies and that the FA banned women from playing, and then they’ve cut that big chunk out. But I think that biggest chunk put the women’s game where it is today. I suppose we took a lot of the flak for playing football. That’s my own take on it. There’s other people who might not say the same thing, but that’s my opinion, and my opinion’s got to be respected.
“I’d like to see the FA, when there are internationals, invite the older girls to the games, like the Americans do. I’ve been fortunate enough that I do get invitations. But there are lots of other women who’ve won 50 England caps – and I think that should be a milestone in any career – and they should get an invitation to an international.
“It’s like when you ask ex-players now, ‘Would you like to play in this era?’ ‘Probably not, no’. What I had was fantastic, it was hard and we had to graft for what we got, but we appreciated it probably a little bit more than some of the youngsters do today. It’s an eye-opener.”
The youngest of eight, with four football-mad brothers, it felt “natural” for the young Coultard to follow their lead. She graduated through various boys’ teams at infants and middle schools until she reached the local grammar where they stopped her from playing. Because she was a girl. “Devastated,” Coultard says simply. “Because that’s all I’d done throughout school. I couldn’t understand why.”
Coultard’s middle school PE teacher contacted Doncaster Belles and she joined the first team at 13. “They were real women: 26, 27, 28. It was a bit of a learning curve, but it was good in one sense because they looked after you. I grew up very, very quickly. Doncaster Belles is renowned for being a family club and that’s where it’s got its name from. We were a big family.”
So began the 25-year career that spawned more than 300 club appearances, two National League titles and six FA Cups for the club who were dominant force of that era. After retiring, she worked as football coach at East Durham College, sending players on scholarships to the United States. She works now for a pharmaceutical company; she concedes she’s probably “been out of it too long” to go back into football.
“I wouldn’t say never, because you can’t say that in life. If something came along that fitted into my lifestyle, I’d look at it.” How does she feel about her legacy? “It’s hard to say. Of everything that I’ve done, the one bugbear that I would like to continue to keep probing and pushing is not deleting those 20 years under the WFA. I think I’ve been quite fortunate to voice my opinion, and be at the top end of my career as the women’s game was just starting to change. But then the people who retired [before me] never had a chance to play under the FA. We had quite a lot from the FA, but what the girls get now is unbelievable: the facilities, the aftercare, first-class flights. It’s so different.
“But for my legacy, I wouldn’t change a thing. I helped the game to get where it is today. I was the first woman to get over 100 caps for England, which has never been recognised. The girls who get over 100 caps now get recognised with an OBE. Mine’s never been recognised.
“But I’ve been a big part and long may it continue. The Dick, Kerr Ladies are just starting to get their recognition, and rightly so. I’m glad I played women’s football, I’m glad I played for Doncaster Belles and I’m glad I played for my country 119 times, and captained. That’s everybody’s dream and it will be something no one can take away from me.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Katie Whyatt. Katie’s latest articles