Laura Winter learns about the history of the Women’s FA Cup from six-times winner Gillian Coultard. The former England captain recalls the days when the final would attract around one thousand spectators – today Wembley will be rocking when Arsenal face Chelsea
How times change. This Saturday afternoon Arsenal and Chelsea will play in front of thousands and thousands of spectators at Wembley Stadium in the Women’s FA Cup final. Gillian Coultard remembers getting her hands on the self-same trophy; six times, in fact, during her days with Doncaster Belles. But she was thirty years too early to strut her stuff at the home of English football; instead she played in front of the proverbial two women and their dog at such sporting outposts as the Baseball Ground, Derby, and Prenton Park, home of Tranmere Rovers.
In those long lost days, the pitches were bald and rock hard. But the memories remain as sweet as ever and it was on those Football League club grounds that the foundations were laid for female players to grace the hallowed turf of Wembley in the 46th Women’s FA Cup final today.
It is a fitting opportunity for Coultard, the former England captain, to look back wistfully. “One of my first Cup finals was in 1987,” she said. “We beat St Helens 2-0 at the City Ground, Nottingham. And in 1990 we beat Fulham at the old Derby ground 1-0 – I scored the winner. They stick out for me, as do the losses. Sometimes you’ve got to be the loser. But I’m quite happy with the six I’ve won.
“The WFA [Women’s Football Association] always gave us the best facilities they could, and when the FA took over it was a case of what ground was available from men’s football. There was hardly any grass on the pitches, though, and now they are immaculate from August through to May!
“To play at Wembley is the ultimate dream. It wasn’t possible for us, which shows just how much progress has been made, and that’s the most important thing. It will be a record-breaking crowd, too, and that is another positive step.”
More than 30,000 will pile through the turnstiles to watch the game and many more will watch the BBC’s live coverage from 1.30pm. In 1994, when the Belles beat Knowsley United 1-0, there were less than 2,000 to see the two best women’s sides in the country battling it out for FA Cup glory.
“We did get some coverage,” said Coultard. “Sometimes Channel 4 would send cameras down. But we didn’t have anywhere near the crowds they have today. We had two to three thousand, and sometimes that would get up to 10,000. But it’s a dream to get a crowd like they will at Wembley. I’d love to see the bottom tiers at Wembley completely full.
“That would be a fantastic achievement for the female footballers. It’s changed a hell of a lot. And what a day for Kelly Smith. I’d love to see her bow out with a winners’ medal. My heart says Arsenal, but my head says Chelsea.”
Doncaster-born Coultard has a list of achievements and accolades for which most footballers would give their right (or left) boot. As well as the six FA Cup victories, the 52-year-old won two national league titles with the Belles. She is one of England’s most capped internationals, with 119, and the first woman and amateur player to reach 100 caps. She scored 30 goals at international level, and made more than 300 appearances from 1976 to 2001 for her beloved Belles before retiring at the age of 37.
It is a stunning record made all the more remarkable when you consider she also worked full-time on the production line at the Pioneer factory in Castleford. You could certainly forgive her any resentment about the level of recognition and financial reward now compared to her day.
She recalls: “We’d get the usual comments. ‘You shouldn’t be playing football, you should be at home washing up’. You never get away from that, but it was always a matter of letting the positives outweigh the negative. We used to meet on a Friday, jump in the car and play for England on the Sunday. People do ask me, do you regret doing this all 20 years too early? But I always say no. What I did in my time will never be emulated again.
“We only played four internationals a year, which allowed me to have a career which spanned 21 years and won me 119 caps. Now, the girls play nine to 12 games a season. It was a fantastic time for us, we call it the good times. The memories are very different, compared to the girls’ level of dedication now, and what they have to do every week.
“I used to work 40 hours a week and then play football around that. The girls now are going to work and doing what they love – playing football. I’m not angry, but I am envious of what they’ve got. But if you look at the era before me, they will say, ‘We’ve set everything in stone. We’ve laid the platform for them to be able to go and do it’.
“It can make me angry that some of the players now don’t give a damn about what has happened before. The women who have done a lot for the game get forgotten. Some of the players now don’t understand how hard we had to work to give them this. They get given things on a plate, I had to work for everything I achieved. You need the opinions and thoughts of the old girls who have been there, done that, and got the T-shirt.
“We put the World Cup in the forefront and now England are bronze medallists and women’s football has some of the highest levels of participation behind men’s rugby and football. The game also owes a lot to Hope Powell, who created the summer league and gave the players central contracts which made a massive difference now teams are turning professional.”
So with an army of young female footballers now clamouring to play the game, and an ever-increasing professionalism in the Superleague, Coultard believes the media need to wake up to the revolution that is women’s football. It is time for women’s sport to hit the sports pages and make the headlines it so richly deserves.
“Football, cricket and rugby are now getting to where they need to be in terms of professionalism and central contracts,” she says. “But credit where credit is due, it’s time to see women’s sport on the front pages. I expected to see a real change in the media when we came third at the World Cup, our first medal since 1966, but then there were all these excuses of the time difference in Canada. We didn’t make front-page headlines. I was down to do an interview with the BBC, too, but they pulled the plug.
“Let’s be honest, no excuses, if men’s football can be on the front pages for doing the wrong things, why can’t female footballers make headlines for doing the right thing? Women’s football has come a long way, with magazines, podcasts, Twitter and the internet. But there is still a long way to go.”
Preceding the Women’s FA Cup final, more than 200 under-16 girls from 26 Premier League and Football League clubs will take part in a special five-a-side tournament at Wembley’s Powerleague, next door to the Stadium. The event, running from 8.30am to 1pm, is the pinnacle of the three-year Football Participation Programme, which has delivered a range of football activities to more than 60,000 girls, aged 14 and over, since its launch.
In addition, the highly successful FA Girls’ Football Festival, backed by Continental Tyres, will be at Wembley to challenge the skills of fans with a variety of innovative interactive equipment including Batak boards, Speed Cages, an inflatable target shoot and Quickfeet trials. There will also be music, hair braiding and face painting taking place throughout the morning’s competitions.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Laura Winter is a sports journalist, presenter and event host. She worked in sports communications for the International Rowing Federation for two years, before working and training as a journalist in Gloucestershire, covering a variety of sports including rugby, boxing, football, and triathlon. She then turned freelance at the end of 2014 and is part of the team who founded Voxwomen, a women’s cycling show that seeks to give the female elite peloton the coverage they deserve. Laura’s latest articles.