Celebrating women in football: The trailblazers who’ve changed the game

By Emma Whitney.

Inspired by International Women’s Day, Emma Whitney pays tribute to the influential and talented women around the world who contribute to making football the success that it is.

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Anna Connell

I wonder what Anna Connell, a Victorian rector’s daughter from east Manchester, would have made of the abuse Dr Carneiro suffered at the Etihad during Chelsea’s match with Manchester City? Dismayed by the poverty and the destructive lifestyles many young men in her area found themselves in, Connell helped set up various men’s meeting clubs in the late 1870s and purportedly knocked on one thousand doors to drum up interest, as Thank God for Football author Peter Lupson details.

These clubs morphed into a cricket team, which started playing football during the winter, calling itself St Mark’s West Gorton. Eventually, St Mark’s became Manchester City. Connell is believed to be the only woman to have direct involvement in founding a football club; a ridiculous fact when you stop and think about it. Still, my life would be very different had Anna not bothered all those years ago, and despite my constant mithering about the Blues, I’m very grateful.

Sheila Edmunds

My next mention goes to Sheila Edmunds, nee Stocks, and her fellow raffle ticket sellers at Doncaster Rovers. These intrepid women, football fans through and through, decided they wanted to set up a team, and the Belle Vue Belles were formed – in 1969, when women’s teams were still officially banned from playing on league grounds. By 1971, the Belles had become the Doncaster Belles, the team that not only tore women’s football in England apart, but helped create it. Between 1976 and 1989, the Belles won the Notts League 11 times.

Edmunds told the Doncaster Free Press “back then we used to rent out pitches with our own money, buy our own kit – and get changed in our cars!” Thanks to such dedication, the now Doncaster Rovers Belles are one of the most revered names in the women’s game, ready to vie for promotion to the WSL 1 this season. Without Edmunds and her team-mates, English women’s football would be very different.

Karren Brady

One thing that always seems the same, however, is the tabloid press reaction when a young woman is appointed to a football club’s board. The furore and undisguised lascivious press interest surrounding Carolyn Radford’s position as chief executive at Mansfield Town is still ongoing; as if being educated, intelligent, conventionally attractive, female and capable of running a football club are all mutually exclusive. When thinking of women and behind-the-scenes power in football, Karren Brady is the obvious name that springs to mind.

A true standard bearer, Brady became the first female director of a Football League club when she took over as MD of struggling Birmingham City in 1993. Now the vice-chair of West Ham, she has helped ensure the Hammers will move into the Olympic Stadium next year. Whether she progresses in her fledgling political career or not, Brady has vehemently proved a woman can carve out a career at the very heart of the men’s game.

Heather Rabbatts

Heather Rabbatts might not be as well known as Brady, but her work has been no less important. The former chief executive of Lambeth Council, now an FA Director, is the ex-chairwoman of Millwall FC, who she saved from potential financial oblivion. As The Offside Rule’s resident Lions fan Tom Simmonds says, after Theo Paphitis’ time at The Den, Millwall ‘. . . was in chaos’.

A ‘putative regeneration scheme’ for the surrounding area was generating the wrong kind of interest in the club, and potentially the wrong sort of people could have taken charge, sold the stadium and its land, leaving others to pick up the pieces. Rabbatts ensured none of this happened. Bringing in owner John Berylson’s investment and remaining sensible in a crisis were her two biggest achievements, according to Simmonds.


Talking of big achievements, what the USWNT did during the World Cup in 1999 surpasses big and goes all the way to gigantic. Tony DiCicco’s squad captured American hearts, as 90,000 fans packed into the Rose Bowl (think gridiron, California, not cricket, Hants) – still the largest crowd to date for a female sporting event, that.

All witnessed the USA’s dramatic 5-4 penalty shootout win against China. That year saw an explosion of Stateside interest in the beautiful game, as a generation of young girls dreamt of becoming the next Briana Scurry, Mia Hamm or Brandi Chastain. America’s success in 1999 was also the apotheosis of Title IX, a piece of US legislation that made it illegal to discriminate on the basis of sex when providing state-funded sporting activities.

Team GB

Another side that definitely warrants a mention is of course 2012’s Team GB. Seeing our British girls beating Brazil – of all nations – courtesy of Steph Houghton’s early strike in front of a packed, rabid Wembley, has to be up there with my moments of the London Olympics. Since then, women’s football in Britain, and especially in England, has undergone something of a sea change: the FA has woken up and decided to properly invest in, support and promote the game; the media are starting to sense public interest; men’s clubs are getting on board with a vengeance, and the fans themselves are growing.

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What these converts to the women’s game want to see is what’s offered at Premier League grounds up and down the country – on a good day, of course. You’re average WSL 1 match won’t contain sheer, audacious skill, à la Puskas Award Nominee Stephanie Roche – though Man City Women’s Toni Duggan did run Roche pretty close with her beauty last season.

It would be great if women’s football in England had its own Marta, and I have a feeling it won’t be long before we will do. The FC Rosengård striker won Fifa World Player of the Year five times between 2006 and 2010 but World Cup excluded, what Marta hasn’t won in women’s football isn’t worth winning. Her insane skills aside, she’s included in this list because of the obstacles a South American female footballer has to overcome to be so successful.


Another woman who has fought against prejudice to achieve her dreams is freelance sports journalist Jacqui Oatley. Famous for being the first female commentator on Match of the Day, she cut her teeth on local radio, and has worked on the BBC’s Football League Show and Final Score, plus this year’s ITV AFCON coverage. With Oatley’s fellow female sports journalist Gabby Logan regularly presenting MoTD, and fellow BBC colleague Charlotte Green reading the classifieds, the world of football journalism doesn’t look quite so very male any more, which is important.

As a teenager, I pored vociferously over the back pages of newspapers, yet didn’t twig I might like this sports journalism lark until I was well into my twenties. I was reading words about men written by men, and didn’t think there was a place for me in that world. Oatley, Logan, Green, and of course our own Offside Rule women – Kait Borsay, Lynsey Hooper, Hayley McQueen, Kate Partridge, player-turned-pundit Sue Smith – prove me wrong every single day, and I think that’s brilliant.

Have you been influenced by any of these trailblazing women? Tell us below.

Follow @emmalucywhitney

Read more from Emma Whitney here!

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