Why did women’s football in East Anglia stand still for 30 years?

A spell of glory in the 1980s, then decades of obscurity. Ali Rampling tells the story of East Anglian women’s football, and the hopes for its future…

Ipswich Town were the 2019/20 FA Cup’s romantic underdog story. The plucky fourth tier side, boasting a squad consisting predominantly of home-grown teenagers, pulled off a trio of giant killings to book a fifth-round tie against the might of Manchester City.

The Tractor Girls were comfortably dispatched by their illustrious opponents, with Lauren Hemp netting a brace and being an all-round nuisance down the left flank as City ran out 10-0 winners. Although the Norwich-supporting winger was ultimately instrumental in the Suffolk side’s downfall, in a roundabout way, without Hemp, Ipswich may have not reached the FA Cup fifth round in the first place.

East Anglia is not a place traditionally renowned for sporting pedigree. Ipswich had a great men’s team in the 1970s and 80s, and Norwich City have won the League Cup a couple of times — but it’s otherwise been pretty slim pickings.

In the women’s game, Ipswich’s historic 2019/20 FA Cup run has been the highlight in recent memory. Yet go back 40 years, as women’s football was starting to emerge from the shadows of the half-century ban that had decimated the sport, and East Anglia was in fact a hot bed for female footballing talent.

In the space of four years in the 1980s, the FA Cup was twice won by a team from East Anglia.

Lowestoft is a small seaside settlement with a population of just over 70,000. Their men’s side currently ply their trade in the seventh tier. In 1982, Lowestoft Ladies won the most prestigious cup competition in English football, coming from 2-0 down against the famous Doncaster Belles in the quarter finals en route to their FA Cup triumph.

“When you see the FA Cup now and you see them with the trophy, you think ‘our name’s on that. Little old Lowestoft’,” said Rita Fossey, Lowestoft’s FA Cup-winning goalkeeper.

Lowestoft beat Cleveland Spartans 2-0 in the final, and captain Jackie Slack had the honour of hoisting the trophy aloft in front of over 1,000 fans at Loftus Road — with future England manager Terry Venables among them.

“Everybody wanted to win the FA Cup,” the Lowestoft skipper enthused. “Every year you hoped that you went further and then got to win it. Apart from playing for England, that was the one thing everybody wanted. Everyone wants to lift the trophy, don’t they? It was lovely.”

And did she have to go to work the next day?

“I did as it happens. Terrible, isn’t it?”

The very same year that Lowestoft Ladies were celebrating their FA Cup triumph, the team’s former captain — ex England centre back Maureen Martin — was cobbling together a Norwich Ladies side.

“When I started this team up, I had all these kids who hadn’t played in a team before,” Martin recalled.

Within four years, Martin had transformed a side of inexperienced upstarts into FA Cup champions. Norwich netted a last-minute winner against Doncaster Belles to edge a 4-3 thriller, with former Lowestoft captain Slack again on the victorious team.

“I’ve got a lot of friends at Doncaster Belles and to this day they don’t want to talk to me about it,” Slack laughed.

However, neither Lowestoft nor Norwich would stand the test of time. Norwich folded when Martin stepped down as manager, while Lowestoft had disbanded shortly after their FA Cup win when their league collapsed. They were too good for their local division, and too far away for any meaningful opposition to travel to.

In the intervening decades, while the women’s game took huge strides across the country, seemingly not a great deal changed in East Anglia.

In 2016, thirty years on from Norwich’s FA Cup triumph, Hemp was forced to leave the Canaries for Bristol City at the age of 16 because of the lack of elite footballing opportunities in East Anglia. No senior sides in the region played higher than tier four, meaning Under 17 academy level was where the elite pathway ended in the region.

Hemp’s move highlighted the blindspot and in 2017, a Women’s Under 21 East Region Academy was opened in the area. Funded by the WSL, the academy was awarded to Ipswich. It has allowed the Tractor Girls to attract the very best young talent from the area with the lure of a footballing and academic education, elite standards, and top-class facilities.

A starting XI made up of seven players from said academy beat third tier Huddersfield in January 2020 as Ipswich booked their place in the FA Cup fifth round for the first time in their history. The Tractor Girls will be vying to replicate last season’s journey — and keep their competitive season alive — when they take on Billericay in this year’s competition’s second round on Easter Sunday.

With a strong setup behind them, Ipswich carry the best hopes of one day reaching the heights that East Anglian sides haven’t hit for nearly four decades.

Follow Ali on Twitter @AliRampling

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