When Football Banned Women depicts the glory days of the neglected female game – much needs to be done to restore it

Clare Balding's timely, surprisingly moving documentary highlights the real reason women's football lags behind the men's game

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As a kid, I played football in one form or another for nearly a decade, my long-suffering dad (thanks, Dad) ferrying me all over Norfolk; my proudest achievement to date is being voted Players’ Player by my team-mates, although I accept that it’s probably time to take it off my CV.

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So watching When Football Banned Women, a timely, surprisingly moving documentary presented by Clare Balding, I shouldn’t have been surprised to hear the responses of the girls of St Helen’s FC when Balding asked what people thought of them playing football. “They think we’re rubbish,” says one. “They think because we’re girls we can’t play football,” says another. But I was surprised, because although those sentiments were all too familiar, I thought things had got better since I first pulled on my football boots.

Of course in many ways, they have: the number of British girls playing football continues to increase, prompting a recent announcement from the FA detailing a “Gameplan for Growth”, while this week sees the women’s Euros shown live on Channel 4 for the first time, after the channel outbid former hosts, the BBC.

But the attitude the St Helen’s girls describe is a wider problem, which will be more complicated to solve: how women’s football is perceived, especially by men, though by no means exclusively. It’s the view that women are crap at football, or that they shouldn’t be playing it; most often, it’s a bit of both.

And here’s why When Football Banned Women is so brilliant: it challenges that view by highlighting the main reason why the women’s game lags behind the men’s – and it’s not because they can’t get their little lady minds around the offside rule. For 50 years, from 1921, women’s football was banned by the FA. This game was restricted to amateur status, meaning it received no money from the FA and no structural support; it couldn’t use FA pitches or coaches or any other resources.

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Dick Kerr Ladies Squad

Balding’s film is also at pains to point out that when women’s football was banned, it was at the height of its popularity, attracting tens of thousands of spectators and creating players who became household names. In fact it was partly because women’s football was so popular that the FA acted to suppress it. So the assumption that the game isn’t of a high enough standard to attract a crowd, and therefore that it will never be a mainstream sport, is a false one; it was, a century ago.

Really, the notion is pure sexism, and besides, hundreds of thousands of people turn up – and pay money! – to watch non-league, part-time players grind out results every week. They’re not going because it’s 90 minutes of end-to-end thrills; they go because they’re invested, because it’s their team, because it’s the purest form of football, because what else do you do on a Saturday afternoon? There’s no reason women’s football can’t fulfil all of those roles too, with the right investment and exposure.

And steps are being made in that direction. The Women’s Euros coming to Channel 4 this week (England and Scotland are both in Group D, and begin their campaigns against each other on Wednesday) show that TV execs recognise the potential of the game to attract audiences. But that exposure alone isn’t enough; the game needs money. Some of it could come from TV rights: BT Sport show a handful of Women’s Super League matches every season, but as it stands it simply doesn’t compare to the billions the men’s game attracts. 

A simple, immediate solution would be for the Premier League to share some of the spoils. Last season it made a profit of £500 million; why don’t clubs invest some of that into their women’s teams? This model has worked well at Manchester City and Arsenal, which are featured in When Football Banned Women as one of the first Premier League teams to take women’s football seriously. Many still don’t – Manchester United, one of the biggest clubs in the world, doesn’t even have a women’s team. 

This highlights another issue raised by the documentary, and the girls of St Helen’s – representation. When Balding asks them who their footballing heroes are, they all name men. But is that because they’re not interested in the women’s game, or because they rarely see female players on TV, in the newspaper, on magazine front pages, on billboards, in adverts?

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Clare Balding in the England Women’s changing room

Balding compounds the point by scrutinising the back pages of newspapers, obviously frustrated by the lack of women. Sports editors (who, incidentally, are overwhelmingly male) will tell you they don’t feature women’s football because there’s no interest in it. But how do they know if they don’t do it? You can’t judge the appetite for women’s sport on the response to a handful of articles; it needs sustained, invested, intelligent coverage, to make up for decades of neglect. The history and context of women’s football needs to be brought into the light; the only way to redress the balance is by knowing how the inequality began in the first place. 

It’s clear there’s a lot that needs to be done to restore women’s football to the glory days depicted in When Football Banned Women – but there’s also a lot of very simple things that can happen now to show that the wider game is willing. Scotland’s FA, for example, maintains a roll of honour for male players who manage 50 international appearances – but not women. At least until earlier this month, when they unveiled a women’s roll of honour, including players with more than 100 caps. 

It’s through small inclusive gestures like this that the FA can integrate more women into the male game – as coaches, officials, pundits. Make it normal to see women on a football pitch, or hear their voices in the commentary box, until it’s not an extraordinary thing for a young girl to play football – and until those girls have heroes who look like them. 

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When Football Banned Women is on Tuesday 18th July at 10pm on Channel 4