Spot The Girl: Women’s Football And The Women’s World Cup

Ysgol Cystenin Boys Football Team in 1983
Top Row L-R: Gary Jones, Carl Hughes, Barry Gilkerson, Nic Jones, David Glibert, Mark Whitley
Bottom Row L-R: Russell Jones, Robert Hughes, Nichola Smith (Captain), Simon Roscoe, Kevin Bamford, Jamie Roberts

First Half

  • England Women’s football team and the Women’s World Cup 2023.
  • 1983 Ten-year-old girl gets selected as captain of boys’ football team in North Wales.
  • The first captain of England Women’s Football team Sheila Parker from Chorley tells us about the world of women’s football in the 1970s.

Second Half

  • Sports lawyer David Little of Bishop & Sewell uncovers some of the current legal ground of women’s football.
  • Lancashire FA’s Head of Football Delivery Jo Ashworth talks about the future for women’s football.

First Half

At 10:30am on 22nd of July 2023 the Lionesses, England’s Women’s football team kicked-off against Haiti in the Women’s World Cup 2023.

As one of 32 teams, England the reigning Euro 2022 champions are second favourite (after the United States of America) to win the tournament taking place in Australia and New Zealand.

Buoyant to have taken back control in Europe again, The Lionesses will be hoping to go one step further and conquer the globe, and lift dear old Blighty in glorious isolation back to the top of the superpower premiership league.

Surely sport is the best way to fight our wars? And if that means patriotism, nationalism and jingoism are played out on a green rectangle of grass 105m x 65m , will the Lionesses already a spectacular advert for women’s football, take it one step further win the women’s world cup 2023 and pave the way for more remarkable advances in British culture, society and life?

Mary Earp (Manchester United), Millie Bright (Captain, Chelsea), Chloe Kelly (Manchester City), Lauren Hemp (Manchester City), Alessia Russo (Arsenal), Lucy Bronze (Barcelona), Katie Zelem (Manchester United), Ella Toone (Manchester United), Keira Walsh (Barcelona), Georgia Stanway (Bayern Munich), and the rest of the team, are standing on the edge of being World Cup Daughters of Destiny.

Handwritten squad for England women's football team. Broken down into goalkeepers, defenders, midfielders, strikers.
Yellow denotes my fantasy squad selection for #WWC2023

Will they become the household names held in the same high regard as the 1966 squad of Gordon Banks, Nobby Stiles, Jimmy Greaves, Bobby Moore, Bobby Charlton and Geoff Hurst to name but a few of those good men.

The 1966 men’s football team World Cup win is the single most greatest football achievement in England’s history. Sir Bobby Charlton is a name still mentioned in our house in the reverential tone of manly love and affection.

Will the passionate play of the Lionesses create another epic surge of power and glory that fuels us individually to become self-made heroes and in our collective consciousness nationwide for the remainder of this century?

It’s a heaven of a dream to aim for. For us space-age travelling millennial civilians, the sky is no longer the limit. Why not aim higher and shoot for the moon?

This lofty world-beating high where the Lionesses now find themselves with manager Sarina Wiegman’s inspired leadership, includes setting a national record of a 20-0 win over Latvia in the run up to the world cup.

The Lionesses also beat the defending World Cup champions the United States 2-1 in a friendly at a sold-out Wembley in October 2022.

And added the female Finalissima 2023 trophy to the cabinet when in a moment of footballing deja vu Chloe Kelly scored the winning goal in a penalty shoot-out against Brazil.

However, when we sing our hearts out with the squad led out by England captain Millie Bright onto the pitch, remember, this is the result of a long oscillating hundred year battle for females to even get the right to put a foot on the pitch.

With the lifting of the FA ban on women playing football in 1971, the last fifty-two years has seen unprecedented change for women to play football compared to the resistance of earlier times in the UK.

And as my ten-year-old football-mad self can testify, along with many other girls and women’s stories, there was, and crucially still is, difficulty accessing football, discrimination, sexism, inequality, barriers, blocks and outright dirty tackles to deal with an ultimately overcome.

In 1983, In Spite Of Appearances, A Girl Played Football For A Boys’ School Team

In 1983, Les Blease, the Headmaster at Ysgol Cystennin, Mochdre, near Colwyn Bay in North Wales, took the brave and unorthodox decision to let me play football for the boys’ team.

On top of that, to boot, he selected me to be the captain.

My best friend at the time Anne Marshall wrote in a recent message, Mr Blease must have had a fight on his hands to let me play.

She added, ‘He was quite a pioneer of his day. You must have been the only one to play in the netball team and the football team at the same time!’

Nikki Smith as captain of the netball team still wearing her football kit underneath her netball bib and skirt.
Top L-R: Patricia Rogers, Diane Powell, Miss Williams, Anne Marshall.
Bottom L-R: Sian Davies, Nichola Smith (Captain), Sarah Paton, Caroline Jones

The regional press soon picked up on it, and The North Wales Weekly News ran both a front page story and an opinion column.

Headmaster Blease was quoted as saying, ‘She was chosen on her merit as a player. We reckon she’s got what it takes.’

Headmaster Blease wasn’t the only person who had a battle to contend with, Mum said other parents at the school also gave her a hard time.

After she was interviewed by local BBC radio, she said, a fellow parent moaned to her on the sideline at game, that they, ‘…didn’t see the reason why the girl is the only one getting interviewed – what about the rest of the team?’

And it was Mum again, a year later, who was shown the red card about me playing which stopped me from playing organised football forever.

At Ysgol Eirias High, in Colwyn Bay, the boys PE teacher Mr –– told Mum in no uncertain terms that I wasn’t allowed to play football at the school because, ‘she isn’t insured’.

Interestingly, my brother Mark who was two years ahead of me at the same school was playing football and he wasn’t insured either.

The next year I moved to Carlisle and went to Trinity School, and with the expert guidance of my new PE Teacher Miss Hunter, a former England hockey player, she got me up to national trial speed in a new sport in the space of three years.

The Millfield School Years

Millfield School Hockey Team 1990
Some of the Millfield Hockey Girls First XI holding their winners’ trophies.
From L-R: Vice Captain Andi Grant, Becky Walker, Tracy Gates, Nichola Smith, Harriet Beatty

When you’re young and have sport in your blood, you don’t think about the moments that change the course your life, for better or worse.

You just get your head down and keep trying to play your best game.

I didn’t give another thought to not being able to play football.

This driven, albeit naive, attitude meant I switched sports to hockey and by the end of secondary school I had landed a scholarship to the renowned sports school Millfield in Street, near Glastonbury, Somerset.

On my first day in the canteen up high on the wooden boards, I spied the name of Old Millfieldian Steve Batchelor who had just won the Olympic gold medal for hockey in Seoul, South Korea (1988).

It was a good sign – the following year the Millfield Hockey Girls 1st XI won the national school championship.

I am still living off the amazing memory of scoring a hat-trick when I occasionally think about the increased performance of being in such a great team.

That feeling caused by that memory is one of the truly mysterious powers of sport – synergy.

‘The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.’

Sort of said by ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle more than 2350 years ago circa 350 BCE

Since my time at Millfield, the school has begun to support girls who want to play football as demand for participation has increased.

A Millfield spokesperson said, ‘One hundred girls currently play football at Millfield from Year 9 to Upper Sixth, compared to only six girls in 2018.

‘Previously girl footballers joining the school played multiple sports, dividing their time between say football and hockey training and fixtures.

‘Many girls join from prep schools with a passion for the game already instilled.

‘For the first time, Millfield welcomed three girls in September 2022 on football scholarships.’

When You’re Young You Have No Idea You Are Being Discriminated Against

It is only now looking back as an adult at my time playing football, I can see there was some foul play going on.

The first clue came when I stumbled upon Dad’s old Manchester United football scrapbooks from the 1980s.

Glued on the inside cover of one of the scrapbooks from October 1983 was the story and opinion piece from The North Wales Weekly News.

The headline gave me a start. How come ‘The boys’ were the first two words readers see?

The emphasis being on from the boys’ perspective in the team, not my perspective and my sporting achievement at being selected as the captain, suddenly irked me.

The intro, the biggest hook after the headline in journalistic writing, jars too for the same reason.

And as much as I love Mum’s Yorkshire true grit that comes out in the lead quote, anyone who knows my Mum knows that she would never talk in these violent terms. She’s a yoga teacher!

Its fiction as much as its selection reveals much:

“She loves playing in the team. She likes to be treated as one of the boys and never complains when she is tackled hard,” said her mother Mrs. Ann Smith.

The Lionesses Win Euro 2022

Then last summer, while watching the Lionesses in the Euros, after Chloe Kelly scored the winner for England in the final in extra time against Germany for a 2-1 victory, after I had punched the Brighton air in a friend’s lounge, I had this strange outpouring of negative emotions.

Sadness, envy, betrayal. All floundering about drowning in a huge wave of lost opportunity.

It was most odd.

Forty years and a few minutes later, the penny dropped.

Poor Little Nichola had been discriminated against by bad old fashioned sexism. Captain Hindsight felt really sorry for her. She had been knocked off her perch, found another path, dreams crushed without hardly knowing it and stuffed into a crappy cardboard take-away cup.

The person sat next to me, jolted me out of my past footie funk, slowly I came to and rejoined the celebratory present.

‘Vindicated at last!’ I said quietly, left hand squeezed tight into a fist. ‘All those women…’ and my thoughts trailed off and left the murky feelings underneath with no voice.

The Lionesses were the first national football team of either sex to win a major football trophy for England since you know when and deservedly, in the wake of that success there was a huge wave of interest in women’s football.

A Chorley Life Facebook post celebrating Sheila Parker, the first captain of the England women’s football team caught me right in the shins. The first captain of England in 1972!? Eleven years before my dream of playing football was denied.

This time I was a little bit more than irked. I was indignant at the lack of progress for women in football. The undertow of murky feelings came back in force and they brought along their friends. Hence the blog.

Sheila Parker The First Captain Of The First Women’s England Football Team

At home with Sheila Parker first England women's football captain from 1972
Sheila Parker, the first England women’s football captain of the first official England Women’s football team put together by the WFA in 1972

The buds were in full bloom on the streets of Chorley, when me and my daughter were welcomed heartily into the humble redbrick terrace of Sheila Parker.

We were greeted immediately by a bevy of barking dogs fenced off in the kitchen, who could easily have been mistaken for guarding Parker’s highly impressive wall of fame.

On the wall hung many of Parker’s honours. A photographic circle of honour with the current Prince of Wales, as well as, former England captain Jill Scott among many other prestigious players.

In the centre in pride of place is a certificate from Queen Elizabeth the Second making Parker a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) in the 2022 Honours List for services to women’s football and charity.

At home with Sheila Parker first England women's football captain from 1972. Sheils looks at her wall of fame and awards in her lounge.
Sheila Parker looks on her lifetime of achievement

Parker, aged 76 years old, speaks in short factual sentences, softly and calmly about misty remembrances of her sporting glory days.

There is a lightness to her that is wonderful and uplifting to be around.

At 13 years old, Parker first started to kick a ball around on the recreation ground at Chorley. She said the boys saw her and said, ‘Do you want to join in? Come and play on our side’.

‘I really enjoyed it. I felt like I was as good as they were. It was good teamwork.’

‘I just loved the game. It was built in me somehow. I don’t know how. I just loved playing the sport. And in them days it was football.

‘I played netball at school and football at home.

‘I just wanted to play,’ she says which she reiterates several times during our visit.

In terms of being selected for England and then picked as captain, Parker says, that she doesn’t really know how that happened.

She said at that time she was playing for a Fodens Ladies F.C. and got picked from there. Parker said it could’ve been down to the wide range of positions that she played that made her a good choice to be captain.

Players Had To Scrimp And Save To Get To Games – ‘We Had To Pay To Play’

As a telephonist by day, Parker had to earn money so she could pay for petrol to get to the games, for travel tickets, kit, net and pay for referees.

As for playing for England, Parker, a defender, said, ‘We didn’t play that often because it wasn’t like it is today. When we did get to play we played Scotland and Wales. I really looked forward to it and enjoyed it. I just really loved playing the football.

‘There wasn’t that much money involved in it at all. It was sporty. We just loved kicking a ball around. When you did a slide tackle you went for the ball, not the legs, the ball.

‘I was pleased when the women won the Euros but I was thinking it’s not like the sport that we used to play. The game is so different nowadays. I can’t really explain it. We have nothing like they have nowadays in them days. We just hung about around the pitch and we played football.

‘We’d be standing on the side of the pitch and the manager would shout, “It’s your turn! Get on!”

‘We didn’t get paid either. We had to pay them! So really we had to pay to play.

‘It’s a different game now – they get to play – whereas we only played four or five games. We just played for the love of the game.’

Sheila Parker holds up her replica number 5 shirt from the first official game
Sheila Parker holds up her replica number 5 shirt from the first official game

An orange cut in half to symbolise it is half-time in the blog.

The Second Half

Fair Play: The On-going Battles For Equality In Women’s Football

In the past, the facts of how the FA banned women from playing association football in stadiums, severely damaging the sport’s development for women is well documented.

Getting the ban lifted was a game-changer.

The success of the England mens’ football team in 1966 spurred a surge in interest in the sport.

On the back of this renewed interest the Women’s Football Association (WFA) formed in 1969.

The lifting of the ban in 1971, meant that after fifty years sat on the bench, women could now play in FA affiliated stadiums again.

It was time for women to restart their football journey, and to keep on kicking down the barriers holding the sport back.

As cited on Wikipedia, Belinda Scarlett of the National Football Museum said that the bans, “perpetuated the myth that football is not a women’s game, which is something women still fight for today,” adding that women’s football still has to struggle “for pitch space, for financial support, for media coverage.”

Headshot of sports lawyer David Little. He is smiling and wearing a blue suit jacket with a checkshirt.

According to leading sports lawyer David Little, a partner at Bishop & Sewell, the gender discrimination that women face in football is still significant, complex and covers a wide range of issues on and off the pitch.

He said, ‘After years of legal battles, the USA women’s football team players won a landmark equal pay agreement against the United States Soccer Federation in February 2022.

Mr Little continued, ‘All the issues those sportswomen were fighting for are equally applicable here in England: equal pay, same medical cover, playing the same amount of games, coaching and travel.’

Mr Little added the battles for equality for women in football extended off the pitch as well.

He said, ‘A recent study by Women in Football showed that two thirds of women said they had personally experienced some kind of gender discrimination in the footballing workplace such as bias, outdated perceptions and outright bullying.’

He added claims going back historically for gender discrimination may also prove to be the case too.

A month before the historic USA deal, the Football Association of Wales announced that female and male players will be paid equally in international matches in a landmark agreement.

This Women’s World Cup 2023 hasn’t escaped the elbows of progress either.

The latest media broadcasting rights stand-off between FIFA president Gianni Infantino and Europe’s “Big Five” (only recently resolved) shows how 22 players on a pitch kicking around a ball is so much more than a game.

Pathways For Females In Football For Life In Lancashire

Lancashire FA shield logo with three lions and 1878 hangs above a headshot of Jo Ashworth, Head of Football Delivery for the Lancashire FA.
Jo Ashworth, Head of Football Delivery, Lancashire FA

Getting hold of Jo Ashworth is no mean feat.

She is a busy woman. Hundreds of emails jostle for attention in her inbox since she recently took on her new role as Head of Football Delivery for the biggest football county in England – “Big Lancashire”.

I was on a mission to meet her, as three months previously my five-year-old daughter suddenly announced, ‘I’m a footballer!’ And before I knew it, I saw her lifting the FA Cup trophy above her head at Wembley after scoring a hat-trick in the final.’

Dreams don’t die. They shoot from soul to soul, a lightening bolt look passed down the generations. Competitive? Moi?

Driven by my new found soccer Mom determination, I managed to nab a quick meeting with Ashworth early one morning at a cafe in Adlington in between online meetings.

Ashworth says Lancashire has the most players registered to play and she lovingly referred to the county as “Big Lancashire”.

‘Men’s registration is up to 70,000 and the number of women has just exceeded the 10,000 mark which is fantastic news.

‘For any girl now it is absolutely the norm to see other girls play football, play football in school, play football for a club,’ she said. ‘There is no question whether it is ok or not, that is the exciting thing.’

Lancashire FA are based at County Ground in Leyland, featuring a full-sized grass pitch and stadium, 3G facility and conference centre. They run 6000 teams across the county. The month of May saw 19 cup finals played at the grounds.

Approximated graph of numbers of women and men registered to play football with the Lancashire FA. 80,000 registered players in total. 10,000 women, 70,000 men.
Approximated graph of numbers of women and men registered to play football with the Lancashire FA.

Ashworth went on to say that the real attraction of football, say compared to the individual sports of golf and tennis makes kids look at the these sports and think, I’m not with my mates, I’m not part of the team, so actually the buy-in for young kids is actually quite difficult.

‘We’ve done work asking, “Why do you take part in sport?” and the main reasons are to be with friends and have fun. A lot of the parents don’t see this either which is interesting.

‘On top of that, most of the kids don’t even realise all the extra benefits that they are getting. Be active, enjoy yourself, get some self-confidence, socialise, all of that.

‘The biggest thing is there is absolutely an opportunity for anyone, female, male, anyone with a disability, to access football now at all participation levels.

‘If you speak to the kids, all they want is to have a laugh and hang out with their mates.’

She said a good place for young girls to get a taste of football are the Wildcat centres run by clubs.

‘They are a real entry level point, come along, take part, and then if you want to progress from that there is usually an entry into the club. They are fun places for girls starting out to go and play football.

‘There is a pathway right through and people just see it now,’ she added.

A graphic of the football for life pathway for girls aged 5 to adult from England Football. It shows the various steps along the way including emerging talent centres.
The Football Association: The new national pathway strategy for females in football

Extra Time

Will England’s Lionesses Win The Women’s World Cup 2023?

For now back in Sheila Parker’s house, the conversation turns to the Lionesses and their chances of winning the world cup.

The consensus in the room is that with five key players down from the Euro 22 squad, it is going to be a tough hill to climb.

‘A good young soul is better than a good old soul,’ I said optimistically, paraphrasing another wise old person.

‘And England beat the United States 2-1 in their last friendly at Wembley, and won the Finalissima 2023 against Brazil, with a Chloe Kelly penalty,’ I added back in dreamland.

Parker suddenly tries to get my daughter’s attention, ‘Do you like playing football?’

My daughter carries on playing with the dogs.

‘You have to love the game, be determined and enjoy playing,’ adds Parker, ‘that’s all there is to it. I enjoyed it. All I wanted to do was play.’

At 10:30am on 22nd of July 2023 the Lionesses, England’s Women’s football team kicked-off against Haiti in the Women’s World Cup 2023.

Watching in London as a VIP will be Parker, wearing a Lionesses ’72 shirt, along with the remaining 1972 first England women’s football squad.

As for me and my daughter, we will be watching from Lancashire, England.

And presumably across the globe there will be a more football fans watching the Women’s World Cup than the 365 million who watched the Euros 2022.

All of us – the Lionesses, Parker, England fans, football fans, sports fans, new fans – all wondering, hoping and praying for another slice of football history to be made.

If this happens to be the case, hopefully victory in the Women’s World Cup for England will spur on more positive changes for women and men in football, women and men in sport, and help to level the field in the game of life itself.

Sheila Parker, the first captain of the England Women's football team (1972) sits smiling on the sofa while Nikki Wordsmith's daughter pulls a funny monkey pose next to her and leans in.
Sheila Parker and a future female footballer?

Injury Time Winner!

The first female manager of a man’s football team in England has been announced as Hannah Dingley.


Sporting stories by Nikki Wordsmith, The World’s Shortest Poem by Muhammad Ali and Millfield School: Smells Like Team Spirit

For all the latest on the Women’s World Cup 2023.

For more information on women’s football contact the Lancashire FA based at County Ground, Thurston Road, Leyland PR25 2LF.

Discover a brilliant education for your child at Millfield School.

Read more: The story of pioneering players who paved the way for the Lionesses.

Former England Women’s Football Captain Jill Scott on Desert Island Discs

Watch more: Scotland v England The First Game from 1972 with Sheila Parker as captain.

#WomensWorldCup #WomensWorldCup2023 #SheilaParker #Lionesses


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