"Offside, The Play": Going Studs-Up Into the History of U.K. Women’s Football

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Gaby Kirschner
Gaby Kirschner

Women’s football has been reaching new heights in England the past few years.

After the national team’s historic 3rd place finish at the 2015 Women’s World Cup, the domestic league has continued to grow in popularity and stature. Attendance has been increasing across both FA WSL 1 and 2, the 2016 Women’s FA Cup Final was held at Wembley for the first time, and Chelsea’s, Manchester City’s, and Arsenal’s women’s teams all recently made headlines for signing marquee players from the top-ranked U.S. national team.

But, a new play from poets Sabrina Mahfouz and Hollie McNish remembers a time when women’s football wasn’t even allowed to exist — along with the rest of its fascinating, tumultuous, and oft overlooked history.

Offside, which will be touring around the U.K. with the Futures Theatre Company from March 11 to April 29, follows four women and the struggles they faced in trying to become professional footballers across three centuries of the women’s game.

Why women’s football? “Because of the politics,” McNish explains.

“The FA, during last World Cup, was saying how the [English women’s] team has been immensely popular — but they used to have 50,000 people watching [the women’s game] in Liverpool,” says McNish. ‘It was really popular at one time, but something [messed] it up.”

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What happened wasn’t so much a downfall as a faceplant, caused by the same FA that has come back around to championing women’s success. In the early 1900s, the Dick, Kerr’s Ladies — a women’s team made up of factory workers in the northwestern town of Preston — became incredibly popular, touring the U.S. and France and regularly drawing crowds of tens of thousands of people.

Then, when the women’s game was at its height around the 1920s, the FA decided that football was bad for their health. They banned FA coaches and FA spaces from being used by women in 1921, and they didn’t lift the ban until fifty years later.

The play also deals with the other ways that politics, as McNish says, got “really tied up” in women’s football. From the Rational Dress Movement — ”basically, women fighting to wear underwear that wasn’t so heavy that they couldn’t run in it” — to Scottish goalkeeper Carrie Boustead, the first black women’s player. For McNish, who is fascinated with the social history of the U.K., and for Mahfouz, whose plays often focus on women’s issues, this complicated, tangled history of women’s football was a story that needed to be told.

McNish also has a personal interest in the drawing attention to the women’s game. Not only did she play in university, but she also used football as a way to connect with the community while teaching in the Caribbean.

“I obviously stuck out and I used to get shouted out quite a lot by men. But I had my football with me down there, and I realized that every time I went to the beach with my football nobody commented on my race or that I was a female — they just asked if they wanted to play. It gave me this neutral, equal status.”

“That’s why I want more women to be involved in it. It’s such a universal sport.”

However, it will continue to be difficult for this to happen until there is more investment in the women’s youth game. Despite football being hugely popular in the country, Hollie explains, “there are still lots of schools that don’t offer it to girls.”

And even when they do, girls aren’t wont to get involved. They offer sports camps to her daughter, and although equal numbers of boys and girls participate in sports such as tennis and running, there’s only one girl in her daughter’s year who’s taken up football.

McNish chalks this up to the demographic makeup of the game. “It feels like it’s an inherently male sport — more than any other sport,” she explains, and not just on the field: the critique permeates everything from perception to product.

“I turned up to my local pub and asked if they’d put on the Women’s World Cup and they laughed because there was a men’s league game on,” she recalls. Nor can women be found in any kids’ sticker books.

Unfortunately, this lack of representation makes the male-focused football culture a self-perpetuating machine. As McNish says, “A lot of the girls I know have just got no interest because they just don’t see any women in pictures or kids comics or anything, unless it’s a specialized one.” She believes this to be a side effect of the 1921 ban, which extinguished women’s football like a finger to a flame and has made the wick difficult to relight.

Ironically, it also complicated casting for the play. “That was probably the hardest bit: finding a group of women who can play,” Hollie laughs. The actors also needed to be very in shape, as McNish and Mahfouz wanted it to be a physical play that showcased the actual game, and they needed to be able to shift between poetic monologue and regular dialogue.

And that’s not even taking into account the difficulty of finding their Carrie Boustead, who needed to be a black woman who could do both Scottish and London accents, or their Lilly Parr, the famous Dick, Kerr’s winger whose northern regional accent was very prominent and very specific.

McNish and Mahfouz did months of research to make sure they were representing these women and their stories well. “We interviewed a lot of the England women’s team and women who played for big English clubs,” says McNish. “And there’s a Manchester Football museum — we looked through their archives about the women’s teams.”

Months upon months of this exhaustive research, casting, and rehearsing will finally see the play go up at the end of the month.

But even when the theatre’s tour ends, its impact will not. Bringing attention to the origins of women’s football helps illuminate a path towards a future where people recognize the impact of the game — and that it isn’t uncouth of a woman to play but rather, historically, an unbelievably popular spectator events. And, hopefully, it will help to continue inspiring the next generation of women’s footballers who might not find that same support of their endeavors elsewhere.

From the women’s teams who have already bought tickets for a night out trip, to McNish’s own niece, who is a recent Man of the Match winner at her current club and, she hopes, a future player for Glasgow Ladies. Perhaps she’ll be the subject of McNish’s and Mahfouz’s next women’s football pla

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