Arsenal Ladies – The Foot Soldiers of Women’s Football

A U.S. Navy Vought F-8J Crusader of Fighter Squadron 211 (VF-211) over the Gulf of Tonkin as it returns to the carrier USS Hancock following a combat air patrol. VF-211 was assigned for a deployment to Vietnam from 22 October 1970 to 2 June 1971.

It’s 1971. The world is seeing the highest world population increase in history. The Second World War and its numerous aftershocks have slowly faded from prominence, instead making themselves comfortable in a deep, unerasable layer of communal memory. The first ever one-day-international cricket match is played between England and Australia at the Melbourne Cricket Ground. Walt Disney World in central Florida opens for general public. Switzerland allows its women to vote for the first time. Arsenal Football Club achieve the first Double in their history under the management of Bertie Mee when they defeat Liverpool 2-1 to clinch the FA Cup. Oh and the FA finally lifts their 50 year ban on women’s football.

It isn’t immediately clear whether the Women’s Football Association (WFA), formed in 1969, who fought for equal right to play had any bearing, or whether it was the UEFA recommendation in 1971 that the women’s game be taken under the leadership of each country’s national association, but there you have it. It was an incredibly important, but slow and frustrating start since the WFA was a voluntary organisation with limited resources, and games were regularly cancelled or rescheduled even at the very top. It also meant that there weren’t enough resources to create female “player pathways”, like the ones which existed for the boys at the grassroots. But it was a start, and in November 1972, led by Sheila Parker, England women’s national football team played their first official match in Greenock, beating Scotland 3-2.

A century ago, almost to the day, on November 30, 1872, their menfolk had gathered in nearby Partick. Part of Glasgow, on the north bank of the River Clyde, Partaig, as it’s called in Scottish Gaelic, would forever be known as the birthplace of international football. The match, which took place between familiar foes England and Scotland at the West of Scotland Cricket Club’s ground, ended in a 0-0 draw in front of 4000 fans. Women’s football was trailing by a century – where’s the challenge in that?

By 1989, Channel 4 had started to provide regular coverage. This period, following UEFA’s directive, would go on to transform the women’s game across Europe. The first European Championship would follow in 1984 in Sweden, and the World Cup in 1991 in China. By 1992, Sky Sports was indelibly affecting the future of the men’s game, but women’s football wouldn’t see much money or attention until the next decade, despite the FA finally taking women’s football under its administration in 1993.

Victoria Concordia Crescit – Victory Through Harmony

In this amateur atmosphere, Arsenal Ladies were one of the earliest semi-professional clubs. Led by Arsenal FC’s kit-man, Vic Akers, their founder in 1987, the Ladies were the most rampant team by far and have currently won 58 trophies in their history.

A stunning quadruple-winning season in 2007 included staggering score-lines like Arsenal 7-0 Barcelona over two legs, setting a record as the first (and so far only) British team to win the then UEFA Women’s Cup (now the UEFA Women’s Champions League), against full-time European opposition, and winning all 22 of their Premier League games that season (119 goals scored, 10 conceded). They were the first women’s team funded through the earnings of Arsenal FC, the only club then to be so closely affiliated with its male counterparts. They also boast of England’s first professional female player in 1999, Kelly Smith, who played in the United States for a few years before her return to the club.

Arsenal Ladies, with their instantly professional approach, a well-run academy, strong infrastructural, financial and personnel support by Arsenal FC, and close connections within the club, were single-handedly responsible for initiating many new fans into the women’s game. Sports journalist Tim Stillman was one among them, thanks to his mother who took him to Highbury for a few games in 1994-1995.

“Arsenal were on the way to becoming the dominant side in women’s football for nearly two decades thereafter, so I was easily convinced! Arsenal had fantastic players like Sian Williams and the brilliant Marieanne Spacey.”

It wasn’t until 2012 though, that he started covering it in addition to his writing about the men’s. By then Arsenal Football Club had moved to their new stadium and Highbury was no more. The club wanted to promote a women’s game being played there, and got in touch with his editor at Arseblog to ask if they wanted to interview a player for the site. Now a regular, Tim credits the Arsenal press office for being “absolutely fantastic about granting access”.

An Arsenal Ladies flag is waved as the teams shake hands before kick off against Chelsea in 2015.

Other teams are now stepping up across Europe, notably Manchester City and Liverpool close to home, and the likes of Paris Saint-Germain (PSG), Barcelona and Lyon (with an €8 million budget, they are the best-funded women’s team in Europe), but Arsenal were the trailblazers. Even now, they are the first club to officially drop the “Ladies” reference from the women’s team in what women’s captain Alex Scott called a “statement of intent, support and unity” to continue to inspire and empower young people, whether male or female. (The term will only be used when seeking a differentiation between the men’s and women’s teams.)

“We want to continue to show that we are at a stage that it is ok to welcome change, to speak out and to dream whilst having the confidence to do so.”

Any club, men’s or women’s, that aims to be in the game long enough to create and sustain a legacy has to be constantly thinking about change, whether immediate, in the near future, or years over the horizon. For this, it’s essential to have a stable source of funding, infrastructural support, and smart, open-minded leader who is in touch with the needs of the time, with a good team working at their disposal. Arsenal Ladies tick all of those boxes. The men’s club have included the ladies under their financial banner from the start. In 2014, they appointed player and development manager Clare Wheatley as the General Manager. She has a staff of 10 only for overseeing the women’s side, including the reserves and junior teams (U9s-U17s). It is this sort of framework and personnel that has helped the club to remain competitive, and one of the top teams even after the FA introduced the Football Association Women’s Super League (FA WSL) in 2011 to increase competition, allow women players to earn a professional living, and help WSL clubs to develop new sources of funds to support the women’s game.

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Anushree Nande

Published writer and editor. Hope is her superpower (unsurprisingly she's a Gooner), but sport, art, music and words are good substitutes.