One of the legends of women’s football passed away last week. Sylvia Gore was the first woman to score an official goal for England.
You may note that the wording there is slightly strange. “Official goal?” It’s because although women’s teams represented England throughout the 20th century, they had actually been formally banned from playing by the Football Association.
Yes. Football was judged to be “unsuitable for females” in 1921, and the ban on women playing matches at affiliated football grounds lasted half a century.
Of course, women did not stop playing football just because the FA told them to. The Dick, Kerr’s Ladies are the most famous team who laughed in the face of official edicts; they had begun playing the game for fun during their breaks in the factory, and ended up attracting tens of thousands of fans to their matches during the First World War.
Some cynics say that the popularity of women’s football at that point was what shook the FA, who were concerned that the men’s leagues wouldn’t get as many spectators when they started up again after the war.
While the FA refused to acknowledge the women’s game, the players and teams needed some organisation. The English Ladies’ Football Association was set up in 1921 in the wake of the ban, and over the next decades they set up their own representative England teams, who travelled the globe and competed in tournaments overseas.
In 1969, the Women’s Football Association – an entirely independent organisation – took over running the women’s game.
Two years later, the FA bowed to pressure and lifted their ban, but they still did not take on responsibility for organisation, allowing the WFA to continue their work.
In 1972, the Women’s FA selected the first-ever official England team, who faced Scotland.
Sylvia Gore was one of the selected players, and it was she who scored first.
It is perhaps fitting that it is Gore who will be listed in the history books as the one who accomplished this feat. Her playing career was unparalleled – even in those days they liked to point out the similarities between male and female players, and Gore’s style was likened to that of the Manchester United legend Denis Law.
After she retired, she remained an advocate for women’s football, coaching teams and encouraging girls into the game, and she picked up an MBE for her contributions.
There are not too many female inductees into the National Football Museum’s Hall of Fame. Currently the list comprises Lily Parr and Joan Whalley of the Dick, Kerr’s Ladies; former England manager Hope Powell and her long-serving captain Faye White; stars of the 1980s and 1990s Debbie Bampton, Gill Coultard, Brenda Sempare, Marieanne Spacey, Pauline Cope and Karen Walker; and the trailblazers of the 1960s – Sheila Parker, the first official England captain; Sue Lopez; and Gore herself.
The history of women’s football has been overlooked, but is gradually being uncovered and acknowledged. Gore’s passing was met with sadness and tributes to her life and work; it was she and her contemporaries who laid the groundwork for the growing professional women’s game we have today.
*Carrie Dunn is SHOOT’s Women’s Football correspondent. Her book ‘The Roar of the Lionesses: Women’s Football in England’ is out now – available in all good bookshops.*