Women’s football has reached new heights with the England Lionesses clinching a place in the World Cup Final.
But it’s often been a struggle not only for women’s teams to make their mark but also women to become accepted as spectators … and not that long ago too.
Former Huddersfield Town chairman and philanthropic entrepreneur Prof Graham Leslie CBE set up the Leslie Sports Foundation on the Storthes Hall site where Huddersfield Town Women have played for the last eight seasons at the Stafflex Arena there.
Graham is now penning his autobiography which will be out next year revealing how he shocked the town with his plans for the new stadium in the early 1990s when the club was facing a financial crisis and how he drove it forward against all odds to make it happen. The first match was played at the stadium 30 years ago next August.
Graham, who has championed women’s sport long before it became fashionable to do so, said: “What the Lionesses have achieved is unbelievable. Winning the Euros drove women’s football forward massively but if they win the World Cup this will take it to a whole new level.
“England, world champions. It doesn’t get any better than that and it just shows what can be achieved if people have the passion and the drive to do it.”
Prof Graham Leslie CBE (top) and celebrations for Huddersfield Town Women as long-serving Kate Mallin leads the way
Graham and his eldest son, Craig, founded the Leslie Sports Foundation 11 years ago when Shelley FC were in danger of losing their base at the time.
The complex set on the sprawling Storthes Hall estate has a stand and several fantastic pitches with plans to develop three more such is the demand by teams wanting to move there. At the moment the site hosts 32 teams of all ages plus Huddersfield Dragons Hockey Club which has both men’s and women’s teams.
Graham’s involvement with women’s sport began back in about 1975 when he was playing for Berry Brow and was asked to coach a women’s team based at Reinwood playing fields off New Hey Road in Oakes.
He said: “It was only for a few weeks but shows that women’s football in Huddersfield goes back a long way – and far further than this too.”
In fact, in the 1920s Huddersfield was home to three women’s teams – Ladies, Alexandra, and Atalanta – with Atalanta the most successful. Huddersfield Atalanta Ladies FC played their first competitive match in March 1921 at Leeds Road, beating Bath Ladies 1-0, and their average home attendance that season was just short of 23,000.
But as women’s football became more popular and the games more regular, the Football Association saw it as s threat to the men’s game so declared it “quite unsuitable for females” and prohibited women’s teams playing in the same stadiums as men’s teams. Women’s football was therefore effectively banned in 1921 and the ban wasn’t lifted until 1971.
Graham also recalls in the 1970s being approached by the headteacher at Moorend High School asking him to liaise with Kirklees on their behalf to organise separate changing facilities for a girl pupil who was showing amazing promise at football and cricket.
Graham sorted it out and that girl was Clare Taylor, MBE, who went on to play for England at both football and cricket – the first woman to do that.
But even though she played such high level sport she still had to work full-time at the Royal Mail to make ends meet.
Graham reveals that less than 40 years ago football clubs – including Huddersfield Town – treated women very differently.
When he joined the Town board in around 1990 he was shocked to discover that women were banned from the boardroom. Instead, the wives and girlfriends of board members from both the home and away teams were allocated a small meeting room instead which was known as “the hen hutch.”
Graham said: “I knew immediately this had to change and it did, very quickly. But Huddersfield Town were not alone in this. Many clubs still saw the game as totally male-dominated with little thought given to women and girls.”
He said that, as far as could recollect, there weren’t even toilets for women at the old Leeds Road ground.
He tried to change people’s hearts and minds by organising the first ever women’s football match at Leeds Road which was played before a Town game in the early 1990s.
He said: “We discovered that 70% of supporters were turning up just 20 minutes before kick-off and we wanted to provide more entertainment to get them there earlier. Organising a women’s football game would perhaps make some of them think that football should be more inclusive and be there for everyone.
“Times have now changed, people – especially younger folk – are so much more open-minded and accepting of change and what the England women’s football team has achieved will have changed many opinions among the older generation too.”
If anyone can recall the women’s team at New Hey Road in the mid-70s – or any women’s football in Huddersfield in the 70s, 80s or 90s – or the women’s game at the old Leeds Road in the early 1990s email Andy Hirst at email@example.com with photos and memories.
Huddersfield Town Women kick off their season immediately after the Women’s World Cup Final on Sunday. The game against Fylde at the Stafflex Arena kicks off at 4pm. The World Cup Final will be shown in the clubhouse.
Written by ANDY HIRST who runs his own Yorkshire freelance journalism agency AH! PR (https://ah-pr.com/) specialising in press releases, blogging, website content and copywriting.