Monday 23 March 2020, 08:38

The women's game's organised origins

  • The first official women's football fixture took place 125 years ago today

  • North and South made history at the Crouch End Athletic Ground, London

  • The Guardian reported "nothing ungraceful in a girl kicking a football"

While women's football has grown progressively over the past few decades, its roots are far from shallow, with the first official match dating back to 23 March 1895.

Games had, in fact, been played as far back as the early 1880's, but for various reasons were not able to be classified as official fixtures. The meeting between North and South at Crouch End Athletic Ground, London, therefore goes down as the first.

Despite the women's game's fledgling status, the match attracted crowds that would delight many clubs today, with some reports calculating it in excess of 10,000. The Guardian's match report told of many of the curious fans, intrigued by the opportunity to see women apply themselves to a game largely seen as a male pastime at this point, struggling to get an glimpse of the action.

“Very few of those present can have seen much of the game, for, except in the case of the favoured occupants of the small grand stand, the spectators had to stand on the flat unbanked ground,” it reported (which can be seen in the illustration of game above). “As for the press writers, the small box provided would not hold a tenth of them.”

The result ended a whopping 7-1 to the North, who were captained by Nettie Honeyball, founder of the British Ladies Football Club who organised the game. The quality of the game came in for mixed reviews at best, but with the sides only a couple of months old and all largely new to the sport, that was hardly surprising.

Kit and a keeper catch the eye

Two things were almost universally reported though following the game. The first was the outstanding performance in goal by Mrs Graham for the North. The Standard described her display as “capital” and the Middlesbrough Daily Gazette said that “had she been on the other side matters might have been reversed”.

The second was the infatuation with the idiosyncrasies of the kits they wore. Featuring blouses, caps and knickerbockers – a form of loose shorts often tied at the bottom – they were seen as something of a revolution as women had tended to wear long dresses even when competing in sport.

“I can only say that the impression left on my mind by the afternoon's play was that it was an extremely pretty sight,” The Guardian reflected – named only as 'a lady correspondent' in what was a sign of the times over a century ago. “There is nothing ungraceful in a girl kicking a football when she has got rid of the skirts which make the action hideous.”

The Manchester-based newspaper was optimistic about the future of women's part to play in sport, writing that “there is no reason why the game should not be annexed by women for their own use as a new and healthiful form of recreation”.

However, in an example of the intolerance women have had to, and on occasion still, face, others were less than positive about the dawn of the female game. “They cannot and never will play football as it should be played,” was the Bristol Mercury and Daily Post's verdict. “For our part we are glad that women cannot play football. Even were they capable of it, the game would be essentially unsuitable to their sex.”

This match stands as a significant milestone in a long journey in the timeline of the women's game, which has fought against bans and prejudice to climb to where it is today.