The hundred-year history of women’s football

England has enjoyed a rich history when it comes to football, boasting some of the sport’s most iconic clubs and nurturing some incredible talent along the way. Yet more and more of these legendary players opt to move outside of the major European leagues, opening the doors for a new generation of heroes to steal the spotlight – and cast women’s football onto centre stage.

The Timeline

Humble Beginnings

Women’s football has had a tumultuous history in England, having enjoyed a quite dramatic rise to the top during the First World War. During a relatively quiet production period at a munitions factory in the latter stages of 1917, women began to partake in casual football matches during their breaks in a bid to boost morale – leading to an office worker suggesting the formation of a women’s team.

That office worker went by the name of Albert Frankland, and it was under his guidance that Dick, Kerr Ladies FC began to organise competitive matches – with charitable funds being raised to support veterans’ hospitals.

It was a monumental success, with the team attracting a crowd in excess of 10,000 fans as they cruised to a 4-0 victory against Arundel Coulthard Factory at Deepdale on Christmas Day of the same year.

Their influence was felt further afield too, as they participated in the first women’s international football match – facing a French side in 1920 at Stamford Bridge. The visitors emerged victorious, with their squad comprised of players from a number of Parisian clubs. A four-game tour of France followed, attracting great public interest – leading to 53,000 fans watching their final match of the calendar year at Goodison Park on Christmas Day. It’s believed that a further 15,000 fans were turned away on the day as the ground was already full.

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Banned… for five decades

Despite women’s football evidently being a great success and well received by the general public, the FA were far from happy with the sport’s newfound popularity. The governing body issued a statement in 1921, with a resolution passed by the Committee reading that ‘the game of football is quite unsuitable for females and should not be encouraged.’

It went on to add that ‘the Council requests the Clubs belonging to the Association refuse the use of their grounds for such matches,’ forcing women’s football to be played at smaller grounds that simply couldn’t meet the demands for capacity.

Yet Dick, Kerr Ladies FC were undeterred by this FA ruling. They went on to organise a tour of North America in 1922, but faced major setbacks when they were banned from playing Canadian opposition upon their arrival. Still, the team went on to play nine matches against US-based opposition – winning three, drawing three and losing three. They were widely heralded as one of the greatest teams to grace American soil, with Peter Renzulli going as far as to say that ‘we were national champions and we had a hell of a job beating them.’

Dick, Kerr Ladies FC were one of the lucky sides though. The majority were unable to find alternative venues, eventually leading to clubs dissolving and the demise of the women’s game at a professional level. Amateur sport remained popular, but the appeal simply wasn’t there for spectators and funding was incredibly limited.

Ultimately, the fifty-year ban was lifted by the FA in 1971 after pressure from UEFA. Still, the FA refused to involve themselves in women’s football initially – only taking control in 1993, resulting in the disbandment of the Women’s Football Association who had previously overseen the sport.

Eight clubs formed the newly-founded top flight in the 1991/92 season. The Women’s Premier League National Division grew to ten teams in the following season, and a further two teams were added ahead of the 2007/08 season – but the league’s status as the top flight was brought to an end in 2011 with the formation of the FA Women’s Super League. The WPL National Division became the second tier, before ultimately being disbanded in 2014 and replaced by FA WSL 2 – now known as the FA Women’s Championship.

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The WSL Era

Bizarrely, the FA decided that the Women’s Super League would run throughout a calendar year, rather than the standard August-May schedule utilised by most professional leagues. This format was used until 2017, when yet more restructuring took place as the league became fully professional for the first time.

The league continues to see growing crowds, with marquee fixtures often held at larger stadiums to accommodate the demand for tickets. Still, a domestic league fixture in England hasn’t managed to break the 53,000 attendance record set by Dick, Kerr Ladies FC over 100 years ago. Arsenal have managed to sell upwards of 60,000 seats for their UEFA Women’s Champions League semifinal against VfL Wolfsburg though, showing the demand is clearly there – and I envisage the longstanding record being obliterated in the coming season.

The Standout Moments

There are plenty of moments that have truly had an incredible influence on women’s football – and we’ve already covered the rise of Dick, Kerr Ladies FC. But elsewhere, other stories remain that have been just as significant in the sport’s monumental rise.

Arsenal’s UEFA Women’s Cup Win

Arsenal became the first English side to win European silverware, beating Umeå IK to the coveted trophy in 2006/07. 43 teams took part in the UEFA Women’s Cup throughout that season, with a rather bizarre qualifying format being utilised to whittle the competition down to just eight teams for the quarterfinals.

Arsenal had topped their group, going unbeaten in three matches to seal progression to the knockouts. There, they faced Breiðablik – who didn’t pose all too much of a challenge, ultimately succumbing to a 9-1 aggregate defeat against the Gunners.

The semifinals were a closer affair, with Brøndby earning a 2-2 draw in the first leg. Arsenal proved dominant in the return leg, storming to a 3-0 win on English soil to set up a mouthwatering final tie against Umeå IK.

Despite the Swedish side being regarded as favourites ahead of the two-legged final, Arsenal won the away leg courtesy of Alex Scott’s injury-time strike. A goalless draw played out in North London, cementing Arsenal’s place in the history books as the first English side to win the UEFA Women’s Cup.

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2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup

Mark Sampson’s tenure as England boss spanned four years before he was dismissed following allegations of ‘inappropriate and unacceptable behaviour’ earlier in his managerial career. Despite the sour ending, Sampson’s reign saw one of the highlights of women’s football in England, as the Lionesses stormed to a third-place finish at the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup.

England’s group stage campaign was kicked off with a defeat to France, though the Lionesses recovered to claim three points against both Mexico and Colombia. Norway awaited Sampson’s side in the round-of-sixteen, where a great performance ensured progression to the quarterfinals.

Canada, who were hosting the tournament, would be the next opponents for Mark Sampson’s side. For the first time in their history, England progressed to the final four of the FIFA Women’s World Cup – picking up a 2-1 win in Vancouver.

Unfortunately, the Lionesses hit a stumbling block in the semifinal against Japan. Their opponents took an early lead, and though England recovered from the penalty spot, a late own goal from Laura Bassett meant that England’s final match would see them fight for the bronze medal rather than the elusive trophy.

England took Germany to extra time in the third-place final, ultimately emerging victorious after Fara Williams converted from the spot once more. While it was seen as a disappointment given the circumstances surrounding the semifinal defeat, nobody had expected that the Lionesses would be in contention for medals ahead of the tournament – recording the country’s best World Cup finish since the men lifted the Jules Rimet Trophy in 1966.

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Manchester United’s Rebirth

When the FA’s ban on women’s football was lifted, Manchester United supporters took it upon themselves to launch a women’s team despite a lack of funding. By the end of the 1970s, United Ladies of Manchester had been renamed as Manchester United Supporters Club Ladies, and much like Dick, Kerr Ladies FC, they played charity matches in their early days.

From 1989, the club were granted permission to use The Cliff – the official training ground of Manchester United. Ahead of joining the North West Women’s Regional Football League, the club was renamed once more to become Manchester United Ladies FC, and their fixtures were advertised in the match programmes for the men’s games.

Despite a promising start to life, the Glazer takeover of Manchester United in 2005 led to the disbandment of the women’s side. Malcolm Glazer deemed the operation to be unprofitable, instead opting to shift the focus onto the women’s academy.

Thirteen years later, Manchester United Women rose from the ashes as the Glazers had seemingly decided to give them a second chance at life. They were placed in the FA Women’s Championship – the second tier of professional women’s football in England – and stormed to the league title in their inaugural season, winning promotion to the FA Women’s Super League in the process.

United finished fourth in their debut season in the top flight, with the final league standings having been awarded on a points-per-game basis as the season was curtailed prematurely due to the pandemic. They finished fourth once again in the following season, though head coach Casey Stoney resigned at the conclusion of that campaign – reportedly due to a perceived lack of investment from the club’s owners.

Marc Skinner was appointed as her replacement shortly before the 2021/22 season began, and the club recorded their third consecutive fourth-place finish in his first season in charge. However, progress was clearly being made as he was given time to implement his playing style and preferred tactics – leading to United finishing second in 2022/23, just two points behind Chelsea.

Concerns remain though, primarily directed at the club’s owners who seem unwilling to invest further as rumours of an impending sale linger. The loss of Alessia Russo on a free transfer is simply a sign of utter mismanagement on a financial level, given that Arsenal were willing to break the world record transfer fee to sign the striker just six months ago. Ona Batlle’s future at the club looks less than certain, and if they wish to remain challenging for silverware, United will need to be astute in the market given their limited financial firepower.

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Chelsea’s Dominance

Chelsea have truly established themselves as the stalwarts of domestic women’s football, though they’ve tripped at the final hurdle on the European stage. Since Emma Hayes’ appointment as manager in the middle of the 2012 season, the club have risen to stardom and have gone on to dominate the English football scene.

At the time, Chelsea were only a semi-professional side. Emma Hayes guided the side to finish sixth in the eight-team FA Women’s Super League in her first partial season in charge, before finishing seventh the following year.

It was at this point that Chelsea switched to operating on a full-time basis, and the results of that transition were clear to see. In the 2014 season – their first as a full-time team – they finished second in the league, level on points with Liverpool who had managed a superior goal difference.

In August 2015, Chelsea won their first trophy under Emma Hayes – the Women’s FA Cup. Mere months later, they lifted the FA Women’s Super League title too, wrapping up a superb double just two years after lingering in the bottom half of the table. They won the league again the following season, but fell short in 2016 as Manchester City stormed to victory.

The shift to a traditional season format in 2017/18 coincided with Chelsea’s most successful season yet, as Emma Hayes’ side picked up yet another league and cup double – while also going on to reach the semifinals of the UEFA Women’s Champions League for the first time.

After a less-than-impressive 2018/19 season, Chelsea recorded another league title in the 2019/20 season – in which the standings were awarded on a points-per-game basis following disruption to the calendar as a result of the pandemic.

Since ‘normal’ football has returned, Chelsea have won the FA Women’s Super League thrice consecutively – becoming the only team to do so. They reached their first UEFA Women’s Champions League Final in 2021, though they suffered a hefty 4-0 defeat at the hands of Barça Femení. Emma Hayes remains in charge of the side to this day, and has truly earned the right to be recognised as a pioneer of women’s football in England.

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England’s EURO Triumph

The Lionesses’ sent shockwaves across the country in 2022, as they clinched the country’s first major silverware since the 1966 World Cup. Gareth Southgate’s side had come close over the years, reaching the semifinals of the 2018 World Cup and suffering defeat against Italy in the EURO 2020 Final – but ultimately it was Sarina Wiegman’s side that restored footballing glory across the country.

Yet the story begins more than a year before the triumph at Wembley. Wiegman took over as England boss in April 2021, and the Lionesses remained undefeated ahead of the postponed EURO 2022 tournament – which was originally scheduled to take place a year earlier.

England were simply dominant throughout the group stages, winning all three of their games against Norway, Austria and Northern Ireland. Perhaps home advantage came into play with the tournament being held across the country – but it certainly added to the football fever that sent the nation into a frenzy as the Lionesses recorded seemingly endless wins.

While England hadn’t faced any problems qualifying for the knockout stages, they came close to elimination in the quarterfinals Esther Gonzalez’s opener meant that it looked like Spain would be heading to the semifinals – a spirited performance within the final ten minutes saw Ella Toone clinch the equaliser, before Georgia Stanway wrapped up proceedings in the first half of extra time.

Sweden posed less of a threat, and England were able to cruise past their Scandinavian opposition with ease. Fans at Bramall Lane were treated to a four-goal thriller, including a stunning backheeled effort by Alessia Russo to ensure the Lionesses progressed to the final.

Germany would be the toughest test yet, but England were handed the upper hand when Alex Popp was ruled out just before kickoff. Ella Toone opened the scoring at a packed Wembley Stadium, though Lina Magull equalised with just over ten minutes left to play – ensuring a nail-biting finale. Deep in stoppage time, Chloe Kelly produced one of the most iconic moments in English footballing history as she scored a stunning winner. Her strike made the front pages of every major newspaper, in part for her goal celebration that mimicked that of Brandi Chastain.

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2022/23 UEFA Women’s Champions League

Bolstered by the national team’s success in the summer, three English sides would look to capitalise on the surge in interest in women’s football. Manchester City’s European campaign was short-lived though, as Gareth Taylor’s side fell to defeat against Real Madrid in the qualifying rounds.

Arsenal and Chelsea made it to the group stages though, and both sides won their groups. Chelsea went unbeaten, fending off pressure from Paris Saint-Germain and Real Madrid – while Arsenal topped a group containing Olympique Lyonnais and Juventus.

Both teams made it to the final four, with Chelsea finding a way past Olympique Lyonnais on penalties at Stamford Bridge while Arsenal put in a dominant performance against Bayern Munich.

Arsenal were drawn against yet another German outfit in the semifinals, facing VfL Wolfsburg over two legs. Jonas Eidevall’s side came from behind in the first leg to clinch a stunning draw, but ultimately faltered at the Emirates Stadium – as a moment of brilliance deep in extra time catapulted Tommy Stroot’s side into the final.

Having edged past Olympique Lyonnais, Chelsea’s next opponents would be Barça Femení – who have established themselves as one of the sport’s greatest sides in recent years. Emma Hayes’ side were dealt a narrow defeat in the first leg at Stamford Bridge, meaning an impressive draw at the Spotify Camp Nou a week later wouldn’t be enough.

This had already been a record-breaking season in the UEFA Women’s Champions League – Arsenal attracted 60,063 fans for their semifinal against VfL Wolfsburg. Yet the showpiece final had the potential to break another record: the highest attendance at a final in the tournament’s history.

And that’s precisely what happened – 33,147 fans flooded through the turnstiles at Eindhoven’s Philips Stadion to watch Barça Femení produce one of the greatest comebacks in history, stunning VfL Wolfsburg who had held a two-goal lead at half-time.

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Elsewhere in Europe

Up until this point, we’ve focused on English sides – but women’s football has plenty of success stories from across the continent. Some have only thrusted themselves onto the winners’ stage in the last few years, while others have been winning for over a decade.

Barça Femení

I’ve already covered this incredible club in more depth, but they warrant mentioning yet again. Barça were pioneers of women’s football, attracting a 60,000-strong crowd for their inaugural match in 1970. Despite a tumultuous end to the century, the Blaugrana have established themselves as one of the greatest sides in women’s football recently.

They first reached the semifinal of the UEFA Women’s Champions League in the 2016/17 season, but suffered a 5-1 aggregate thrashing at the hands of Paris Saint-Germain. Barça returned to the final four just two years later though; this time defeating Bayern Munich to set up their first European final – against serial winners, Olympique Lyonnais.

Barça Femení may have lost, but they had come painstakingly close to victory – and that had only increased their appetite for success. Two years later, they reached the final once more and this time prevailed as 4-0 victors against Chelsea.

Another appearance in the final followed a year later, but as had been the case in 2018/19, they were dealt defeat by Olympique Lyonnais. However, Chelsea’s win over the French side in 2022/23 ensured that they would not pose a threat as the teams were whittled down – and Barça were able to secure their second European title against VfL Wolfsburg.

It’s probably also worth mentioning that they’ve lost just once in the league since June 2021. They’re certainly a force to be reckoned with, if they can keep hold of their Catalan firepower in the form of Alexia Putellas and Aitana Bonmatí.

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Turbine Potsdam

Turbine Potsdam have suffered a fall from grace recently, culminating in their relegation from the Frauen-Bundesliga – the top flight of German women’s football. But for the more than a decade, Turbine Potsdam were one of the best sides in the country, with the silverware to back that claim up.

The side won their first Frauen-Bundesliga title in 2003/04, repeating that feat two years later. They’d then go on to win the league in four consecutive seasons – but have failed to finish first since 2011/12. Turbine Potsdam were also dominant in the DFB-Pokal, winning it thrice consecutively between 2003 and 2006.

But on the European stage, Turbine Potsdam made a name for themselves. They won the UEFA Women’s Cup in 2004/05, before finishing as runners-up in the following season. When the competition was renamed as the UEFA Women’s Champions League, they became the first side to win it – once again, they finished second the following season.

Alas, all good things must come to an end – and Turbine Potsdam’s stay in the top flight is no exception. They finished twelfth in the Frauen-Bundesliga this season, winning just two of their 22 fixtures and finishing the season with a measly eight points.

1. FFC Frankfurt / Eintracht Frankfurt

Moving across Germany, Frankfurt has had an influential role in the development of women’s football within the country. Initially known as 1. FFC Frankfurt, the club merged with Eintracht Frankfurt ahead of the 2020/21 season – and adopted the same name.

This is a team that has won Europe’s elite competition four times – thrice as the UEFA Women’s Cup and once as the UEFA Women’s Champions League. The latter victory saw them defeat Paris Saint-Germain in 2014/15, though they fell at the semifinal stage the following year.

They had not played in Europe since that semifinal defeat to VfL Wolfsburg, but a third-place finish in 2022/23 ensured that Eintracht Frankfurt will return to the European stage in 2023/24. They’ll be a great side to watch out for, boasting plenty of talent including Germany’s Laura Freigang.

Olympique Lyonnais

I suppose I should save the best for last. Olympique Lyonnais are undisputedly the Queens of European Football – you don’t win the UEFA Women’s Champions League eight times for nothing. The French side are clear favourites ahead of every European campaign, and for good reason.

Their dominance is also felt domestically. They’ve won the Division 1 Féminine a staggering sixteen times since 2006/07 – finishing second to Paris Saint-Germain in 2020/21. They are simply an unbelievably consistent outfit.

Their eight European trophies are the result of a 100% win rate in UEFA Women’s Champions League Finals. That’s right – they’ve appeared in eight finals, and emerged victorious every single time. Lyon’s story perhaps isn’t as interesting as some other clubs, but they’re the best in the business.

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