‘Girls today can dream’: Preston football historian Gail Newsham on the ‘phenomenal’ Dick, Kerr Ladies and the Lionesses’ Euros triumph
Gail Newsham didn’t choose football, football chose her.
Born in Preston, Gail grew up in the shadow of an unassuming factory, a factory which just happened to be the birthplace of one of the most influential and dominant teams in the history of the world's most popular sport. A team decades ahead of its time and whose impact still reverberates across the eras to this day. The Dick, Kerr Ladies.
But, as a youngster, Gail was largely unaware of her closeness to it all. The players never boasted of their accomplishments, and so their incredible story was on the verge of being lost to the sands of time, the local heroes who hailed from the North West and who conquered the world almost left forgotten.
“There’s a picture of me from when I’m about five in the backyard and I’ve got my teddy bear, my football, and my bike, which pretty much summed me up,” says Gail, who grew up on a diet of frenzied street games with scores of local lads, all scraped knees and jumpers for goalposts. “I always loved football; it was all I ever wanted to do.”
And she had a talent for it. Eventually joining Preston Rangers WFC, Gail went on to appear in two Women’s FA Cup semi-finals and enjoyed success in the then-newly-established North West Women's Football League across a glittering career spanning two decades during the ‘70s and ‘80s.
“Some of the facilities weren’t the best, I have to confess!” says Gail, 69, with a smile. “At Catforth, we used to have to get changed in an old chicken hut and, if you wanted to powder your nose, shall we say, you had to use an old oil drum. That’s just what it was like; we just got on with it.
“Being part of that Rangers team was amazing - we were so close,” she adds. “It’s just great being part of something and we did everything together: we trained twice a week, played Sundays, and socialised as well. It was a magical time - it’s great to see what’s happening with women’s football now, but I wouldn’t change anything.”
Far more than just a passionate player, Gail has also long been a staunch advocate for the women’s game, serving as an officer on the League Management Committee and, in 1986, setting up The Lancashire Trophy, an international tournament which attracted teams from as far and wide as Sweden, Switzerland, Austria, Germany, Ireland, and Scotland.
At the 1992 edition of the tournament, Gail’s life changed.
Asked to organise the Dick, Kerr Ladies’ first reunion for over 40 years, Gail took to the task with enthusiasm. “My dad had seen them in the ‘30s, so I knew the Dick, Kerr Ladies were a good team. But, at the reunion, one of the ladies showed me a photo of them playing in Kirkham in the 1950s. I couldn’t believe how many people were on the touchline!
“When I played, nobody came!” adds Gail with a chuckle. “It blew me away and made me realise how big a story it was. I thought ‘somebody’s got to do something about this or the story’s going to get lost’.”
Learning more about the team’s legacy and the women who cultivated its ethos with each former player she met, Gail found herself growing increasingly astonished that the Dick, Kerr Ladies story wasn’t better known. In fact, such was her befuddlement, she resolved to do something about it herself.
On a mission to document the team’s success using first-hand accounts from the players themselves for posterity, Gail spent two years researching, delving into everything and anything she could. Often she found that her groundbreaking interviewees had never even been asked about their amazing exploits before.
“I went all over the North West, looking through the phone book and making hundreds of calls,” says Gail, whose research led her to publish a book titled ‘In A League Of Their Own: The Dick, Kerr Ladies 1917-1965’ in 1994. “Looking back, I don’t know how I did it, but it was amazing. I’m no academic, it was just meant to be.
“Here I was, telling these women’s stories with their own words,” she adds. “It changed my life: the more I found out, the more amazed I was. I couldn’t believe how successful they were, they were phenomenal.”
Phenomenal just about sums it up. Before the Dick, Kerr Ladies came along in the mid-1910s, women had been playing football in the UK for hundreds of years, but it wasn’t until WWI that the women’s game was given any major publicity with the emergence of organised women’s teams made up of munitions factory workers.
Realising that playing charity matches was a great way to raise vital funds for the war effort, teams sprang up everywhere, including at Dick, Kerr & Co. Ltd. in Preston, a tramway engineering company founded in 1898 by Scotsmen William Bruce Dick and John Kerr. Their first match was at Deepdale on Christmas Day in 1917 and attracted a crowd of 10,000. Raising £600 (almost £50,000 today) for the Moor Park Military Hospital, the match was a roaring success.
Little did the players know, it was just the beginning.
By 1921, Dick, Kerr Ladies had gone on a run of almost 200 games undefeated, attracting crowds of over 50,000 and featuring players so talented that Sir Matt Busby commented that Val Walsh was the best player he’d ever seen and that he would’ve signed her for Manchester United had she been male.
Then everything changed. On December 5th 1921, the FA banned women’s football and instructed all member clubs to refuse permission of their grounds for ladies matches. It was a bitter blow for the women’s game and many teams collapsed, but the Dick, Kerr Ladies soldiered on, playing across the world in the ‘20s and ‘30s.
Following a brief hiatus during the Second World War, they continued to play well into the ‘60s before being forced to disband due to a lack of players in 1965. When the FA ban was rescinded in ‘71, the women’s game had been transformed for the worse by the governing body’s misogyny and bigotry.
Only now, half a century later, is it starting to blossom once again, with England’s victory in this summer’s European Championships heralding a new era for the women’s game in the UK.
“Seeing everything come on over the past 20 years is wonderful,” says Gail, who was made an Honorary Fellow of the University of Central Lancashire in 2019. “I always had a feeling that the script was written after the ban, that we’d win something and it’d take us back to where the Dick, Kerr Ladies left it.
“I just knew we’d win the Euros - of course it had to be Germany in the final, but I kept the faith,” she continues. “And these girls can dream. We didn’t have that dream, we just wanted to play - it was a hobby. The next step is to get rid of that underlying attitude that women shouldn’t be playing football, which is a throwback to the ban.
“One of the ways to tackle it is to tell people the history. I do talks about the Dick, Kerr Ladies and get grown men coming up to me,” says Gail. “They’re almost in tears. They always say ‘I didn’t know’.”
Well they do now.
A new hardback edition of ‘In A League Of Their Own: The Dick, Kerr Ladies 1917-1965’ is now available.