Sunday, July 29, 2012

The Ladies of Old Trafford

As the USWNT moves from Glasgow to Manchester, and as players gear up for the thrill of playing at Old Trafford, I thought this might be a good moment to reflect on the place of women's football at Manchester United. My aim isn't to be a total killjoy (this story is depressing) but rather to signal how far things have come and to suggest that all the women playing at Old Trafford should feel the support of generations of players who could never imagine playing in "the theater of dreams."

Manchester United's women's team formed in the late 1970s as "Manchester United Supporters Club Ladies" and became founding members of the North West Women's Regional Football League in 1989. They enjoyed increasingly competitive seasons at varying levels until 2001, when they were brought into an official relationship with Manchester United. Manchester United had been running schools for girls through its community development programs. Some of the women players had come up through this system. The women's side was then disbanded in 2005. The team had played over twenty years outside the club's administrative umbrella, and in four years Manchester United FC killed it.

Manchester United's involvement in the women's game is best described as reluctant. This hardly makes the club unique. If they could have had it their way, they'd probably never have adopted that team.

Although the FA lifted its ban against women's football in 1971, it was quite a few years before they started to pay attention to it. Towards the end of the 1980s, FIFA took an interest in the women's game and required women's programs to affiliate with their men's FA in order participate in FIFA sanctioned competition. The whole question of England's national women's program thus became the FA's business and they took over administration of the Women's FA in 1991.

English clubs were soon required to offer training for girls in order to run a school for boys. At the time, people were eager to try and professionalize the women's game, and saw a quick answer in the affiliation of existing women's sides with professional men's club. So, in 2001 Manchester United took over management of Manchester United Supporters Club Ladies. And killed it four yeas later.

Tony Howard's 2005 Salford Advisor article about the disbanding of the team suggests that the club's investment in the women's program was never honest:
MANCHESTER United are booting their ladies team into touch and out of their Salford home - leaving the players with only water bottles as souvenirs of their time with the 'worlds biggest football club'.
United expected the women to play in ill-fitting hand-me-down kits, gave them water bottles as an end of season gift and have now told them they're surplus to requirements despite it costing less than one week of Wayne Rooney's wages to run the team for a whole year.
The ladies, who train at the Cliff in Broughton, were notified by letter that they will be disbanded at the end of the season and must look for another team - leaving United as the only club in England's top two divisions without a female side.
Some of the players were used as models to help sell the kit, but United say they're no longer wanted because they don't benefit the 'core business'. All this at a time when ladies' football is apparently on the up and Manchester is set to host the high-profile women's European Championships this summer.
Hayley Bates from Old Lane, Little Hulton was one of the models United were happy to use in their advertising campaign for the current strip. She said: "I've loved Manchester United all my life but after the way they've treated us and seeing how things are run behind the scenes I now feel animosity towards them.
"Even though we modelled the new kit we had to wear the old one for months. Then when the new one arrived it didn't fit.
"We've had one training kit in the six years I've been involved and it's really tatty but they wouldn't replace it.
"We have to rummage in the academy team's kit bags to find shorts to wear and make do with hand-me-down gear.
"We were pulled into the office last year and told it was an end of season presentation where they gave us a water bottle as a gift. Then they don't even tell us to our faces that we're no longer needed. It's insulting."
Hayley, 18, added: "Everyone talks about how much United make but they can't spare the £60,000 it would cost to run the team for a season including travel to and from games. All this from the so-called biggest club in the world - it's a joke.
"The likes of Arsenal are on television every week, while we're left trying to find new teams to play for."
By law United are obliged to allow girls to train at the club up to the age of 16 in order to be permitted to have a boys academy.
United say it was never their 'intention to become involved in women's football at a high level'. A spokesman said: "We have always made it clear the ladies' and girls' section was about community partnership and education rather than establishing a centre of excellence.
"Ultimately the hope is the boys will progress to the first team. So naturally more resources are put into that area because it is our core business." 
In other words, women's soccer was only as good as a side show.
The letter sent to players informing them that the team was disbanded also told them that they could not play together under any name. 
According to a May 2005 MUFC shareholder's newsletter, Bates (the player quoted above) saw the dismantling of the team as the final expression of "a pattern of a lack of respect for the women and sexual discrimination since the inception of the women's department."
Things have changed since I wrote my original article on this subject in 2007. Manchester City's women's side competes in the Women's English Premiership, and Liverpool plays for the professional Women's Super League. FC United of Manchester, founded by fans who felt betrayed by MUFC's corporate turn, announced that it's first women's team will take the field this season. As far as I can tell, the Manchester United Foundation supports youth teams for girls but still no women's side.

In any case, I'm curious to know when women have played football at Old Trafford prior to these Olympics. I imagine that even with this history of ambivalence haunting its stands, it'd have been a great thrill.

[The above is an edited and expanded re-post of one of From a Left Wing's first articles.]

[Update - the plot THICKENS:

So far, I've only found one reference to a women's match at Old Trafford. The Wikipedia entry for the FA Women's Cup lists Old Trafford as the location for the 1989 final between Leasowe Pacific (which merged with Everton) and Friends of Fulham Ladies FC. Leasowe won 3-2.

Attendance is listed there as 941 - this is the lowest attendance figure given in that Wikipedia entry for any final, by a significant amount. Several years before and after are missing information on grounds and attendance, however. And there is no source given for this information - so it is totally unreliable.

Even more mysteriously, "baseball grounds" are listed as the location for the 1990 final [[comment below clarifies]]. I can't see how the Women's Cup Final went from Old Trafford to a baseball field. Except, of course, I can. Gosh if anyone knows this story I'd love to hear it. Meanwhile, I'm digging through my library. Sadly I left my copes of Jean Williams's books on history of the women's game at the office!]


  1. I'd imagine The Baseball Ground is a reference to Derby County's previous stadium, rather than a generic term for a baseball field.

  2. That makes sense. Still haven't been able to confirm this 1989 match - you'd think there'd be a reference to it somewhere in sites about the stadium, but there isn't.

  3. There is an article on Everton's website which references the game in 1989, and says that it was the first final to be televised. Channel 4 could have some kind of archive footage of it I suppose, Wikipedia says that they televised it

  4. OMG. You are worse than I am. THANK YOU. Am going to find that footage!!

  5. Oh, the 1989 was the first final to be televised LIVE. First televised match was broadcast in 1976 in BBC. I can't find any references to Old Trafford, though - I would think that would be worth mentioning. Feel closer to the truth!

  6. my dad sponsored man united ladies before united plc took control, they won everything when my dad sponsored their shirts, he still has a framed picture somewhere ii will ask him to dig it out of the loft. He sponsored them for years and was furious when united plc took over he said they would get bored after a few seasons, he was right!


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