Sports writer Carrie Dunn’s book The Roar of the Lionesses explores women’s football in England after the 2015 Women’s World Cup. Hazel Davis had a kick about with her.
Women’s football was one of the greatest sporting success stories at the start of the 20th century. Tens of thousands of fans turned up to watch, first because it was a novelty, then because they loved it.
When the men’s leagues were suspended during the First World War, the women’s teams stepped into the breach, raising money for charities and entertaining those at home.
When the men came back, the popularity of the women’s game took everyone by surprise. So the obvious thing to do was ban it. The football authorities declared it unsuitable for ladies, and forbade any football club to let women play on their pitches.
Sounds ridiculous, and it was – but this ‘unsuitable for ladies’ business carries on even today. There’s been fretting about women competing in ski jumping, with the implication that such strenuous activity might damage their reproductive organs. Seriously.
Why have you written partially about grassroots clubs when focusing on the big names would have been more straightforward?
I wanted to write this book in the way that I wrote it because everyone was so excited about the England team doing so brilliantly at the 2015 Women’s World Cup. I was excited too – reporting on that tournament from Canada was one of the best experiences of my life – but being a journalist and a sports fan I also have a seed of scepticism in there.
When people were declaring it a turning point for women’s football, I was wondering whether it actually would be – or whether it would just be a turning point for those England players. So I decided to write about clubs from grassroots upwards: how were they benefiting from the Lionesses being on the front pages? Or were they not?
I loved being let in behind the scenes of the grassroots clubs, actually – to really get to know people, their personalities, and the way the team operated.
What interests me about fans? Well, I’m interested in people – and everyone is a fan of something. I’m intrigued to know how different people’s different fandoms manifest themselves and affect their everyday lives.
What are the main differences between men’s and women’s football?
In terms of the rules of the game, men’s and women’s football are exactly the same. EXACTLY the same. The women’s game might be slightly slower and less reliant on power, but conversely it tends to be more reliant on technique and close control.
In terms of everything else around it, there are so many differences. There’s much less money in the women’s game, although that’s changing at the elite level, with agents starting to become interested in players.
Perhaps the nicest difference is the lack of aggression and tribalism between fans in the women’s game – there isn’t the segregation that you’d get at a men’s match. At least, not at the moment. I hope that doesn’t change.
Why are some men are still so objectionable when it comes to women’s sport, particularly football?
Men being objectionable is a theme that has run through women’s sport since its inception. When it comes to football, there’s still a sense in some quarters that it is an entirely male and masculine domain, and female infiltration needs to be beaten back at any cost.
“Women’s football was one of the greatest sporting success stories at the start of the 20th century. Tens of thousands of fans turned up to watch, first because it was a novelty, then because they loved it.”
Why, and why some men choose to be so aggressive about it – things like bothering to troll female players on Twitter – I’m not entirely sure. One can only suspect a tremendous fear and insecurity.
I should add, of course, that there have been plenty of men who very much support women’s sport and women athletes and who have worked tirelessly for its progression.
What’s the most ridiculous thing anyone’s ever said to you about women’s football?
The most ridiculous, and yet my favourite thing, anyone has said to me about women’s football was when I wrote a feature about how the league in England ought to be restructured. A man responded to me on Twitter, saying, “Women shouldn’t be playing football at all.” I mean, that would certainly solve the problem of fixture congestion.
I do think the FA cares about women’s football – it has a reasonably small team with responsibility for women’s football, who I know work incredibly hard to get the rest of the organisation to buy into what they do.
What are your other sporting passions?
I love most sports, but cricket would be my next major love after football. Also professional wrestling – except some folk don’t count that as a sport, more as theatre.
What did you learn about the game and yourself while writing the book?
I learned just how much time and effort hundreds of people put into keeping women’s football running – and they are all volunteers. The England team might get the front pages and TV time, but there wouldn’t be a game at all without those grassroots clubs, players, coaches and kit people.
They work so, so hard, and get so little recognition. There are so many strategies for promoting grassroots sport and encouraging participation – the people with the expertise are out there, and they’re doing it – listen to them and find out what to do.
I learned that setting yourself a timescale for a book – FA Cup final one year to FA Cup final the next – is ridiculous but doable. I also feel closer to the game, if that doesn’t sound too silly, after all, I write about women’s football as a job. But when you’re doing post-match interviews and filing match reports, there are certain protocols to go through. Writing this book I really got to know people, and that’s special.
What DO you think the future holds for the game?
The future is in flux. The Women’s Super League in England is moving into the next phase of its development with a new strategy about to be unveiled. The European Championships are this summer and England is expected to do well.
At the same time, Sunderland – one of the top flight teams – have just announced that they won’t be employing any full-time players in the future, just part-time ones, which has to be a little bit worrying. I’d like to see a functional, sustainable league of professional women’s teams, with regularly televised matches, and played at decent grounds. It’s not too much to ask for. At least I don’t think so.
How good a footballer are you and what do you play?
My own footballing skills are minimal – it’s one of the great sadnesses of my life. I played a little bit as a child, but was never very good. Perhaps that’s why I started to write about it instead.
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Hazel Davis is a freelance writer from West Yorkshire. She has two tiny children but the majority of her hours are taken up with thinking about Alec Baldwin singing sea shanties and the time someone once called her "moreishly interesting".