December 26, 1920. A huge crowd arrives at Goodison Park for a Boxing Day football fixture. The ground has 53,000 seats. It sells out fast. As many as 15,000 people are turned away disappointed. They miss a 4-0 thrashing, but it isn’t the result that matters: the game has much wider consequences. It was a women’s fixture, and like many women’s games in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it was hugely popular. And it was one of the last: because the response of the FA to the popularity of women’s football was to ban it as a game ‘quite unsuitable for females’.
Jump forward to 1978. Women have been allowed to play football again for seven years, and at Abbey Wood School in south London, one 11-year-old girl is pretty good at it. She is in fact a mainstay of the school (boys’) team. At least she is until she turns 12, because at the age of 12 she is kicked off: mixed teams are not allowed from that age.
Luckily this 12-year-old girl is not easily discouraged. She finds her way to a women’s football club. After one training session she’s picked for the team. It shows her how much is possible. She hasn’t really thought about playing for England, but as soon as she realises there is an England women’s team, she decides she should really be in it. By the age of 16, she is.
Over the next 15 years she’s a regular for England and has become vice-captain. At which point, the FA call her in and ask her to be the manager, too. Which makes her, at the age of 31, the youngest coach of any England side, the first female coach of any England side, and the first Black coach of any England side. Fittingly enough, her name is Hope.
This is the story of Hope Powell CBE, who remains a leading figure within women’s football, now managing Brighton and Hove Albion in the WSL. Her story seemed a good one to celebrate as we enter Black History Month tomorrow. As with so many others who blazed a trail, she did so carrying the weight of more than personal expectation. When she was offered the England job, that weight was the first thing she thought about: ‘I cannot foul this up. I cannot. No. I have to do this well. For myself. For women. For Black people. I have to be the best I can be.’
Over the 15 years that Hope Powell managed England she was instrumental in transforming the set-up into a professional operation. She was born at a time when women’s football was still banned, in a shameful act of calculated prejudice. She painstakingly built back up the national framework that helped give women opportunity in the sport she loved. The opportunity was paid off handsomely this summer, when the England Lionesses won Euro 2022 and brought football home.
For our first assembly of the year at the Senior School, we spoke about that victory, and in particular one of the goals scored along the way: the moment when Alessia Russo insouciantly back-heeled the ball, nutmegged the Swedish keeper and put England 3-0 up in the semi-final.
What was so admirable about that goal was the timing of it. This was a semi-final of a major tournament. It mattered. We’ve seen plenty of teams crumble under the pressure of expectation: for a while it was almost England men’s speciality. And yet amid that pressure Russo was playful, mischievous, completely unafraid of failing, and ready to give it a go. After the match she was described as a person on the ‘biggest stage of her life and scared of absolutely nothing’. Her wit, verve and fearlessness were inspiring examples with which to begin a new academic year of adventure.
We will continue to put such examples in front of students and celebrate all they do to exemplify the same courage and spirit. This week we welcomed Dame Geraldine Andrews DBE, one of the country’s most eminent judges, to speak to an audience including students from The Abbey, Kendrick School, The Holt, Reading School, Highdown and Gillotts. She wasn’t sure she would find a place in a male-dominated profession. She was told to fear nothing, too: if she was good enough and tenacious enough, she would rise to the top. She has.
The last words go to Hope Powell. When she was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Brighton, she had some powerful advice to share. ‘I have witnessed on my personal journey the importance of having the courage of your convictions. Don’t be afraid to set yourself goals, and have the desire, belief and will to follow them through. Any set back is merely a set-up for a comeback.’
Will le Fleming, Head