By Charlie Benny
Following England’s perfect start to the tournament at Old Trafford with a 1-0 win over Austria, the National Lottery have released a photo series of recreations from the first known images of a women’s football team to celebrate the remarkable progression of the female game.
With consultation from sports historian and leading academic author on women’s football Professor Jean Williams, the recreation is inspired by a first team photo of The British Ladies’ FC from 1895, formed by captain Nettie Honeyball. Playing the role of Honeyball in the modern-day version is footballer and singer-songwriter Chelcee Grimes, joined by grassroots community footballers from across the UK in a tribute to the trailblazers of the women’s game that have enabled such a progression.
The British Ladies FC’s first game was played in Crouch End, North London, in front of a crowd of 10,000 people – impressive numbers for its time but not close to the near 70,000 packed into Old Trafford comfortably breaking a Women’s Euros record. In the original 1895 match, the players were still required to wear heeled boots so not to break Victorian standards of decency – and were frequently met with hostility as they sought to pave a way for other women to play.
Fast forward over 125 years and the women’s game couldn’t look more different. Over the last ten years alone, National Lottery players have helped invest over £50 million into football in ways which benefit the women and girls’ game. This investment includes funding specific programmes as part of the Women’s Euros legacy, as well as supporting the sport’s return after Covid-19 and other initiatives to inspire females to play the game.
In all, across the last 25 years, more than £5.7 billion of National Lottery funding has been invested into grassroots sports.
Professor Jean Williams, historian and heritage consultant for the Women’s Euros, reflected on the impact the tournament will have on a whole new generation of aspiring young footballers:
“This summer is a game changer for women’s football, not just in England and the UK but across Europe as the largest all-female sporting tournament held so far, and across the globe as women’s sport continues to attract new audiences and fans. The investment of £50m over 10 years from National Lottery players has played a vital role in the development of the women’s game and this tournament is a new high point. All eyes are on the Women’s Euros and women’s football is the current hot ticket in world sport. Yet the players today, and of tomorrow, are standing in the shoulders of giants like Nettie Honeyball and the other pioneers.”
Honeyball’s initial intentions on forming the team was to use the power of football to advance women’s rights fought to change societal norms with football as the vehicle for change, saying of intentions behind the team: “I founded the association late last year, with the fixed resolve of proving to the world that women are not the ornamental and useless creatures men have pictured”.
Inspired by Honeyball’s resolve, Chelcee Grimes, who has played for both Liverpool and Everton, and now plays for Merseyrail Ladies, said:
“Hopefully these images will capture people’s imagination ahead of the Euros and make them interested in the individuals who helped tackle prejudice and progress the sport. Nettie Honeyball and her team were true trailblazers of their time.
“I’ve been playing for a team since I was a young girl and even in my short tenure, the game has come on a very long way indeed. I’m really passionate about getting more women & girls paying the game so it’s great to see The National Lottery is investing at the grassroots level to support the next generation of players.
“Sport really has the power to bring people together and grass-roots clubs and organisations play such a vital role in giving young people the time and space to realise their full potential. I hope the momentum and excitement from the Women’s Euros will encourage more women to give it a go at their local club!”
Yasmin Rahman, a player for Birmingham-based side Saltley Stallions Women’s FC who took part in the photo recreation, reflected on what football means for her, and why it’s so important to celebrate the legacy of women’s football in the UK:
“Recreating this photo is an amazing experience, putting a modern twist on such an important image that represents where the game has come from. I’ve met so many new people and really enjoyed the recreation.
“When I was younger, I never had the opportunity to play in a women’s team, I was used to being the only girl in a boys team. For me as a Muslim girl in a male-dominated environment, I am so happy to have that safe space where I can just play football and I am so passionate about getting as many people to participate as possible.
“I was able to watch my first ever England game recently – I couldn’t believe I was there! Seeing a major tournament like the Women’s Euros taking place in the UK is so exciting – not just for the talent on the pitch, but what it means for all the young girls who can see a path for them to play, and there are clubs like ours that will support women and girls into football.”
Over the last 10 years, thanks to National Lottery players, over £50 million has been invested into football in ways which benefit the women and girl’s game. This investment is funding specific programmes as part of the Women’s Euros legacy, as well as supporting the sport’s return after Covid-19 and other initiatives to inspire females to play the game outside of the tournament.