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The Irish team who were part of a women's football revolution in England

50 years ago, Dundalk Ladies Football Club helped form the WFA.

The Dundalk Ladies football team were one of the founding members of the WFA.
The Dundalk Ladies football team were one of the founding members of the WFA.

Updated at 14.19

REIGNING PREMIER DIVISION champions Dundalk face their NIFL Premiership counterparts Linfield tomorrow night in the second leg of the inaugural Unite the Union Champions Cup.

It is not the first time a team from the area has been involved in an exciting new initiative that many hope will ultimately help bring about deeper changes within the structure of the game.

On a related note, it is 50 years since the Women’s Football Association (WFA) was founded.

Curiously, Dundalk Ladies Football Club were one of the founding teams of the WFA and the only side from outside England to be involved in its establishment.

The first meeting of the Ladies Football Association of Great Britain took place at Caxton Hall, London, with representatives from the clubs in attendance.

Shortly thereafter, it became officially known as the Women’s Football Association, an organisation which assumed responsibility for governing the women’s amateur game in England.

In many respects, women’s football in its current format is stronger than ever, with a record crowd for a women’s game at Wembley (77,768) watching England’s 2-1 loss against Germany on Saturday.

“There is no doubt whatsoever that we wouldn’t be where we are today without the dedication and hard work of the Women’s Football Association in a very difficult climate that made the progression of the women’s game hugely challenging,” Baroness Campbell, the FA’s director of women’s football, recently told their official website.

As they attempted to bring the sport into the mainstream, the WFA planned a national cup competition, which ultimately became the Women’s FA Cup.

In 1969, there were signs of progress, as the FA lifted its ban on women playing on the ground of its affiliated clubs. As independent scholar David Toms has explained, prior to the ban, women’s football was actually very popular in the early 20th century in England, particularly during the First World War, when crowds of 20,000-plus would attend games.

In 1983, the WFA affiliated with the FA, before a 24-club women’s national league was established in September 1991.

Moreover, in June 1993, the FA took over the running of the women’s game and owing to all these changes, the WFA essentially became redundant. Yet its initial role in getting women’s football to be taken more seriously should not be underestimated, nor should the contribution of Dundalk and in particular, the Gaynors.

The scant resources devoted to researching the history of women’s football in Ireland up until recently means the extent of Dundalk’s involvement in the WFA is unclear. Both Kevin and Nan Gaynor passed away many years ago, meaning the two Irish people with the most knowledge of that famous day are no longer around to verify details on it.

Meath native Helena Byrne, who works at the British Library and is a researcher of indoor football leagues and women’s soccer in County Louth, has been corresponding with WFA founder member Patricia Gregory, who was recently recognised by the FA for her important work half a century ago.

“I asked does she know how [Dundalk] got involved, she doesn’t,” Byrne says. “But she got involved because she put an ad for her soccer team to play any other soccer team in a soccer-related magazine.

Someone who organised an international tournament, which was running in the late ’60s, before the WFA was formed, got in touch with her, and that’s how they connected, so she assumed that [Dundalk] put an ad in a paper looking for a challenge match, or something like that.”

What is known is that Dundalk Ladies played a big match against Manchester Corinthians in Prestatyn, North Wales on 10 May, 1970.

“A lot of teams were starting to play and organise in the late 1960s and the WFA was formed after pressure,” Byrne explains. “It’s the same across Europe as well. They put pressure on Uefa and the men’s governing bodies to recognise them. That’s when the FA lifted the ban on women’s football and all affiliated grounds.

“So in 1958 [Manchester Corinthians] were set up by a man whose daughter had started playing football — he set up the team so his daughter could play on it.

There weren’t many other teams, so they set up another team they could play against called the Nomads. They travelled all around Europe and went on a big tour of South America as well and featured in international competitions. They were a very successful team. So when they played against Dundalk, I think they beat them 7-1. They were a more established women’s team than Dundalk.

“[Kevin Gaynor] used to go on holidays in the UK and he developed friendships with other women’s teams and stuff like that, and tried to recruit as many teams as possible for the WFA. There were meetings in Dublin between a number of clubs and he was writing about this to the WFA and corresponding. So some other Irish clubs might have affiliated, but I don’t know if they did, because I haven’t seen it from what’s available so far [in the archives].”

paralympic-medal-targets Baroness Campbell, the FA’s director of women’s football, recently acknowledged the important contribution of the WFA. Source: Dominic Lipinski

The early ’70s, in particular, was a time when significant strides were made in women’s football. While it wasn’t until 1991 that the first official Women’s World Cup took place, an unofficial version of the competition had been arranged 20 years previously in Mexico.

“The WFA brought together a number of clubs, but there were also lots of clubs that weren’t affiliated that were still playing in England,” adds Byrne.

“So the WFA weren’t very happy about unofficial teams playing in these competitions. There was a bit of tension between them, because they were trying to establish themselves as a governing body. So they had quite strict rules and if you [breached] those, you had a penalty — either fines or suspensions or lifetime bans from the organisation.”

On the Dundalk link, Byrne adds: “When the WFA got established, they set up their own tournaments, but Dundalk never competed in them and a number of other affiliated clubs never competed in them either. They were in the States a couple of weeks and had different matches home and away.

“In the letters I’ve been looking at from a couple of the constituencies, it was to a great extent because they had to pay for themselves. It would have been more challenging, especially being from Ireland, because they would have had to take a couple of days for it to work — they had to travel the day before and then have the match the next day and probably travel back, so they had three days really. But they did do challenge matches, in Wales especially.”

Not long after the WFA was established, Uefa decreed that men’s football associations should recognise their female counterparts. Most organisations, including the FAI, agreed to do so, while the Sex Discrimination Act passed in the UK in 1975 put further pressure on those who were initially reluctant to comply.

And while men’s organisations increasingly accepted their responsibility to facilitate the running of women’s football, the slow growth it experienced up until relatively recently is another strong indication that, in its initial stages, they hardly embraced this policy, which had been effectively forced on them.

It was more like the men’s governing bodies recognised women’s football, but did the bare minimum to develop it and then when it came in house, they got all the funding that was directed to the women’s game, but still did the bare minimum,” Byrne explains.

Sadly, for all their success in the men’s game, Dundalk do not currently have a team competing in the Women’s National League, despite a representative side from the area being part of that landmark day 50 years ago.

Their conspicuous absence is a stark reminder of the lack of funds, resources and problems that continue to mar the women’s game in the country, issues which the men’s League of Ireland is hardly unfamiliar with either.

Dundalk had been involved in an earlier national league, the Ladies League of Ireland, which was established in 1973. 12 teams originally participated, though there were several dropouts in the intervening years. By the late ’70s, there were just seven sides left, and the league ultimately died. It was re-launched in 1987, but scrapped again by 1989.

Another attempt was made to relaunch it in 1996, but on this occasion, it failed, and so the Dublin Women’s Soccer League attracted many of the top players and became the closest thing to a national football league, until the WNL was formed, with support from Uefa, in 2011.

Byrne notes a letter sent in 1977 by Kevin Gaynor, the secretary of the Ladies League of Ireland (his wife Nan was the assistant secretary), to David Marlowe, who was the then-chairman of the WFA, providing an update on the game in Ireland.

“He said there are rough 60 affiliated leagues in the Republic of Ireland, they started in around April 1977.

“The Ladies League of Ireland, which was still known as the Premier League of the Republic of Ireland, had eight teams all over the country. ‘Teams have to travel up to 280 miles to play fixtures and pay all expenses, which demonstrates their interest in soccer.’

“So they’d play all league matches and then they’d have an inter-league competition, but [Kevin's] league would always win these competitions. It says: ‘Our league won all the major trophies in 1976, provided at least 90% of the international players as well for the Irish national team.’ And he was the manager/coach of the Ladies League of Ireland as well, when they won the inter-league championship in 1976.”

So while Dundalk Ladies are no longer going strong, Gaynor’s legacy remains. His influence is acknowledged if underappreciated — the Gaynor Cup, an FAI competition that serves as the primary showcase for underage women’s football in Ireland, is named after him.

Byrne emphasises that Kevin’s wife Nan played made an equally invaluable contribution to women’s football in this country.

Kevin was more vocal, but his wife would have done just as much, but she would probably never get mentioned in the papers and stuff. In the WFA meetings, the rules were that two members of an affiliated club could attend, but they only had one voting right, so he probably would have attended these meetings with his wife and he just had the casting vote for their club.”

While Irish women’s football continues to struggle in many respects, particularly domestically, there have been some notable positives in recent years. Ireland’s recent qualifying win over Ukraine at Tallaght Stadium, for instance, was played in front of a record-breaking crowd.

The Gaynors’ hard work 50 years ago must therefore not be overlooked as progress continues to be made.

A significant portion of the research conducted for this article can be found at the Women’s Football Association Archive held at the British Library and is available to view by going to the bl.uk select catalogues and then Archives and Manuscripts Catalogue (enter the code MS 89306).

Additional credit to Jean Williams, a leading researcher on women’s football in England, who has recently published articles on the Corinthians and the 1971 World Cup.

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About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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