Manchester City Women – a response to Jean Williams’ review

Gary James
Honorary Research Fellow at De Montfort University

I would like to thank Professor Jean Williams for reviewing my book, Manchester City Women: An Oral History (March 31, 2021). I recognise the commitment required and am always grateful when effort is made to review my work. Williams has written several landmark publications on women and sport and I acknowledge the contribution she has made to our field. She makes valuable points both about my book and the role of virtue signalling around women’s football. However, her review misrepresents what the book was trying to achieve.

I began researching in the 1980s and in my first book, published in 1989, I included some material on women’s football in the Manchester region. In total I have had twenty books published, however, for the first time I have taken the unusual step of asking an editor to give me the opportunity to comment on a review. I do not believe Williams’ review is a fair reflection of the book and I am disappointed that Williams, who is writing in a related subject area, has made assumptions and inaccuracies within her review.

Firstly, it is important to stress that, although the book was researched to academic standards, utilising appropriate techniques, it was published to appeal to a broad audience and was not written as an academic critique of Manchester City Women or those involved with the club. This was clear from the outset and something all other reviews, including those by other academics, have recognised. This is a significant point and one Williams was well aware of before choosing to take her review approach.

Next, for legal reasons it is important I correct some assumptions Williams has made. I have never been an employee of Manchester City nor am I City’s historian. I am an independent scholar, as Williams is, and have performed project work with the club over the years. Similarly, I have written for and worked on projects at other football organisations, including FC United, Manchester United, Liverpool, Leicester City, the FA and the National Football Museum (including being a steering committee member of the Hidden Histories project into women and football). This is no different to Williams’ own work with FIFA and UEFA. Therefore, it is disappointing that her review implies that my credibility as an academic depends on where the funding originates or supporter loyalties. Following Williams’ discourse, are we to question her writing about FIFA or UEFA because she has received funding from these organisations?

Independence and academic integrity is something I am passionate about and I take great steps to ensure I am free to write without censorship. I have rejected opportunities to research and write for organisations that wanted to censor me or paint a particular picture. Specifically thinking about the project, I based this book on, I explained in an academic article on the project: ‘It was agreed from the outset that interviews were not to be censored by the club… neither the researcher nor the club’s archivist would have restrictions placed on them with regards to who could be interviewed and what could be stored. Academics who have worked on research projects with other clubs and governing bodies will be aware of how unusual that freedom can be. At the heart of this decision was the recognition that the gathering and preservation of the material was what mattered, not current concerns about how the club’s brand should be portrayed.’ [1]

Williams claims that an ‘officially-accredited history provides the author with something of a dilemma, in terms of independence of interpretation and approach.’ This is of course true, however this book was funded via Kickstarter, meaning that those who bought the book funded it, and is not officially-accredited. I asked Manchester City’s archivist to write a foreword due to her own personal support with the initial project, which was part-funded by Manchester City. As stressed above, the agreement with the club was that there would be no censorship.

I have never been an employee of Manchester City nor am I City’s historian. I am an independent scholar, as Williams is, and have performed project work with the club over the years.

According to Williams, the book is innocent ‘in its analytical ambitions’ with the suggestion that this has something to do with my desire not to analyse why professional ‘male’ football clubs become involved with women’s football. This book was never intended to provide my own personal interpretation of those voices. Williams’ review completely overlooks the main theme of the book and that is to share the lived experiences of those involved with the club from its formation through to 2019. Detailed analysis was always planned to follow in academic articles and presentations. I have already written an academic article and have presented at a variety of international conferences on the project (all several months before Williams reviewed the book with Williams in attendance on occasion). Further academic publications are planned.

Williams points out that ‘England’s most famous clubs have, under current FA plans, to have more Premiership adoption of women’s clubs, as part of their community ventures’; however, she overlooks the fact that, as explained by several voices within the book, Manchester City Women has not been part of a community venture since its relaunch in 2013. It was established by City’s and the PFA’s community staff in 1988 but those involved with the relaunch of the club were absolutely adamant that it had to be equal in status to the men’s team. We can argue how successful this has been of course, but to misrepresent the facts seems somewhat odd.

Thinking about women’s teams as community initiatives Williams adds ‘is this model the right way forward for women’s football?’ Williams’ review suggests the book did not discuss this question, yet as Dr Malcolm MacLean highlights in his review there are voices within the book that did, including a powerful ‘observation by one of the central players in the development of the professional team: “Well if we keep thinking of it as a CSR initiative it will never evolve. It won’t because we’ll always just down play it. We have to… take it seriously, for what it is, and don’t be almost condescending by saying ‘Okay, let’s put a little bit of money to help young girls play football!’” (p190).’

One area that is particularly frustrating in Williams’ review concerns her discussion of lived experiences and her suggestion that there is a lack of personal testimony in the book. In fact, the book contains in excess of 100,000 words, the majority of which are direct quotes from those involved with the club. Indeed, it is the book’s focus on the lived experiences of the women, and some men, involved with the club that has been praised in many other reviews. Emeritus Professor Steve Rigby highlights in his review that ‘lots of the women interviewed here were faced with resistance and prejudice’ before going on to provide an example from the book. MacLean’s review correctly comments that the ‘narrative, in being driven primarily by the voices of those involved in the club, takes us inside the events of the club’s formation, growth and transformation’. Unfortunately, Williams’ review fails to acknowledge this.

On the book’s significance MacLean comments ‘this is an important contribution to our understanding of community sport and of women… We need more of this kind of publication in sports history, uncovering and recovering untold, concealed pasts, filing gaps, posing problems and exploring ways to bridge those gaps between the scholarly and popular: I’m not sure this quite does the latter, but it does it better than many.’

In terms of research methodology, Williams claims that the process I utilised was ‘not so different than other histories of women’s football.’ My entire approach has been to follow academic convention, method and process in all I research. It doesn’t matter whether the output is aimed at the wider public or specifically at an academic audience, the approach I take is the same. This is a point recognised by Rigby in his review: ‘Gary has always been able to pull off the difficult feat of combining academic rigour with popular accessibility.’ He also describes the book as ‘an authoritative and detailed history’ and, significantly, he himself decided to publish a review of the book in a football fanzine, demonstrating that some professors recognise that it is possible to research to an academic level and write for publications aimed at fans.

My entire approach has been to follow academic convention, method and process in all I research. It doesn’t matter whether the output is aimed at the wider public or specifically at an academic audience, the approach I take is the same.

Williams’ review seems to spend most of its time (over two-thirds of the word count) explaining how this is not an academic book. Why Williams felt the need to dwell on this is unclear given that it could have been covered in a sentence. She also talks of her research in a similar area, implying that her work is more rigorous. For example, she writes: ‘my own work with the Manchester Corinthians WFC team does not suggest a continuity between their club and Manchester City women, although some personnel were shared.’ Once again, the experiences of those women who in the book have discussed their direct involvement in the Corinthians have been negated in a public forum. This is frustrating and perplexing and so I need to explain further about my research in this area – an area Williams is also writing in.

Over the decades, I have interviewed many women who have played for multiple clubs in the Manchester region. This has included several who played for both Manchester Corinthians, a pioneering women’s team established in 1949 and existing into the 1980s, and Manchester City. They have explained, via my in-depth interviews with them, how the Corinthians club evolved during the 1970s and 1980s. These women appear in the Aiken scrapbooks at the National Football Museum – sources Williams rightly believes are valuable.[2] Williams links to a piece by Kate Turner[3] which states that they ‘trace the journey of the Corinthians. They give a personal account of the activity of the team… The scrapbooks also offer insight into the struggle of female players at the time as Gladys included cuttings from every newspaper mention given to the team.’

The scrapbooks do not include every newspaper mention of the Corinthians but they do include evidence that, when triangulated against other sources, aids our research. This includes both contemporary articles on the club and personal testimony from the women who speak, quite categorically, of their journey from Corinthians through to City. The evidence is there. Denying it adds to the frustrations those women felt when they were silenced or excluded from football history.

As the women involved explain, Corinthians changed its name before the majority of the team, including the captain, broke away to join Manchester City during the 1988-89 season. I am a great believer in the development of sport via communities and the Corinthians’ women who went on to play for Manchester City have no doubt that they took the values of the Corinthians into their new club and this direct influence on the development of City continued into the 2000s. This is a remarkable example of female sporting commitment and influence that came directly from personal involvement in an Aiken-led Corinthians.

Williams’ own work talks of the Corinthians club splintering into ‘Benfica Beechams and Red Star Manchester, which would become Manchester City women’s team sometime in the mid-1980s.’[4] Williams is incorrect. FC Redstar was an off-shoot of Manchester United and was not directly connected to Corinthians. While a couple of Redstar players did join Manchester City, one of which was my own girlfriend (now wife) in 1988, Redstar did not ‘become’ Manchester City.

As the last few paragraphs have shown, there is a need for detailed, thorough, academic research into women’s football. Interpretation is vital but, before we can do that, we need to hear more lived experiences, such as those in my book. We need to back this up with evidence and the triangulation of sources. Manchester City Women: An Oral History aims to highlight the lived experiences of dozens of players, managers, coaches, administrators and supporters of the club throughout over three decades of existence. It attempts to correct myths and errors about the club but, most importantly, it provides oral testimony from those involved. It is not an interpretation of their words; it is their words. This is vitally important and any review that suggests this book does not carry the lived experiences of the (predominantly) women involved is once again marginalising the views of those women.

Copyright © Gary James 2021

[1] ‘Establishing women in sports history: Manchester City football club’, Sport in History, September 10, 2020
[4] ‘“We’re the lassies from Lancashire”: Manchester Corinthians Ladies FC and the use of overseas tours to defy the FA ban on women’s football’, published in Sport in History, October 15, 2019
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