Strong illustrated oral history of a women’s football team that misses some intellectual opportunities

Jean Williams
Independent scholar

Gary James
Manchester City Women: An Oral History
353 pages, paperback, ill.
Halifax, W Yorkshire: James Ward 2019
ISBN 978-0-9558127-9-8

Gary James’ book is an oral history of women playing for Manchester City Women FC, since the formation of a club side, as a community initiative in 1988, through to its position today as a leading Women’s Super League club. I enjoyed the book, particularly the accounts of the players and the visual material. This is strong. The book seeks to be ‘the most detailed history of a current Women’s Super League team ever produced.’ In this it succeeds and is a welcome innovation. It is an accessible read, and the players will no doubt value seeing their collective stories recorded for posterity.

There were some missed opportunities intellectually, and in saying this, it should be noted that this is a popular history, limited to 1000 copies and supported by the club itself. The book is designed for commercial sale to a wide public rather than an academic volume. Those of us who publish for popular audiences have to negotiate these choices, and the review commends the book for the generalist, while balancing its contribution to the specialist literature.

For the academic community, its value is more limited, and this is about the need to frame the conceptual paradigm through which we might understand why Manchester City FC might choose to develop women’s football since 1988, and in what ways. Although there are some footnotes, they mainly reference male scholarship, and do not speak to the extant literature on women’s football, in terms of progressing key concepts, ideas and findings.

I hope that a more critically engaged academic volume follows from the author. I would welcome this, although having moved to Independent scholarship recently myself I know this is not always a priority. The academic literature on women’s football, and women’s experience in various football codes, has shown that oral history has been a vital methodology because there has been such poor record keeping. This was shaped in part by a lengthy FA-led ban from 1921 to 1969, supported by many male professional clubs who prevented women from using their grounds, and subsequent marginalisation, derision, and neglect. A revised volume engaging with these ideas would, in future, be a valuable addition to the academic literature.

In some senses, writing an officially-accredited history provides the author with something of a dilemma, in terms of independence of interpretation and approach. Can one be a fan of the Manchester City women’s team, without necessarily supporting the model of the City Football Group Limited, and its owners? In this sense the book is innocent, possibly determinedly so, in its analytical ambitions.

For instance, there has been a considerable amount of virtue signalling around women’s football since the MeToo movement of 2006 made sexual harassment and abuse a more widely debated public issue. Indeed, writing this review on Mother’s Day 2021, when the vigil for Sarah Everard was disturbed last night in London by heavy handed Metropolitan police tactics, in fifteen years arguably little progress has been made since. However, the wider issues of male professional football developing elite women’s football remain to be more deeply analysed, and this book does not take on that intellectual challenge. I have previously characterised this relationship as asking the poacher to become the game-keeper. What kind of economic model develops?

Since the practices of the banking and financial sectors with the financial crisis of 2008 were shown to be dubious, and in some cases corrupt, many such institutions have begun to support women in sport, as a way of appearing liberal, reformist, and inclusive.

The author could have used the example of Manchester City women to ask some much bigger questions. Given the antipathy of male professional football to women’s teams, historically, are we to see the promotion of the women’s team by Manchester City as an example of enlightened leadership? 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. Is this model the right way forward for women’s football? I could not help comparing the book with the recent publication by Marion Stell and Heather Reid, Women and Boots: Football and Feminism in the 1970s, which raises difficulties, areas of pain and disruption, sexuality, and gender in personal testimony. This was a more stimulating book to read, in the sense of making the reader aware of the problems and difficulties in the football industry more broadly and how gender identities were negotiated. This book showed how celebration could also critically engage with challenge.

One interpretation that challenges this orthodoxy could be that the owners of Manchester City have used the women’s team as a way of presenting their ownership and leadership of the club as progressive, and community-aware. It takes a minimal investment to do so. Simultaneously, since the practices of the banking and financial sectors with the financial crisis of 2008 were shown to be dubious, and in some cases corrupt, many such institutions have begun to support women in sport, as a way of appearing liberal, reformist, and inclusive. Most notably, Barclay’s Bank’s sponsorship of the Women’s Super League and Women in Football since 2019 can be seen as part of this wider virtue signalling. Leaving aside the rather large and complex questions of whether the processes of the City Group or Barclays have become more democratic, transparent, and socially responsible in the last twenty years, women’s football has received investment as corporate social responsibility has become more significant to branding global big business.

However, Gary James’ analysis of the women’s side does not refer to this wider context, perhaps because as a long time supporter of the club, and as its historian, the focus is more paternalistic, in terms of viewing Manchester City’s promotion of the women’s team as beneficial and to be commended. We might compare this with international examples, such as Angel City in the US, and a number of Scandinavian women’s football clubs which are primarily female in ownership, branding and focus to see that positioning women’s football as a sub brand, community initiative, actually leverages revenue streams for the main club, without essentially challenging the subaltern position of women’s football, as lesser than men’s in symbolic value, economic worth and cultural prestige.

There is no doubt that, personally and professionally, Gary James is supportive of, and committed to the history of Manchester City women. He is very much invested in Manchester history, and this depth of knowledge is evident and impressive. The research process is not so different than other histories of women’s football, using many techniques used in reclaiming of women’s football history over the last twenty-five years, including oral history, reunions, and personal testimony. 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. This is a difference of interpretation, rather than a criticism. I look forward to more work from this author, be it accessible public history or framed academically.

Copyright © Jean Williams 2021

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  1. Where to start. Firstly if Williams read this as an academic text then frankly I want to see proof of her qualifications as it seems she is unable to actually read! It is clearly not written as an academic critique, it is blindingly obvious it isn’t so why on earth she chooses to harp on about it I have no idea.
    The book is innocent in it’s analytical ambitions? Does it read like an analytical book to you Jean? If it does I again worry about your ability to understand texts.
    My favourite part was the claim there is a lack of personal testimony. What??? It’s actually a series of interviews of people who actually lived it! How more personal can it be for heavens sake?
    Then we come to Williams blatant lies and untruths. Gary James is not an employee of Manchester City, it isn’t’ officially accredited’ so there was no issue there despite Williams desperately claiming there was. There is no censorship which is clear by the criticism aimed at the club throughout the book. There is clear evidence that players played for both City and Corinthians so why claim there isn’t?
    On the evidence of this review you would have to question whether Williams is actually not as intelligent as she claims to be or that she simply has an agenda against a fellow academic. As she is a professor I am inclined to believe the latter. Take the chip off your shoulder Jean, it will weigh you down in the future.


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