Useful in its popular style, despite tasteless title

Jean Williams
International Centre for Sports History and Culture, De Montfort University

Tim Tate Girls With Balls: The Secret History of Women’s Football 280 sidor, inb., ill. London: John Blake Publishing 2013 ISBN 978-1-78219-429-3
Tim Tate
Girls With Balls: The Secret History of Women’s Football
280 sidor, inb., ill.
London: John Blake Publishing 2013
ISBN 978-1-78219-429-3

Tim Tate’s book has a rather tasteless title but is intended to be an homage to the women who played football in Britain from the early 1880s until the mid 1920s. Unfortunately the overall style is indicated by the title, which emphasises a dramatic, rather than careful, reading of events. Beginning with the first England versus Scotland match in 1881, the discussion moves on to the brief existence of the British Ladies’ Football Club (BLFC) between 1894-1897. The two chief instigators of the BLFC were its non-playing President, Lady Florence Dixie, and its middle class playing Secretary, Nettie, or possible Nellie, Honeyball. Of the two, Honeyball seems to have been the more crucial and Dixie a high-profile figurehead. It is quite likely that ‘Honeyball’ was a pseudonym given that women’s football was so contentious. Readers keen to explore these issues further will find this a useful text, alongside James F.  Lee, The Lady Footballers: Struggling to Play in Victorian Britain (Routledge, 2008). With at least a hundred matches between 1895-7 and a further nineteen as Mrs Graham’s Eleven in the same years, women’s football was a significant public entertainment, drawing live crowds of up to 10,000 people and being widely reported in the media.

During, and shortly after, World War One women’s football reached unprecedented audiences, especially in Britain, and there were at least 150 clubs. Such was the popularity, with crowds of up to 53,000 at Goodison Park on 26 December 1920, that the Football Association banned women players from grounds of its affilated clubs and those of the Football League in 1921. Tate leaves this story in the mid 1920s in spite of claiming to have provided a more rounded coverage than achieved elsewhere. The gap does not account for how the ban was contested or overcome therefore. Although the ban was not replicated world-wide, it had a lasting effect on the image of football as a ‘manly’ game and this spread from the Association code, to include rugby Union or League rules, Australian, Candian and American and Gaelic formats. FIFA revisited its position in the 1960s and began to encourage women’s football globally, leading to the first World Cup in PR China in 1991.

The biggest flaw in Tim Tate’s argument is that this history, rather than being secret, is now well explored in the public domain. Readers could begin with the ground-breaking work of Ali Melling, who first published her work in 1998 (‘Ray of the Rovers: The Working Class Heroine in Popular Football Fiction, 1915 – 25’ The International Journal of the History of Sport 15 pp. 97 – 122). Popular histories also include David Williamson, Belles of the Ball  (R&D Associates, 1991); Gail Newsham, In A League of their Own (Scarlet, 1998); Barbara Jacobs, The Dick, Kerr Ladies (Constable and Robinson, 2004); and Patrick Brennan, The Munitionettes (Donmouth, 2007). Patrick Brennan’s website also contains much valuable primary material including programme notes, newspaper reports and photographs (, accessed 7 December 2013).

It is perhaps a reminder to those completing their PhDs that they should turn their thesis into a book as soon as possible after completion to avoid such a situation.

This is a serious problem because Tate borrows from the work of Ali Melling in particular without referencing her published articles. It is not the first time that popular writers have mistreated Melling’s work in a rather careless manner and she is an author who deserves to be more widely recognised.  For this reason, although my own work is referenced, I have my reservations about how painstaking academic research has been used in a popular title. It is perhaps a reminder to those completing their PhDs that they should turn their thesis into a book as soon as possible after completion to avoid such a situation. Nor do I want to suggest that Tate has avoided extensive newspaper research of his own. He clearly has done a lot of work. But the signposts of where to look were laid out by others and there is little new knowledge for an academic audience here. This said, a book can only be judged on its own aims and Tim Tate has sought to tell this story for a casual readership who might find the theoretical frameworks of an academic text too specialised.  In this he has suceeded, especially for those who like their history to be of a ‘barn-storming’ and particularly vivid variety.

Seminal academic texts have charted the growing international audience for women’s football, including Sue Lopez, Women on the Ball (London: Scarlet, 1997); Laurence Prudhomme-Poncet, Histoire du Football Feminine au XXème Siècle: Espaces et Temps du Sport (Paris: L’Harmattann, 2003); Jean Williams, A Game for Rough Girls: A History of Women’s Football in England (Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, 2003); Fan Hong and JA Mangan, Soccer, Women, Sexual Liberation: Kicking Off a New Era (London: Frank Cass, 2004); and Eduard Hoffmann & Jürgen Nendza, Verlacht, Verboten und Gefeiert (Landpresse 2006).

This popular and academic interest has coincided with the increase of interest on behalf of women participants, FIFA and the International Olympic Committee (who first held a women’s football tournament at the Atlanta Games in 1996). Women’s football has consequently now developed a public profile unimaginable when the first Victorian pioneers began to play. It is a measure, perhaps, of a sport having ‘arrived’ that such popular texts as Tim Tate’s book are written, because it demonstrates a wider audience. This also include young adult fiction titles for 11-14 year old girls about football such as those by Helena Pielichaty, e.g. Do Goalkeepers Wear Tiaras Too? (Walker, 2009). Player autobiographies are also becoming more available, for instance Kelly Smith’s Footballer (Bantam, 2012). Although this review has quibbled with the quality of Tim Tate’s release, there are also reasons to be quietly encouraged that the historical coverage of women’s and girls’ love of football has reached a wider and more diverse audience.

 Copyright © Jean Williams 2014

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