Closing in on goal: the pioneers of women's football and today's players

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In 1921 the Football Association banned women from playing on FA grounds – a ban that was not rescinded for 50 years. Offside, a play written by spoken word’s Sabrina Mahfouz and Hollie McNish, tells the story of four women footballers – two pioneers and two contemporary players hoping to mark their mark in the England women’s football team.

The pioneers in the play are Carrie Boustead, who was understood to be the world’s first black woman footballer, keeping goal in a match between Scotland and England at Glasgow in 1881. A question mark has now been raised over her name, but her symbolic importance is not in doubt. The other pioneer is Lily Parr, a free-scoring forward who played football during the first world war, before the FA ban. They are the inspirations for two contemporary players, Mickey and Keeley, who are thrown together at the training camp before making their debuts for England.   

You can understand why Mahfouz and McNish were commissioned to write Offside. The rhythm of their words matches the pace and urgency of the play, and pulses with anger and passion: “When I play football I smell, / sweat beads drip from my forehead, / back of the knees and armpits as well.” A powerful section in the middle of the play contrasts “weedy women” – the football establishment’s view – while listing all the tough jobs they actually have to do, with “speedy women wishing hope and dreaming / ready for the fight.” 

Mickey/Carrie and Keeley/Lily are played with convincing energy and force by Tanya Lorette-Dee and Jessica Butcher. The third actor in the play is Dahne Kouma, ably filling a multitude of cameo roles and accents, including coach and a succession of male and female journalists who put pressure Mickey and Keeley in the run-up to the big game.

Lily says: “I played it with my heart and soul I did/ … But the men are back from war / and they – meaning the FA, / don’t want us playing this ‘man’s game’ anymore.” Carrie tells how she debagged two men bent on making the women players look small: “The angry men retreated / calling names. / The women helped me up, again we hugged -  / what a finale to a game!”

Mickey worries about her relationship with another team member, Keeley is concerned about media pressure on her vulnerable mum. The parallel between oafish members of today’s media and the red-faced men who invaded the pitch in 1881 is inescapable. A crucial goal provides a contemporary affirmative ending, too.   

At a Q&A afterwards the play’s director Caroline Bryant spoke of how watching her daughter take part in football training had awakened her to the gender inequality in the game. She also conceded that another panel member, Anna Kessel, had just revealed in a Guardian article that the first black female footballer was actually a woman called Emma Clarke, not Carrie Boustead – a discovery that emphasised the lack of available information about women’s football pioneers. Kessel also spoke of her frustration at the lack of football opportunities for her own young daughter. 

It was good to see some children in the audience at the Omnibus arts centre in Clapham on Tuesday night. As the women’s game continues to develop towards eventually receiving its due, Offside can serve as an inspiration to young girl players trying to break through that “grass/glass ceiling” - and a lesson for young boys, too. The play by Futures Theatre is touring nationally over the next few weeks.

Greg Freeman

◄ Maura Dooley to judge £1,000 McLellan poetry prize

'Around the Cirrus and Nimbostratus' by Simon Widdop is Poem of the Week ►

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