“White shoes to a football match!” – Female experiences of football’s golden age in England

Academic but insightful article on how female football fans represent themselves at football during the post-war years

Liverpool fans on the way to Wembley 1950
Liverpool fans at Euston on the way to Wembley for the 1950 FA Cup final against Arsenal. Arsenal won 2–0

by Stacey Pope and John Williams

Although many British historians claim that English football in the post-World War II period was substantially the passion of working-class men, oral history accounts also reveal a largely hidden history of active female sports fans, women who keenly followed football. These female fans often faced opposition from fellow supporters and from other women.

If there is a golden age in the history of football spectating in England, it can be argued such a period stretches from the late 1940s to the early 1960s, although recent trends in English football spectatorship suggest that, in a very different sociocultural climate, the current era offers something of a renaissance for the return of very large crowds to football. In the 1948-49 season, in the postwar glow of recovery and the search for collective leisure diversion in a society that boasted full employment but was still experiencing rationing and offered few leisure options, English football generated a record 41.3 million League match admissions. The majority of these attendees would have been working-class men supporting their local football clubs – the story was less clear-cut in other European countries – but there was also a sprinkling of middle-class support at English football, as well as early signs of out-of-town support requiring private travel to watch embryonic “super-clubs”.

As social attitudes and patterns of weekend leisure slowly changed in the post-austerity Britain of the 1950s, and as the new affluent worker of postwar Britain became more individualistic and more consumerist, communal sport began to lose its grip on the public imagination. Car ownership in Britain rose from 2.3 million vehicles in 1950 to 5.6 million a decade later. Television barely registered in British households in 1950, but by 1961, three-quarters of all homes had a TV set. By the late 1960s, Football League admissions in England had fallen to 30 million, though these figures were bolstered by crowds at new domestic and European competitions. But from the mid-1960s, the national picture for football in England began to change in other, largely unanticipated, ways.

As crowds continued to fall, English football began to suffer a series of crippling financial crises, and the behavior of some young male English football fans gradually evolved into a form of highly ritualized intergang violent sporting rivalry, one centered on territorial conflicts and masculinity testing in and around the country’s football stadia. These same types of trends were also occurring in other parts of Europe, with crowd disorders being reported in a number of other countries, including West Germany, Greece, and Italy. These modern versions of historical football rituals further damaged the national and international public image of the English game. English football stadia introduced enforced segregation of fans by physical barriers and “pens” in order to deal with this emerging fan hooliganism in the 1970s and 1980s, but failed to keep pace with prevailing public demand for generally improved (and pacified) leisure provision. English football was also struggling to hold on to its traditional audience in the face of increasing social mobility, class dealignment and new leisure options, so that it “could no longer hold the centre of the communal stage as it once did”. By the 1985-86 season, following a catastrophic hooligan incident that resulted in the deaths of 39 supporters (note 1), the annual League attendance figure for football had almost halved, to just under 16.5 million, the postwar nadir for English football.

A slow but persistent recovery in the sport’s fortunes since 1986 was accentuated by the reflexive aftermath of another major stadium disaster, in the city of Sheffield in 1989, in which 96 Liverpool fans were killed, and by a new relationship established in 1992 between the top English football clubs and the European satellite television conglomerate BSkyB (note 2). As a result, the late-modern version of English football has been radically repositioned in terms of its preferred audience, consumption patterns, market appeal, and global reach, as well as its cultural significance. New television money has also meant that many major English football stadia have been modernized or rebuilt, with seats replacing standing areas at all major venues. Fan behavior has also been modified and better regulated by the new, albeit rather suffocating, micromanagement regimes established inside English football stadia. By 2009, annual League football crowds in England had climbed close to the 30 million mark once more, with some evidence that gentrification and a recent surge in female attendance at football had contributed disproportionately to this revival in the sport’s public fortunes. In typical English sports locations, such as the East Midlands city of Leicester, local fan surveys suggest that more than a quarter of regular football fans today are women and girls.

Sports fan research
In the United Kingdom, sports fan research… has typically focused on how traditional male working-class sporting fans – usually football fans – and the local audience for live sport have been challenged by recent changes in the football nexus, thus producing their recent alleged marginalization or even their exclusion from active sport spectatorship. This is due, it is claimed, to the connected processes of gentrification, commodification, and the TV-promoted spectacularization (and consequent cultural “emptying out”) that have allegedly characterized new directions in the production and consumption of much late-modern English professional sport, especially professional football.

These are important developments in the new agendas for sports fan research, but in our view there is also a tendency toward nostalgia in some of these accounts, especially concerning British sport’s often exclusionary masculinist and cultish past. Moreover, relatively little attention has been focused here on the fan careers and normative experiences, over time, of female sports fans, perhaps because it is assumed that so few women challenged the male dominance of football in the 1950s – a Mass-Observation survey of British women in 1957 found that 79 percent agreed that “A woman’s place is in the home”, or perhaps because it is argued today that some women have been unfairly usurping some men in the late-modern sports stadium. Existing studies typically style women sports fans as dysfunctional sexual predators, subordinate subhooligans, or spectators negotiating historic forms of male sports opposition to their presence at sports events. Typically, female fans are stereotyped as lacking detailed knowledge about sport or their club and, consequently, are often considered as inauthentic in their support. Women often emerge here as incomplete ciphers, as decidedly nouveau consumers of sport, with no identifiable or authentic sporting histories. In short, they often appear as highly contingent and, at best, highly marginal ersatz new members of the national sporting community. Our contention is that an excavation of the sporting histories of long-term female football fans in England adds more balance to this typified depiction and also to the research agenda and cultural positioning, more generally, of active female sports spectators.

For instance, the historian James Walvin (1994) claims that from the 1950s onward, British women began to exert more control over how men spent their leisure time and money, thus inexorably drawing respectable married men away from active spectator sport. Fishwick (1989) also argued that English football had always encouraged men, collectively, to spend time away from women, and the trend toward more family-based leisure pursuits in Britain in the 1950s coincided with a major decline in English football attendances – aggregate League crowds fell by 11.25 million (around 30 percent) between 1949 and 1962. It is perhaps a telling aside that the role of women in English sport in this period is often measured by their alleged negative impact on male attendance rather than by any research-based accounts of the actual experiences of active female sports fans of the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s.

These golden years of English football are usually assumed to have ended in the early 1960s, when crowds start to decline quite rapidly. A popular marker here is when, after a bitter struggle between the sport’s employers and the footballer players’ union, the constraining maximum wage for football players in England was finally lifted in 1961. The term “golden age” often appears in popular and media accounts of the history of English football, and it is certainly clichéd. For example, both hooliganism and stadium safety were clearly underplayed in this period; English football fans were very poorly served by the responses of the authorities to routine instances of the dangers of overcrowding, and they suffered inadequate and badly resourced fan provision as a result. But this label also seems surprisingly appropriate here, not least because of the obvious warmth with which this period is often recalled by older female football fans. Most football players in England at this time still earned plausibly ordinary wages compared to the employed mainstream in Britain, and they mixed regularly and relatively easily with local supporters, partially as a result of this fact. In this sense, professional football players of the time in England were clearly and definitively “class located,” in Critcher’s (1979) terms. In the late 1940s and for much of the 1950s in Britain, mass car ownership, home-based leisure, the new consumerism, and organized fan hooliganism all lay in English football’s uncertain future. The English football professional of the 1950s was a sporting hero known largely to, and embraced by, his local communities for both his character and loyalty; the football player as a truly national or global celebrity, a sports and media star identified mainly by other, more transient, attributes, was generally yet to emerge.

Liverpool fans at Euston Station, London, 1st May 1965. They are on their way to see their team play Leeds United in the FA Cup final at Wembley. A woman (centre) is holding a copy of the Evening Standard newspaper with the headline 'Liverpool trying for cup double'. Liverpool later won the final 2-1. (Photo by Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Liverpool fans at Euston Station, London, 1st May 1965, on their way to see their team play Leeds United in the FA Cup final at Wembley. Liverpool won 2-1.

English football and a sense of well-being: “It was safe”
Fishwick (1989) describes how Football Association (FA) records show there were only 22 cases of football crowd trouble demanding FA consideration in the years 1948 and 1949, when Football League attendance peaked in England. It is also remarkable that so many millions of people entered what were clearly unpleasant and even dangerous environments each week – crowded post-war football stadia – and yet the vast majority returned unscathed. Moreover, older female football fans describe their relative lack of fear of attending during this period, with some attributing this, on reflection, either to youthful indifference to potential danger – “When you’re young, you don’t care” – or the idea that any risks involved were acceptable – “All part of the afternoon, the entertainment”. If women (or other fans) ever needed assistance at football matches during this period, they were also protected by the much-mythologized and eponymous postwar British bobby (police officer):

“It was safe; there was none of this aggression. We didn’t have loads of police, just didn’t have that, no nastiness, none at all…[But] obviously if you did anything wrong, they’d [the crowd] get the bobby to come and see to you. And everybody was frightened of policemen. Now they’re not the least bit [frightened]”.

This is an idealized picture, of course. But the police presence at football matches – or the relative lack of it – only served to reinforce the notion that, in the main, 1950s English football grounds were regarded as safe spaces for both men and women. For example, one female fan remembers the “good times” of attending matches in the years from 1949 with a certain nostalgia when the “policeman would take off his helmet, so you could see [the match].” This is perhaps an especially powerful image, strongly signifying the pre-hooligan period of relative crowd harmony – though other accounts clearly suggest that male supporter violence was already a subterranean feature of postwar English football culture.

A range of positive terms or phrases were used by female fans to describe their early football experiences, implicitly making comparisons with a more fractious, less tolerant, present: a “friendly atmosphere”; “You never saw any trouble” or heard “bad language”; one never felt “scared,” “intimidated,” or “afraid”. Johnes and Mellor (2006), similarly, argue that a real sense of national cohesion and togetherness developed around the shared experiences of spectator sport in Britain following the recent privations of World War II. A key moment here perhaps was the live television coverage of the coronation of a new young British queen in 1953 and the first mass TV audience for the so-called Stanley Matthews FA Cup final of the same year. Matthews, the heroic, deferential old England international forward, achieved a life’s ambition, to national acclaim, by helping his club Blackpool defeat Lancashire rivals Bolton 4–3 in a coruscating struggle. The early 1950s were also a period of relative national optimism in Britain, when its people assumed the nation would enjoy greater “social solidarity and attain global significance and glory thanks to the Commonwealth”. In football crowds, this was reflected in rather more prosaic terms:

“People were more careful about the way they treated each other. You didn’t rush along and knock people over, the atmosphere was sort of friendly…And people were more…well, I certainly didn’t see any sign of people being rude or aggressive”.

Hood and Joyce (1999) have tracked similar sentiments among men and women growing up in London working-class neighborhoods in both the 1930s and 1950s. Their subjects stressed that still-binding structures of family, community, and class solidarity seemed more important and more stable in these periods than they are today. Respondents in our own research seem to share similar ideas about supposed greater communal trust in others, a point perhaps best illustrated when one female fan described how large numbers of football supporters were happy to pay local residents threepence to look after their bikes while they watched the match.

This was also a period when generational relationships in public are remembered as being experienced rather differently than they are today. A number of respondents, for example, described how they witnessed children being passed down to the front of large football crowds in the early 1950s, over the heads of other crowd members – or how they experienced this themselves. There was little apparent fear that children might be abused, crushed, or lost in these potentially chaotic public contexts. There seems to have been relatively little public concern or panic expressed about relations between children and stranger adults in sports crowds. As one female fan recalls:

“I thought it was very exciting, I mean they were big crowds in those days. I’ve been down at one time at half past seven in the morning to get on the wall for a cup match […]. We were there early, but if I wasn’t you were passed down. If you wanted to go [to the] toilet you were passed up, coz they [the toilets] were at the back (laughs). You made friends and they’d save you a place on the wall, you know? They’d spread out”.

Social class relations also shaped the football stadium crowd, of course. One female fan recalled how, in this period, stadium seating was assumed to be for “the hierarchy”; only a relatively small part of the stadium capacity was made up of seats, and this was where the higher classes, club directors, and shareholders sat – the “posh people”, in other words. Thus, perhaps a more strongly shared class identity added to this greater community spirit and a greater sense of common purpose and solidarity at the stadium, and indeed, to stronger feelings of collective solidarity in British society more generally.

This generally friendly match day climate at post-war English football would be challenged, of course, by developments among young male supporters in later decades. Walvin (2001, 156), for example, notes that by the end of the 1960s, fan behavior at football in England was being discussed as a rising social problem, and more serious incidents soon pitched rival groups of male hooligans against each other. Women’s experiences at football stadia in the 1970s and 1980s were certainly different from those in the earlier golden age. One female fan, for example, described how her dad first took her to watch Reading Football Club when she was 13 years old, and she continued to attend matches throughout the 1950s and 1960s, before moving to Leicester in the 1970s. Here, experience of male fan violence meant she would soon resort to watching sport on television:

“Going home after the match there would be really running street battles almost with crowds like surging forward, and things being thrown […]. I was frightened of a bottle on the back of the head really you know, stuff was being lobbed about the streets, it was really quite awful […]. I never saw any of that when I was a child certainly…you just mixed in you know? It didn’t matter who […]. I thought well why am I putting myself through this? Being frightened to go somewhere…And I just stopped going”.

Other respondents who continued to attend during this period also recalled instances when they were fearful for their own safety. This fan violence would indeed represent the end for some of the modernist optimism and collective solidarities at sport of the golden age.

Styles of support: “Everybody was in tune”
Exactly how did women support their sports clubs during this period? Some sense of the carnivalesque and a rejection of the banality and anonymity of everyday life are clearly apparent. Turbin (2003, 45) argues that dress is highly gendered and that clothing gives both shape and meaning to the bodies of men and women. Dress is inherently both public and private, as “an individual’s outwardly presented signs of internal or private meaning are significant only when they are also social, that is comprehensible on some level to observers.” Some of our respondents discussed their own match day football costumes, outfits they had made or purchased especially for this purpose. These seemed to be important for individual (private) identities and for exhibiting a public face for their fandom. For example, one female fan described her public parading of Leicester City’s blue and white colors for the 1949 FA Cup final while traveling with a female friend:

“We were teenagers and we dressed alike…And we had this whitish coat with a belt round. We had royal blue trousers […] and we had head scarves, I had them made on the market […]. We thought it was very smart…and, you know, the thing of the moment. We were—we’re somebody; we’re on the bus and we’re going to Wembley”.

FA Cup Finals – the culmination of the English football season and the most historically important domestic knockout football tournament in the world – were very special community occasions in this era, a welcome opportunity for the demonstration of local female craft and for ostentatious public display in a generally gray public arena. The FA Cup seemed to demand more expressive forms of local support, and we can perhaps speculate that this opportunity for public display may have been even more important to female fans. This was an era before the mass production of football replica kits and goods, so outfits were original – individualized and designed by fans. One female fan described how she prepared her costume for weeks prior to the final, and that she would even wear her outfit to work to seek the approval and opinions of her colleagues. Dressing up for football may also have been a way of seeking male fan approval, a publicly legitimated way for females to express both their (hetero)sexuality and their support and club and civic loyalty. One female fan remembers receiving compliments for her final costume from the male fan group she stood alongside at matches. One female fan, and three other young women from Leicester, wore their outfits to all home and away matches, including the 1963 FA Cup final:

“We’d be the only girls on the train. Oh, it used to be fabulous (laughs). We used to have white skirts, royal blue tops, white shoes…I mean, white shoes to a football match! But that’s how it was (laughs). [And] blue and white scarves…we all wore the same hair; hair all up here. We must have looked a sight!”

“Did you get much attention from men then?”

“Oh yes, yes! Wonderful! (laughs)”

The image of the English football stadium of the 1940s and 1950s as a safe – if highly masculinized – public space was expressed very strongly by those who confirmed that women were a distinct minority at matches in these early postwar years. But some female attendees also found the sheer numbers and habits of men intimidating. For instance, one female fan went to one football match as a child but then was deterred from attending by the large numbers of men present who were smoking; she did not return to the stadium until the late 1990s. This oppressive, smoky atmosphere was mentioned by other older female fans. Of the 11 older fans who regularly attended matches during these years, a number attended at some stage (usually as teenagers) in all-female groups.

_0480 Crowd, Nottingham Forest at Aston Villa,England year1991 by Stuart Roy Clarke
Nottingham Forest fans at Aston Villa 1991

Some conclusions
Richard Holt (1992) has suggested that English football is rooted in working-class traditions of collective endeavor. Playing football provided male factory workers of the 19th and 20th centuries with a sense of release, belonging, and solidarity. The capacity to work hard, take punishment, and play your role in the team—all features of manual work—were the qualities the working-class male sports crowd most admired.

Thus, the male working classes in England identified strongly with football because it seemed to reflect a working-class experience back to them. The division of labor within a team could be compared to the “specialization of skills that went into the production of iron and steel or, perhaps more appropriately, the manufacturing of machinery”. Our own interviewees—like those of Phelps (2001)—also confirm that the key qualities admired in players of this period included a sense of fair play and a gentlemen’s reputation for being reserved; for showing courage, and exhibiting heroic forms of traditional working-class loyalty and toughness. Thus, it seems that female fans also identified strongly with traits more typically associated with English identity and masculinity. While some of our female fans recalled identifying strongly with individual players, there was little room in supporters’ affections—male or female—for fancy Dans or faint hearts. In many ways, such sentiments endure in England today.

In more recent times, it can be contested that women have a slightly more respected role as fans in the game. It has been suggested that football fandom in England (following the changes in the sport after 1989) has become more “feminized”. Changes such as the introduction of all-seater stadia contributed to the so-called post-hooligan era in football in England, producing a safer and more civilized environment at matches. This may have led to some female (and male) fans returning to the sport or being newly recruited as fans – recent surveys have shown that the average number of female fans at Premier League matches has steadily increased, and is now around 15 percent of all fans. Yet rather than offering a serious discussion of women as knowledgeable, committed fans, the research focus in football often remains on women in subordinate or sexualized roles or both. For writers such as Clayton and Harris (2004), this might be seen as an encouraging sign of the postmodern era in the sense that women are visible at all in the sporting culture, but there is clearly a long way to go if women’s role in football, as fans, players, administrators, officials, and so on, is to be taken seriously.

Our findings here offer but a brief historical snapshot of women’s experiences of English football’s golden age. We have concentrated on their perceptions of football crowds, on styles of female support, on local identities framed through sport, and on their relations with, and perceptions of, football players from the late 1940s to the early 1960s. We contend that women fans have been largely ignored by male sociologists and historians in their accounts of the cultural and social significance and meaning of football. The oral history research presented here can make some claims to try to “retrieve” the experiences of women fans in this context and to explore, in some greater depth, the various ways in which women once connected with the sport in both its production and consumption. This was before wider social changes from the late 1960s onward—including male fan hooliganism—began to offer new challenges to the role of women as active fans at English football matches.


Stacey Pope (Department of PE and Sports Studies, University of Bedfordshire)
John Williams (Department of Sociology, University of Leicester)


Read the full text here (including references): http://journal.transformativeworks.org/index.php/twc/article/view/230/204
Colour photo courtesy: Stuart Roy Clarke

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