Lesley Lloyd played football not merely for freedom but for fun. “It was about fighting for what we believed was right," sy sê. “I’m proud of what we did.” Lloyd is reflecting on the events of 50 years ago when, as captain of Southampton Ladies, she led her team to victory in the first Women’s FA Cup final. That 4-1 triumph over Scotland’s Stewarton Thistle at Crystal Palace National Sports Centre in May 1971 was much more than just another match; it marked a watershed moment in the game’s history.
Aan 5 Desember 1921 the English Football Association had declared the game to be “quite unsuitable for females” before barring women from playing on grounds belonging to affiliated men’s clubs. With its Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish counterparts swiftly following suit, the ban stood for half a century and was not lifted until 1970 when the dawn of enlightenment coincided with the start of a slow-burn revolution; not to mention one of the highlights of Lloyd’s life.
“We were at the front," sy sê, sipping coffee from a Southampton FC mug at her home on the south coast. “It’s a privilege and an honour to have been the first ladies team to have won the FA Cup. It’s something you dreamed of and no one can take away from you.”
On Sunday Lloyd, nou 73, will be a 50th-anniversary guest of honour at Wembley when Arsenal face Chelsea in an evocative Women’s FA Cup final staged 100 years to the day from the ban’s imposition. Before kick-off she will join Elsie Cook, the former Stewarton Thistle captain, in walking on to the pitch and placing the trophy on a plinth. Both women are expected to receive considerable applause for the part they played in putting women’s football back on the map after five decades on the margins.
“The way the game has progressed is just brilliant,” says Lloyd. “Before the ban was lifted, the only place we could play was on a local common so Crystal Palace was like Wembley to us. There were no real facilities on the common. We had a hosepipe to hose our muddy boots down and a sort of hut we got changed in but that was it. There was a pond nearby and quite a few balls ended up in it. I was a midfielder, a No 8, so I ran all over the pitch and, if there was a mud bath, I fell into it.”
In those days, Southampton paid to play football, with their squad of secretaries, trainee solicitors, schoolgirls and council workers chipping into a central fund to cover petrol, kit, food and coach hire. “We paid for everything ourselves but the one thing we have in common with the players today is that we were very competitive,” says Lloyd, then a finance worker. “We only trained about twice a week but we played as hard as they will on Sunday, believe me. I know some of our players still have scars on their legs.
“But the skill level and the fitness level is so much higher now; we were fit for our time but we wouldn’t have lasted five minutes against today’s players. I just wish I was 50 years younger and had access to all the facilities available now.”
Today’s nutritionists would certainly have raised an eyebrow at Lloyd’s pre-match meals on Cup final day. “We got to Crystal Palace too early in the car,” she recalls. “So we went and had a cup of coffee and a cake. Then we had lunch and I remember eating cheese and pickle sandwiches.”
Although she was cheered on by her husband, Graham, and her parents at Crystal Palace – where the groundsman had “forgotten” to cut the grass – there was no public party in Southampton afterwards. “There wasn’t really a celebration, it was all very low key,” Lloyd recalls. “But there were a lot of people watching at Crystal Palace, a real sense of occasion and it was mentioned on the news that evening. There was nothing in the national newspapers, though.”
It felt an entirely different world from 1920 wanneer, shortly before the music stopped and the 100-year ban began, the internationally acclaimed team of Preston factory workers known as Dick, Kerr’s Ladies attracted a crowd of 53,000 to Everton’s Goodison Park for a match against St Helens Ladies, with a further 14,000 locked outside.
The ensuing five decades of injustice explain why Norman Holloway, Southampton’s manager in 1971, swiftly stopped fretting about the unacceptably long grass at Crystal Palace and instead focused his team talk on the bigger picture. Southampton’s captain clearly remembers him telling the team that, as the inaugural FA Cup winners, they would not only make history but remain an enduring part of it.
“We were quite defiant back then,” says Lloyd, who retired a few years later in order to concentrate on raising her two children. “We wondered why we couldn’t have this and that, why football was still a man’s domain but I never dreamed the women’s game would come so far.
“It’s taken time but I think the 2015 World Cup in Canada, wanneer England reached the semi-finals, was a very big turning point in capturing people’s imaginations and the game’s just brilliant now. I only wish I wasn’t 50 years too old and could be playing on Sunday.”
Fans can still purchase tickets for the Vitality Women’s FA Cup final by visiting ticketing.theFA.com, from £20 for adults and £2.50 for children.