On Sunday, the Women’s FA Cup celebrates the 50th anniversary of its first final won by Southampton Women’s FC. Since 2015, the showpiece occasion, like the men’s FA Cup final has been played at Wembley Stadium drawing five-figure attendances but its early years are little-known or celebrated.
To rectify this, Chris Slegg, a renowned BBC journalist, together with his former colleague Patricia Gregory have come together to collate a new book out today, A History Of The Women’s FA Cup Final, to rediscover the lost history of the competition. Speaking to me about the book, Slegg told me “if you’re a soccer fan you kind of know that Ian Rush is the record scorer in men’s FA Cup finals with five goals, you know that Ashley Cole has won a record seven FA Cup finals and those women’s achievements mean just as much. They’ve just kind of been overlooked or not really properly recorded. Now having brought this book out and put all the information together, we’ve been able to finally confirm players who hold those records. I feel really, really proud of that.”
Slegg, who has also co-authored The Women’s Football Yearbook, had initially hoped to include his Women’s FA Cup research within that, but soon realized that the material was worthy of a publication in its own right. “The history’s just as rich, and in many ways it’s even more fascinating because it’s unexplored and it’s not just the soccer stories it’s the hurdles they have to overcome just to take to the pitch. I don’t want the book to be all about that, I don’t think women’s sport coverage should just be all about discussions about gender equality but you cannot ignore it. Women were banned from playing soccer for 50 years and that’s just astonishing.”
In the late sixties, Gregory was at the forefront of the battle to overturn the ban on women’s soccer in England imposed by the Football Association (FA) in 1921. She helped form the independent Women’s Football Association (WFA) on November 1, 1969. Within a year, The FA, under pressure from the European governing body, UEFA, first wrote to the WFA pledging to rescind its ban on staging women’s soccer matches in the stadiums of its member clubs.
Meanwhile, the WFA had inaugurated its own Cup competition, initially called the Mitre Challenge Trophy, in 1970. 71 teams from England, Scotland and Wales entered, with the first match reportedly taking place on November 1 between Leicester City Supporters LFC and the Wandering Angels from Lichfield. Scottish club Stewarton Thistle (now Kilmarnock WFC) reached the final played at the Crystal Palace National Sports Center where they took on Southampton Women. Pat Davies scored a hat-trick as the English side won 4-1, Southampton went on to win eight of the first eleven finals, a record that stood until 2008 when Arsenal won the ninth of their fourteen FA Cup titles.
As well as Davies, Slegg spoke to Sue Buckett, Southampton’s goalkeeper in that first final. One of three women shortlisted to start in goal because they also played netball, Buckett was selected as she was the tallest. With no previous goalkeeping experience, she taught herself with the aid of a manual created by Arsenal’s Bob Wilson, who himself would win the men’s FA Cup final the day before the first women’s final. Buckett went on to play in another ten Women’s FA Cup finals, saving two penalties and even being named as a substitute in the 1999 final at the age of 54.
Extensive research by Slegg will, for the first time, detail every goal scorer in the 50 matches from 1971 and reveals who holds the record for scoring most times in the final. “We had to go through all the old WFA newsletters, newspaper archives and view all the footage we could find”, explained Slegg. “Once we had confirmed every scorer, we could finally acknowledge that Pat Chapman definitely holds the record with ten goals in Women’s FA Cup finals.”
Chapman first played in the 1973 final for Southampton Women as a 16-year-old and went on to score ten goals including an astonishing six (another record) in their 8-2 victory over Queen’s Park Rangers in 1978. Slegg presented Chapman with a special Golden Boot to mark her achievement. Now in her sixties, she admitted that “I’m really proud of the record and I am really proud of what all the players of my generation went through to put women’s soccer on the map. I have some incredible memories of playing in the FA Cup final and it is tremendous to see what the competition has become today with finals at Wembley in front of big crowds.”
In 1971, the match did not merit any coverage in the newspapers of the time. Slegg told me “the players’ recollection was that the result was read out on the BBC News, and that was all. A magazine called Goal carried a picture spread. Other than that, there wasn’t really any coverage. In the years beyond that, you would get brief highlights shown before the men’s Cup final in the late seventies. A Saturday morning series Swap Shop filmed a piece on the 1979 final. 1989 was a breakthrough moment – the first highlights program was shown on Channel Four.”
It was not until 2002 that the Women’s FA Cup final was broadcast live on the BBC. Slegg, who a year later was part of the production team covering the game, believes showing the game live was the biggest step forward in recognition for the competition. “Mary Phillip (who played for Fulham in that final) has said to me how big a deal that was. People started coming up to her, and fellow players, in supermarkets, on the street and actually recognized them. There was a television audience of about 2 million. If you put soccer on TV, people watch it. I think that was a massive moment actually, that game being live on BBC One.”
Thirteen years later, on the back of England’s third-place finish at the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup, The FA finally decided that the final should be played for the first time at the National Stadium at Wembley, which was originally built to stage the men’s FA Cup final in 1923. “You look back now, there were players banging the drum for that for years. Managers like Vic Akers of Arsenal, Keith Boanas of Chalrton saying “Look, we got almost 25,000 at Nottingham’s City Ground in 2007 and 2008, why is this not at Wembley?” It still took a good few more years, until 2015 for that moment.” In 2018, a record attendance of 45,423 saw Chelsea defeat Arsenal.
Manchester City have won three of the last four finals led by England captain Steph Houghton and despite all her achievements in the game, Slegg believes winning the Women’s FA Cup remains special to this generation of players. “Houghton said the thing about the FA Cup final is the family feel, it’s about sharing a moment with fans, some of the families coming down and staying as well and knowing that everything rides on that day. You don’t get that throughout a league campaign. I really think Cup soccer is a much easier way to entice young people into the game. I think the FA Cup can actually be a more powerful tool to spread women’s soccer than the Women’s Super League.”
Last September, The FA announced that Vitality Health had become the competition’s sponsor for the next three years but despite this, the prize money offered to teams playing in the tournament remains paltry compared to entrants in the men’s competition. This season’s winners of the men’s FA Cup will earn £1.8 million ($2.5m) in prize money from The FA while their equivalent in the women’s game will receive only £25,000 ($34,680), less than the non-league teams who win their Second Round ties in the early part of the men’s competition.
While accepting that bridging such a financial disparity requires greater sponsorship and investment in the women’s game, Slegg believes it is a legitimate target in the continuing development of the competition. “I don’t think equal prize money is realistic in the short-term but neither do I think that it’s that outrageous a suggestion. Many people laugh at the idea if there’s any suggestion that women players should be paid the same for playing in the Women’s Super League as men in the Premier League. When it comes to the national team and when it comes to the FA Cup, it’s certainly harder to argue why there shouldn’t be equality there.”
For the time being, Slegg hopes that his book will be a starting point for research into the history of the competition. “It still is not complete. We still cannot confirm starting line-ups because match programs are printed before games take place but we are certainly the most accurate, comprehensive record there has ever been regarding the Women’s FA Cup Final and I hope other people can add little bits of information that we can update, amend and correct for future editions.”