On Sunday 25 September 2016 Manchester City Women defeated Chelsea Ladies 2-0 to win the Women’s Super League (WSL) for the first time. It was a fantastic achievement, coming only two years after the club had joined the WSL.
As with the resurgence of the Manchester City men’s team in recent years, the club’s trophy challenge has brought discussion and debate about the club’s history, with some suggesting MCWFC had only been established in 2014. It, therefore, feels the right moment to document the history of the female Blues, to enable proper historical context to be recognised.
The City Ladies team has a long and distinguished history, and was established as a Manchester City initiative via their City In The Community (CITC) programme in 1988. At that time Neil Mather, working for CITC, organised a women only tournament based on similar competitions they had organised for local businesses. After the success of the women’s tournament, Neil formally suggested the setting up of a women’s team under the control of CITC and approval was given by the Manchester City senior management.
Various appeals and practice sessions occurred, with 33 women and girls at the first session and 70 turning up for the second in November 1988. The club, delighted with the interest generated, organised its inaugural game to take place at Boundary Park against Oldham Athletic Ladies on 27 November 1988. The first goal scorer was Donna Haynes, who also scored City’s third in a 4-1 victory, while former Redstar midfielder Heidi Ward also netted twice. The team comprised of a number of experienced players and many were well known in women’s football at the time after playing regularly for existing North West Women’s Regional Football League sides such as Chorley, Redstar, Wigan and Woodley Ladies. Others were relative novices, attracted to the team due to their support of the City men’s side.
The progress of the team was reported in almost every issue of the MCFC match programme during the 1988-89 season, with Neil Mather, his coaching team and the players themselves, working tirelessly to promote the club and women’s football in general. Neil met with the women’s FA, at the time based in Manchester’s Corn Exchange, and they were supportive, helping the club join the North West League – at that time the most senior tournament available in the region – where they faced other significant sides, such as Manchester United and Leasowe, which became Everton Ladies in the mid-90s.
The first women’s Manchester derby took place in 1990 and was watched by an impressive crowd of 150 – a far cry from the record 4,096 who saw their title winning game in 2016 but still a significant figure for 1990. The Blues raced to a 4-1 lead with goals from Taylor, Newton, O’Shaughnessy and Peters. Ward hit the woodwork, which would have made it 5-1, but a fightback from the Reds in the final minutes resulted in them pulling back a couple of goals to make it a 4-3 City win. Sadly, Manchester United no longer have a women’s team, although their offshoot FC United have introduced one.
In 1989-90, under the title Manchester City Ladies Football Club, the women’s side joined the North West League Second Division and competed in the FA Cup, ending their first league campaign fourth and narrowly missing promotion. The following season manager Neil Mather was supported by coach Godfrey Williams, a former Oldham & Accrington Stanley footballer. By that time, they were perceived as a leading club, and gained promotion to the North West’s top division in 1990-91 – the highest League available at the time. They had also established a reserve side by this point.
The women’s FA were extremely supportive and Linda Whitehead, WFA secretary, publicly praised the club in 1990: “Manchester City, one of the first professional Football League clubs to form a women’s team and affiliate to the WFA, have worked hard over the last 18 months to promote the club and women’s football and we are extremely grateful for their support.”
It is worth noting that by January 1990 14 Football League clubs had set up women’s teams affiliated to the WFA, and back in 1988 some reports claimed City were the fourth team, after Millwall, Bradford and Hull, to set up a female team. This point is often forgotten today when some in the game talk of the history and heritage of more successful clubs.
The club participated in tournaments, including one at another relatively new club, Arsenal Ladies, and Neil Mather organised friendly games, often tied in with the male first team fixtures such as against Brentford prior to a City FA Cup tie there and against Bradford City on the morning of City’s promotion game in 1989.
City Ladies were viewed positively by CITC and the main club at the time, playing and training at City’s Platt Lane training complex (nowadays a facility utilised by Manchester FA and Manchester Metropolitan University), although they later found a more suitable venue for league games. The parent club provided kit, and first team star and Scottish international Colin Hendry became the women’s club’s president in March 1990 after watching the side defeat the leading side in the region, St. Helens, 3-1 in a cup competition. At the time, Hendry commented: “I hope that by becoming president it will encourage more publicity for women’s football.” Former City and Burnley midfielder Kevin Glendon was the club’s first secretary, followed by goalkeeper Alex Williams in 1990.
Articles appeared in the programme and in newspapers, and the team was used to demonstrate how football clubs were moving away from their 1970s/80s image of a male dominated environment, leading to an appearance on the Granada TV documentary series World In Action and on the Saturday morning kids programme the Wide Awake Club. That feature included interviews with spectators and the players and was used to encourage girls and young women to take up the game.
Like most women’s clubs of that era, the team was supported at each match by a dedicated group of supporters that included parents, husbands, partners, children and friends. Leading striker Donna Haynes commented in 1990: “My boyfriend never misses a game. I want to get to the top and he supports me. Women can be just as good as men, and we can’t wait to prove it.” That year two of the club’s players, Joni Davies and Rachel O’Shaughnessy, were selected for the Welsh squad.
Despite the positivity of the initial few seasons, the women’s team suffered a number of setbacks in the mid-1990s. The parent club was struggling itself at this point and only the dedication of a number of women and supporting figures kept the club alive. Of the original squad, Rhoda Taylor and Lesley Wright remained involved for several years.
Now, after a relaunch as Manchester City Women’s Football Club in 2014, the team has finally achieved national League success. It may not have an illustrious history of success like Arsenal possesses but in the late 1980s, it was established as a contemporary of the famous London club at a time when few leading male clubs had connections with the women’s game. Like the City men’s team, the 1990s and 2000s saw many setbacks for City’s women’s team, but at least it survived, following a more organic root than many people believe.
Photographs supplied by Neil Mather, Gary James and Heidi Ward