22 May 2023

Women's football pioneer Patricia Gregory

From Nine To Noon, 10:05 am on 22 May 2023

Women's football is one of the fastest growing sports in the world, reaching new heights in spectator and player numbers.

The English Lionesses won the Euros in 2022 capturing the English public’s imagination in a final which broke records for the number of spectators.

The next women's World Cup will be played in New Zealand and Australia, starting in July, and will be the biggest yet.

None of this might have happened if not for the pioneering efforts of Patricia Gregory.

Leah Williamson

Leah Williamson Photo: Photosport

Gregory was 19 and watching the Tottenham Hotspur team bring back the FA Cup to north London after winning the final with her father when she began to wonder why women didn't play football.

It was something she wanted to set right. In 1969, the Women's Football Association was formed, and Gregory was a founding member and its first assistant secretary.

She went on to have a number of high ranking roles with the association. During that time she also witnessed the end of a 50 year ban on women playing at Football Association controlled grounds.

After seeing Spurs parade the trophy, she wrote to the local paper.

“Which they published, with my photograph, and then surprise, surprise girls wrote to me and said, I want to join your team.

“And of course, I didn't have a team. But we met in my parents’ front room. And this was despite my father really not thinking that women should be involved in football in any way. But he didn't oppose it.

“And we resolved to form a team, which we did.”

Gregory then set about finding facilities and a pitch to play on.

“The first thing I did as chairman was to call the local council to get some facilities, a training pitch. And they said, No, you can't have them.”

A 1921 FA ruling banned women from playing on pitches under their control, she says.  

“I didn't have a pitch. I didn't have training facilities. A local men's team offered us the opportunity to train at their training facilities. But I still didn't have a pitch.

“So, I advertised in a soccer magazine for opponents. And of course, the only opponents I got were men's and boys’ teams. So, we travelled around London to play matches. “

But her advert was seen by a man called Arthur Hobbs.

“Arthur is very important in the history of English women's football. In that he was running a competition for eight teams. This is 1967, he was running a competition for eight teams in Kent, which is south of London.

“And we went down to see them, and it was through that competition which ran for a number of years that we met other women's teams, formed leagues, and ultimately the Women's Football Association, which had its first meeting 1 November 1969.”

From there things started to grow.

“More and more teams started, I started with others the South East of England league in ‘69.”

A National Cup competition was established and England women played their first international in 1972.

“That was played in Scotland. We couldn't do anything else. We couldn't afford to go any further afield. But the Scots wanted to play us, so we did.”

The women’s game started to get a little bit of TV attention in the 1970s, she says.

The BBC had a flagship Saturday afternoon program called Grandstand. They had highlights of our cup final, as early as I would say 1975/1976 - just highlights.”

In 1993 the WFA came to the end of the line, she says.

“We had gone as far as we could, we've got no money, we've got no prospect of any money to invest in the sport as it needed to have.

Wellington Phoenix celebrate a goal to Michaela Robertson during the women's A-League 1-1 draw with Western Sydney.

Wellington Phoenix celebrate a goal to Michaela Robertson during the women's A-League 1-1 draw with Western Sydney. Photo: Photosport

“So that was ‘93 that we handed everything over the Women's Super League. I can't remember a date when that came into being in England, but it was many years later.”

The success of the England Lionesses has been a game changer, Gregory says.

“I mean I think they won everything that was going last year, the Lionesses, because don't forget, England, the men hadn't won anything since 1966.

“It was particularly nice for me, because even a year ahead, I said on a radio interview in Britain, that I thought the women would bring home a trophy before the men. And I said it also on the Today Programme, the Thursday before the final, and lo and behold, I was right. I had no real knowledge of that. I just hoped.”

She believes holding the World Cup in the southern hemisphere will be a boost for the sport in Australia and New Zealand.

“It's a sport that should not be compared to the men. It doesn't need to be compared to the men, because it can stand on its own.

“That's how it should be celebrated. And I'm sure bringing it to the southern hemisphere, will do a lot. I'm not sure that New Zealand will do so much, but we never know.

"Australia, of course, beat England quite recently. And that will be good for the English because they'd had a long run of success. So at least they know they can be beat.”

She thinks the mighty US team have passed their peak.

“I'm not convinced that the Americans are going to win again.”

She remembers visiting Japan when the women’s game there was in its infancy.

“In 1981 I was invited to take the England team to Japan. And I was also asked, European women's football was predominant, to take two of the other better sides. And so we took Italy and Denmark with us.

“It was all funded by Japan. And the Japanese FA did this because they were looking forward, giving their national team, their very young national team experience of good teams. And what did they do in 2011? They won the World Cup.

“So, you and Australia may not win this time. But looking forward, it's all a progression.”