Since the 31st of July 2022, women’s football in the UK has seen a huge increase in popularity and continues to grow exponentially.
This surge of interest is due in no small part, to England‘s victory in the Euro 2022 Final, where Serena Wiegman’s Lionesses saw off the challenge of the Germans to record their first major trophy win of the modern era.
However, long before that night at Wembley Stadium, the foundations were laid by women who ignored the FA’s egregious ban on women’s football.
Yes, you read that correctly, the FA really did ban women from playing football.
It seems incredible now but it was a stark reality for football’s ladies living in a misogynistic world governed by men.
On the 5th of December 1921, the Football Association banned women from playing on FA-affiliated pitches which meant they could no longer play at stadiums with spectator facilities.
At the time an FA spokesman said “The game of football is quite unsuitable for females and ought not to be encouraged”.
Thankfully, common sense was eventually restored and in 1971, the ban was lifted. This paved the way for the pioneers of the day to start the long road towards that incredible night at Wembley Stadium fifty-one years later.
One of those pioneers is our guest in the hot seat for this, the fourth interview from Hoppers Guide.
For many years, Carol Thomas was a huge figure in the women’s game. She was the second-ever England captain and the first lady to captain England on fifty occasions.
So, let’s allow Carol to introduce herself in her own words, as we get to know the lady behind the legend.
This interview took the form of a series of written questions and answers via email and this is the transcript of that process.
Hoppers Guide: First of all, for those who know nothing about Carol Thomas, please tell us a little about yourself and your career.
Carol Thomas: Ooo, Carol Thomas. She’s a shy, quiet, northern girl from Hull. I’m one of four brothers and sisters from a loving family, with our Mum and Dad being absolute role models for us all.
I’ve been married to my husband Alan for some forty-four years and we have two sons and two grandsons.
I will be the first to say that I am not an academic but I like to think I have oodles of common sense and practical strengths. I’m definitely sporty and have been from the day I could walk when my dad put a ball at my feet. I followed my dad’s football team, consisting of seven or eight members of the McCune family, from the age of two or three.
When England won the World Cup in ’66, I knew what I wanted to do. So, I joined a team of women twice my age or older, from BOCM (British Oil & Cake Mills Ltd), and the rest, as they say, is history.
After school, I worked for Northern Foods, who were fantastic in supporting my footballing career, in the offices doing mainly clerical work.
HG: Which people have been your biggest inspirations in life?
Carol: Without a doubt, Mum and Dad were my biggest influences. They taught me the important things in life, love, loyalty and the value of family and friends.
Obviously, since 1975, the man of my life, Alan, has been an absolute rock and tower of strength in supporting every move I have taken in my footballing career and beyond. Even in the early days, when women playing football was openly laughed at.
HG: What are your passions away from football?
Carol: In my younger days, I played a lot of badminton, to quite a high level, but nowadays it’s simply described as all things high places, ie. the mountains. I love walking, trekking and climbing (not so much nowadays as time and age has blessed me with vertigo, (Good, this getting old business, ain’t it? Lol) in the Lake District, the Scottish Highlands. I have been lucky to trek in the Andes, Nepal, North Africa and the Indian Himalayas, climbing five mountains there and many of the highest passes in the world.
HG: Which people have been your biggest inspirations in football?
Carol: Oh that would be an encyclopaedia-sized volume if I mentioned everyone. I will narrow it down to ones that were there at the critical points of my career and so helped me on my path in life.
A) My Mum and Dad. They were there at the very start and Dad took me everywhere to watch him, his brothers and cousins, to watch their side playing in the Hull leagues.
B) Flo Bilton, the woman who spotted me in the late ’60s and took me under her wing. Flo was a force of nature, setting up the Hull Ladies League in the 1960’s, despite the male-imposed ban of 1921.
C) Tommy Tranter, my first England manager. I met him on the first FA coaching course for women and I like to think we hit it off immediately. We saw the game in exactly the same way, despite me being a shy 19-year-old.
D) Martin Reagan, my second England manager. An absolute gentleman who I never once heard swearing. This was despite him being a World War Two tank commander, leading his men into significant battles across Europe. Under that soft exterior was a man of absolute granite. He taught me about winning, and more importantly, about not losing.
E) Pete Sissons, coach at Hull City in the 1970s/’80s. Late in the seventies, I struggled to find competition that would push and test me to my limits. A long story short, he was able to get permission for me to train with the Minors/Juniors (u16s to u19s – ie. boys/men at the cusp of potential professional contracts, for example, Andy Flounders, Rob Palmer and several others) twice a week. I trained alongside these future professionals on an equal basis with no holds barred. He changed my approach to football. I was extremely fit, so much faster in pace and speed of thought and technically vastly improved.
F) Alan. What can I say, fan, avid supporter, mentor, physio, trainer, coach, manager, sports scientist, financier, logistics manager, PA, etc. You name it, he’s done it all, never questioning, never complaining (much), always in my shadow. Without him, I don’t know what I would have turned out like.
HG: Your first game of proper football was in the Hull Women’s League at the age of just 11. What do you remember of that occasion and how did the opposition treat you?
Carol: I cannot remember much, but I do know that when England won the World Cup in 1966, I went to a neighbour who played football for a women’s team, BOCM Ladies, and asked if I could play for them. A brave thing for an eleven-year-old to do, but I was determined to play football.
Whilst I don’t remember anything about the game, the BOCM girls were fantastic and looked after me. The opposition must have been friendly and didn’t take advantage as I enjoyed it and was back the following week to play again.
HG: What did your parents think about you playing in women’s league football at such a young age? Did they worry for your safety, or support you?
Carol: Obviously, they must have had concerns, a young eleven-year-old playing against grown women, but you must remember the era. Health and safety hadn’t been invented then, lol, age groups? – again what was all that about?!
They came to watch and when they couldn’t, the BOCM girls would look after me. My parents never questioned why I wanted to play football. We were a sporting family and they saw it as their daughter being active.
HG: What was it like to play in women’s football when you first started out compared to when you retired?
Carol: In 1966, there was no coaching and no team structure. It was just eleven or twelve women turning up to kick a ball about. If you were fast you were a forward, if you were slow, you were a defender and you took it in turns to be the reserve on the touchline. There were no substitutes in those days.
Luckily, in Hull, we could play on Work’s grounds, so the FA ban didn’t really affect us. Plus the quality of those pitches was a lot better than local council park pitches.
By 1985, it was totally different. Men could get involved without fear of an FA ban, so more structure came into the game. Even better, more women coaches and managers were emerging. For example, my manager/coach at Rowntree’s was Pat Firth, an ex-England international who went on to work with the Welsh FA.
HG: Most people probably don’t realise that women’s football was banned in the UK until 1971. The FA didn’t officially take over the sport until much later. Do you have any ill will towards the attitudes of those days that potentially cost you a lot more fame and recognition?
Carol: Not really, as I see it as a double-edged sword.
I really regret never playing at Wembley, especially in that 1984 Euro Final. Instead, for that game, we had to make do with the Kenilworth Bog, Luton Town, much as it was greatly appreciated at the time. I would have loved to play there just once.
Also, the lack of real commitment and financial contribution to playing was disappointing. It was genuinely a very different and less enlightened era. It cost myself and Alan thousands over the years to represent my country, even though as a young married couple we struggled to pay our mortgage.
On the other hand, the lack of media means no one knows just how good or bad I really was, lol. And I’m not sure if I would have enjoyed the media attention.
Would I do it all over again? Every single time, every single game, every single minute, it was a truly wonderful and humbling time of my life and I have no regrets.
HG: Last year, you were awarded the British Empire Medal to recognise your impact on the game. How did you feel about that?
Carol: Oh, it was one of those ‘Wow!’ moments in life. I still have to pinch myself. Also, that award list is a very select group as I was nominated by the late Queen and awarded by the new King.
That said, I don’t think of it as a personal award for me alone, I accepted it on behalf of all the Lionesses of my era. Each and every one of us battled the odds and won. We battled the male-imposed ban, we battled derision and battled against the lack of resources, we just got on with it and made it happen. We all like to think of ourselves as that little stepping stone to where the Lionesses and the women’s game are now.
HG: On top of the BEM, you have also been given the freedom of the City of Hull, your home town and an Honorary Doctorate from the University of Hull. Of all your achievements in life, what is the single proudest moment you have had?
Carol: Over my career, and particularly of late, I have received many awards and much recognition, too many to list here, and I am truly humbled but as I said earlier, I don’t see them as personal but as team awards.
The BEM was very special as it was the late Queen’s last honours list and represents national recognition.
Any award from your own town is very, very special as it is the local people recognising someone in their midst and it makes me immensely proud. To be named as the 59th Honorary Freeman of the City of Kingston upon Hull, is quite something and to listen to the many Councillors heaping praise and recognition on me was very humbling.
The degree ceremony was a lovely occasion and everyone on the day was so nice to me and when the Chancellor of the University, stated, as he awarded me my Doctorate, that:-
“It is safe to say, that Carol, as a proud daughter of Hull, is to football, what that other proud daughter of Hull, Amy Johnson, is to aviation“
It still sends a shiver down my back.
With all the awards aside, nothing can beat pulling on those three Lionesses and leading your country out. Very, very few people in life, ever get that privilege. It is such a massive honour and with it comes massive responsibilities. Even more, to have had that privilege over fifty-one times and over nine years makes me extraordinarily proud.
HG: You are also the club ambassador for Hull City Ladies. What does this role entail?
Carol: I was approached by Danny from the club in 2019, and what an offer. I agreed on the strict understanding that I was not to be involved with anything on the pitch or the internal running of the club. My role is to be a face on match days, meeting and greeting spectators and sponsors.
Away from match days, I hope to attract more sponsorship but the role that I get most satisfaction from is being involved with the youngsters. I go into schools and visit other grassroots teams. Hopefully, my presence will inspire girls to look to join our GEA and ETA systems, thereby driving up the overall girl’s participation in the area. It gives them the pathway to the highest tiers in the game. Hopefully, girls and their, parents will recognise and see Hull City Ladies as their first club of choice.
HG: Are you still involved in football in any other way?
Carol: I was approached by the FA and UEFA for the 2022 Euros to be one of their ambassadors.
The FA have asked me to be part of their #Respect / #Where_Greatness_Is_Made Campaign.
This is designed to get younger players to show respect to everyone in the game, opposition players, referees/officials, administrators, spectators and anyone else involved in the game.
It also aims to show girls (and boys) that great players (individuals) can be found in all quarters of the country and don’t necessarily come from specific and/or privileged regions/areas of the country.
The UEFA appointment was as part of their #Follow_In_Her_Footsteps campaign (It also went under the #You_Can_Be_What_You_Can_See campaign)
For this, I worked with LinkedIn and several other footballing role models to produce a lovely little five-minute film to show what women can achieve. It highlights successful Female Role Models showing that they too, can aspire to achieve great things in life, not just in football but in life.
HG: You had an incredible playing career spanning forty-three years, what do you put that amazing longevity down to?
Carol: One word… luck.
Then another word… enjoyment
And then finally two more words… hard work.
Luck… I was lucky to be blessed with what others saw as an exceptional talent. I was lucky to have been spotted by Flo Bilton, I was lucky to have met a man, who just happened to be the England manager, Tommy Tranter, who luckily saw the game as I did. Finally, I was lucky to meet Alan who has given me unwavering support through thick and thin.
Enjoyment… why do something of your own free will that you don’t like? From the age of eleven, I loved every single minute on the pitch but when I retired, it was time to retire. I was getting more enjoyment from doing other things and needed to be at my best to do those things.
Hard work… Over the years people have believed I was lucky but as everyone at the top will tell you, there are hours, days, weeks and years of dammed hard work. Hard physical training to be the very best that you can be. Year upon year driving up and down Britain’s motorways for hours to play games, not getting paid, fulfilling all our own expenses. Many occasions of personal sacrifices with family, friends and career made just to play football. Many fall by the wayside, as it takes an incredible toll on the individual and those around them.
HG: During that span of time, women’s football was largely ignored by the mainstream media and fans alike. With the recent success of the Lionesses and the upswing in attention, where do you see the women’s game being in ten years’ time?
Carol: I’d like to think it will reach the same comparative levels of popularity as say, women’s tennis, and beyond that, as popular as the men’s game. There is much to do in expanding the game before those targets can be met. Increase the quality further, grow the crowds and gain increased media coverage. It always seems a chicken and egg type thing but I know the FA are working hard on all fronts to grow the game. Unlike my day, the trajectory is now one way, whereas we would have a constant round of ups and downs.
HG: How hard was the decision to retire, when you eventually did so, aged fifty-four? Do you think you could have carried on for longer?
Carol: I am sure I could have got another couple of seasons out of the legs, but I have to confess it was getting harder as a fifty-four-year-old trying to mark a young twenty-four-year-old.
In the end, the decision was relatively easy. I’d had forty-three years playing and mentally, I’d had enough. My first grandson had just been born, and I was heavily into long-distance trekking in the mountains eg. the Himalayas, the Andes and further afield. One serious injury could have finished that and I was not going to let that happen.
HG: Forest Green Rovers made the historical appointment of Hannah Dingley as interim head coach recently. A huge moment for women in football. What obstacles do you see being in her path and can you see a day where women will regularly be offered management jobs in the men’s game?
Carol: Already, many are asking, was it a token gesture? Is it just a club grabbing headlines? Was it a permanent post?
The obvious obstacles are the coaches and players at the club. Will they buy into her undoubted ability, will she get the respect that her ability deserves, will clubs, teams and players give her that respect?
To me, it doesn’t matter if she fails. We had many failures with the FA back in the day and it didn’t stop us. The fact is, she is the first and she has broken down that barrier, as we broke down our barriers one by one. That now leaves it open for the next and others to follow. Whether she is successful or not, other clubs will now take note and perhaps remove those unconscious blinkers when approaching their recruitment process.
HG: What was your take on the Lionesses in the World Cup finals in Australia?
Carol: Oh, the question. My heart said England all through the tournament even into the final. It was great to see us get better and better, the deeper into the tournament we went.
Before the tournament, I had some worries about the injuries to quality players that we had to leave behind. The loss of players like, Leah, Fran and Beth would have been massive to any team on the world stage but luckily it created chances for other players. Millie proved to be an excellent captain and Alex Greenwood and Mary Earps had an outstanding tournament.
In the final, we have to recognise that we struggled to find our form, and hands up, Spain were excellent. We had to be at the very top of our game to beat them and on the day we were not. They were technically good, comfortable on the ball and they made us work hard to get possession. Then, when we got possession, they pressed and pressed and forced us into errors.
Overall, the tournament was a fabulous festival of women’s football and we should celebrate that and the quality that Spain brought to it.
Whilst we are all disappointed with the result, it now shows the standards the English players must reach, consistently, if we are to compete. This is even more relevant as the gap between the ‘established’ nations and the ’emerging’ nations is narrowing at a rapid pace. The likes of Nigeria, Morroco, Colombia, and others produced some great football, without the massive financial support that the European nations get. The prospect of them being fully funded is frightening.
HG: If you suddenly found yourself sitting on the board of the FA, what rules would you change, or introduce, for the benefit of the women’s game?
Carol: Gosh, this is a big one. I wouldn’t want to see one set of rules for men and another for women, it would make it a different sport. So changing the rules would have to apply to both.
Many want to see faster growth, and I understand that, but my experience with the women’s game has also shown that we need to consolidate what we have achieved and move on incrementally. Only fools rush in blindly and so each piece of progression needs to be cemented into the women’s game and then we move on. I think the FA are correctly trying to develop the game sustainably and building solid foundations for the women’s game.
I’d like to see more women managers and coaches and again the FA are doing their best in this. I am also a strong believer that those jobs should be given to the best person available and not just be ring-fenced to women-only shortlists.
I hope that the FA and all invested in the sport continue to properly fund and maintain the development of the women’s game.
HG: Do you ever see a day in the future where women could play in the same teams as men in the football league?
Carol: No, and I would never want to see it.
I strongly believe that the women’s game and the best women players are as technically good as their male counterparts but the harsh reality of life, in general, women are not as, heavy, strong or as fast as men which makes it a no-contest physically. The only way it could happen is if the game moves to a total non-contact sport, does anyone really want that? I don’t!
I want to see the women’s game supported and enjoyed as women playing football in their own right. Crowds are increasing and I think most of the public can see the women’s game as a much more family-inclusive sport. I was overwhelmed by the crowds at last year’s Euros. They were not just mums and daughters but there were thousands of dads and lads turning out and supporting England in an enjoyable, safe environment and atmosphere. That can only be good for football in general.
HG: After a long and distinguished career in football, what advice would you pass on to aspiring young women footballers?
Carol: Enjoy the game and make lifelong friends. I still meet up with Lionesses from my era, some thirty-eight years after my international retirement. Immediately, it is as though we were back there in the ’70s and ’80s having a laugh and talking about the great times we had.
Listen to your managers, coaches and teachers.
Always give 100% because it is a short career and you don’t want to be remembered as a wasted talent.
Finally, always remember your education. Even those who make it to the very top have to think of life after football, or even away from football and sometimes that can be much sooner than you want.
Hoppers Guide: A huge thank you to Carol for her time and efforts in putting this article together and if you want to read more about Carol’s incredible career, where better than her induction page for the National Football Museum?
Below is a list of Carol’s impressive football (and other) achievements.