As England’s Lionesses are watched by millions of viewers on BBC1 at this summer’s Women’s Football World Cup, things were very different when Bedford’s Jan Emms competed in the event in Mexico in 1971.
48 years ago, a team of mavericks, ostracised by the FA travelled halfway around the world representing our country in a sport that is only recently receiving the recognition it deserves.
And that 1971 women’s team is also finally being recognised for their incredible achievement.
As a teenager, Jan played women’s football for the Chiltern Valley team in Luton. “Women’s teams were not acknowledged by the FA,” said Jan. “We couldn’t get referees, or easily book grounds, so we had to find parks to play in.”
The team’s manager, Harry Batts, was determined to create a national women’s squad and spent time scouring the country for the few other female teams competing at the time.
Scouting girls from as far away as Yorkshire, Lincoln and Cornwall, he assembled a team of 15 players to compete at the 1971 World Cup in Mexico.
“Harry faced so much opposition,” said Jan. “Now he’s seen as a visionary, but 48 years ago he was laughed at.
“The FA and the men in charge of the national game didn’t perceive women as footballers, so they wouldn’t support our plan to compete in the World Cup.
“The sponsor, Martini Rossi paid for us to fly to Sicilly to qualify and then they flew the team to Mexico.
“To get around the FA’s rules, we had to officially compete as British Independents Ladies football team, but everyone in Mexico perceived us as England.”
Used to playing in muddy parks to less than enthusiastic spectators, the girls were unprepared for how they would be received in Mexico.
“The plane landed, the door opened and there were cameras flashing everywhere,” said Jan.
“My team-mate turned to me and said, ‘Oh crikey, Jan, there must be someone famous on this plane’, but they’d all turned up to photograph us! We needed police escorts wherever we went. We couldn’t believe it.
“Most of us hadn’t been abroad before, let alone to a different continent. It was an incredible experience.”
If the adulation was a shock, so was the ferocity of their opponents. “The tackling was brutal,” remembers Jan. “In the first game, our captain, Carol, and our right winger, Yvonne, both broke their legs.”
Despite the Mexicans taking the team to their hearts, with such serious injuries and such a small squad, the team finished bottom of their group and returned to the UK.
Rather than receiving a heroes’ welcome, the team-mates all received a six-month ban from the FA.
Harry Batts was handed a life-time ban.
“He wasn’t a young man and it took the wind out of his sails,” said Jan. Harry passed away in 1985.
Finally, however, Harry and the team are in the sporting spotlight.
This summer, Ian Young from the BBC tracked down Jan and the other 14 members of the team and they were reunited for a TV documentary.
Harry’s son, Keith, who was the team’s 10-year-old mascot back in 1971, has also been involved, and shared some wonderful memorabilia. Said Jan: “He’s so pleased that his dad will be vindicated and get the recognition he deserves.”
Next Wednesday 26 June, the team will be featured on BBC1’s the One Show.
Now aged 67, Jan still lives in Bedford and the Emms name is known in the sporting world, thanks to her Olympic medal-winning daughter, Gail, who won silver in badminton at the 2004 games.
“I’m a great believer in getting kids into sport,” said Jan. “All my children are very sporty and we’re a very competitive family.
“I’ve got seven grand-children and one plays for MK Dons Academy U9s, while my granddaughter, Molly, plays for Bedford Girls U8s.
“I do think that in my lifetime, women footballers will become as much household names as the male players.
“Until then, nothing can take away the memory of walking up the slope out of the changing rooms and into the Aztec Stadium in Mexico City to be cheered by 95,000 fans.
“We were pioneers and we’ll never forget that.”
The 1971 British Independents Ladies football team line-up:
Christine Lockwood, Valerie Cheshire, Trudy McCaffery, Louise Cross, Jean Breckon, Carol Wilson, Lillian Harris, Jill Stockley, Jan Emms, Leah Caleb, Marlene Collins and Paula Raynor, Gillian Sayell and Yvonne Farr.