Women’s FA Cup final between Chelsea and Arsenal is a reminder of women’s football’s dark past and its bright future

It was a roar that seemed to echo from some other place; a place remembered only in the pages of dusty books and the stories passed down through the families of those who were there.

On Monday morning, as the players of Chelsea and Arsenal walked out onto the hallowed pitch of Wembley Stadium to contest the women’s FA Cup Final, the noise that cascaded from the 40,942 fans in attendance felt like it was from another world.

And, in some ways, it was. But it was not an unfamiliar world: It was one that women’s football was part of long ago.

A century before Monday’s match, around the same time that white women in the UK were granted the right to vote, tens of thousands of spectators regularly filled the stands of some of England’s biggest grounds to watch women play football.

The famous Dick, Kerr Ladies team became a national sensation during World War 1, playing matches and raising money for charity.

They thrived in the vacuum created by the war, frequently attracting record crowds to their domestic matches, most notably 53,000 at Liverpool’s famous Goodison Park on Boxing Day in 1920.

Dick Kerr Ladies player kicks a ball
It was 100 years ago when tens of thousands of spectators crowded into stadiums to watch women’s football across England.(Getty Images: Topical Press/Hulton Archive/MacGregor)

Across the country — and across the world — interest in women’s football was not just present, it was blossoming.

Photos from those games 100 years ago show stadiums heaving with spectators, some so full that thousands had to be turned away at the gates.

The same thunderous noise that sound-tracked Monday’s final is captured in those sepia-toned images, a reminder of the passion and the interest in women’s football that has always existed, layered like rich soil throughout the sport.

But it was this passion that, by the same token, forced women’s football into the shadows.

Threatened by the growing interest and fearful it would divert fans and funds away from the fledging professional men’s game, England’s Football Association banned women from playing on association pitches, relegating them to smaller suburban grounds and public parks.

Without the income generated from booming ticket sales, most clubs disbanded, fading into the pages of history.

The ban lasted 50 years, from 1921 to 1971. Across that time, men’s football had the free air to grow, laying the cultural and economic groundwork that has turned it into the world’s biggest sport.

When the ban was finally lifted in 1971, the first major event organised to mark the occasion was, fittingly, the women’s FA Cup.

The competition wasn’t called that back then, though: It was the Mitre Trophy, and it was run by the independent Women’s Football Association.

It wasn’t until 1993 that the national FA brought the women’s game under its control, and another few decades before it started pouring more serious resources into the sport.

Women playing football in 1970
Women’s football was hidden from view for 50 years, relegated to public parks and dirt pitches, while the men’s game flourished.(Getty Images: Evening Standard)

On Monday morning, 100 years to the day since the FA ban, almost 50,000 people once again packed into a major English stadium to do what they have always done: watch, support and enjoy women’s football.

But it’s not a 50-year darkness that awaits them now. It’s a bright, new dawn.

They walked down Wembley’s famous boulevard, now lined with women’s football banners.

They wore the jerseys of historic English clubs emblazoned with iconic women’s names: Kerr, Kirby, Harder, Catley, Little, Miedema.

They saw the faces of the game’s biggest female stars on their match-day programs, highlight reels splashed across social media feeds, interviews and analyses of women’s games on broadcast panels and live television crosses.

They hummed with anticipation as the players filed out onto Wembley’s manicured grass and bellowed when the opening whistle blew.

They gasped as Fran Kirby nipped in behind a fractured Arsenal line to score Chelsea’s first goal in the third minute.

They clenched their fists and bit their lips as Gunners goalkeeper Manuela Zinsberger stretched every limb to save her shell-shocked side’s many blushes.

They cheered when Sam Kerr put Chelsea 2-0 ahead just after half-time and cheered even louder as she deliciously chipped in the third.

The Matildas captain made her own history under Wembley’s famous arch: The first Australian to score a brace and be named Player of the Match in an FA Cup final, barely a week after playing the USA in a friendly back on home soil.

It was just reward for her hat-trick of missed chances in the opening half, and a deserved spotlight for a player still bizarrely under-rated in the footballing nation she has come to dominate.

Sam Kerr shoots at goal
Kerr’s superb chip will go down in history as one of the FA Cup final’s greatest-ever goals.(Getty Images: Alex Pantling)

The occasion was not as memorable for Kerr’s countrywomen Steph Catley, Caitlin Foord, and Lydia Williams, who were comprehensively outplayed by the new domestic treble-holders.

That is not to say Arsenal will not be here again: This delayed final overlaps with the current FA Cup competition, with a re-match between these two glittering sides potentially on the horizon.

However, the FA Cup final was about much more than the players and the teams and the game on the field: It was about the whole moment, the whole movement of the sport, and the momentum it is carrying into its new era.

“I’d like to leave a lasting legacy,” Sam Kerr said in November. “I don’t just want to be a player that was good for a certain amount of years.

“I want to have a legacy [where] people talk about this time in football that we, as Matildas, and me as a player, changed the way the Matildas are seen, the way that women’s football is seen and the way women’s sport is seen.

“I hope that, in 50 years’ time, when people look back on the Matildas, they see this decade as the turning-point in women’s football — because I feel like it is.”

And when they do face each other again — be it in this storied Cup or in the new-look league now backed by the resources that were ripped from them a century ago — they will be met by the same roar that echoes from the shadows of their own history, propelling them towards the golden future they always should have had.

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