Bampton still has to break down barriers

Amid all the changes that football has undergone in recent years, one of the most significant has been the growing involvement of women, who are playing an increasingly active role in all areas of the game. In the first part of a series reflecting the change, Guy Hodgson talks to two players about the increasing popularity of women's football

Certain phrases come to mind when you prepare to go to something like a women's football international between England and Spain at Tranmere Rovers. "Substandard" for one, "it's OK, but not like the real thing" another. And you would be wrong. Prenton Park is a very fine stadium these days.

Women's football? It's fully accepted these days, isn't it? You had only to watch the Olympic final where 76,000 spectators went to Athens, Georgia, to realise how much the female game has become part of the sporting fabric. No one bats a eyelid when a woman puts on football boots these days. Or do they?

One of the first questions Debbie Bampton had to tackle after England had failed to reach the European Championship finals brought back the bad old days. "Do the girls wear support bras?" the interviewer before this one had asked, to which the response was a frosty "no comment." Given the accuracy that Bampton had displayed with her feet during the match, the questioner was lucky the reaction was not more violent.

"It was a female reporter, of all people," Bampton, the England captain, said, "and the sexist questions I was asked was like going back in time. I got that 10 years ago. Blokes used to say: `Women playing football - do you exchange shirts on the pitch?' and all that. But not now, times have changed.

"To be a female footballer at international level you have to be dedicated, so some of the questions you are asked are laughable. We want to be treated as equals. We are sportswomen whether we are swimming, playing rugby, football or cricket."

Few are better able to gauge the changing climate than Bampton. Now 34, she won the first of more than 80 caps as a 16 year old and her CV includes time with Arsenal and the Italian club Trani, while she is currently the player-manager of last season's Double winners, Croydon.

When she started out, female footballers were the next thing to freaks; that 4,500 people turned up at Tranmere on a foul afternoon shows the image - the odd reporter not withstanding - has altered radically. As Bampton puts it: "When blokes ask me for an autograph these days, they really mean it."

The interest is growing at all levels. Last year, there were 15,000 registered female players in England, compared with only 7,000 five years previously. Over the past 12 months, the number of clubs in the London area alone has gone up by 20 per cent.

Bampton was almost born to the sport, as a football-mad father had a ball at her feet as soon as she could walk. She says she likes the competitiveness and the team element. "You saw by the way we played. It's not girlie-girlie stuff. The tackles are really going in. We're not as strong as the men, we never will be, but the skill level is pretty good." Referring to England's 17-year-old winger, Kelly Smith, she added: "Not many men are as good as her."

Bampton's one taste of full-time football came in Italy, the rest of the time she has been an amateur, fitting in her pastime around a career. On Sunday, she got to her Kent home at midnight and had to be up at six yesterday morning for the low-pressure task of chauffeuring through the capital's traffic.

"In general, men don't have to do this because they can get a good standard of football in the local park. There aren't so many girls playing and we have to have a national league which means every other weekend you are at Liverpool or somewhere paying out of your own money. As a player and a manager I have seen it from both sides of the fence and the girls are so dedicated.

"You look at the Olympic final and the standard was very high, but those girls are professionals. I was full-time in Italy and it made a huge difference, I became much more comfortable with the ball. I was only there for a season because I had other commitments - I gave up my job but still had a flat and car over here. When you were talking money it wasn't massive, I was earning the same sort of wage as I was in this country."

How does she see the women's game 10 years from now? "I wish I could be positive," she replied, "but for so many years we've been promised we're going to do this, we're going to do that, so I am a bit sceptical.

"We have to work even harder than other countries because we're so far behind. I only hope the Football Association can quickly get an England Under-21 team together, because unless we get the youth policy right I can't see us catching up."

Domestically, the Premiership is stronger. Where Doncaster Belles and Arsenal once dominated, teams like Croydon, Millwall and Liverpool are now neck and neck with them. The competition can only be beneficial.

"I'd like to have my football ahead of me," Bampton said, "but you can't turn back the clock. I have enjoyed it, even though it was very difficult at times."

`We're not as hopeless as they think'

It usually happens about the time the Sunday lunchtime drinking session is finished. Young men see two teams of women playing football and cannot resist what they think passes as laddish humour. Winsford United Ladies have had more comments about their legs and hair than any aspiring supermodel.

Things have changed, though. The unreconstructed may still try and fail to be waggish, but they no longer guffaw and go, lingering longer than the echoes of abuse. Louisa Sharps, 19, takes that as a compliment. "I think they're surprised by the standard" she said. "We're not as hopeless as they think we are." As for touchline banter, she hardly notices. "At least they're not rude about our football any more."

Which was not always the case. Sharps, a right-back "because there was a space there", began playing three years ago for two reasons. Her younger sister was doing it - and there are fewer greater motivations than sibling rivalry - and because she was fed up with the presumption that football was purely a man's game.

"I'd not been interested in sport before and when I started it was from scratch," she said. "I remember the captain shouting: `Get her off, she's hopeless', but it's the opposite now. My biggest problem was the tackling, I thought I'd get hurt. Now I love it."

Winsford are in the Fourth Division of the four-division North West Women's Regional League and have a 0-0 result against Doncaster Belles, one of the great powers in the game, in a seven-a-side tournament as a battle honour. "It probably wasn't their first team, but who cares? It was still a draw."

There have been slight setbacks like 22-0 defeats before now, which would be enough to discourage anyone, yet her team-mates are genuinely keen - and they still pay for their own transport to matches. "The worst thing," Sharps said, "and one you get all the time is: `Oh, I thought you would be short, fat and ugly', which makes me really angry. You get bruises on your legs and you can see people wondering what I have been up to. If it was a man, they would think: `Oh, he's been playing sport'."

There is a flip side, however. "It's not a bad chat-up line," she said. "Boys like it because you can talk to them about football. It's something you have in common with them straight away."

The things they say...

n Women should be in the kitchen, the discotheque and the boutique but not in football. Ron Atkinson, 1989.

Why not treat the wife to a weekend in London and let her go shopping while you go and watch the Latics play West Ham? Oldham Athletic programme, 1991.

It's a bloody stupid colour. I think one of the directors' wives must have chosen it. David Pleat, then Luton manager, announcing the end of his club's "unlucky" tangerine away strip, 1992.

They are nice people with a part to play, but at the end of the day, they are tea-ladies who do not understand the game. Trevor Steele, resigning as Bradford Park Avenue chairman after two women directors were elected, 1990.

Women's football is a game that should be played only by consenting adults in private. Brian Glanville, sports journalist, 1990.

I know it will come as a shock to people who assume I'm a feminist, but I'm an old-fashioned girl and I truly believe a wife should cook, clean and stay at home to look after the kids. Karren Brady, Birmingham managing director, before her marriage to striker Paul Peschisolido, 1994.

The most pressing ambition of many girls, which surprised me, was to play football. Ros Coward, journalist, reporting from two schools on whether girls still wanted to be hairstylists, nurses and ballerinas, 1991.

It's harder to get women psyched up for a match. Men are more arrogant and more confident. The girls question their ability more. Ted Copeland, England women's coach, 1995.

`Our husbands think we're shopping in Dublin'. Banner held by Republic of Ireland fans in Portugal 1995.

Give her the most romantic night ever... make her feel she's the most special person in your life... better than a dozen red roses... she couldn't ask for more. Take her to see Paris Saint-Germain versus Glasgow Celtic tonight! Advertisement in L'Equipe, 1995.

The future is feminine. Sepp Blatter, general secretary of the world governing body of football, Fifa, after the 1995 women's World Cup.

From The Umbro Book of Football Quotations, by Peter Ball and Phil Shaw (Ebury Press, pounds 9.99). A new edition is published on Thursday.

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