Book of the Week: Early bath the secret of Whalley's success

In a League Of Their Own! The Dick, Kerr Ladies Football Team By Gail J Newsham (Scarlett Press; pounds 9.99)
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The Independent Online
In a League Of Their Own! The Dick, Kerr Ladies Football Team

By Gail J Newsham (Scarlett Press; pounds 9.99)

WOMEN's football might be a backwater of British sport, and kept that way until recently by unreconstructed chauvinism, but it has produced more than its fair share of vivid characters.

That is one of the lessons of this history of what is still the most famous team of female footballers ever to lace a boot. Take Lily Parr, for example. A six-foot left-winger, she spanned the decades by playing for the club from 1919 to 1951, scoring over 1,000 goals and earning no end of grudging admissions that, had she been a man, she would have played for England.

She certainly lacked nothing in the tricks of the trade, on and off the pitch, as she was not above purloining and later selling the match ball - and, on one occasion, the knives and forks from a stately home where the team was getting changed.

In her retirement, Lily suffered from breast cancer and needed a double mastectomy. Her indomitability is summed up in her comment: "It's taken me 62 years to grow these, and now they've taken the bloody things off me!"

Joan Whalley, a school pal and kick-about partner of Tom Finney, played for almost as long, before becoming a recluse and living "on top of a mountain" with her menagerie. Finding her and persuading her to talk about her experiences was a key to the success of this account, as with her recollection of going to Bolton for "a proper soda bath" - a mystical ritual that put her to sleep for five days but made her play like a demon the following Saturday.

Someone who will not be found in these pages is Dick Kerr. Any idea that he was some sort of impressario, like Busby Berkeley or Paul Raymond, is well wide of the mark, as Messrs Dick and Kerr were merely the founders of the engineering works in Preston that employed the women and supported their fund-raising football activities during the First World War.

The svengali figure was neither Dick nor Kerr, but Alfred "Pop" Frankland, a Preston greengrocer who fought a losing battle to keep his girls out of the pub on their way back from matches.

Crowds as high as 53,000 watched Dick, Kerr during the 1920s, a decade that also saw them play - and beat - men's teams in America. Even the Football Association's ban on them playing on the grounds of affiliated clubs failed to stop them; they explored alternatives like rugby league grounds and still attracted big attendances.

It was not lack of support but a shortage of players that led to the club, by then known as Preston Ladies, folding in 1965. Gail Newsham's theory is that, if they had hung on for another year, they would have been revived by the upsurge of interest in all forms of football after the 1966 World Cup.

Even so, Dick, Kerr Ladies are the inspiration for the growth of women's football since then and this book is a timely tribute to genuine sporting pioneers.