When Ladies of Preston ruled the world

As England play host to Germany today
It is hard to imagine any circumstances in which today's women's football match between England and Germany at Preston would make the front pages of tomorrow's Mirror newspaper.

Yet, when Deepdale staged the first international in the women's game 77 years ago - between a French side and the Preston works team of Dick Kerr's Ladies, who were, effectively, England - the mass circulation newspaper led with coverage of the occasion.

"French girls lose their first football match," read the banner headline in the Daily Mirror of Saturday 1 May, 1920. Other picture stories - a society divorce, a shooting incident in Cheapside - are run underneath four photographs of the match, which include one of the rival captains greeting each other in the centre circle with a kiss.

"The visitors," the report says, "received a tremendous reception." A crowd of 25,000 saw the home team win the first of four challenge matches 2-0 through goals from Jennie Harris and their prolific forward, Flo Redford.

The French players - a collection of shop assistants, dental students and shorthand typists aged between 18 and 25, brought over by the Federation of Feminine Sports - had been cheered like a returning Cup final team as they made their way from Preston station to their hotel in the centre of town, the Bull and Royal.

The home side, made up of women workers from the local tramway engineering factory of W B Dick and John Kerr, ran the French defence "to a standstill", according to the Lancashire Evening Post report.

Harris, Redford and the Dick Kerr's captain, Alison Kell, were singled out for praise. All three played a key part in the subsequent challenge matches at Stockport where the home side won 5-2, Manchester (1-1) and Stamford Bridge, where the French triumphed 2-1.

The tradition of flamboyant Continental keepers was clearly established even at this early stage in the game's history. The French custodian, Mme Ourry, was described by the Post as being "alert and competent, frequently gaining the applause of the crowd". Both she and Carmen Pomies - "one of the sturdiest players on view" - played for Dick Kerr's Ladies in later years.

Pomies, who fought for the French Resistance during the Second World War, lived in Preston for much of her life.

At the end of the match, spectators swarmed on to the pitch and carried Harris - "taken to the hearts of the crowd by her skilful play" - shoulder high from the pitch.

Mme Milliat, the French manager, said she had never seen such a big crowd at a match, adding that it surpassed the numbers who attended men's fixtures in Paris.

Women's football - which had thrived during the First World War when many teams of factory workers had sprung up to raise money for charity - was indeed phenomenally popular.

Later in 1920, on Boxing Day, a match at Goodison Park -which saw Dick Kerr's Ladies beat their closest rivals, St Helens Ladies, 4-0 - was witnessed by 53,000 people, until very recently the largest crowd recorded for a women's game.

That figure exceeded by 3,000 the number who had watched the men's FA Cup final of that year between Aston Villa and Huddersfield at Stamford Bridge.

On 5 December in the following year, the Football Association banned women from playing on Football League grounds, a state of affairs which lasted for 50 years.

"Complaints have been made as to football being played by women," the FA said. "The Council feel impelled to express their strong opinion that the game of football is quite unsuitable for females and ought not to be encouraged."

Gail Newsham, author of a fascinating book on the Dick Kerr's Ladies - In A League Of Their Own (Pride of Place Publishing, 1994) - describes the FA's actions in 1921 as "a carve-up job", adding: "They were frightened of the opposition."

Although women's teams were forced to play for many years on recreation fields, their matches still gathered large crowds. Dick Kerr's Ladies, formed for a charity match on Christmas Day 1917 by women who played in the factory yard during break times from their work making munitions, continued until 1965.

The team manager, from 1917 until his death in 1957, was Alfred Frankland, a draughtsman, who demanded of his women players high standards of decorum, punctuality and clean boots.

They played a total of 828 matches, drawing 46, losing 24 and winning 758, defeating opposition on tour in America, France and Canada. The official estimate of their earnings for charity was pounds 175,000.

It was with some justification that they described themselves as "champions of the world".