I was only 10 when I discovered that being a woman in a man's world was not going to be a cake-walk. As the only girl - a tough(ish) tackling left-sided midfielder in the Under-11 boys' team - I'd turn up on the coach to away games and cause panic among the opposition teachers who would scurry off in search of a separate changing room for this "alien" in their midst.
At least out on the pitch I was usually counted as one of the lads, although I remember being affronted when, having broken the captain of school's ankle with a horribly mistimed tackle, I overheard my team-mates excusing me by saying: "Well, she's only a girl, after all."
Fifteen years later it was Ken Bates who first let me know in no uncertain terms that he and I were on very different sides of the touchline. I was sent to interview the Chelsea chairman on a football-related story for a business magazine; for a first assignment he was a tough choice. "What are you doing here?" Bates barked at me, looking like Santa Claus, with a sore head, from across the other side of his huge desk. "You're a woman, what on earth can you know about football...?"
At least he was magnanimous enough at the end of the interview to admit he'd misjudged me. "I'm not such an ogre after all," he said gruffly, by way of apology. However my experience was nothing to what Julie Welch had to endure. It was Welch, of course, who set the ball rolling for women when, in 1973, she first strolled into a football press box, which in those days was akin to Daniel being thrown to the lions. "For the first few weeks it was all right," she remembers. "They thought: `She'll go away soon.' But when they realised I wasn't going away, they started to think: `What is a woman doing in our preserves'?"
Welch says that, ifnothing else, at least she was responsible for getting women's toilets installed in press boxes. But in truth she was the pioneer of a mini-revolution which, 23 years on, sees women being accepted, slowly but surely, in the traditionally male-dominated domain of sports reporting. I suppose you could liken the trend to foreign players coming over here: in 1978 Ossie Ardiles and Ricky Villa at Spurs gave English football what Welch gave football reporting - novelty value. Yet in 1996 almost every team has its very own "foreigners" (although it'll take a while before the numbers reach Chelsea-like proportions).
Most newspapers employ women writers across the broad spectrum of sports - even the Sun has two - while on our television screens Eleanor Oldroyd and Hazel Irvine have dared - and succeeded - to challenge the familiar line-up of Des, Gary, Alan and Trevor in the football presenting stakes.
FourFourTwo magazine broke new ground when, on its launch at the start of the 1994/95 season, it was revealed - shock! horror! - that three of the four editorial staff were women. It was enough that we should dare to launch a glossy football monthly in the first place; that we had three women writers, well, what on earth were we thinking of? It was not, however, something the magazine ever tried to ham up.
Our attitude was that football is football, no matter who the commentator/writer/reporter is. And while there will always be an element of feeling that, as a woman, you have to prove yourself at first, once it becomes obvious you know your stuff people will take you seriously. The mere fact that FourFourTwo has established itself just goes to show that, if the cloth fits, it really doesn't matter who the tailor(ess) is.
However, the male sports reporters apparently refer to their women counterparts as "fluffies" - light and bubbly but lacking substance. Perhaps that's because women tend to take a more emotional approach to their subject, look for the human interest angle, and as such develop a style that is refreshingly unique in an area where public demand for information often cries out for a fresh angle. The 1996 sports feature writer of the year, Sue Mott, for instance, picks on subjects from football to fencing for Scotland on Sunday and the Daily Telegraph in a chatty yet incisive style which can have just as much impact as the more profound parlances of say, the Hugh McIlvanneys and David Laceys of this world.
The old prejudices, however, will always linger. Helen Chamberlain, presenter of Sky's early morning weekend sports shows (who has achieved notoriety as Torquay United's most devoted fan - she follows them home and away) remembers being verbally attacked by an irate Scotsman who phoned in to claim: "That Chamberlain woman, she knows nothin' about fitba". In fact Chamberlain says she's never pretended to know everything about the game: "Once you do that, you're there to be caught out. I'm an enthusiast and a fan as much as anything else."
Of course women are often excluded from the conversations that take place between football player and tabloid journalist looking for the big exclusive simply because, as the Sun journalist Janine Self says: "The lads get the big stories when they go out nightclubbing with the players. If I go up to a player and suggest going out for a drink, it might be misinterpreted."
So it's gratifying when the boot is on the other foot. Several months ago I went to interview Ian Branfoot, a man who is as wary of football journalists as the bookies are of Frankie Dettori. After a revealing two- hour conversation, the then Fulham manager said to me: "You wouldn't have lasted 10 minutes in here if you'd been a bloke..."
l Olivia Blair is Assistant Editor of FourFourTwo magazine
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