Mikron Theatre brings the story of a women's football team from Huddersfield a century ago to the stage

On a Boxing Day afternoon in Liverpool in 1920, more than 53,000 fans crammed into Everton’s Goodison Park ground, with another 14,000 people locked outside.

Thomas Cotran, Rachel Benson, Elizabeth Robin and James McLean, members of the cast for Atalanta Forever, on the hills above Marsden. (Tony Johnson).
Thomas Cotran, Rachel Benson, Elizabeth Robin and James McLean, members of the cast for Atalanta Forever, on the hills above Marsden. (Tony Johnson).

But it wasn’t the local heroes, or the likes of goal-scoring machine Joe Smith, that they had flocked to see. They had come in their droves to watch a women’s charity match between Dick, Kerr Ladies and St Helens Ladies to help raise money for wounded soldiers.

Dick, Kerr Ladies were the Real Madrid of their day and Lily Parr was their superstar winger, but just a year later women’s football was banned.

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The Football Association prevented women from playing on Football League grounds, saying: “The game of football is quite unsuitable for females and ought not to be encouraged.”

Marianne McNamara, Mikron's director for Atalanta Forever. (Tony Johnson).

Some people have argued that this was only part of the reason and that the powers-that-be were worried about the women’s game becoming as popular as the men’s. Either way, it was a shameful decision and it would be another 50 years before the FA Council lifted the ban preventing women playing on the grounds of affiliated clubs.

The story of the fight for women’s football is explored in Amanda Whittington’s new play, Atalanta Forever, produced by Marsden-based Mikron Theatre, which goes on tour next week. The play is set in 1920 and based on the true story of Atalanta Ladies Football Club, one of three women’s football teams in Huddersfield in post-Great War Britain, and told through the lives of two young women.

For Whittington, it’s a deeply personal story. “I grew up in the Seventies in Nottingham where we had Brian Clough and Nottingham Forest winning the European Cup and the league, and for me as a 10 and 11-year-old, football was very exciting. I used to play in the back garden with my brother and I loved it.

“But back then there was no wider culture of football for girls. I remember being in a local village tournament and being the only girl playing and then shortly afterwards being made aware that I was getting a bit older and I really shouldn’t be doing this. So I stopped because there was nowhere for me to play, and this sense of unfairness and injustice always stayed with me.”

Members of the cast in rehearsals for Atalanta Forever. (Tony Johnson).

The story of Dirk, Kerr Ladies and Lily Parr has been well documented in recent years and it was while she was researching the history of women’s football that Amanda, who lives in West Yorkshire, stumbled on the story of Atalanta.

“It was this tiny club that just existed for about a year and existed within the orbit of Dick, Kerr Ladies because it was one of the teams that sprung up around the country inspired by them.

“There was actually very little documented about this team, so apart from a list of fixtures and a couple of names of players, that was it.”

This gave her the freedom to create a story based around the little-known club. “The play talks about the aftermath of the First World War and how women had been working as tram drivers and in the factories and then had to go back to being good wives and mothers, and how the football ban was very reflective of the social reality for women at that time. So there’s a lot in the play, though it also has a very light touch.”

A photo of Atalanta Ladies, one of the post-First World War women's football teams from Huddersfield.

Atalanta Forever had been due to tour this time last year but the first lockdown put paid to that. However, because Mikron produce a lot of outdoor shows they have been well placed to get back up and running.

The theatre company, which has been going for 50 years, has carved out a reputation for producing innovative, entertaining stories about social history, and artistic director Marianne McNamara feels this play fits in with their ethos. “There aren’t a lot of plays with women at their centre, still, which is sad to say in 2021. And plays that tell the story of ordinary, working-class women and underdogs are even rarer,” she says.

Marianne feels there are some parallels between then and now. “The country was reeling. Men came back from the front trying to work out what their role was, the country was in a depression and women were being pushed back to where they were before the war began, and there’s a feeling of unrest. Well, goodness me, there is a feeling of uncertainty and unrest today,” she says.

“Yes, women’s football has improved and yes, it has greater television coverage, but it still has a way to go. There’s still a lot of disparity and yet a hundred years ago more than fifty thousand people attended a match at Goodison Park to watch women play. Women’s football was massive and then they were effectively put back in their boxes and it feels like in this day and age we need to be jumping back out of our boxes.”

The play premieres with a sold-out performance at Halifax’s Piece Hall next week before going on a nationwide tour through the summer playing at all manner of (mostly) outdoor venues including farms, allotments and pub gardens, as well as village halls.

For Marianne, the rehearsals have been a cathartic experience after a torrid 15 months. “I can’t tell you how joyous it is to hear people singing together and to hear harmonies. We’ve had so much taken away from us in the last year. It feels very important for us to be out there and connecting with people again. Yes, we need bread in our lives, but we also need joy in our lives, and theatre and the energy it brings can do that.”

Amanda says the story of women’s football and teams like Atalanta Ladies can tell us a lot about our past.

“It wasn’t just munitions workers who played in women’s teams. You had middle-class ladies playing, teachers and office workers as well as the factory girls, which I think is quite interesting,” she adds.

“I have great admiration for the women who have doggedly over the decades challenged the ban and then challenged the stereotypes and perceptions of female footballers that has taken us to where we are now.

“Women’s lives went through extraordinary change over the 20th century and women’s football in a way is a metaphor for that.”

Amanda believes her play taps into this. “It’s an entertaining, accessible metaphor but it speaks for lots of other issues too, of knowing your place, not stepping out of line, and also the women throughout history, whether they’re suffragettes or feminists, who have challenged these ideas and changed the world.”

The famous Boxing Day match from 1920 remained the biggest crowd at a women’s game in this country for over 90 years until the London Olympics in 2012 when Great Britain played Brazil at Wembley in front of 70,584 people. Two years ago a new record was set when a crowd of 77,768 saw England lose to Germany at the same stadium.

Today, women’s football is on the rise, some of the top players are household names and pundits and commentators on TV, and girls’ teams can be found in towns and villages across the country.

So why is it still important to tell this story? “It’s interesting for young girls to realise that somebody fought for the freedoms they now enjoy,” says Amanda. “And I think it’s really helpful to be reminded of just how recently those freedoms were won and how fragile they may still be.

"This is why we need to tell these stories because it’s not about a hundred years ago, it’s about the here and now. There are all sorts of battles still to be fought – and people are still fighting for the freedom to be who they are.”

Atalanta Forever opens its tour at the Piece Hall, in Halifax, on Wednesday (sold out) and the tour runs until September 19. For dates and tickets visit https://mikron.org.uk/shows/atalanta-forever