Some of the very first England internationals have never received a cap for every game they play for their country and the first ones were painstakingly handcrafted
It’s part of Southampton’s role as host city of Euro 2022, a city that has plenty to celebrate having produced a bounty of female footballers in the ’70s and ’80s, many of whom went on to play for England.
Housed in the strikingly designed Grade II listed building on Havelock Road in the heart of Southampton, the SeaCity Museum houses a modest display of artifacts celebrating ‘pioneering women’ in football.
One of the display cases contains the original hand-made replica of the cap given to Sue Buckett, England goalkeeper and one of five Southampton Women’s FC footballers who played against Scotland in England’s first official game in 1972.
Buckett and her pioneering teammates received one that was roughly the same shape as the men’s, slightly darker than the original, with “Scotland 1972” thinly embroidered on the brim. And sadly, that’s all they ever got.
The fact that the players of 1972 wore a cap at all is thanks to the diligence of a woman. Flo Bilton, who died in 2004, was an official with the Women’s Football Association from the founding of the Women’s Football Association in 1969 until the FA finally took over women’s football 24 years later.
“The early history of the WFA was littered with tales of thrift,” reads one passage Football Nation: Sixty Years of the Beautiful Game. “There was never much money, very little sponsorship and the WFA monies were just over £76 in August 1970. International players were only given one cap each, and this was carefully sewn together by Flo Bilton, who had borrowed a prototype English men’s cap from Raich Carter, a close neighbor in Hull.”
After winning three or four of these, players stopped receiving them because it became too much work for Bilton. And just as they had to pay for their own travel for England, they also had to pay for the internationals. Instead, upon retirement, they received a shield of smaller decorative shields marking each of their performances in England.
With all the Football Association’s platitudes of celebrating the pioneers of women’s football, making sure their stories are not forgotten and remembering those who went before, how come they still don’t match the players of 1972 have given what is due them and to judge from the reactions of those with whom I have spoken I would be delighted.
The England cap has always been, and remains, a cherished tradition in English football. “A profound privilege,” is how Gareth Southgate described it.
They have always been awarded to the men for every game and while some players amass more than 100 of them, former West Ham defender Jim Barrett was awarded one for the just four minutes he played for England against Northern Ireland in 1928. And the 1972 players aren’t particularly happy about it.
When I contacted the FA to verify that the women who attended that first official England game really hadn’t been given an official cap 50 years later, the organization responded by referring to a 50th anniversary event at the November 2022 indicated and explained that the FA was working on a project to recognize and celebrate all former internationals.
The email included a link to a page on the FA website about the Heritage program “Recognizing 141 years of women’s football”. I figured the caps might then be awarded – half a century too late, but at least these women, mostly well into their 70s, would finally get the recognition they deserve as true legends of English women’s football.
But still there was no talk of it. When I pressed the FA on this, the organization had nothing further to add.
As part of The Heritage, the National Lottery is providing £500,000 in funding to help “chart the hidden history of women’s football and launch a celebration of the game, its players and communities.
“For the first time ever, information on every England player, captain, goalscorer and scorer since 1972 is being researched, recorded and shared alongside the information already available about men’s football.”
As part of the celebrations, exhibitions – like the one in Southampton – have been set up across the nine cities hosting Euro 2022. But while displays are nice, they’re not quite as tangible and don’t carry as much meaning as an official England cap, or even tickets to an England game.
Indeed, at a time when the women’s team played at best a handful of games a year, some former England players of the 70’s and 80’s who made 30-40 games for England are unfortunate that they didn’t even receive an invitation to attend England’s games to attend Euro 2022.
Many of these players live in Southampton. They haven’t lost the fire in their stomachs and still meet to play football together and they’re a little upset that they weren’t considered despite Friday’s game against Northern Ireland being on their doorstep at St Mary’s Stadium .
Of course everyone makes mistakes. I suspect that in 1972 FA officials were still shaken by the fact that they were being forced to lift the ban on women playing football.
But mistakes can be corrected. In 2019, the Scottish FA finally made official caps which were presented to their overlooked 1972 players by First Minister Nicola Sturgeon.
Will the English Football Association see sense in finally correcting its own?