Looking back at the revolutionary Plymouth Ladies post-war football team
PUBLISHED: 08:06 18 June 2018 | UPDATED: 10:19 18 June 2018
David J Williams looks back at an era when thousands flocked to watch football players at Plymouth's Home Park…but it wasn't the men they were cheering on
The years after the First World War saw a surge in women’s football charity matches, and Plymouth was no exception.
Along with fellow West Country rivals, Bath Ladies, they were to carry the flag for the women’s game in the South West, joining with the numerous other ladies’ teams all over the country.
Few of Plymouth’s rivals, however, had such a rigorous and diverse training routine; nor such a beautiful and invigorating spot in which to exercise. Under the watchful eye of their coach, ex¬army sergeant major and physical training instructor Frank Zanazzi, the ladies held their workouts in a most pleasant and healthy environment – on the beach!
Zanazzi believed in exercise of a more general nature rather than just dribbling or shooting practice with the ball. He encouraged the team to take part in such things as hurdling, shot put and javelin, alongside the usual routines of stretching and running.
Many of the women played the more ‘traditional’ ladies’ sports of the day, such as tennis and hockey, and so were no strangers to physical training. In fact their captain, Mrs Jessie ‘Jean’ Boultwood, was a renowned long distance swimmer and winner of the Cargreen to Devonport seven¬mile race.
But Zanazzi took their workouts to a different level, introducing grace, style and beauty to the beach sessions, with elements of balance and poise that echoed the Art Deco style of the day. He had spent time in America, and so brought a little slice of US razzmatazz to Plymouth, with the team entertaining the crowds in displays of athletics or gymnastics before the game, as well as fashionable human ‘still life’ montage and well¬choreographed and stylistic stretching routines.
Although deemed somewhat unusual by other more traditional coaches of ladies teams, Zanazzi in fact had a vision in which the ladies’ game could be different. Not only did it give the team the means for a much needed warm¬up before the match; it also added a new dimension of entertainment to the game.
By 1921 the average gate for a women’s football match in England was 12,000, spectators giving what spare money they had to charities. The Plymouth Ladies had become a team with added value, giving their spectators a little extra for their money than just the kick of a ball.
Despite only being formed in early 1921, the team soon established itself, playing local rivals Bath on a number of occasions with mixed success; as well as teams such as British and American Tobacco in Southampton. But it was in May of that year that they were to entertain international opposition.
The French Ladies team had been touring England, playing the famous Dick Kerr’s Ladies of Preston and others around the country. Now it was Plymouth’s turn and, undaunted by a mere 12 weeks together as a team, the local girls and their coach were out to impress.
Argyle’s Home Park pitch could only boast one wooden grandstand, with the other three sides of the field merely earth banking. But on 22 May 1921, 11,000 spectators packed into the ground for the match with the French.
In traditional style the game was kicked off by a local celebrity, in this case Lady Kinloch¬Cooke, the Plymouth Ladies’ Vice¬President. Under the watchful eye of referee Mr F. Reeves, Plymouth gave a good display of their fitness and determination in what was reported at the time as a ‘lively game on hard ground’.
The visitors were, however, much the more skilful and experienced side and a French goal early in the first half was the only score of the match.
The Plymouth Ladies had acquitted themselves well and a single goal defeat was no disgrace. But in late 1921 ladies’ clubs around the country faced a hammer blow from the men’s FA, banning them from playing and setting the women’s game back 50 years.
Plymouth today still proudly flies the flag for women’s football. But thanks to the grit, determination and legacy of those early pioneers such as Frank Zanazzi and Plymouth Ladies, it can now celebrate a rich heritage and a history of which it should be very proud.
TAKING TRAINING TO EXTREMES
Frank Zanazzi was not alone in creating inventive ways for his ladies’ team to train and exercise. Dick Kerr’s of Preston would regularly be seen at their training ground involved in horse riding and even boxing!.
Other methods were equally extraordinary. The coach of Coventry Ladies, F.K.Selman, sent his novice team off on a run. The fastest five to return were the forwards, the next midfield and so on down to the goalkeeper.
The girls were also reluctant to head the heavy leather ball. His solution was to form them in a circle around him with their heads bent towards him and he would throw the ball at their heads to get them used to the idea!
BANNED FOR PLAYING THE GAME THEY LOVED
In December 1921 the men’s FA issued their resolution banning women’s football on FA club grounds. They alluded to ‘complaints having been made as to football being played by women’ and football as ‘quite unsuitable for females and should not be encouraged’.
Mrs Boultwood, Captain of Plymouth Ladies, hit back.
“The controlling body of the FA are a hundred years behind the times and their action is pure sex prejudice. Not one of our girls has felt any ill effects from participating in the game,” she said.
Plymouth Argyle were forced to comply with the FA ruling and Plymouth Ladies’ next game at Home Park in aid of the Royal Albert Memorial Hospital was reluctantly reallocated to a Plymouth schoolboys’ cup match.