Monday 3 October 2022

Jimmy's Angels

Image: Sarah Jones, license CC BY-SA 2.0
I'm watching Leah Williamson lift the UEFA 2022 trophy and I'm not ashamed to say that tears are running down my cheeks. Forty-five years ago a few friends and I experienced our own success in the Beautiful Game, a much smaller one admittedly, but nonetheless a victory.

It was Monday morning, March 1977. English, maths, double German. My favourite subjects. Not such a bad way to start the week. Dad had given me a lift so I was early and the corridors were empty. I collected my textbooks from the locker and ambled towards the assembly hall. A 6th-former was pinning an A3 yellow sheet to the student notice board on the wall by the doors. He ignored me. I slouched against the wall, waiting for him to finish and when he disappeared around the corner I scanned the poster. Across the top in huge black capitals it read, “School Charity Week”.

Charity Week was a highlight of our school year. It was organized by staff and 6th-formers to raise money for local organizations. We pupils enjoyed five days of limited misrule, when roles could be reversed and chaos was tolerated. You could pay ten pence for a bucket of water to throw over the prefects, and buy tickets to watch male teachers and boys contend for the title of Miss Smithills. We handed over our pocket money for the privilege of swapping uniform grey skirts and sweaters for trendy jeans and a Starsky cardie. There were fun sports too, and that year one of them was advertised on the large yellow poster outside the hall: “5-A-SIDE INDOOR FOOTBALL COMPETITION. Write your team name and form in the column below.”

"Blinkin' 'eck!" I thought. My head buzzed. My bag fell from my shoulder. I knelt and fumbled at the zip, pulled it open and fished around for a black marker. At the top of the poster with a somewhat shaky hand I wrote: Jimmy’s Angels, form 4H.

Jimmy's Angels. That was us, a bunch of football mad girls. It had all kicked off the previous September when classes had resumed after summer holidays. A new girl had started in our year, Katy Cook. Her dad had got a job in Bolton and the family had moved from Scotland. Scottie, as Katy soon became known, joined our form. Initially we thought she was shy, standing on her own at break times, watching the rest of us through dark, intense eyes.

One dinnertime, Sue, Alison and I were playing our own version of football, kicking a tennis ball around, tripping over ourselves and giggling at our awkwardness. We were unaware that two girls were taking an interest in our larks; Scottie and another girl, Joanne.

The bell sounded for afternoon classes and we tumbled back inside, shouting and jostling with all the other kids. I flopped behind my desk and Scottie came over.

“D’ye play futeball every dinnertime?”

“Yeh, mostly. Why?”

“I used to play in the gerrls’ team at my old school in Scotland.”

I sat up. “You’re kidding. You mean you had a school football team for girls?”

“Aye, our games teacher taught us.”

I was astonished. "Blimey," I said, "I wish we could play football instead of hockey".

"Ye could still get a team together".

"Yeh, but we've nowhere to practise".

Joanne sidled over. “You could practise at my place”.

Joanne was an old friend from junior school days. She was confident and bossy with steel grey eyes and a face full of freckles. Her dad was a headmaster who lived on-site, and when the pupils went home, Joanne had the run of the playground.

So Jimmy’s Angels was born, Jimmy for our form teacher Jim Makinson, and Angels for our favourite television program, Charlie’s Angels. Joanne took on the role of team manager since she was hosting the training sessions. Scottie was coach, captain and striker, and as yet I was the only player.

Our first practice was a disaster. The following week we were grateful for the long, white school socks which hid our scratched and bruised shins. Throughout term we cajoled different girls to try out for the team, and with Scottie's knowledge we made steady progress. By Christmas Jimmy’s Angels included forwards Joanne and Scottie, defenders Jane and me, Tracy in goal, and reluctant substitutes Sue and Alison.

Training continued throughout January and February, and we hoped that one day we’d have the opportunity to show what we were capable of. I believed that moment had arrived with the Charity Week 5-a-side competition.

By morning break, the boys had discovered our audacity.

Jasper shouted over, “Jimmy’s Angels? Is that what you call yourselves, Teapot?” Teapot wasn't my real name of course, and Jasper wasn't really called Jasper, but he could do a Birmingham accent and bore a slight resemblance to Carrott the comedian. We rarely used a first name if we could find a nickname.

“Yeh, so what?”

“A girls’ team? You've got to be kidding”.

Jonno joined in, “Girls are useless.”

Thommo scoffed, “We’ll thrash you. Girl’s can’t play football for toffee.”

That was what they thought, but I knew better. We ignored the boys’ taunts and steeled ourselves for four weeks’ intensive training.

The following day Jonno and Thommo, both in my class, approached Joanne and me as we were kicking a ball back and forth.

“Oy. You two. You can’t take part in the football competition.”

“Oh yeh? Who says?”

“It’s the rules. Only two teams from each form. There’s already two from 4H.”

They ran off laughing.

There were no rules written on the poster when I'd added our team name to it yesterday. And even if this thing about rules was true, which I doubted, Jimmy's Angels were first on the list. If there was a limited number of entries, surely it would be organized on the basis of first-come-first-served. Surely that would be fair? We had a right to play. I called an emergency team meeting, and Joanne, Scottie and I went to see the teacher in charge, Mr Brown. We ambushed him outside the staff room.

“Sir, some boys just told us we couldn’t play in the 5-a-side football competition because there’s already two boys’ teams entered from our form.”

He shrugged. “Well, if those are the rules ...”

“But sir, it’s not fair. We put our names down first, sir. Before anybody else.”

Mr Brown sighed. We were keeping him from his coffee. “I’m sorry girls, it’s nothing to do with me. Take it up with Mike Pearson, he’s organising it.”

He swung open the staff room door and rushed through, his black gown billowing behind him.

“So what do we do now?”

“We talk to Mike Pearson," I said. "There’s still a month before the competition and I’m not giving up that easily.”

But even as I said it, my heart sank. This was going to be one of those “boys play football and girls don’t” sorts of things. Mike’s excuse was that the school couldn’t accept responsibility if we girls were injured playing against the boys, but we regularly had mixed gym lessons, so I didn’t accept that. We returned to Mr Brown who fobbed us off again with, “I’ll think about it.”

On Friday, after 3 days of prevarication, Mr Brown reiterated that we couldn’t play. It was so unfair. We didn’t want to back down, but all that week we'd heard boys muttering that they wouldn’t play a match against a girls’ team. “We won’t be able to play rough” I heard one lad say. “What if we hurt 'em? Boys playing girls - it’s just not right.”

What we wanted was fair access to the competition, a fair fight, and to be judged on our skill. If we went ahead we knew that any success would be attributed to the boys letting us win, and any failure would be because we were girls. Jimmy’s Angels quietly gave up the fight.

A week before the competition was due to start, Mike Pearson came to find me.

“You’d better check the notice board", he said. "You’re playing next Friday.”

I ran down the corridor, deaf to Mr Ford's cry of “You girl! Stop running!”. The board was a jumble of papers and drawing pins, but one large sheet contained a fixtures list. I scanned it top to bottom, and right down at the end, one game was scheduled between Jimmy’s Angels and Finch’s Fillies. The school had compromised by setting up a girls’ competition and somehow they'd found another five lasses willing to take us on.

We practised every day for a week, passing, tackling, blocking and shooting. It was worth every sore muscle and grazed elbow. We grabbed our victory and waved it high with an incredible 16 goals to nil, most of them scored by Scottie. The boys were amazed and offered genuine congratulations, not only on the win, but also on our skill.

We had hopes that in the following school year we could persuade the games teacher to let girls learn football, but it wasn’t to be. Mr Clements the headmaster, had academic success on his mind. He was chasing exam results and replaced our sports lessons with extra classes in history and French. Nonetheless, I like to think that in some very small way Jimmy's Angels got folk thinking about women's professional football, and added their own little paving stone to the path that led to the Lionesses' 2022 victory.

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