Last week delivered the sad news that Prestatyn Town Ladies football team had folded before the start of the new season due to a lack of players.
However, back in 1969, the Denbighshire seaside town was making much bigger waves through its women’s soccer connection.
Exactly 50 years ago, a group of pioneering ladies from Prestatyn were at the centre of a truly remarkable tale.
Master of Nostalgia, soccer scribe Mark Jones, takes up the story……
The story of the Prestatyn Ladies Football Club begins in 1969 and is an extraordinary tale of a group of North Wales girls who rose from nowhere – playing their first game on a makeshift pitch with old car tyres for goalposts – to become one of the leading sides not just in Wales, but in the United Kingdom.
That they achieved this at a time when women’s football was seen as a total novelty and something that was not really to be taken seriously is all the more rewarding for those who were involved.
On the way up they overcame a brick wall of opposition from the FA of Wales and rose above all manner of cringe-inducing reporting, sexist ‘jokes’ and unflattering headlines in the press.
I hope that in this brief and incomplete history I do justice to a team that came from obscurity to a stage where they supplied two thirds of the players in the Welsh national side and had representatives at the 1970 Women’s World Cup in Italy.
Their ten-year story is both uplifting and inspiring and shows just what can be achieved in any walk of life if you have the determination and dedication to succeed. If the producers at S4C or BBC/ITV Wales read this, how about a documentary?
Formed in 1969 by two sport-loving sisters, Mai and Eleri Griffith, the team originally played friendlies to raise money for charity, usually against opponents who had just gathered together for the occasion as a one-off. However, the team were remarkably successful and the crowds flocked in to see these sporting girls play.
In fact, until 1996 when Prestatyn Town played a Manchester United XI to mark the centenary of Prestatyn Town Council, the record attendance at Bastion Gardens was just over 3,000 when the Ladies played Fodens, then British Ladies champions and undisputedly the best team in the UK by a country mile, on Easter Monday 1972.
The Ladies were assisted with their organisation by the late Pat Evans of Prestatyn, a Deeside fireman who was also a high-level football referee, officiating in the middle at Northern Premier and Cheshire County League games and on the line in the Football League.
Pat had run a ladies team on Deeside, the Deeside Firebelles, and they were regular opponents for Prestatyn but as the team progressed and their abilities improved, the attraction of playing occasional friendlies was beginning to wear off, but the refusal of the FA of Wales to acknowledge the distaff side of the game proved an insurmountable barrier.
Talking to the Liverpool Daily Post in May 1970, Pat said: “There must be 20 or so ladies teams in North Wales but the FAW ban has made it a struggle to get grounds. When we formed the Deeside Firebelles we had to play on some spare ground and rig up makeshift goalposts. The girls want to play soccer – they’re dead keen – why should there be any restriction on them?”
The problem was rule 34 of the FAW constitution which barred the participation of female players.
It read: “No football match in which any lady or ladies take part in any way whatsoever shall be permitted to be played on any football ground within the jurisdiction of this association. Clubs, officials, players or referees are not permitted to associate themselves in any way whatsoever with ladies’ football matches.”
So it was that ambitious outfits like Prestatyn were restricted to these well-meaning fundraisers when they really wanted the cut and thrust of league and cup football that men enjoyed.
But on May 29th 1970 one of the last bastions of the male-dominated FA of Wales was about to fall as the FA Council realised that the game was growing across the whole of Europe and, however reluctantly, they were going to have to repeal Rule 34 to keep pace with more enlightened countries such as Holland, Italy and Sweden where the women’s game was immensely popular.
Mai Griffith spoke out on behalf of her team with a distinct note of early ‘girl power’: “There has been a prejudice against ladies’ football for a long time,” she said. “This is probably a hangover from Victorian times when women were very restricted but all that has gone. If girls want to play football I see no reason at all why man-made rules should stop them.
“Girls, especially school leavers, want to take part in sport. They can enjoy soccer as much as the boys. Men must not claim everything for themselves,” she added. “It is no use saying football is too rough for women or that it is undignified. If we like it we should have the freedom to play it.”
Some of the fossils in blazers down in Cardiff grudgingly admitted the rule should change but not before they made their personal stance clear on the isuue.
Hugh Phillips, a director at Wrexham FC, said: “It’s a gimmick. With all this talk about equal pay and so on there’s no equality in soccer. It’s all right to have a ladies football match for a bit of fun but I doubt men would go and watch it for the skills of the game.
“While I agree the rule should be abolished I cannot see it making any real difference to professional soccer which is, after all, a man’s game,” he added.
Herbert Powell, the FA secretary, explained that the decision to remove the ruling was part of a broader outlook for the game. Talking to the Liverpool Daily Post he said: “It had been in the rule book for over 20 years, possibly because of a fear in those days that women’s soccer might bring the game into disrepute.”
In fairness, the FAW had not been pressurised into removing the rule but were themselves aware of a growing women’s football movement – they had hoped it would go away, but it hadn’t and they were left with no real choice but to move with the times and abolish the rule.
So it was that the restriction barring organised women’s football in Wales was lifted and their first match as a ‘proper’ team came 24 hours after the rule was changed when over 700 spectators packed into Bastion Gardens to witness a 2-2 draw with Chester Ladies.
The match – a charity game arranged by Rhyl and District Rotary Club – was kicked off by Colin Harvey, then of Everton and England, who had a local connection as he had married a girl from Trevor Road in Prestatyn.
In blazing sunshine on a bone-hard ground, the Ladies put up a fine display and went ahead on 22 minutes when Mai Griffiths’ pass found Krithia Roberts, who swept the ball home. Chester levelled then went ahead midway through the second half but ten minutes from time Mai Griffith equalised to restore parity.
The game was a huge promotional exercise for the ladies’ game and served its purpose well, the vast majority of the crowd went home suitably impressed and the tone was set for the coming season.
Further friendlies were arranged through the early summer – Llanrwst Ladies were beaten 1-0, Rhyl High School were hammered 9-0 then Mostyn Ladies were dispatched 16-1….
Frustrated by the constant stream of charity fundraiser and meaningless friendlies Prestatyn signed up to join the fledgling Merseyside and Wirral Women’s Football League, a competitive and well-run organisation with the best female teams from north west England as members, for season 1972/73 to achieve their goal of competitive match action.
The ladies’ appeal soon spread across North Wales and in November 1971 the Rotary Club of Llangefni arranged for them to play UK champions Fodens Ladies in a friendly under the floodlights at Farrar Road, home of Bangor City FC.
The weather was absolutely atrocious and bitterly cold but both teams gave it their all although Fodens ran out easy 6-1 winners. So bad was the weather that match referee Ron Bridges, then a Football League official, was forced to admit that many men’s teams would have baulked at playing in such conditions.
These fundraisers were usually played for a deserving charity but the cash-strapped football clubs of North Wales soon latched on to the idea and matches were played on behalf of Porthmadog FC, Llandudno and Rhyl, where 900 fans turned up for a game with Blackpool Seabirds.
Prestatyn FC also derived a sizeable benefit from having the girls as their ‘second team’ and manager Eddie Lloyd and Mai Griffith joined the seasiders’ committee and helped the club raise much-needed revenue by adopting Bastion Gardens as their official home ground.
The 1973/74 season began with four of the girls – Diane Tottey, defender Karen Wells, inside right Brenda Jones and Mai Griffith – named in the 25-strong squad for the final Welsh national trial at Port Talbot on October 21st. This was a massive boost for the club and all four impressed the selectors sufficiently to make the team.
The Port Talbot trial had a slightly bizarre and sad edge to it as it was a fundraiser for the family of the former captain of a ladies team in the South Wales steel town, who had recently been murdered.
In readiness for the league season the Ladies beat Halton Ladies 3-0 in a friendly thanks to an Elaine Badrock hat-trick and opened their M&WL campaign with a solid if unspectacular 1-1 draw with Southport at Bastion Gardens. A trip to United Biscuits followed and the Liverpool factory side were reduced to crumbs, 24-0.
Prestatyn’s first defeat since the previous April came in a 7-2 reverse at Southport but steady progress was maintained and by the new year the Ladies were top of the league and in the final of the League Cup, having brushed aside Halton Ladies 12-1 on aggregate in the two-legged semi-finals. Further success was to come as they progressed to the final of the Con Rogan Cup.
The girls were so keen to play that if no league or cup fixtures were arranged, then friendlies would be quickly fixed up to ensure continuity and match practice. One trip took them to Barrow-in-Furness while Stoke Ladies were the visitors for a friendly played at Bagillt.
Sadly there seemed to be no records kept beyond this point so the trail goes cold…….