Linda Whitehead: A lifetime’s dedication to women’s football in England
In late 1980 a Sports Council handout let the Women’s Football Association hire its first paid employee: an ‘Administrative Assistant’. Blackburn’s bright and ambitious Linda Whitehead swept into the WFA’s swanky Westminster offices, wowed the interview panel and got the job.
In her 2013 interview with the estimable Girlstalkfooty website — delivered in flat vowels betraying her North West roots — Whitehead admitted her surprise at getting the gig.
Whitehead’s CV boasted a football background through short spells as PA to the commercial manager at Blackburn Rovers and Bolton Wanderers. After quitting teacher training college, she also spent a year on Mothercare’s management development programme and worked as a secretary for an engineering firm in Blackburn.
A football fan (Blackburn Rovers, with a soft spot for Birmingham City), Whitehead never played the game herself – her genius is for sports administration. On occasions when a ball came near her, she would even pick it up and chuck it back instead of kicking it.
Up against it from the start, Whitehead and the WFA operated in an extremely hostile environment for women’s football. Loons would send in rambling letters about Deuteronomy 22:5. Others found outlets for their antipathy which, while not as overtly deranged, were no less dangerous. Whitehead also copped some internal flak as the only salaried employee in what was always a completely voluntary organisation.
She must have needed thick skin and – at times – sharp elbows. But Whitehead quickly shored up her power base and by 1982 was the WFA’s secretary as well as administrator.
Life at the WFA was never dull. In April 1988 the Football League held a ‘Mercantile Credit Football Festival’ at Wembley and told the WFA to get a friendly organised. Holland had already been pencilled in when the organisers announced that the slot was only 15 minutes each-way.
The fiasco drew a stinging response from the Dutch FA: “women’s football is not a circus”. Whitehead took a more considered line, telling the Football League that the cancellation knocked a potential 5,000 fans off the event’s puny attendance. The 15 minutes each-way match went ahead though, with plucky Ireland standing in at late notice.
Barnsley-supporting women’s football historian Donna Woodhouse (2003) reported that Whitehead controversially moved the WFA’s offices from London to Manchester’s Corn Exchange in 1988.
To Whitehead it was a no-brainer to leave behind the Big Smoke’s exorbitant rents and life as a small fish in a big pond. But it put her at loggerheads with the other WFA officers, who were said to be hopping mad.
The Sunday Times Sportswoman of the Year Awards, the brainchild of pioneering sportswriter Sue Mott, made Whitehead their 1989 Administrator of the Year.
In 1986 Whitehead had invited the Football Trust’s Richard Faulkner (later Baron Faulkner of Worcester) into the WFA. A Labour Party grandee and quango regular, it was a major feather in the WFA’s cap to have someone of that calibre in the ranks.
Little did Whitehead know then that she had signed the WFA’s death warrant. Faulkner promptly set about rerouting Sports Council and Football Trust funding through the FA. In 1991 he deliberately nobbled the WFA by quitting as chairman, leaving them high and dry and making his goal of an FA takeover inevitable.
Many men view attempts by women to take up playing the game as tantamount to an invasion of privacy — Linda Whitehead, 1988
The potless WFA then spent a year or two drifting, rudderless. In an unguarded moment Whitehead’s frustrations boiled over: “it’s always the men who cause the problems,” she snapped. Woodhouse (2003) reported that the FA already had sneaky tentacles in women’s football since at least 1990, through their competitions department.
When the FA finally stepped in and wound up the WFA in 1993, Whitehead was made redundant. A folly which enraged the managers of the leading clubs, set things back many years and made the FA look profoundly clueless. Sadly, the pattern was set.
It speaks to Whitehead’s dignity and character that she stayed on as unpaid secretary of the National League in 1993–94.
When the FA took over direct running of the Women’s National League in 1994–95, an influx of County FA blazers dominated the new management committee. Much impetus was lost and progress stifled.
Although Whitehead and one or two other stalwarts remained, they were marginalised and not allowed to rock what became quite a cushy boat. Chairman and vice Chairman Peter Hough (Dorset) and Ray Kiddell (Norfolk) are still snoozing through meetings and munching complementary sandwiches 20 years later!
Football’s loss was athletics’ gain as Whitehead was soon snapped up by the South of England Athletic Association (SEAA), which remains her day job. A confirmed workaholic, she considers it a perk that the SEAA later let her carry on her football commitments in her own time.
Football was in Whitehead’s blood and in 1998 she was installed as Millwall Lionesess secretary. She had a tough act to follow: replacing Sue Prior who had been ousted in the most shameful episode in that great club’s long history.
In 2001 Arsenal Ladies boss Vic Akers headhunted Whitehead for a match day administrator and UEFA co-ordinator role. She became a valued part of the club’s expensive off-field operation and scooped an FA Special Achievement Award in 2007. In recent seasons Arsenal hit a slump and failed to qualify for Europe, scaling back Whitehead’s involvement somewhat.
She proudly attended Buckingham Palace in 2013 as one of 150 volunteers to be honoured as part of the FA’s 150th anniversary. Also that year Whitehead and Pat Gregory were presented with a commemorative stone at the FA Women’s Awards, belated and inadequate recognition of the WFA’s achievements against all the odds.
When England debuted at the new Wembley in November 2014, being horsed 3–0 by Germany, Anna Kessel’s pre-match article in The Guardian said of Whitehead:
The answer to almost every question regarding the history of women’s football since 1980 is “You’ll have to ask Linda Whitehead for that”.