Walker, Smith and Coultard meet their public at Doncaster roadshow
A joint venture between women’s soccer bible She Kicks and Women’s Soccer Zone, #SHEKICKSBACK aimed to correct the perception that women’s football is rootless by publicly grilling big name players. It was manna from heaven for women’s football anoraks!
As well as being the editor of She Kicks, Jen O’Neill played to a high standard with Sunderland. The north-easterner is steeped in the game. So she was uniquely qualified to pull off the event and did an excellent job as host and interviewer.
Kieran Theivam who runs Women’s Soccer Zone was a sort of compère. Sharp-suited and clutching his iPad, Theivam greeted you in his soothing podcast voice then ticked you off the digital register.
With O’Neill on this momentous occasion were Belles legend Karen Walker and chirpy TV scouser Sue Smith, as well as a very special mystery guest…
The great and good of this famous old club descended on Doncaster’s Cask Corner Dive Bar, resulting in a healthy turnout. Everywhere you looked sparked vague flickers of recognition, faces who grin out from photos of Belles triumphs in years gone by. Gail Borman a prime example.
Janet Milner’s shock of blonde hair was also in evidence, a familiar sight for regulars at the Keepmoat where she is a steward. Goalie Milner was herself capped by England before a knee injury scuppered her Belles career and she turned her hand to coaching little ‘uns.
Legendary Liverpool manager Bill Shankly famously invited the press corps to circumnavigate his strapping new centre-half Ron Yeats. In much the same way, guests had to circumnavigate Belles’ current skipper Leandra Little to get to the bar!
Other dignitaries included founder Sheila Edmunds, high-powered exec Faye Lygo and influential fans’ chief Sarah Maye. There was a smattering of youngsters, who must have been youth teamers, some with their dads in tow.
It all added up to a very special vibe, if not an aura. If the #SHEKICKSBACK roadshow rolls round to Doncaster again there’s surely fertile ground for a follow up.
A range of drinks were available with Peroni (£4) among the offerings. On one occasion Peroni’s barrel needed changing so a Czech alternative, named Zot, or similar, was pressed into action. The crisps were of the premium, kettle chip variety: thick and crunchy but with a somewhat oily aftertaste.
The bubbly barmaid addressed customers as Doll. It seemed like a quaint Doncastrianism but subsequent checks with genuine Doncaster folk trashed this theory. The cosy venue afforded a handful of seats in three short rows as well as one or two comfy pleather sofas and standing room at the back.
Bizarre decor (“random tat” was overheard) adorned the walls and was suspended from the ceiling. Worryingly, one such item was a dusty scythe – which ensured grisly Final Destination-style visions marred the evening for those sitting underneath.
First up was Karen, or Kaz, Walker and it quickly became clear why the organisers had sought her out. She was a straight-talking embodiment of what journos term “good value”.
She quipped that no-one understands her Barnsley accent, even in Hull where she works as a cop. Throughout proceedings, extroverted Walker called it exactly as she saw it. As well she might. No offence to Hull, but its hard to imagine too many shrinking violets policing its gritty streets!
She joined the Belles as a teen because her next door neighbour Karen “Skiller” Skillcorn was already there. After the centre-forward (this must be Lorraine Hanson?) got pregnant Walker nailed down a regular place up front. She soon discovered a happy knack for rattling in goals.
Walker voiced a suspicion that the best players in the South would all hop from team to team, congregating at places like Fulham and Millwall. All part of a dastardly plot to try and topple the Belles.
It does have a ring of truth about it. Remarkably Sallie Jackson won three successive WFA Cups with three different Southern teams in ’84, ’85 and ’86, dumping the Belles in all three finals. Perhaps a future edition of #SHEKICKSBACK will track down Jackson for the other side of the story?
Walker said she was taken to the 1988 Mundialito tournament for squad experience, but was pressed into action when Jane Stanley fainted during the first match. She scored with her first touch in England’s 3–0 win over hosts Italy’s B team.
She remained proud of her record – surely never to be broken – of hitting a hat-trick in every round of the FA Women’s Cup, including the final. This got the first clap of the night. Although she’d forgotten the year and the opposition (It was Red Star Southampton in 1992, fact fans).
In a surprising development, Walker namechecked the recent FAWPL Charity Trophy match in Stratford as one of the best moments of her career. Her face lit up as she described how magical it was to be reunited with old pals from bygone England days. Brenda Sempare got a mention in this context.
O’Neill asked about the time England boss Ted Copeland summarily bombed Walker out. Instead of buttonholing her after training or picking up the phone, Copeland instead typed up and posted Walker a litany of alleged defects in her game.
Sadly this intriguing piece of football history has been lost. Walker now sees the funny side, but still bristles at the suggestion that she didn’t work hard or wasn’t a team player. She wondered aloud if her habit of sticking up for others had left Copeland’s nose out of joint.
Copeland soon had egg on his face when Karen Farley, England’s other powerhouse forward, blew her knee out. That left veteran midfielder Hope Powell leading the line for England’s Euro 1997 qualification play-off against Spain in September 1996.
A toothless defeat cost England a place at the finals. There had even been chat of England hosting. All the experience, exposure and (probably) funding that would have gone with it went up in smoke. With the benefit of hindsight it was not one of Ted’s better decisions!
Despite all her success, Walker – a self-confessed Manchester United fan – admitted to limited actual football knowledge. She would implore her team-mates: “Just cross it in!” So she never went into coaching or kept up the punditry after dabbling at the 2007 World Cup.
Current Belle Sue Smith replaced Walker for the next segment, a different proposition with at least a couple more chapters still to be written in her own brilliant career.
She had a polished and relaxed speaking style, honed by her years of media work. On occasion O’Neill playfully teased behind the diplomatic responses: “What’s the non media-friendly answer?”
Smith became firm friends with Rachel Yankey, despite being rivals for England’s left-wing berth. The pals share a sunny disposition and a similar outlook on life. As dressing room young guns they were the practical jokers with a string of pranks behind them.
Special guest – Gill Coultard:
The night’s special guest was revealed as none other than ex-Belles and England stalwart Gill Coultard. After being clapped up onto the stage, Coultard’s answers were usually quieter and more considered than Walker and Smith’s – but just as engaging.
It was soon clear that, unlike Walker, deep thinker Coultard keeps bang up to date with the women’s football whirligig. Her eyes seemed to twinkle with pride as O’Neill expertly reeled off some career highlights.
The biggest cheer of the night went up for Coultard’s greatest achievement of all: beating breast cancer. Ten years cancer-free, she told the applauding audience.
It was no surprise. Week after week, year after year this great champion was out in the middle of the pitch waiting for the very best the opposition could throw at her.
As Coultard still had her finger on the pulse she could cover ground Walker couldn’t. Did she think money would spoil women’s football like the men’s? Things are heading that way. Did she think too many WSL foreigners could harm young English players’ development? It was a worry.
All three players displayed a startling lack of bitterness, considering today’s England players get everything on a plate and pull down serious spondulicks into the bargain. While acknowledging their own part in moving things on, they insisted they’d not swap a minute of their careers.
The first question from the floor asked the panel how come they never signed for foreign teams. Smith, who at one time had American colleges falling over themselves, said she never fancied it as her family and mates took precedence.
Ditto Coultard and Walker, who dubbed themselves “home birds”. A knowledgeable comeback from the questioner mentioned Scots great Rose Reilly and the pro Italian league of the day.
Walker agreed that she would have made a decent fist of Serie A (like Reilly rather than costly flops like Luther Blissett and Mark Hateley). But she was just too proud to play for the best team in the country and too loyal to those who gave her the chance.
Next up: which male player were the panel most often compared to by the press? Walker and Coultard shot each other a glance and appeared to be stumped by this one.
Of course in Coultard’s case the correct answer to this question was Bryan Robson, or sometimes Sammy Lee. In many respects Coultard was the player ‘Captain Marvel’ Robson could have been, if he reined in the bevvying and stopped picking up daft injuries.
Smith demurred although at another point in the night she told an anecdote – about getting marooned in a rowing boat – which was striking in its similarity to a famous maritime mishap which befell Celtic’s Jimmy Johnstone. “Wee Jinky” would have approved of Smith’s skilful wing play.
Barrie Williams, briefly manager of England in 1991, once gave an interview hailing Walker as the female Kevin Keegan. Although that may have had more to do with the fashionable perm she was sporting at the time!
Another questioner had a slightly different twist on the same theme: which current player was most like the panelists themselves?
Fara Williams was Coultard’s verdict, as she praised the Liverpool midfielder’s influential displays at the recent World Cup. She was much too modest to say it, but perhaps Coultard could be described as marrying Williams’s finesse with a dash of Katie Chapman’s steel.
Walker came clean, saying she couldn’t answer as she hadn’t seen enough recent stuff. O’Neill ventured the name Julie Fleeting and said if only the Ayrshire hotshot had been English, Walker’s loss may not have been so keenly felt by the Lionesses.
Asked for her view, Belles supremo Sheila Edmunds shouted from the floor that neither the club nor England had ever replaced Walker. That’s probably true and you might need to widen the net to include recently-retired Yank Abby Wambach to find a recent facsimile of Walker’s all-action style.
Another fine exponent of getting across the pitch and defending from the front was Gutteridge, recently of Sunderland. Grafter Gutteridge stood out by playing with her hair down and never gave defenders a second’s peace, although she lacked Walker’s myriad other attributes.
Then came Women’s Football Archive’s moment in the sun: what were Walker and Coultard’s memories of their first England boss Martin Reagan?
With a chuckle they settled on “eccentric”, unimpressed by Reagan’s droll habit of teaming snug-fitting sports shorts with sensible dress shoes and socks. Walker also remembered her debut when the ball was blasted into Reagan’s face from close range. Remaining inscrutable, he never even flinched.
Both had obvious affection for the man who gave them their shot at being England players, albeit they weren’t too sure of his footballing credentials.
With a smile Coultard recalled Reagan’s strong faith. He would get WFA boss Linda Whitehead on the case wherever England were playing: “Have you found me a church yet Linda?”
During World War Two the mysterium tremendum et fascinans came upon Reagan in his tank after he cheated death. Then he witnessed the spectacle of three horses galloping across a field only for the middle one to be exploded by a land mine.
To be fair, if he wasn’t a religious man before his wartime exploits, you can see why he was afterwards!
The names Becky Easton and Karen Burke cropped up in dispatches once or twice. They were scousers but adopted Doncastrians. Salt of the earth types who impressed everyone when they came to play for the Belles and wove themselves into the fabric of the club.
By all accounts Chantel Woodhead was every bit as kooky as her portrayal immortalised in Pete Davies’s I Lost My Heart to the Belles (1996). Tough Huddersfield lass Sam Britton got into countless scrapes down the years, the recollection of which raised laughs all round.
Just when it seemed nothing could top that, it was said that any stories involving Jo Broadhurst were off-limits. Too X-rated even for the post watershed audience. The mind boggles…
It was the day before Sue Smith’s birthday, so a cake materialised amidst a rousing rendition of Happy Birthday. Theivam bounded back on stage to announce the night’s proceeds were winging their way to a breast cancer charity.
With that it was out the doors and back to reality with a depressing thud. Freezing, horizontal rain battered the concrete dystopia of Doncaster town centre. A local simpleton harangued passers by as the grim A1 beckoned.
Ho hum. When’s #SHEKICKSBACK 3?