Liz Deighan: North-east football pioneer whose greatest legacy stands on Merseyside…
Born: c. 1953, Northumberland
Debut: France (H) 7 November 1974
Occupation: Computer programmer (1981), electronic test engineer (1983), technical training tutor (1991)
Deighan upped sticks from her native Northumberland to football-daft Merseyside as a teenage centre-forward, reportedly to improve her game. If that’s partly true, it might not have been the whole story. She enjoyed a high-powered career outside football and must have been about university age at the time she relocated.1
When she made her England bow in a 2–0 win over France she was 21 and playing for WFA Cup-holders Fodens. Tommy Tranter handed debuts to Deighan and future skipper Carol McCune (later Thomas) in England’s eighth official match, staged at Wimbledon FC’s Plough Lane on 7 November 1974.
Although Deighan’s early national team appearances came in attack, Lionesses team-mate Wendy Owen (2005) recalled “an excellent attacking midfielder”. It was in the engine room where Deighan was to make her mark. She was a players’ player, a driver on. Her wiry frame belied a gritty determination and a toughness rarely matched in players twice her size.
In September 1975 England were back at Plough Lane, facing a Sweden team who had handed them a first ever defeat that June in Gothenburg. Deighan had apparently moved on from Sandbach-based Fodens and was now listed as a Southport player. The Swedes’ FA records credit Deighan with England’s sole goal in a miserable 3–1 defeat.
Deighan retained the number 10 jersey for England’s next match; a 2–1 win over the Netherlands in May 1976 at Borough Park rugby ground, Blackpool. But she was absent from the list for the Pony Wine Home Championships later that month, as Tranter shuffled his pack.
In April 1977 Deighan scored in England’s 9–1 thrashing of Switzerland at Hull’s Boothferry Park. She was a late inclusion in the XI which beat Belgium 3–0 at The Dell, Southampton, before a record 5,471 fans on 28 October 1978. She wowed the watching England men’s boss Ron Greenwood, who branded her “the female Kevin Keegan”.
By this stage Deighan had moved on from Southport to St Helens, who formed in 1976. She was part of the 1980 WFA Cup-winning team who eliminated holders Southampton then beat local rivals Preston 1–0 in the final at Enfield. Hirsute Spurs icon Ricky Villa was guest of honour and handed over the trophy.
In the 1981 final on home turf at Knowsley Road rugby ground, St Helens crashed 4–2 to resurgent Southampton in a Battle of the Saints.2
Two years later, a titanic tussle with Doncaster Belles at Sincil Bank, Lincoln, was lost 3–2. Deighan’s late “neatly executed free kick” gave St Helens hope but a goal in each half by Belles founder Sheila Stocks secured Donny’s first Cup win.
Meanwhile, UEFA had belatedly organised a European Championship and wise old head Deighan was one of England manager Martin Reagan’s on-field lieutenants. The Danish FA reckon she scored the semi-final first leg winner at Gresty Road, although WFA records attribute the goal to Debbie Bampton.
In the final first leg in Gothenburg, it was backs to the wall stuff. Reagan’s midfield trio of Coultard, Bampton and Deighan were compact and disciplined. The slight figure of Deighan bristled with nervous energy throughout, typifying England’s gutsy defeat.
The emergence of Hope Powell and Brenda Sempare signified the end of Deighan’s tenure as an England first-teamer. She started the Euro 1987 campaign as a squad player, coming off the bench in the opening 4–0 win over Scotland at Deepdale on St Patrick’s Day 1985. She was left out of the party for the 1985 Mundialito that August and remained two caps shy of her half-century.
Spotting the writing on the wall, Deighan told the Lancashire Evening Post:
“I don’t know how long I can go on playing. It may be my last season for England but I am also aware that manager Martin Reagan is keen to bring in younger players with a view to the future and that I might be dropped after the Preston match.”
In the 1987 Cup final at Nottingham’s City Ground, Deighan captained St Helens to another gallant defeat by Doncaster Belles. Manager John Mayer’s withering verdict on the WFA’s shambolic post-match arrangements got the club booted out of the following year’s competition.
On the subject of his skipper, Saints boss Mayer affectionately quipped in his 1987 WFA News column: “Her Geordie dialect causes many problems, nobody understands a bloody word she’s saying, we just nod and agree with her…”
At Wallsend, young Deighan had Vera Elland as a role model and mentor. Her prodigious talent developed among a crop of players blooded by the legendary female coach.
Reforms at the Women’s Football Association in 1986–87 – including league and boundary changes – proved controversial. Deighan was a beneficiary, though, as she scooped a new job as north west regional coach.
This was shortly after Pat Firth, notable as England’s first hat-trick scorer, took the Yorkshire and Humberside gig in January 1987. In doing so Firth became the first female regional coach.
Deighan had the trust of Martin Reagan and when an England under-21 team was mooted she got the nod as coach. She promptly arranged trials at Lilleshall, 3–5 July 1987: “expenses to be met by the individuals themselves, £36,” the WFA News reported.
Eight of the squad at the 1995 World Cup were products of Deighan’s successful under-21 setup. But the rudderless WFA was fast running out of time – Reagan was sacked and his replacement Barrie Williams was soon following him out the door. Deighan also lost her post to Williams’ stopgap replacement John Bilton, before the under-21 team was scrapped altogether.
Deighan was particularly miffed at this turn of events, having given up the regional job for the under-21s. Predictably, the folly had a deleterious effect on the senior national team. Under the FA things continued to drift aimlessly until 2004 (2004!) when an under-21 side was finally reinstated under Hope Powell.
In 1989 Deighan founded Newton Ladies, the team who would eventually become Liverpool Ladies. Thumbing her contact book she cobbled together some old St Helens mates and drafted in players from reigning WFA Cup-winners Leasowe Pacific. The team debuted at the pre-season Lancashire Cup and served notice of their intentions by carrying off the trophy.
Newton finished 5th and then third in two seasons in the regional NWWRL, then teamed up with Knowsley United – a now-defunct men’s non-League team – to join the inaugural national league in 1991–92. At this point 38-year-old Deighan brought the curtain down on her glittering playing career to focus on management.
Under Deighan Knowsley had a great DIY ethic: left-back Jill “Thommo” Thomas was the club secretary and forwards Viv Cutbill and Diane Woollam the press and PR officers, respectively. National treasure Sylvia Gore was club development officer.
An ambitious transfer spree in the summer of 1992 landed England stalwarts Clare Taylor and Kerry Davis. The team reached the Premier League Cup final at Wembley, played as a low-key curtain-raiser to one of the interminably dull Sheffield Wednesday versus Arsenal men’s Cup finals taking place that season.3
Arsenal won and their manager Vic Akers opined that the match might have gone over better with a sceptical public if it was billed as Arsenal v Liverpool. Whether they took Vic at his word or the wheels were already in motion, Knowsley duly came under the wing of England’s most successful male club Liverpool in time for the 1994–95 season.
But by then Deighan had already had enough and quit in 1993. She brought in ex-England pal Angie Gallimore from Wigan as player-manager and moved upstairs to take a symbolic role as honorary chairperson. She told Sue Lopez in Women on the Ball (1997):
“I retired completely from the game in 1993. Managing my club was taking over my life, and was starting to jeopardise my full-time job as I was getting so many phone calls at work. I recently asked how I could become involved at a higher level again and was told to get involved locally. I’ve started helping out a bit at Preston Rangers.”
The original tie-up saw newly-minted Liverpool Ladies playing a couple of matches per season at Anfield, which helped to land a sponsorship with DHL. Since then the relationship with the male club has waxed and (usually) waned. A shake up in 2013 saw the introduction of an alleged “one club mentality” and investment in top notch players who captured back-to-back WSL titles.
At this stage a penny for founding mother Deighan’s thoughts would surely have given food for thought!
In 2015 Gill Coultard commended Deighan as the best female player currently outside the English Football Hall of Fame.
1. In a March 2017 interview with Sportsister, Deighan clarified that she did move purely for football reasons, leaving behind a job at the DSS. She had been playing for Wallsend but needed better competition after getting on the national team’s radar. Sylvia Gore helped fix her up with a job on Merseyside.↩
2. Women’s Football Archive hasn’t yet got the line-ups and scorers for this final, so it remains ‘a book with seven seals’. It’s of particular interest in case suspected all-time Cup final record goalscorer Pat Chapman got on the score sheet. Please get in touch if you can help!↩
3. Thanks to those of you who pointed out this Wembley match actually took place before a Football League play-off final between fourth-tier Crewe Alexandra and York City.↩
Further reading: Deighan’s January 2018 interview with the WFA History website.