When Martin Reagan went in to bat for women’s football

Martin Reagan (1924–2016): The man who stepped up to save women’s football in England


Women’s football lost one of our own with Martin Reagan’s recent passing, but his deeds will never be forgotten




In May 1984 the England women’s football team manager Martin Reagan returned from Gothenburg with a creditable 1–0 defeat for his team, and a blueprint for soccer success. Ex-pro Reagan knew exactly what England needed to do to reel in their continental rivals: copy the Super Swedes. In the days before women’s football was trendy he proudly shouted his support from the rooftops. But his sterling efforts were thwarted at every turn, by an unholy alliance of Football Association intransigence and – yes – sex bias, which was still firmly rooted in 20th Century British life.


While in Sweden for the first-leg of the Euro 84 final, intrepid England boss Martin Reagan peeked under the hood of the Swedes’ enviable talent production line.


In England’s 1–0 defeat he’d seen debutantes Anette Hansson and Lena Videkull roll off a seemingly endless conveyor belt of soccer powerhouses.


So Reagan’s second-leg programme notes spelled out a stark warning for English footy chiefs:


An official of the Swedish F.A. told us that they have recently held a residential coaching course for three hundred and fifty selected eleven-year-old girls; in six or seven years from now, our national squad will have to face the products of this hard and intensive work; other countries are working along similar lines. In England, there are few opportunities for girls under sixteen to play football, in fact, many of them are actively discouraged from playing; even after that age, it can be far from easy to take up the game.


Potentially, we have in women’s football, one of the largest team sports in this country, but unless we revise some of our attitudes towards it, we will have to watch our colleagues abroad draw further and further away from us, and the eventual World Cup for women, which is surely not far distant, will only be of academic interest to the country which gave football to the world.


Sadly, this cri de coeur went unheeded. Not only for want of funds, although there was that, but mainly for entrenched views about exactly what society might permit its ‘young ladies’ to do.


Today, this pervasive ideological trash would likely be seen for what it is. But maybe that’s still the purview of sociology boffins.


In narrow terms of trying to nurture international footballers, it left Reagan mining diamonds in a paddy field.


And for a while he did. England gave Sweden a game at the 1987 Euros and, to a lesser extent, at the Wembley friendly in 1989.


But lo, his prediction came to pass. Seven years after the 1984 final Sweden beat Germany to bronze at the first FIFA World Cup in China.


England sat at home, recipients of a German football lesson at Euro 91, the de-facto qualifiers for the World Cup.


The plucky Lionesses had no answer to the pace, power and movement of star striker Heidi Mohr.


After the WFA’s short-sighted and badly-handled sacking of Reagan, England went backwards at a rate of knots.


By the time of the 1995 World Cup, FA-run England qualified only because, this time, they were taken apart by Germany in the Euro semi-final instead of the quarter-final.


But in development terms World Cup hosts Sweden now represented a dancing dot on England’s horizon.


At a pre-tournament friendly in Halmstad the Swedes barely got out of first gear, handing pitiful England a drubbing: 4–0 going on 10–0.


Blågult protagonists including Kicki Bengtsson, Malin Andersson (Lovén) and Anna Pohjanen were graduates of the residential coaching system Reagan wanted to mirror.


They ran rings around their outclassed English opponents, whose part-time coach Ted Copeland was still wrestling with his best line-up and tactics on the eve of the tournament.


Clare Taylor scored an own goal but her attempts to laugh it off – and pick team morale up off the floor – fell on stony ground with the management.


In Pete Davies’s magnum opus I Lost my Heart to the Belles (1996), England substitutes Karen Walker and Jo Broadhurst both clocked that the gap was now a yawning chasm:


At half-time it was 0–0 so he [Copeland] came into the dressing-room and told them well done, Sweden hadn’t scored, they were panicking, they didn’t know where goals were going to come from – and Kaz [Walker] thought, they looked like they had a chuffin’ sight better idea where goals came from than England did. Sweden won 4–0 and England never had a shot all game.


Forlorn lone striker Karen Farley barely had a sniff of the ball, let alone a crack at goal. Having quit Millwall Lionesses for Sweden’s Damallsvenskan four years earlier, she told Davies:


The opportunities girls get here, the possibilities – you can get proper coaching twice a week when you’re twelve. There’s so much backing and sponsorship, we’ve got all the facilities, we never have to worry about a pitch. And people know you in the street, it’s in the sports pages every day – it’s so different. But it’s just the way this society is, isn’t it? The way it’s always treated women, never mind women’s football – it’s just better isn’t it? I wouldn’t go back.


From this sad nadir, England very slowly clawed back the lost ground. In 1997–98, The FA finally instituted a plan of sorts – after decades of dragging their feet.


Shamelessly, after giving him the rubber ear treatment during his decade-long spell in charge, the bungling blazers then tried to pass a host of Reagan’s ideas off as their own.


In Women on the Ball (1997) the great Sue Lopez noted:


Martin cared deeply about football, and women’s football in particular, and he had some positive ideas, which he suggested early on, about the development of girls’ and women’s football through the counties. Some 15 years later, his development ideas have become policy.


Lopez also cited the man himself, who by this stage was happily sunning himself Stateside, coaching American kids:


There were models to be seen abroad, but from outside the WFA there seemed to be little interest. Those with the power and the authority, for whatever reason, were not aware of the needs, or committed to improvement. There was a desperate need at this time for greater awareness and support from other footballing bodies, who were in a position to render much more help in developing the women’s game more actively.


Now, another 15 or 20 years down the line, the fruits of these belated labours are there for all to see. The likes of Bronze and Houghton could play in any team in the world.


Under FA company man Mark Sampson, England can confidently go toe-to-toe with Pia Sundhage’s Swedes at this year’s Euros. Though neither team are expected to trouble perennial champs Germany.


All-in-all, it’s better late than never. Good football has won the day, even if the Germans still greedily hog the trophies.


The important thing is that Martin Reagan’s efforts were not in vain. Surely they must NOT be overlooked when a definitive, balanced history of English football comes to be written.


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