Patricia “Pat” Firth: Wunderkind striker and pioneering female coach
Born: c.1957, Leeds
Debut: Scotland (H) 23 June 1973
Occupation: Production worker (1976)
Firth’s footballing story began with Swillington Saints aged nine, before, in time-honoured tradition, she was booted out at 12 for being a girl.
A women’s team in nearby Kippax took her on but they were not yet affiliated to the WFA and only played charity matches at a dismal standard.
Sheffield League team Fleece Fillies, based in Ossett, swooped to sign the precocious talent in 1970 – just in time for the historic lifting of the FA’s 1921 woman-ban.
Despite their preposterous name, derived from a local boozer, Fleece Fillies were one of the top teams in the area. Firth’s reputation grew and she was soon on the radar of England’s national team selectors.
On a scorching hot day in June 1973 Yorkshireman John Adams, England’s stand-in coach, handed Firth her Lionesses debut against the Scots at Nuneaton.
It was a massive vote of confidence in the youngster’s abilities, given Pat Davies was moved out wide to accommodate her and the powerful Eileen Foreman dropped to the bench.
Showing the fearlessness which flows from youthful exuberance, Firth famously rattled in a hat-trick in England’s 8–0 win. The Nuneaton Evening Tribune hailed the prowess of England’s new star, a: “short, stocky, chestnut-haired forward” who had only just turned 16.
Keeping her place under new coach Tommy Tranter, she went on to form an “effective strike partnership” with Elaine ‘Baddy’ Badrock according to Wendy Owen (2005). While Sue Lopez (1997) recalled: “Pat had a tremendous shot and was an excellent header of the ball”.
She started the 5–1 win over Northern Ireland at Twerton Park, Bath, on 7 September 1973 under the floodlights. Firth wasn’t just a poacher; although she didn’t score she laid on the opening goal for Jeannie Allott.
Firth scored in a 5–0 win over Wales at Slough on St. Patrick’s Day 1974, a match sponsored by an egg firm who gave all the players a carton of half-a-dozen eggs.
A carton of eggs! Given that this week Norway started paying its women’s national team players the same as the men it’s perhaps sobering to reflect on the progress made in recent times.
The Wales match programme listed Firth as a Fleece Filly but the following month she played for Foden’s in their 2–1 WFA Cup final win over Southampton.
Her England team-mate Sylvia Gore had apparently rounded up some of England’s top young players, including Firth and Liz Deighan, to bolster Sandbach-based Fodens’ chances of knocking dominant southerners Southampton off their perch.
The iconic Gore remained a friend and mentor. While managing the Welsh national team in the 1980s, she handed Firth a role in her coaching set-up.
By the Home Championship in May 1976, Firth had moved to Doncaster Belles – kick-starting the Belles’ fine tradition of supplying players to the England national team. She opened the scoring in the 4–0 win over Wales in Bedford.
Boasting a prolific nine goals in her 11 England caps, disaster struck for Firth when she blew her knee out while playing for Doncaster. She got the news NO footballer wants to hear when docs vowed she would never play again.
Firth had already clocked up a lot of football in those young legs. If her talent ran ahead of her physical development, perhaps her knees paid the price. Sports Science was in its infancy then, particularly with regard to female athletes.
The lure proved too strong and Firth was soon back involved, this time as a coach with Rowntrees LFC of York. She made a tentative playing comeback, then blew her other knee out.
But she had already put together a competitive side which, by 1983–84, included England captain Carol Thomas, her former Belles team-mate Gill Coultard and fleet-footed future England international Gail Borman.
Complemented by a smattering of competent regional-level players, like future Doncaster Belle Lorraine ‘Polly’ Young, Rowntrees reached the 1984 WFA Cup semi-final. They were edged out after a replay by eventual trophy winners Howbury Grange.
Despite her two dodgy knees Firth had kept goal for Rowntrees in the Howbury Grange games, as she extended her playing career by donning the gloves.
Also in 1984 Firth joined the small band of women with the FA Preliminary coaching licence, passing the course at Leeds alongside her old England skipper Sheila Parker and St Helens stalwarts Chris Slater and Yvonne Gagen.
Under Firth Rowntrees played attractive football; Leeds United and Scotland great Eddie Gray was known to take in their home matches on occasion. But their success rather fizzled out when Thomas retired due to pregnancy and Coultard went back to Doncaster Belles.
In January 1987 Firth made history when England coach and national coaching boss Martin Reagan appointed her regional coach for Yorkshire and Humberside, making her the first female to coach at such a senior level in England.
Romantically-named club Bronte was Firth’s next port of call. It was a change of scene as they played in the North West League despite being based near Bradford, West Yorkshire.
They must have been no strangers to the M62!
When long-serving gaffer Chris Beaumont left to take over at a local male team, Firth took the coaching reins. Again she combined her role with goalkeeping duties.
Bronte were solid in defence, boasting the talents of cricketing/football legend Clare Taylor, Scottish international Lorraine Kennedy (daughter of Bobby) and ex-England sweeper Eileen Lillyman.
In 1988–89 Firth’s charges won through to the WFA Cup semi-final at Sincil Bank, Lincoln, after shocking fancied Millwall Lionesses 3–2 in the quarter final.
But they missed out on an appearance at the televised final at Old Trafford, losing 3–0 to Friends of Fulham, for whom Livvy Hughes, Terri Springett and Hope Powell did the damage.
Flo Bilton penned a warm tribute to Firth in the April 1982 edition of the WFA’s Northern Newstime: “This remarkable girl took the international scene by storm … Pat’s first love has always been football … they did not take into consideration the determination of the lass … as with everything Pat does, she made a great job of it too.”
A small place in Rugby League history
Firth sprang from Rugby League country and cropped up in the memoirs of eminent Castleford Tigers historian Dr John Davis.
In Never to Be Forgotten: Memoirs of a Cas Follower to 2015, Davis briefly recounted his modest soccer exploits with Escrick in the “Charles Rice Under-13s Selby League”.
He recalled: “Swillington Saints had a girl playing on the wing who could dribble and cross like no-one else. They beat us 24–1 but I scored with my only shot of the game (a 100% strike rate)”.
Never mind John, that girl was no ordinary player…
Further reading: Pat Mitchell-Firth (née Firth)’s March 2020 interview at the WFA History website.