The Deal Tournament (later known as the Deal International Tournament) was a women’s football competition first organised in 1967 by Arthur Hobbs, a carpenter with Deal Town Council.
Hobbs had been a decent amateur footballer in his youth and he settled in Kent after being posted there with the army in the 1940s.
A driven man possessed of great energy and focus, Hobbs became The Founding Father of women’s football in England.
Visionary Hobbs pioneered summer football for women more than 40 years before the FA WSL.
To get things moving, Hobbs reckoned a high profile tournament was in order. This would bring the top players and teams together, showcase the best the game had to offer and provide a focal point.
Held over a weekend in July, players were put up in local Bed and Breakfast establishments in Deal on the Kent coast. Wendy Owen (2005) recalled that matches were 15 minutes each way and played before decent crowds, but as far as the players were concerned, the social aspects outstripped the football.
The winning combination of women’s football and a seaside jolly would be repeated in the evolution of the sport at the Algarve, La Manga, Cyprus and so on.
The local male club Deal Town FC were keen to act as hosts, and even more keen to snaffle any proceeds via the “Mayor of Deal’s Appeal Fund for Deal Town FC”.
Deal Town had left the Southern League in 1966 after a humiliating season in which they won three of 46 league games.
Records indicate they pitched up back in a reformed Kent League in 1968, after languishing in the Greater London League for two seasons.
Their modest Charles Sports Ground had hosted two low-key women’s matches during 1966–67, which apparently went under the radar.
It was into 1967’s “summer of love” that Hobbs launched his tournament. He wanted to aid the development of women’s football, to give it purpose and direction.
The Kent County FA blocked use of the ground, on the pretext that 1921’s infamous ban on women remained on the FA’s dusty statute books.
To their enormous credit, Deal Town’s chairman and one other committee member immediately quit in disgust. They fired off a suitably angry broadside to the East Kent Mercury, the local rag.
Undaunted, Hobbs was backed to the hilt in his quest by David Ennals, later Baron Ennals, the great Labour Party statesman who was the local MP.
It is sometimes overlooked that women were banned from football not only by the FA, but also, notionally at least, by the Central Council of Physical Recreation (CCPR; now the Sport & Recreation Alliance), the Government’s Department of the Environment (now part of DEFRA) and the Sports Council (now Sport England).
Kent’s famously militant miners1 came to Hobbs’ rescue and the first tournament went ahead on the playing fields of Betteshanger Colliery in Deal.
Politically savvy and always with an eye on the bigger picture, Hobbs knew he could not be seen to be funding the miners’ latest strike. Instead proceeds went to British Empire Cancer Campaign (BECC), which merged into Cancer Research UK in 2002.
Sue Lopez (1997) wrote that all teams for the inaugural edition were sourced from local workplaces or youth organizations. Staff from St Augustine’s Hospital in Canterbury, a lunatic asylum which later became notorious for its abuse of patients, also took part. Dover’s GPO (general post office) scooped the title.
For the second tournament in 1968, teams came from far and wide. The legendary Manchester Corinthians carried off the title.
Getting Corinthians involved was something of a coup for Hobbs. The Manchester outfit had drawn massive crowds all over the world, raising over £275,000 for charities like Oxfam and the Red Cross. Their veteran Secretary Manager Percy Ashley had also compiled a contact book fatter than Donald Trump’s wallet.
By 1969 52 teams entered the burgeoning tourney. Some of the more exotic entrants included Start Praha and Slavia Pramen Kaplice from Czechoslovakia, Austrians LFU from Vienna and Scottish champions, Cambuslang Hooverettes.
David Ennals MP presented the Cup to Corinthians, who retained their trophy by seeing off Deal Hockey Club in the final.
On 6 July 1969 after another successful tournament, Hobbs triumphantly announced the formation of “The Ladies Football Association of Great Britain”, which became the WFA.
In the 1970 final Southampton battled to a 0–0 draw with the Hooverettes. After normal time, a curious one-v-one sudden death penalty shootout between Southampton’s Sue Lopez and Hooverettes’ Paddy McGroarty decided the tie in the English team’s favour. Saints goalie Sue Buckett saved future England teammate McGroarty’s first effort and saw the second kick missed. Lopez also missed her first kick but gave Southampton their first trophy with her second.
1971 saw Ayrshire crackshots Stewarton & Thistle win, inspired by the incomparable Rose Reilly.
1972 was the final edition of the tournament, as the “Mitre Trophy” (WFA Cup) had started, while Hobbs stepped back from women’s football as his health failed. An upwardly mobile Thame Ladies team featuring Wendy Owen and Paddy McGroarty won the last ever title.
The second WFA Newsletter reported that 10 teams took part in 1972: Thame, Hooverettes, Southampton, Aston Villa, Willie Walker Wonders (later Watford LFC), FC Davo, Deal, Emgals, Fodens and Crystal Palace. By then, thanks to the hard work of Hobbs and others, Deal Town’s Charles Sports Ground was the venue.
Owen said that Thame’s run to the semi-finals of that year’s WFA Cup had qualified them for the Deal Tournament.
In 1975 Hobbs died after a heart attack on the Deal seafront he loved. He wrote his name in the stars. The success of the game today stands as a living, breathing monument to Arthur Hobbs’ vision.
When Team GB beat Brazil in front of a packed Wembley Stadium in the 2012 Olympics, it is tempting to imagine that Hobbs was looking down with a broad smile on his face.
||Deal Hockey Club
||Stewarton & Thistle
By the end of the swinging 60s the FA’s 1921 ban of women’s football was an anachronism. Like one of those quaint but ridiculous English laws which remain on the statute book long past their sell by date.
Y’know, like the one allowing the murder of a Scotsman within York’s walls, so long as it is with a bow and arrow.
Or the one giving a pregnant woman carte blanche to pee ANYWHERE. Even—it is said—in a policeman’s helmet.
The previous summer, England’s male footballers threw off their perennial loser status to win the 1966 World Cup at Wembley Stadium.
That sent legions of England’s little girls scurrying outside with a football, eager to emulate the figures on their grainy black and white television sets.
Then an unwelcome intrusion from the distant past arrived with a thuddering jolt. The local FA pathetically tried to ban the Deal event, pointing to the FA’s 1921 “quite unsuitable for females” edict.
In doing so Kent’s blazers marked themselves out as surely the thickest and most reactionary of all the county FAs.
But scarily they were by no means alone. This was the awful situation Hobbs’ journey started out in.
Bigotry held no truck with Hobbs. His revulsion was the motor which drove the formation of the WFA and kick-started women’s football in England.
1. A few of the more incorrigible lads had even been out on strike during World War Two!↩