The day Norwich City raised the FA Cup
- Credit: DENISE BRADLEY/Archant2021
Ask most Norwich fans to remember the day when players won English football’s most prestigious cup competition and they’ll be at a loss.
Norwich City has never won the men’s FA Cup – imagine how often we’d have heard about it if they had – but Norwich Ladies lifted the trophy in May 1986 after a dramatic last-gasp winner against the favourites, Doncaster Belles.
It’s the greatest Norwich football victory that barely anyone knows about and it neatly represents the shameful shortfall between coverage of men’s and women’s football.
For while entire forests have been sacrificed to write about the men’s team’s League Cup wins and FA Cup semi-final appearances, the same cannot be said about Norwich’s women’s team, despite their bigger win.
Maureen Martin (nee Reynolds) has kept every single newspaper cutting, every single photograph, every single one of her written records of every game Norwich played, and every single programme from her footballing career.
And although her records are impressive and comprehensive, they represent a tiny percentage of what her male equivalent could have created from similar coverage.
She admits to a tiny bit of disappointment at the lack of recognition for the teams she played for or managed – but the lingering sweet taste of victory masks any bitterness.
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“There are very few moments in my life that can compare to that moment we lifted the cup,” says Maureen, who led Norwich Ladies to victory after a tense match which saw the Fledgelings score the winner in the last few minutes.
“Although my first appearance for England would be up there too, especially my trip to Japan…”
2021 marks 100 years since women’s football was banned by the Football Association.
Women’s football had filled the gap left by the Football League’s hiatus during the First World War and games were attracting thousands of spectators, a fact that many found difficult to swallow.
The trailblazing Nettie Honeyball – somewhat unsurprisingly a pseudonym – had formed the British Football Club at the end of the 19th century and had toured the country playing exhibition games.
Spectators may have come to laugh, but they stayed thanks to the high quality of play.
In 1921, the FA effectively applied the brakes to women’s football by banning them from playing on official FA grounds: this, despite the fact that women’s leagues were actually more popular than the men’s at the time of the ban.
Complaints had been made that “…the game of football is quite unsuitable for females and ought not to be encouraged” and a doctor interviewed in the Birmingham Daily Gazette claimed that kicking balls was “…too jerky a movement for women” believing that “…just as the frame of a women is more rounded than a man’s, her movements should be more rounded and less angular.”
I think we can all pause here for a moment to posthumously thank a man for telling women what they are, and aren’t, capable of doing.
This year also marks 50 years since the ridiculous and condescending ban was lifted, although it took until 2018 for England to have a fully-professional women’s football league.
“I wish I was playing now so that I could be a professional,” Maureen tells me from her home just outside Norwich, “I used to just wish that I’d been a male player, but now things have changed and you can be a female player and professional.
“It was such hard work when I played because you had to do everything yourself - there was no money in the sport. But if you love football, you’ll do anything and everything to play, and I did, so I did.”
Maureen grew up in Norwich and her love affair with football began with kickabouts at the local park with the younger brothers she was tasked with babysitting.
“I don’t know why, but something just clicked. I loved playing and I loved watching football, especially my beloved Manchester United,” she tells me, “lots of people just couldn’t understand why football was so important to me, just because I was a woman.
“I didn’t understand what being a woman had to do with it. I loved playing and watching football and nothing would have stopped me.
“My friends weren’t interested and didn’t understand why I was because at school football was something that boys did, not girls. But I didn’t care, I just carried on doing my own thing.”
She’s not sure how news of her prowess reached Costessey Ladies, but she signed for Pam Bassham's team at the age of 21, just a few years after the FA had lifted their ban.
“It was the first time I’d played football with other women – I loved it!’ says Maureen, who by this time had married and was working full-time.
“There was a real buzz about women’s football and it felt like an exciting time to be playing and to be part of something that was growing so fast. And, of course, I just loved more opportunities to play, to be on the field, to lose myself in football.”
News of Maureen’s talent, and in particular her aerial skills, led to her being spotted by Lowestoft Ladies, a team at the top of their game in the region and with a loyal following who supported their team across the country.
“I was spotted quite early during a friendly with Lowestoft by the first team manager who asked if I was interested in playing for them – I felt bad to be leaving Costessey so early, but I was so determined to improve my game and improve as a player,” she tells me.
“I wanted to play for a good team who could win as I was so competitive and just wanted to be the very best at whatever I did, whether that be at football or at my work.”
Maureen became an office manager at the age of 19 for Johnson, Burton and Theobald of Norwich and for the majority of her footballing career was a company director for Anglia Lead Roofing.
“The company was really good to me – they gave me a car and they supported my career,” she said, “I treated my career in the same way that I treated my football – I wanted to progress as high as I could.
“It didn’t even cross my mind that being a woman could hold me back, it was just the person I was. I just wanted to succeed, to win, to get to the top.”
Taking a centre back role for East Anglian League side Lowestoft in December 1975, she was voted Player of the Year in seasons 1975/76 and 1979/8 and with the team won her first league and cup medals.
Five more League Championships and five League Cup winners’ trophies in the South-East of England League followed, plus she enjoyed victories with the All England 5-a-side Championship in 1976, 1977, 1979 and 1980.
“We don’t talk about 1978,” Maureen laughed.
International recognition came with Maureen earning the first of her four England caps in a match against Belgium in Ostende in May 1980: in the second half of the game she captained her country after a team-mate was injured.
“I will always remember walking out in my England kit for the first time and almost having to pinch myself that it was really happening. It had been my dream,” said Maureen.
“Our captain was injured in the first half and when Martin [Reagan, manager] asked me to lead out the team in the second half, I was so proud I could barely answer him. ‘Take them out, Maureen,’ he said. It was just incredible.
“We lost 2-1 but just being there felt like winning.”
Further caps were picked up against Wales and Sweden in 1980 and on May 3 1981, she scored a brace in a 5-0 friendly win over Ireland in Dublin, a performance that led to a place on a team that made history.
In the autumn of 1981, Reagan’s England women’s team were the first England national team ever to visit Japan as part of the Portpier 81 International Ladies Football Festival tournament. She subbed for Linda Coffin in the 4-0 win against the host nation in Kobe.
“The Japanese FA gave us two sets of strip which we were allowed to keep and we got trainers, kit bags…we were given so much gear! I think we were more impressed with that than being in Japan!” Maureen laughed.
“Japan was like a different world – the roads frightened me to death! Where we have three lanes on the motorway, they’d have eight! We felt like superstars, like professionals and it was great.”
Maureen picked up a fifth cap against Norway during a 3-0 defeat but dropped out of the reckoning for England’s first UEFA campaign in 1982/83.
In 1982, Maureen left Lowestoft and when she failed to find another team she wanted to play for…she created her own: Norwich Ladies, known as The Fledgelings.
A stint with Biggleswade and seven months coaching at a Youth Club had left her hungry for the success she’d enjoyed with Lowestoft and England – and Lowestoft’s WFA Cup gold in 1982 strengthened her determination.
Deciding the youth team was ready for adult football, The Fledgelings flew the nest.
Maureen persuaded Andrew Anderson, who had designed the new Norwich City badge to design one for Norwich Ladies and found sponsorship with Robinson’s Motor Services and Photostatic Copiers.
“I was strict and I believed in discipline – the only players I wanted on my team were the ones who wanted to work hard and wanted to learn,” said Maureen.
“I looked at the players I knew: I loved Bobby Charlton but a player like George Best, however good he was, would never have got into my side if I’d been managing a men’s team. I’d have thrown him out for his behaviour!
“My players knew that they needed to listen and they needed to give absolutely everything to their football.”
While at Lowestoft, and in addition to her role on the pitch, Maureen had also taken on Club Secretary duties from 1977 to 1982: it served her well for Norwich Ladies, when she became a one-woman operation for the club.
“There was no money or big sponsorship, so if you were a woman who wanted to play football, you had to make it happen yourself,” she said.
“I played, I coached, I managed, I did the fundraising we needed to buy kit, I sent match reports out, I did the lot. I didn’t even think about it, really, I just did what needed doing.
“When I think back, I wonder how I fitted it all in with a job and two dogs to look after, but it’s amazing what you can put your mind to if it’s something you absolutely love.
“What do they always say? If you want something done, ask a busy person!”
Adding the firepower of England’s Linda Curl, Jackie Slack and Vicki Johnson to the side, the newbies proceeded to boss the East Anglian League in their debut 1982/3 season.
Looking for a better standard of football, Maureen switched the Fledgelings to the Chiltern League and procured a minibus for fixtures – as the team worked their way up the league from the second division there were some farcical demolitions in store, such as a 40-0 drubbing of Milton Keynes Reserves. (Linda Curl made The Guinness Book of Records in 1991 for the 22 goals she scored against Milton Keynes).
“It made some people say that women’s football was ridiculous, but we knew we weren’t playing teams on our level and we were trying to reach the right level for us,” said Maureen.
As her team gathered momentum, Maureen had her eye on the ultimate prize: one which had eluded her in 1979 when she’d skippered Lowestoft to the WFA Cup Final to face Southampton – the game ended in a 1-0 defeat.
The Fledgelings won the 2nd Division title and were Cup winners in 1983/84 and on promotion to the 1st Division were victorious as champions and Cup winners in the next three seasons.
It was bittersweet: Maureen’s playing career ended in 1983 after a devastating injury during a WFA Cup tie with Hemel Hempstead which almost caused the loss of her foot.
“I don’t think I ever really got over the fact I’d never play again,” she said, “I broke my leg in two places, my ankle joint had come out of place and I’d torn my ligaments and it had to be put back together again with steel plates and screws.
“I’d had operations on my knees, picked up injury after injury but I just couldn’t play on that ankle – I mean I would have kept going until I literally couldn’t play, but my consultant told me I could lose my foot if I did. So that was the end for my playing career.
“I was absolutely devastated. So many dreams were shattered – no more playing, no chance of an England recall, that was it. But I could still be involved: I just threw myself into management, instead.”
Further disappointment was in store when the WFA Cup brought a semi-final against Doncaster Belles which ended in a 5-0 defeat, but a year later in 1985/86, the teams met again: in the final. And it was – by chance – at Carrow Road.
“It was just luck that the game was in Norwich – I don’t think anyone thought that we’d get there and when we did, I don’t think anyone thought we’d beat the Belles who were three-times FA Cup finalists,” said Maureen.
“I remember that Norwich City’s manager Ken Brown gave me his League One Cup Final tracksuit top to wear on the day and it meant such a lot to me because it meant he was taking it seriously.”
Norwich saw goals from Miranda Colk and Sallie Jackson but each time Doncaster drew level until the winner was scored by the Fledgelings’ Marianne Lawrence in second-half stoppage.
“I couldn’t believe what had happened. I was in shock. We’d all wanted it so badly and everyone had assumed Doncaster would win but no, we did it. All that hard work had paid off – I was ecstatic. It was like time stood still.”
In just a little more than four years, Maureen had led her Ladies to WFA Cup glory, but sadly they would only last one more season before the Fledgelings were grounded.
Health problems meant Maureen had to end her career both on the pitch and pitch-side.
“I still miss it,” said Maureen, who has been dogged with ill health for many years but who still loves the beautiful game and was sad to be too unwell to travel to Wembley for the WFA Cup Final earlier this month.
“I’ve got a scrapbook for every single year that I played – I stuck everything in a book and I look at them every now and again and just remember those times.
“I plan to re-do them and then maybe I’ll give them to a football museum so that they have a record of what it was like to be a woman playing football in the 1970s and 1980s. I don’t want it to be forgotten how hard it was for women footballers.
“I would love to be a professional player now – I look at players like Fran Kirby [England/Chelsea] and she’s a Mini Messi and I’d have loved to have played football with players of that quality.
“Women’s football has come a long way, but of course there’s still further to go. I hope that one day women’s football will be given as much respect as men’s.
“Football has caused me so much pain with so many injuries but I wouldn’t have changed a single minute of it. They were the best days of my life, I think about them all the time.”