It is 100 years this year since the Football Association banned women from playing football on their pitches, an exclusion which was only lifted in 1951. Hence this is the third book I have reviewed recently about women playing football in the era of the Great War! The two most recent have been based on the Dick, Kerr Ladies team in Preston, formed by the girls who worked at the munitions factory in place of the men who had gone to fight.
Polly from a large family living hand to mouth by selling coal is football mad, but it is very hard to get a proper game partly for lack of a ball. Sent for an interview for a scullery maid after a chance encounter, she instead finds herself on the factory floor and part of a football team called the Ruffians. She is soon headhunted for a better and more organised team and leaves home finding a different world but one that is full of girls playing football and being taken seriously for so doing.
Polly is a rough diamond, obsessed with the beautiful game of the title, and has to learn some hard lessons, one being that she is part of a team, not the main attraction. Her friendship with both Daph, (her brother’s girlfriend who works in the ammunition part of the factory and whose skin has turned yellow because of it), and her complete opposite, Clara who has learned ballet but who also loves football, neatly point out the small class differences but also their strong bond with the shared love of football. Polly’s brother Joe is ‘Missing, believed killed’, and the sad sending to the story does not hide from the reader the danger both he and Daph faced.
Lou Kuenzler has taken the story of Lily Parr, a player for Dick, Kerr Ladies, and fictionalised it with Polly being based on Lily. This is a fast paced read, with much to digest. The picture of life in the back-to-back houses and extreme poverty of life for families during the war is clearly portrayed as is the difficulties women faced playing football, with many men just coming to see their legs! But also more seriously it shows the way that women stepped up to take over from the men at the Front doing dangerous jobs, but not hiding the fact that this was to be for most a temporary emancipation as they would be sent back to the kitchen.