Grassroots to Glory: the history of women’s football in Rotherham

Football fever is set to hit Rotherham this July as the town becomes one of the host venues for this year’s UEFA Women’s EURO tournament. To celebrate the occasion, a new temporary exhibition is on at Clifton Park Museum detailing the history of women’s football through the years.

Grassroots to Glory – Our Story so Far is part of a National Lottery funded project to uncover the hidden history of women’s football in a summer of celebration of the game, its players and communities.

The exhibition has been curated by the team at Rotherham Museums, Arts and Heritage to improve the visibility of women’s football within its archives and collections.

Women’s football has a longer history than most people would expect, especially in Rotherham. Through research in newspaper archives, it has been revealed that the earliest recorded local football match was in 1893 during the Victorian era when Rawmarsh Ladies took on Wath Gentlemen, most likely in aid of a charitable cause.

Football has long been associated with wartime reprieve, but in the First World War a team of munition workers from the National Projectile Factory at Templeborough played their first match at Milmoor Stadium on 24 March 1917.

Grassroots to Glory at Clifton Park tells the stories of Kilnhurst Ladies and Doncaster Belles.

Just four years later, women were banned from playing on FA affiliated pitches, a ban that stood for 50 years until it was overturned in 1971. But women never gave up, despite the generations of gender discrimination.

Teams like Kilnhurst Ladies and Doncaster Belles, which both started in 1969, began to level the playing field for women and girls. The Belles were the first winners of the Women’s FA Cup in 1983 and went on to win it five more times.

Rotherham has produced some pioneering players who started in the grassroots of the borough’s playing fields and went on to play on international pitches of European Championships or had a career within the football industry.

Annetta Harvey was one of the first women referees in the 1970s with a qualification recognised by the Football Association. Annetta was a nurse at Doncaster Gate Hospital, a fitness instructor, mum of two boys, and a strict but fair referee who officiated local and county senior matches.

Cathy Hamstead was given a telling off from her headmaster for playing football at school but ended up playing for the England team in 1976 aged 17 where she represented her country in the PONY Home International Championship against Scotland.

The female game changed somewhat over the next few decades, with barriers reducing for women. Vicky Exley was just four when her footballing talent came to light and her schoolteachers helped her join Sheffield Wednesday Ladies when she was 15. She then joined Doncaster Belles for whom she played for 22 years until she retired in 2012. During her time with the Belles, Vicky was called up to play for England 52 times, including at the 2007 FIFA Women’s World Cup.

Films and audio stories from the women can be found in the exhibition as well as objects including shirts, memorabilia and medals loaned from them. The exhibition also includes loans from National Football Museum in Manchester including a Panini official licensed sticker album for the FIFA Women’s World Cup France 2011 and an England women’s national team shirt worn by goalkeeper Leanne Hall in a 2004 match against Germany and signed by the team.

Grassroots to Glory exhibition at Clifton Park Museum shows where women and girls can play football in 2022.

Visitors can play table football, test out their punditry skills, play a penalty shoot-out counting game, create a scrapbook collage, and add some words and phrases to the poetry pitch.

There is also a map of all the current women and girls’ football teams in Rotherham, from Wath to Wickersley, as well as a home kit loaned by each club

The Women’s EURO is the biggest women’s sporting event in Europe and it is hoped that its legacy here in the UK will encourage more young girls to take up the sport and become the Lionesses of tomorrow.

Clifton Park Museum is open Tuesday to Saturday 10am to 5pm, and Sunday 10am to 4pm.