An original Lioness who played during a nationwide ban on women’s football has spoken of her ‘dream come true’ for players today.
Mary Blake, 69, won a bronze medal for an England Ladies team in 1969 during the very first women’s European Championship in Italy.
The success came amid a controversial ban on women’s football across the country.
The Football Association (FA) on December 5, 1921 had received ‘complaints’ made against the women’s game.
It was then ruled the sport was ‘quite unsuitable for females and ought not to be encouraged’.
It wasn’t until 1971 that the ban was lifted.
The records are yet to officially recognise Mary’s team, but she still sees the squad and their success as ‘part of the history’ of the Lionesses.
Speaking about England’s success in the World Cup in Australia and New Zealand, she said: ‘We’re all elated, phenomenal isn’t it?
‘We’ve waited a long time and we’re getting it all now in the last two years.
‘We dreamed about things like this, that women would get paid… it’s just come such a long way in the last few years really.
‘It’s incredible really, I can’t wait for them to win.’
Asked if she ever thought an England women’s team would achieve this level of success, Mary answered: ‘Believe it or not, we always hoped it would because as I say, at that time we did have a couple of girls who were asked to stay in Italy and play professionally or semi-professionally.
‘But the FA didn’t like it, it was frowned upon.
‘They just didn’t want women to play, I don’t know why.
‘Although we’re not recognised, we’re still part of the history and our results are there for people to look at on Google… so that’s something I suppose.’
Recalling her time at the first women’s European Championship, Mary continued: ‘When we were playing… we played in the biggest stadium in Italy at the time, Juventus’ stadium, and it was incredible.
‘I was only 16 years of age – we had big crowds then and it was on television, and we did get publicity when we came back – it was in the newspapers.
‘But it was all unofficial and our team still is unofficial – they’ve given caps to those from, I think, 1972 onwards – so for 69, 70 and 71, we’re the ‘unofficials’, so we’ve still not been recognised properly really.
‘We had big crowds for that time – it was unheard of for women to play football in those days.’
Mary, who now volunteers for the Women’s Royal Army Corps (WRAC) in her home town of Luton, continued: ‘My parents were so proud, my grandparents – it was in the newspapers so they thought it was wonderful and they encouraged me so much.
‘At the time it was amazing, but what the girls are doing now and what they’ve achieved – thank God they’ve got the FA’s backing now and everything – it’s just fantastic.
‘I wish I could have been there for the final on Sunday.’
Mary said although she was unable to attend the World Cup final, she did watch the Lionesses’ Euro 22 win at Wembley.
She said: ‘When I was at Wembley for the European final, there were people behind us and somebody just happen to mention that I played in that… and one of the girls’ mother said “if it wasn’t for these women, you wouldn’t be able to play now.”
‘They all cheered us and everything, it was so nice.
‘So that’s what made me think, if we hadn’t played or kept going, it might not be what it is today.
‘I’m so proud of the team and the girls, and what they’ve done and what they’ve achieved, and what they’ll hopefully achieve on Sunday all being well – there’s no reason why they can’t win.
‘I hope one day I’ll meet them but you never know.
‘They’re so modest as well, they’re not big-headed, they give a lot of time, they talk to people, they don’t go round with their noses stuck in the air, they’re very nice women.’
Asked if she had a message for the Lionesses ahead of Sunday’s crunch match with Spain, Mary concluded: ‘They’ve done amazing and it’s everything we hoped would be achieved for women’s football even though it was 50 years ago.
‘We’ve all dreamed about this moment, even the European Cup, to win that was the start really, just the icing on the cake.
‘I hoped I would see the day, and to happen in my lifetime… is even better, so hopefully I’ll see it on Sunday.
‘I can’t wait to see them lifting that trophy on Sunday – I’ll probably cry in jubilation.
‘I hope so anyway – there’s nothing stopping them from being able to do it, and I wish them all the best, and I shall be rooting for them on Sunday.’
READ MORE: Hitchhiking to matches and bunking off work: Life as a Lioness 50 years ago
Get in touch with our news team by emailing us at [email protected].
For more stories like this, check our news page.
Get your need-to-know
latest news, feel-good stories, analysis and more