Lesley Lloyd played football not merely for fun but for freedom. “It was about fighting for what we believed was right,” she says. “I’m proud of what we did.” Lloyd is reflecting on the events of 50 years ago when, as captain of Southampton Ladies, she led her team to victory in the first Women’s FA Cup final. That 4-1 triumph over Scotland’s Stewarton Thistle at Crystal Palace National Sports Centre in May 1971 was much more than just another match; it marked a watershed moment in the game’s history.
On 5 December 1921 the English Football Association had declared the game to be “quite unsuitable for females” before barring women from playing on grounds belonging to affiliated men’s clubs. With its Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish counterparts swiftly following suit, the ban stood for half a century and was not lifted until 1970 when the dawn of enlightenment coincided with the start of a slow-burn revolution; not to mention one of the highlights of Lloyd’s life.
“We were at the front,” she says, sipping coffee from a Southampton FC mug at her home on the south coast. “It’s a privilege and an honour to have been the first ladies team to have won the FA Cup. It’s something you dreamed of and no one can take away from you.”
On Sunday Lloyd, now 73, will be a 50th-anniversary guest of honour at Wembley when Arsenal face Chelsea in an evocative Women’s FA Cup final staged 100 years to the day from the ban’s imposition. Before kick-off she will join Elsie Cook, the former Stewarton Thistle captain, in walking on to the pitch and placing the trophy on a plinth. Both women are expected to receive considerable applause for the part they played in putting women’s football back on the map after five decades on the margins.
“The way the game has progressed is just brilliant,” says Lloyd. “Before the ban was lifted, the only place we could play was on a local common so Crystal Palace was like Wembley to us. There were no real facilities on the common. We had a hosepipe to hose our muddy boots down and a sort of hut we got changed in but that was it. There was a pond nearby and quite a few balls ended up in it. I was a midfielder, a No 8, so I ran all over the pitch and, if there was a mud bath, I fell into it.”