Back in the late 1980s, Channel 4, ever the innovator, screened a drama that addressed one of the big taboos in football: women. Before the PC police start hauling up the placards, it was the 1980s and at the time, women in professional football were almost unheard of, save for behind-the-scenes stalwarts like club secretaries and administrators. On the field, in the dressing room and in the boardroom, they simply didn’t exist.
The Manageress was an excellent TV series, written by Stan Hey, who some may recall as a major contributor to Foul, the grandfather of fanzines like When Saturday Comes. Hey also wrote an amusing and engaging series called Hold the Back Page, starring David Warner, about the trials and tribulations of a sports hack.
The Manageress cast Cheri Lunghi in the role of the glamorous tom-boy whose Italian father instilled in her a love of all things catenaccio. She became manager of her local football club and then we were treated to a catalogue of grave sins: mysogny, sexism (indeed, sex), class issues and the laddish and myopic cult of the dressing room. It was great stuff, but it was seen as pure fantasy. “Birds in the dressing room? Forget it.”
We’ve moved on and Karren Brady did a lot to remove the barriers. And we’ve seen the rise of women as referees and their assistants. Obviously, people like Hope Powell – in the world of women’s football – achieved a significant profile, but crossing-over into the men’s game? Not yet.
But the glass ceiling has been cracked in France by Helena Costa, who has been appointed manager of Ligue Deux side Clermont Foot. Costa is, apparently, a friend of compatriot Jose Mourinho. Her appointment is sure to launch a million clichés, and the Daily Mail (God bless ‘em) has already dubbed her “Mourinho in a petticoat”. She was previously head coach of the Iranian women’s national team.
Is it a publicity stunt or is it genuine recognition that women have “arrived” in football? Clermont live in the shadow of their much more successful rugby neighbours. It’s a rugby town and the local side, Clermont Auvergne, attract close to a full house of 18,000 to their home games, whereas Clermont Foot draw fewer than 4,000 to the Stade Gabriel Montpied. It is not unfair to say they could certainly do with some “puff”. Next season, there will be more than 4,000 at their first few home fixtures as the curiosity factor kicks-in.
Is it that much of a gamble? I don’t think so. La Costa has a good track record and she’s mixed in the right circles. Admittedly, she’s stepping up a gear, but we are talking Ligue 2 here. Clermont’s president, Claude Michy said the club wanted to make a “landmark appointment” and they’ve certainly done that, but his claim that her CV makes her qualified to coach a Champions League side is a little over-generous. But in the next few months, Costa will be Europe’s second most well known woman after Angela Merkel.
Going back to Stan Hey and Foul, the magazine had a good laugh at the expense of the first female football journo in Julie Welch. A cartoon called “Ms Julie – the first lady of Fleet Street” may have been tongue in cheek, but it also highlighted the lack of acceptance of women in the press box in the early 70s. Another former journo I know couldn’t use her full name as a football writer because “women just don’t do that”, so she had to go all J.K. Rowling. Fortunately those hurdles were jumped some time ago. It remains to be seen if Helena Costa (“bringing beauty to the beautiful game” – another headline) has really started something. I think she has.