The Build Up For some years discussions had been held about a World Cup for Women. Whilst I didn’t know what was being discussed, it had already assumed an unofficial name Mundialito or ‘Little World Cup’ without a ball being kicked. Of course every international woman player of every nation wished for it and it was not until early 1981 that rumours started to circulate that we (England) were to be invited to a Football Festival that would include teams from around the world. What’s more, the Japanese had made a suggestion ahead of Italy, as part of the 1981 Kobe Portopia Festival.
By June 1981 I had become an England regular (to date) with 28 consecutive caps to my name (23 as captain) and having led England into two previous tournaments (the Home Internationals in 1975 and the 1979 Unofficial European Cup).
Whilst many would assume my position was secure, as every international player will tell you, we never take anything for granted. The lead up to each and every international match had its dread, but given the era and location, this was dread on steroids! Had I done enough over recent internationals to warrant selection? Had I performed consistently over the league programme to warrant selection? Had I done enough in the Regional Trials competition? Would I be picked for the squad? Would I play in the tournament?
Add to this the new England manager, Martin Reagan, who had been appointed in late 1979, had only 5 internationals in charge. In effect all the established players were still trying to prove ourselves to him and justify our inclusion in his squads, whilst he was openly lauding the skills and potential of the youngsters starting to emerge around the country. Indeed this tournament would see Martin experiment with his selections, players and formations, as well as introducing new and unique styles of play.
A couple of days after my birthday I received my selection letter.
Phew! I had been selected and Martin confirmed to me that I would be captain for the tour but he did say that he had every intention of using every player on the trip during the tournament. That meant every player could expect to be substituted or be a substitute over the 10 days away, without exception! (Ouch - he wasn’t a Tank Commander during WW2 for nothing!) but a reasonable approach given the unique experience this trip would give to the girls. To most of us it would be a once in a lifetime opportunity.
This trip has to be put in context. In the modern era it is easy to dismiss a trip to Japan as just another holiday destination. Back in 1981, the world was not only a different place but a much bigger place. Japan was a place that only existed in films. In 1981, a girl from northern backwater could only dream of a visiting there. To me it was not just another country or another world, it was another planet!
The 6 month long Portopia Festival had been established to celebrate the completion of the construction of a new town on reclaimed land in Kobe, Japan.
For the first time, as a squad, we agreed an official uniform for the trip should be worn, a skirt, a blouse and a blazer. Of course, this was an expense which would have to be met by the players, but it helped establish a feeling of professional pride.
Also, as a squad, we had agreed to attend two training weekends in the lead up to the Festival. As all the squad members will tell you, Martin was an absolute stickler for fitness. Fail to meet the expected standards and he became ruthless, your England days were numbered despite our amateur status!
The first would be held in Richmond on Thames on 1st/2nd of August where we had coaching sessions each morning/early afternoon and then played a match against a South of England Representative side each afternoon. The second was held in Leicester on 22nd/23rd August, again with a similar format, coaching followed by matches against a Midlands Representative side two days running. Then back to work the following day on the Monday morning.
However, the sting in the tail was that due to the lack of available finances at the WFA, a lack of sponsorship and disinterest from the FA, we had the pressure of self-funding these two training weekends as well.
Given the financial situation of many of the girls, this was turning out to be a considerable cash liability and was a real ask of individuals. Couple that with the fact that in footballing terms this meant no real ‘close season’. Players were asked to keep training as best they could after the season, throughout June, July and August to maintain our fitness to play the tournament. Of course we would then return home and go straight into the domestic season!
In addition, many of the girls had to forgo family holidays and, given it was a 10 day trip to the other side of the world, possibly beg their employers for extra time off work. It became a significant sacrifice for each and every one of us. Back home the news in the press started to relay the significance of the trip to the women’s game, although these tended to restricted to the more local and regional papers and not the large nationals. Of course the visual media displayed their usual and distinct lack of interest.
The Trip and Competition Our party consisted of 6 officials, with Pat Gregory (Chef de Mission), Flo Bilton (Assistant), Annabel Hennessy (Officer), a Team Doctor, Tony Brightwell (Squad Physio) and Martin Reagan (Squad Manager) with 16 players. The flight on 2nd September took us over the North Pole via Anchorage, Alaska, onto Osaka, then Kobe.
On arrival the first thing to hit us was the humidity. Acclimatisation was going to be essential. Training in heat, ie interval training - building up the length of each period of exertion over a number of days, rehydration, rehydration mixes and the prolific use of ‘salt tablets’ were not just a must but were key to survival.
The Japanese had spared no expense in staging the tournament. Each squad member was given a track suit, two kits (shirts, shorts, socks) for the two games each team were to play. And, every player was given a pair of (well-known Japanese brand) trainers and boots (some of the best I had the pleasure on playing in, it has to be said), a tee shirt and a personal kit/travel bag.
The Japanese had not quite mastered the traditional way of shirt numbering. The Japanese had adopted a ‘semi squad’ based numbering system. Each player would get a number and retain it for the tournament, much like the modern era. However, back in the day, the team starting a match would traditionally be numbered 1 to 11, with the goalkeeper firmly entrenched in the Number 1 shirt! As right back, I had assumed I would receive the number 2 shirt. Not so, typical Japanese, they had adopted an alphabetical list of numbering, so A to Z became 1 to 16. So, with Thomas being well down the alphabet , for the first and only time in my England career, I wore a number that was so big, I got altitude sickness, that of an attacking inside forward (ask your grandad, lol), the number 10 shirt.
The games themselves were played late in the evening to avoid the worst of the humidity in front of massive crowds for the day. Our game against Japan was played in front of 30,000 and was televised live across Japan on the night.
Our performances were not the best it has to be said. However, I always maintain that given the new introductions to the squad, a relatively new manager, the change in playing style, squad rotation and the humidity, I believe we did well.
We finished third behind the eventual winners Italy and runners up Denmark. Sadly it wasn't a true round robin tournament so we never got a chance to redeem ourselves against the mighty Italians after the Denmark loss.
Lasting Memories With the passage of 39 years since the trip and the benefit of 64 years of life, it is not the results, performances or our tournament position that I remember vividly.
When I reflect on the trip as a footballing experience, for me, I became the first England Women’s Captain to lead an England side outside of the European continent. Something I am immensely proud of.
For the recognition of the English Women’s team and the development English Women’s Game as a whole, I also now realise that Martin had one eye firmly fixed on the future. He was indeed assessing all the players, including those who didn’t make the trip. His goal was to create and develop a squad with a style of play which would both suit the players available whilst realistically able to compete for the next European Competition (1982-1984) and the Mundialito’s of 1984 and 1985.
His aim was always to further the Women’s Game and get it into the mainstream. In that era, that could only be achieved by success on the pitch. Given what that squad achieved in 1984 and 1985, I think the trip can be deemed an outstanding success. The roots of those successes were firmly sown in 1981 in Japan. We were building on the foundation we had laid in the 1970’s and starting to make a difference.
At a personal level, one of the first memories that spring to mind is the attention to detail and organisation. Everything was done to perfection and every player in every team was catered for in every way possible.
I also remember the sights, smells and sounds of an extremely busy nation, with lots of traffic in towns and extreme humidity. But, my fondest memories are beyond that. They are the beautiful and incredibly clean, litter free country with very welcoming people and extremely polite and respectful cultured society. Japan was a truly inspirational place, with some of my fondest memories.
For the whole experience, I have to thank the WFA, its officers and staff and, not forgetting, Martin Reagan for giving me that once in a lifetime opportunity.