One of the original Lionesses from Luton roars her approval

Our wonderful Lionesses are in with a good chance of making history at Wembley this weekend, according to Mary Blake.

By Bev Creagh
Friday, 29th July 2022, 1:35 pm
Original Lioness Mary Blake who played in the first international women's football competition in Turin in 1969. England came third, winning a bronze medal.
Original Lioness Mary Blake who played in the first international women's football competition in Turin in 1969. England came third, winning a bronze medal.

And she should know. The former Ashcroft High pupil was in the original England team that took part in the first European Women’s football ompetition in Italy in 1969 – and has a bronze medal to prove it.

Women’s Royal Army Corps veteran Mary, 68, has been to nine matches so far and believes two players to watch are defender Lucy Bronze and midfielder Fran Kirby.

She says: “It’s a good team and they’re gaining a lot of followers. The goals have been fantastic.”

The 1969 England women's football team who had to buy their own kit

Mary was sports mad growing up, playing everything from hockey and netball to cricket and badminton.

Her football career started when she was just 13. She recalls: “That’s when I joined the first Luton Ladies Football Club. I was right half.”

She was one of five Luton women who went on to play for England in 1969, even though women’s football wasn’t officially recognised until the 1990s.

Her team-mates included teenagers Susan Tungate, Paula Rayner and Tina Oliver as well as 22-year-old Valerie Cheshire.

Mary’s excitement at the memory is as palpable today as it must have been more than 50 years ago.

Eyes shining, she says: “The year before the competition, we played the Czechoslovakian national team. It was just after the Russian invasion and my parents were terrified.

"It was absolutely brilliant going to Italy and a great honour to play at the Juventus stadium in Turin. There was a crowd of about 15,000 and we were even on TV.

"We had to buy our own kit but we were sponsored to go abroad.

"Women’s football is so popular now but it was slightly frowned upon then – it’s certainly come a long way.”

Mary, the eldest of six, enrolled in the Royal Corps of Signals at 17 because, as she explains: “It was a great career.

"I learned all forms of communication which stood me in good stead when I left four years later. And we played lots of sports and saw the world.”

Women who enlisted in the army into the Women’s Royal Army Corps were always known as Lionesses because their cap badge included the Lion Rampant.

The current England team are referred to as Lionesses because of the Three Lions badge on their shirts.

These days Mary prefers the golf course to the football field and attends all the current season’s matches as a supporter, not as one of the pioneers of the game.

The FA banned women in 1921 on the grounds that football was ‘quite unsuitable for females and ought not to be encouraged’. The ban stayed in place until 1971.

The Association has now agreed to award women players from 1972 onwards the coveted official cap for playing for their country but Mary believes she and her fellow-team mates should also qualify.

It was they who paved the way for today’s superstars, who owe a debt of gratitude to those groundbreaking heroines of yesteryear.