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Women's Football Gillian Coultard: ‘I could have been the first woman to get a hat-trick’

TWENTY five years ago today, England played their first-ever match in the Fifa Women’s World Cup finals. 

In the 51st minute, striker Karen Farley twisted away from her marker and was brought down by Canadian defender Michelle Ring in the penalty area.

Referee Eva Odlund pointed to the spot and a 31-year-old midfielder from Doncaster stepped forward to make English sporting history.

45 years after Stan Mortensen scored the men’s first World Cup finals goal in the Maracana stadium, Gillian Coultard scored the first of England’s 43 goals in the competition.

The youngest of eight children, football seemed an unlikely passion for a Yorkshire girl born in a time the women’s game was still officially banned by The Football Association. 

Playing sport, however, was always in Coultard’s blood. “In the ’70s there wasn’t much else to do other than play outside. One of my brothers took me to the local Doncaster Rovers match and it was really from there. We all played football during the football season and when it came to the summer season we all played cricket.”

She joined Doncaster Belles at the age of 13, representing them for 24 years while working full-time in a variety of jobs. Through much of her career she worked at the Pioneer factory in Castlefield, fitting four training sessions a week around her job. “I was just assembling on a production line, TVs, video recorders, you name it.” 

Coultard turned down offers to play for semi-professional clubs in Finland, Italy and Sweden, a decision she now questions. 

“You can have regrets in life,” she admits. “If people said to me what are the two or three things you would change, that would be one of them, just to go there and see. 

“The likes of Debbie Bampton and Kerry Davis went to Italy, and Sue Lopez before them. You see in the women’s game now you’ve got a lot of players who go abroad just to see what it’s like. I was really too young to go. I had a big family and to leave that family and go abroad on your own, it’s a massive thing.”

Therefore, when the chance came to represent her country at the World Cup in Sweden, Coultard, like most of her teammates, had to take time off from their day jobs. “I took annual leave and any days that went over that, I still got paid for.” 

Other members of the squad did not have such flexible employers. “There’s players who packed in jobs to go to the World Cup. Others went without pay. There were massive sacrifices in those days. It’s everybody’s dream to play in a World Cup, you’re not going to say: ‘I’ve got to stay at work’. 

“A lot of the girls made that choice themselves. They’re down in history really, to be the first women to go and play in a Women’s World Cup for England.”

After prohibiting women’s teams from playing matches at Football League grounds in 1921, The FA had only recently taken over control of the women’s national team in 1993 from the Independent Women’s FA (WFA). 

That year, Ted Copeland, the FA’s Regional Director of Coaching for the North of England, was appointed the coach of the England Women’s team combining both roles until Hope Powell became the Lionesses’ first full-time manager in 1998.

“When Ted took over, I don’t think he knew what he was going into it,” says Coultard. “That’s how things change. The generation before me with the likes of Sylvia Gore and Sue Lopez, they had worse situations than we did. Each year it has got better and better as time has gone on.”

For the first time, the women played in the official Umbro England kit but unlike the tailored women’s shirts the Lionesses sported during last summer’s tournament, the 1995 squad were running around in oversized shirts designed for men. 

Looking back, Coultard does not complain about the situation. “You were playing for England and it didn’t matter about the kit. Yeah alright, some of the sizes were too big and things like that, but that’s just how it were and you just got on and accepted it. 

“It’s not about the kit, it’s about how you play when you cross that line. You look at it now and how things have developed, they’ve now got women’s shirts, they’re not the men’s which are two or three sizes too big.”

Central contracts for England players were not introduced until 2009 but according to Coultard there were some financial benefits after the FA took control. 

“They brought in expenses to and from where we travelled, which covered your petrol. If we all went out together, they paid for our coffees and meals whereas we had to fork that out of our own money under the WFA with their limited resources.

“It was the little things. Each year there were different things that were put in place. When you look now at what they’ve got, they don’t want for anything.”

After failing to qualify for the first Women’s World Cup in 1991, England were one of four European teams to join hosts Sweden in the 1995 tournament as a reward for reaching the semi-finals of that year’s European Championship. 

“We all travelled together,” remembers Coultard. “We got a flight, then we got a ferry. We then had to get an overnight train to our next destination. When you think of it now, they would have just flown everywhere. We were playing every other day, now they play every four or five days. The tournament’s got larger.”

Then turning out for Wembley Ladies, a 16-year-old Kelly Smith, already being heralded by Pete Davies as “the outstanding prospect in the women’s game today,” was unable to accept a call-up to the 1995 World Cup squad as she was sitting her GCSE exams. 

Coultard was already aware of her star quality. “You could see what talent she’d got. She was such a flair player, you could see it from day one.”

The day before England’s first match in Helsinborg, 14,500 had watched Brazil defeat Sweden in the same Olympia Stadion. 

However, only 655 fans would attend England’s first-ever match in the competition. No journalists travelled with the team. “There were five members of staff,” recalls Coultard. “When they go to the World Cup now there’s probably more staff than there are players. We didn’t have a very big entourage. I think we had a physio, a doctor, Ted, a goalkeeping coach, two or three of the FA councillors and obviously we had one of the Swedish interpreters.”

After a goalless first half, Coultard’s moment in Lionesses’ history was nearly denied her as Canadian goalkeeper Carla Chin almost saved her low side-footed penalty kick. 

“I can remember it vividly,” she says. “It just crept in and everybody’s face on the bench brought a little smile to my face. Being the first England woman footballer to score a goal in the World Cup, that goes down in the list of things you’ve achieved.”

Twenty-five minutes later, Coultard herself won another penalty but this time Arsenal’s Marieanne Spacey converted the spot-kick. The Doncaster Belles midfielder then headed home the third, converting a right-wing cross from Hope Powell, but why did Coultard not take the second penalty? 

“I think it was a bit of a gas really, as if to say, let Marieanne take it rather than me, as mine only just got in. When I look back at it and think I’ve scored the header as well, I could have been the first woman to get a hat-trick, but it weren’t to be!”

Coultard’s header would prove to be the winning goal after Canada rallied to score two late goals. Two days later, England lost 2-0 to eventual champions Norway before qualifying for the quarter-finals with a narrow 3-2 win over Nigeria. 

Playing their fourth game in eight days, England’s journey ended in the last eight after a 3-0 defeat to Germany in Vasteras.

Coultard believes that the England team went as far as they could given their lack of support off the field. “If we had what the women have got now, then we’d have had a fair chance. I look at our squad, we were just as talented. You never lose your technical ability. I think there’s a few of us who believe if things were in place as they are now, we’d have give it a good shot.”

In 1997, Coultard became the first English woman to make 100 international appearances and until 2012 was the country’s most capped outfield football player. In 2000, she took on a coaching role with the National Women’s Football Academy in Durham but feels the pathway into management did not exist for her generation. 

“We had some great players. I just think sometimes that our generation were never given the chance to get into management.”

This week the FA announced plans to create a digital archive charting the history of women’s football in England. 

In the drive to push women’s football forward are the pioneers of the game given the recognition they deserve? 

“If you’d have asked me this question 10 years ago, I’d have probably said no,” believes Coultard. “I do think things are changing a little bit. We all had an invitation to go to Wembley in November [for England’s match with Germany] to get the past players and present players together, which was fantastic. 

“It really should have happened 20 years ago.”

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