The Manchester football team that conquered the world – but you probably haven’t heard of them

Q: Which was the first Manchester football team to win a European Championship?

A: Manchester United right? Won the European Cup in 1968. No, not quite right.

This is a story about a Manchester team that swept all before them, winning a European Championship in 1957, before going on world tours, beating all the competition they encountered and playing in front of crowds of 50,000 – 60,000 spectators along the way.

The story has humble beginnings – Fog Lane Park in south Manchester. The photo above is of the duck ponds in the park, and yes, they are relevant to the story.

The founding of Manchester Corinthians

In 1949 Percy Ashley, a football scout for Bolton Wanderers, set up a women’s football team, Manchester Corinthians LFC, primarily so that his daughter Doris could play football. This was in an era when the Football Association (FA) had prohibited women from playing on pitches of FA affiliated clubs – effectively a ban on women’s football that lasted from 1921 up until 1971.

The Corinthians home ‘ground’ was Fog Lane Park. They did their training sessions there on Sundays. On poor quality muddy pitches, typical of a municipal park. Despite this, within a few years Corinthians were beating every team they encountered. By 1951 they had won the Southern Cup, the Manchester Area Cup, the Sports Magazine Cup, the Roses Trophy, the Midland Trophy, the Cresswell Trophy, the Odeon Championship Trophy, the Belle Vue Trophy, and the Festival of Great Britain Trophy.

In 1957 Corinthians were invited to represent England in a European championship, which they duly won, beating Germany 4-0 in the final. Bert Trautmann acted as Corinthian’s interpreter during the championship – yes that Bert Trautmann, the Manchester City goalkeeper who famously broke his neck partway through the 1956 FA Cup Final and carried on playing the rest of the match.

A tour of Portugal and a 3-month tour of South America followed. In Portugal Corinthians played against Benfica, with a 50,000 crowd watching. The South American tour saw crowds of 50,000 – 60,000. Former Corinthian player Margaret Whitworth recalls having to wait for the President of the country they were playing in (possibly Venezuela) to arrive by helicopter before their match could start.

The success of Corinthians was such that to find a team of similar standard against whom they could play, they had to create another Fog Lane Park based team, Nomads, formed in 1957. Nomads were just as brilliant as the Corinthians. The Corinthians and Nomads were interchangeable, rather than being a 1st team and a reserve team. As this 1961 snippet below from the Crewe Chronicle newspaper indicates, organizers of women’s football matches would arrange for Corinthians to play Nomads, possibly because they were the two best teams in the area.

Advertisement for a Corinthians vs Nomads match. Taken from the Crewe Chronicle, May 1961.

By 1965, Corinthians had played 394 matches, winning 353 of them and losing only 20. That is a phenomenal win rate! Likewise, Nomads had played 68, won 47 and lost 11.

The success continued. 1970 saw Corinthians being invited to France to compete in a tournament against top continental European clubs, such as Italian club Juventus, Czechoslovakian champions Slavia Kaplice, and French hosts Stade de Reims. Corinthians won the tournament, beating Juventus 1-0 in a tightly contested final.

At this point Corinthians are arguably the best women’s team in England and among the best in Europe. This was at a time when women’s football in France and Italy was not banned but actively supported. The European clubs Corinthians were competing against had significant advantages in terms of quality of facilities and pitches.

In stark contrast, Corinthian players recall having to carry buckets of water from the coach’s house on Fog Lane for washing after training sessions and matches. And if the buckets of water weren’t available, they had to wash in the duck ponds (in the picture), sometimes even having to break the ice on the ponds first.

One of the Corinthian players, Jan Lyons, later went on to play for the Italian club Juventus and has remarked on the differences in facilities between women’s football in England and women’s football in Italy at the time.

The Corinthians and Nomads continued up until 1982 and were two of the 44 founding teams when the Women’s Football Association was formed in 1969/1970, meaning that just under 5% of founding teams came from a small municipal park in south Manchester.

An almost forgotten story

Surprisingly, this is a story I hadn’t heard before until a few months ago, even though I’ve lived for over 15 years on the doorstep of where it all took place – the duck ponds are 150m as the crow flies from where I’m sitting writing this in my kitchen.

It is also surprising, as my eldest daughter played football in Fog Lane Park for nearly 10 years, on those same pitches, for the local team, Didsbury Juniors, who are based out of the park. During this time my daughter was one of only two female players in what was unofficially a boys’ team. My daughter then went onto play for Manchester City Girls team and Stockport County LFC, yet in all my time connected to girls’ football in Manchester I never came across the Corinthians story.

I found out about the story when The Friends of Fog Lane Park group was contacted by football historian Gary James about putting up a plaque to commemorate the achievements of the Corinthians club. I was astounded when I heard this piece of local history – like many people in the Fog Lane/Didsbury area that I’ve spoken to since and who similarly knew nothing of the Corinthians story.

I’ve only given a small excerpt here about the Corinthians story. What I’ve written cannot really do justice to this fascinating and incredible story, so please do read more about it. For my source material I’ve used the excellent works by Gary James who has written extensively about football in the Manchester area including numerous articles about the Corinthians, and the comprehensive recent book1 and 2019 academic paper2 by Jean Williams. I’ve also used various other websites, such as here, here and here.

A permanent commemoration

The Friends of Fog Lane Park group, along with Manchester City Council and MCRactive, are raising money for a permanent reminder and celebration of the achievements of the Corinthians and Nomads teams. This is being done with the help and support of Gary James. The aim is for this commemoration to hopefully coincide with the UEFA Women’s Euros 2022, which are taking place in England during July this year. If you wish, you can donate to the fundraising at this JustGiving page. Your support would be very much appreciated.

As part of this effort to raise funds I had the pleasure of meeting with three former Corinthians (see photo below) in May this year. Naturally, the meeting took place in Fog Lane Park.

Former Corinthian players in May 2022. L-R are Jan Lyons, Margaret Shepherd (Tiny), and Margaret Whitworth (Whitty).

During the meeting the players recounted their memories of Percy and Doris Ashley, having to wash in the duck ponds, and playing for Juventus after transferring from Corinthians. One of the players also recounted that when buying football boots, they had to pretend that the boots were for hockey or lacrosse, in order for the shopkeeper to be willing to sell the boots to them, such was the social stigma against women’s football that the men’s FA had created during the period.

My thanks in writing this post go to Pam Barnes and Alice Moody for supplying material related to the Corinthians story, introducing me to the story, and many interesting conversations about it.

Footnote 1: J. Williams, The History of Women’s Football, 2019. Pen & Sword Books Ltd, Barnsley, UK.

Footnote 2: J. Williams, ‘We’re the lassies from Lancashire’: Manchester Corinthians Ladies FC and the use of overseas tours to defy the FA ban on women’s football, Sport in History 39(4):395-417, 2019.

© 2022 David Hoyle. All Rights Reserved.

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