Remembering the formation of Watford FC’s first women’s team

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The Watford Observer has again teamed up with its friends at The Watford Treasury to share stories from previous issues.

Colin Payne looks back at the formation of Watford Ladies FC prior to it being renamed Watford Women last year.

Now established as both a popular spectator and participant sport, women’s football continues to grow and develop around the globe. The TV audiences for the World Cup set new records, and top players became household names almost overnight. Though in reality there is still a long way to go with regard to parity in revenues and commercial viability, 2019 was the year when the women’s version of the game really burst into the public consciousness. At domestic level, during the international break in September 2019 Manchester City and Chelsea Ladies attracted gates of over 31,000 and 24,000 respectively, as they hosted ties at the City of Manchester Stadium and Stamford Bridge, and the thirst for reporting the game in all forms of media looks set to propel the sport forward still further.

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With the surge in popularity created by England’s performances in the World Cup, one could be forgiven for viewing ladies’ football as some bright shiny new concept, yet this couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact this is the sport’s second flourish, with it initially taking off during the Great War, as newly-liberated women, filling the voids in factories and on farms, formed clubs all over the land. Although this short-lived boom in ladies’ football withered as hostilities ceased and the status quo returned, a seed was sown.

Women’s football came to Watford in 1970, at a time when the male club was enjoying a relatively golden era, having achieved second-tier status for the first time in the club’s history. At the time there were already ‘Golden Girls’, a team clad in bright-yellow jerseys that would grace Vicarage Road on a regular basis, only their role wasn’t to kick a ball, but to sell the club’s ‘Pools’ tickets. This was about to change, however, as the Supporters Club, through the initiative of committee member Doug Hewish, formed Watford’s first women’s football team, following requests from the club’s female supporters to do so.

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Watford Ladies were founded by Doug Hewish

Doug was instrumental in forming the ladies’ club that still operates now, half a century later. With 40 would-be players attending a meeting at Watford Fields School, followed by trials at Cassiobury Park, the club was born. From those early hopefuls, a squad of 18 players was selected, under Doug’s management, with the manager persuading Watford first-team regulars Mike Walker and John Williams to come on board. Nicknamed Willy Walkers Wonders, after the two high-profile coaches, the team played other local teams, as well as rival supporters’ clubs, initially in friendlies. These games were often high-scoring affairs, and it was not uncommon for a double-figure score to be racked up.

Mike Walker takes up the story: “l was asked by Doug Hewish if I would like to coach and train the team. I wasn’t sure at first, but decided to give it a go! Training was Tuesday and Thursday evenings. l remember being surprised by the effort and keenness they all showed, and we ended up working with them for quite a long period.

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“To show just how keen they were, one evening l was at home and it was, or had been snowing and was very cold, so l assumed there would be no training and decided to settle down and watch TV. About five minutes before training was due to start, I got a phone call from Doug asking where I was – the ladies were there and raring to go! So l had to get to the ground sharpish, and carry out the training.

“It was early days in women’s football then, but there were quite a few teams to play. It was certainly a unique experience at that point in time, and they were a great group to work with. It’s great they are still going; l wish the present team good luck, and all the success in the future.”

One of the original 18 to attend the first training session was Gill Pycock, Doug’s daughter, who played throughout those early years.

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She said: “I started as a mascot, going on the pitch before games at Watford, as my father was heavily involved in the Supporters Club. In those days it was all very forward-thinking, considering how popular the ladies’ game is today. I was 12 or 13 when we started playing. It was a very active club: everyone was really good friends, and would give each other lifts to games.

“I played until I left school; I particularly remember trips to Gibraltar and Stockholm – so exciting, we played against local clubs and it was such fun. I was never really that talented, although I played for about three years, but the camaraderie was so good – it was all ages, not just schoolgirls, there were players in their late twenties.”

That camaraderie is something also remembered by Dee Maiden, who played for the club around 1976.

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She said: “I played when I was about 15 or 16. I was a goalkeeper; until January this year I still had my kit! My shin pads had the old horse hair in them! I remember playing one game in goal, where I scored. We were double-figure goals up, so I ran up the field and scored from a corner. It was my finest hour! We trained like any other team, come rain or shine.

“The pitch at the time was next to the Ovaltine factory in Kings Langley. They were a great bunch of girls, really helped each other out. I remember as a team all going carol singing one year, in Abbots Langley. Afterwards we went back to the home of someone from the team for mince pies and mulled wine. It was the first time I’d ever drank; I’ve been a fan of mulled wine ever since!”

Gill recalls that her father was incredibly proud of the team – Watford FC as a whole was a lifelong passion but the ladies’ game was something that remained particularly dear to him after he relinquished the manager’s role in the early eighties, having moved to Bath.

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Over time, Watford Ladies blossomed into the leading female team in Hertfordshire, with a comprehensive youth set-up, and through the years became linked to varying degrees with Watford FC, which saw the club at one point competing with the very best in the sport.

Doug Hewish passed away in 2019, at the age of 88. His contribution to the ladies’ game at Watford is undoubtedly of the highest significance, and this was recognised when he was made Life President of Watford Ladies FC, as well as being inducted into the club’s Hall of Fame. He was the driving force behind the birth of a club that still thrives half a century on, helping to nurture that love of the game and camaraderie that Mike, Gill and Dee remember with so much fondness.

Previous copies of the Watford Treasury are available to buy from thewatfordtreasury.co.uk

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