WHEN the final whistle blew on a women’s football match 100 years ago today the winning team clinched a place in the annals of the beautiful game and a 15-year-old Geordie girl became a star.

More than 18,000 spectators turned out at Ayresome Park, the then home of Middlesbrough FC, to watch Blyth Spartans Ladies run out 5-0 winners against the Middlesbrough-based munitions factory team of Bolckow, Vaughn & Co. Playing no small part in their lifting the coveted Munitionettes Cup was teenager Mary Lyons, of Jarrow, who was on loan from another team for the day.

Actress Viktoria Kay, who is set to take on the role of Mary in the play The Lyons’ Roar by North-East playwright Ed Waugh, says: “Mary scored one of the goals, but was instrumental in Bella Reay achieving a hat trick. And Mary was voted woman of the match.”

The game came at a time munition factories were built all over the region and most of the workers were women, who also entertained crowds with their footballing talent.

Viktoria says: “The teams were made up of women from all over the region, because sometimes they couldn’t get 11 players together. They weren’t necessarily competing regionally against each other. They were essentially joining together and making sure they played great football and enticing enough people through the gates, with money from the turnstiles going to their designated charity.”

She adds: “There was a huge amount of discrimination initially and a lot of girls would play under their maiden names, because it was not seen as the done thing to play if you were married. We are talking about a time when ankles were seen as raunchy. At the same time people were enamoured by women football players.”

Mary, who was born in 1902 to Irish parents, had six brothers and would have honed her skills, like many other girls, playing with her siblings. After leaving school at 14 she joined Palmers Munitions Factory, where bait-time kickabouts led to her being asked to play for Palmers girls, from where she was drafted for the Middlesbrough game.

Two months later she made her England debut at St James’ Park in front of 26,000 people and scored against Scotland during a 3-2 win, making her arguably the youngest-ever player to score for her country.

Viktoria says: “One of the match reports said she had “football skills that would not have disgraced a male player”. That is as far as they would go. To me that says she was absolutely phenomenal. It was backhanded compliment if ever there was one.”

Mary took the Palmers team to be the best in the region, bringing the Munitionettes Cup to Jarrow a year later.

Viktoria adds: “The reason I have such a passion for Mary is that by the time she was 19, in 1921, all the opportunities that she had were taken away when she was told to stop, because the FA had banned women’s football. I’m 36 now and I couldn’t imagine someone telling me at 19 you can never act again because you are a woman.

“To have had that wonderment of having 26,000 people come and watch you play (more than men’s games attracted at the time), with the adrenalin and feeling that goes with it. And then to have that cut off. What I found out is that people nowadays remember her as a bitter old woman. She died in a nursing home in Jarrow and nobody liked her and she didn’t have a good word to say for anybody.

“I get defensive about that because I know why. Because to live your life and not be who you are and do the things that you love because of your gender must have been very difficult.”

The ban on women’s football was not lifted until 50 years later. Viktoria adds: “When Chelsea played Arsenal in the women’s cup final this year, 12.6m people watched the game and over 45,000 people were in the stadium. It has taken 46 years since the ban was lifted to get that game where it is and we still have a long way to go. These football teams still need a lot of support.”

  • A free talk by Viktoria and Ed Waugh will be held at Headway Arts Centre, Cypruss Gardens, Blyth at 2pm and 7.30pm today