Today marks a significant anniversary for the Northern Ireland senior women’s team.
Women’s football on the island of Ireland has a long history. The first report of a women’s match was in 1895 when the British Ladies, who were on tour at the time, played a match in Belfast.
However, it was not until this day 50 years ago that the Northern Ireland women’s team played their first official match. And that means 30 June 2023 is the team’s golden anniversary.
The historic game half a century ago was against the Republic of Ireland and was staged at Bluebell United FC’s ground on the Naas Road in Dublin.
It ended 4-1 to the Republic, with Louise Fleming scoring Northern Ireland Women’s first international goal.
The Northern Ireland panel was made up of 16 players, seven of whom came from the Mayfair clothing factory team in Portadown.
The Belfast Telegraph nicknamed the squad for the game against the Republic the ‘Petticoat International Panel’ due to the presence of the Mayfair players – and Mayfair’s Liz Gatsby captained the team that day.
The rest of the squad was made up of players from other factories and clubs, including Albion (Ballymena), Minerva, Berkshire, Comber, Millisle and Glenavon.
It meant that seven out of the eight teams from the domestic league were represented in the national side. Domestic football in those days was organised by the Northern Ireland Ladies Football Association (NILFA), which was formed in late 1972.
Initially NILFA, which evolved into the NIWFA (Northern Ireland Women’s Football Association), would have looked after the Northern Ireland women’s international team but then the Irish Football Association took over responsibility for the team.
The first Northern Ireland senior women’s team manager was Carson Reid, a 25-year-old cabaret singer from Belfast who had been introduced to women’s football through ‘Showbiz XI’ fixtures he had organised against female teams to promote his club. His assistant was Chris Crouch.
BBC archive TV footage from 1973 shows Reid being interviewed by a young Gloria Hunniford ahead of the game against the Republic. Reid explained that the Irish Football Association had indicated it would officially recognise the women’s team prior to their first international.
Scoring and playing for Northern Ireland was bittersweet for Louise Fleming. She was booted off the Ulster hockey team for missing training because of her football commitments.
The Northern Ireland panel for the game against the Republic featured goalkeeper Hilary Brady (Minerva) and defenders Elizabeth Gatsby (Mayfair), Madeline Wright (Albion), Jennifer Whiteside (Glenavon) and Edith James (Mayfair).
Midfielders in the squad included Alison Bennington (Glenavon), Isabel Robson (Comber) and Stephanie McNally (Mayfair), while Louise Fleming (Mayfair) and Sharon Gillespie (Mayfair) were among the strikers.
Kathleen Moore and Doreen Little (both Mayfair), A McNeill (Minerva), H Dorrian (Millisle), I McNamara (Berkshire) and E Gibson (Comber) were the other members of the panel.
Northern Ireland and the Republic last met in 2019 World Cup qualifiers when the Republic came out on top 2-0 in Belfast and 4-0 in Dublin.
Another piece of history involving the neighbours beckons in Northern Ireland’s golden anniversary year because their first ever UEFA Women’s Nations League game will be against the Republic this autumn.
The Nations League campaign opener for both teams is due to be staged at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin on Saturday 23 September (1pm).
The second official match for Northern Ireland was staged in September 1973, with England providing the opposition.
The first encounter between the two countries took place on 7 September 1973 at Twerton Park, the home of Bath City FC.
England won the match by five goals to one. The goalscorers for England were Jeannie Allott, Lynda Hale (2), Pat Firth and Sue Lopez.
A match report from the Women’s Football Association described the Northern Ireland team as “plucky” and noted “their never-say-die tactics brought them their just reward when they scored midway through the second half”.
The report went on to say “their sportsmanship, both on and off the pitch, won them a host of new friends”. The Northern Ireland goal was scored by Sharon Gillespie.
Image: Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, seen here battling it out in Tallaght in August 2018, first played each other 50 years ago.