The Arsenal women’s history: 2002 – 2012 including founding times of 1987
Following on from my historical articles on the Arsenal men, I thought it would be fair to also do one on the women. I mean why not? They are just as successful, if not more successful, then the men.
Of course, I am not picking sides here as all of our Arsenal teams, whether they be men, women, U21, U18’s, youth etc are all successful in their own way, but maybe I say they are more successful only because the women have won more often over the years and in more recent times – not including the men’s FA Cup triumphs – so it stays in my mind fresher then the men’s achievements to date, of course not including the invincibles too!
However, I digress…
So, here I write about The Arsenal women, one of the many clubs to represent the birth of women’s football, the one club that when you say women’s football, not including international teams, everyone instantly knows. The OG’s as the younger ones would say..
As we all know the Arsenal men’s team was founded in 1886 and the women’s team were founded over 100 years later. Although they did not turn professional until 2002, and this was thanks to Arsenal in the Community who gave life to hundreds of programmes and initiatives that were all aimed at helping local people, regardless of how they felt about football.
Arsenal in the Community didn’t just give life to communities, but it gave life to what would turn out to be one of the biggest football clubs in the world. One that has claimed 50 major honours in 35 years, set records that may never (and hopefully will never) be broken and one that continues to be a leading force in the game.
And here the birth of the Arsenal Women begins…
After retiring in 1985 Vic Akers who had played as a left back for Cambridge United and Watford in the Football League as well as a host of non-league teams in his career, returned to his native Islington after leaving his final club, Carshalton Athletic. And it wasn’t long before he was back to work helping to set up and run initiatives at the recently -at the time-, established Arsenal in the Community department.
Women’s football generated little interest in England at the time, and it was clear to see Vic had a tough task on his hands.
Despite this though he sensed not just an opportunity but almost an obligation to help girls and young women discover and fall in love with the game. Well if it was good enough for the men then the women should have been able to have the same privilege. So it would seem that his hands-on nature and commitment to the club would have a far-reaching impact on an entire sport. With his determination he went full steam ahead, positive he would get results.
In 1987 the Arsenal Ladies, as the club was originally known, was born!
Akers took on the role of coaching and managing the squad, all alongside his leading role at Arsenal in the Community and his responsibilities as both Arsenal youth coach and kit man for the first-team squad.
He recalled years later that people were shocked that he was devoting himself to women’s football, let alone doing it on top of all his other commitments.
Success was far from immediate and such was the scarcity of both funding and interest that Arsenal Ladies restricted themselves to cup competitions for the first four years. Akers was far more than just a coach and manager, though – he became a mentor to his players and he devoted himself to them.
As Arsenal Ladies legend Alex Scott once reflected, “He was always on his phone, 24/7. I often couldn’t get through to him until nine or ten at night, but he always answered. He never switched off. He was so well respected in women’s football that people would tip him off. So it was rarely a coincidence for him to uncover a young player.”
Doing any form of a job demands commitment, but one of managing a football team especially a female based one when at the times it was unheard of, and being responsible for people other than yourself. Well that sort of commitment demanded loyalty, and in an era when women’s football was completely amateur, Vic did two additional things that helped his players commit themselves to both the game and the team: firstly, he helped them find jobs wherever he could around the club, be it in in marketing, accounts, the box office or the laundry, and secondly, he made them feel like professionals on the pitch showing that he thought they were worth something.
In addition to her comments about him Scott said: “Vic was that second father figure to me. He fought for and drove women’s football in this country at a time when not many people did. He pushed me and motivated me to want to be the best every single day. I wouldn’t be the player and person I am without Vic.”
It seems as though Arsenal women and women’s football would not be what it is today had it not been for Akers.
Following the storied successes of the men’s team, Arsenal made a conscious effort to brand women’s football as equitable. Over the next twenty years, Arsenal approached all aspects of the game, including training, tactics, scouting, and finance, with the main goal being to maximize the growth of the club and attain trophies.
Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, Arsenal held top spot in the Premier League for many seasons, boasting academy graduates like Marieanne Spacey and Faye White to name a few, along the way.
And Akers’s fierce determination to turn Arsenal Ladies into a force wasn’t all for nothing, as it finally began to pay off in the early 1990s when they moved to current home, Meadow Park in Borehamwood, and this was followed by the club lifting their first silverware in the shape of the Premier League Cup in 1992. They continued the trend of winning trophies after that when they won the Premier League and FA Cup double the following season.
Under Akers’ stewardship, Arsenal enjoyed domestic success as the club claimed 11 league titles, nine FA Women’s Cup titles, ten FA Women’s Premier League Cup titles and five FA Women’s Community Shield wins.
This included seven straight league wins from the 2003–04 season to 2008–09 season, as well as six unbeaten campaigns marking 108 games without defeat. During that spell, Arsenal won a record 51 league games in a row, between November 2005 and April 2008.
And by the turn of the century the Gunners had won 13 major honours, but that was merely the foundation for a decade of domination that reached its peak in the 2006/07 season when the Arsenal Ladies team did something that even to this day the men’s team have been unable to do, they won every single competition available to them, making them quadruple winners by winning the Women’s Champions League, Premier League, FA Cup and Premier League Cup and all without losing a single game in any competition.
This was the ultimate reward for Aker’s professionalism and determination, especially when he went out of his way to do something in the world that meant ensuring that women too had the opportunity to be footballers, when everybody else seemed to turn their nose up at even the thought of it.
The women also won the ever-elusive UEFA Women’s Cup. The win marked Arsenal’s only trophy won from European competitions and the first time an English club won the competition. This achievement did not go unnoticed as Arsenal won The Committee Award by the Sports Journalists’ Association in the 2007 Sports Journalists’ Awards.
The success of the women too made Arsenal the first two clubs to be invincibles in football.
Akers was to retire from management following a domestic treble in the 2008–09 season though. I guess as he had seen it all there was nothing more for him to see or achieve at the club.
Clare Wheatley who was our former left back recalled entering the Arsenal boardroom one day where she chose to pitch the suggestion that she and her team-mates should be paid – not a salary, but a win bonus of £100 per victory. (peanuts really.) She said:
“David Dein listened and he was forward-thinking, and he always had a rationale as to why the women’s club should exist. It wasn’t about money because financially, there was nothing in return. It was about giving opportunities to female players of a certain level to be able to live their dreams. Of course it has shifted slightly down the years. Back then there weren’t the eyes on the game to justify spending money. There wasn’t the broadcasting revenue. So Arsenal did it because it was the right thing to do, and they firmly believed in their hearts it was the right thing to do for the women’s game.”
After Akers very emotional and sad retirement, he was succeeded by Tony Gervaise, who resigned in February 2010 after only eight months in charge, suggesting his position had been undermined by outside interference.
In an unusual development, reserve coach Laura Harvey became the first-team manager and Gervaise became reserve coach. Laura’s appointment marked the club’s first female coach in any capacity.
After a years break in play which took place because preparation was in process for a reformatted league, Arsenal were named as founder members of the FA Women’s Super League, which started in the spring of 2011.
And of course, Arsenal won the inaugural season, marking their eighth consecutive English title. This was followed by another domestic double when they also won the FA Cup.
Despite support and backing from the men’s team manager Arsène Wenger and then vice-chairman David Dein, looking back now it is hard to believe that regardless of all of their success, the women did not turn semi-professional until 2002.
Yet they did turn professional and that still comes back to the passion and dedication of the man who founded the club from his desk at Arsenal in the Community, and I guess without the backing of all associated with the club, Vic’s dream and ambition to make a women’s team, would have been just that, a dream.
However, having the pleasure of attending the Audience with Arsene Wenger and David Dein, and hearing from the horse’s mouths what both men thought of women’s football and the Arsenal Women’s team in particular, there is no wonder why the women’s team were as successful as they were..
To be continued….