Fifty years ago, on a drizzly Sunday afternoon in Manchester, Eva Haraldsted played soccer against George Best. Haraldsted was 21 years old. She wore a turquoise mini-dress, white soccer boots, and a high ponytail, and was captain of a women’s team called Blinkers United. Best, the shaggy-haired Manchester United superstar, led an all-male All-Star team made up of fellow pros and pop singers. The game between Blinkers and the All-Stars was a curious battle of the sexes that descended into farce. The players disregarded the rules as they tripped their opponents, handled the ball, and gunged Best with a bucket of soap suds—to the delight of the crowd. The game was a comic sketch rather than a sporting contest, because the only women’s soccer that was allowed in England in 1969 was the kind that was a joke.
The only game Blinkers United were ever allowed to play took place at Manchester’s Belle Vue speedway stadium on November 16, 1969. It couldn’t be played at a soccer stadium because the English Football Association had banned women from playing on its fields. The FA initiated the ban in 1921, when the popularity of trailblazing women’s teams became a threat to the stuffy old world of men’s soccer—and its gate receipts. By 1969, the ban had effectively killed off organized women’s soccer in the country that invented association football. Eva Haraldsted and the women of Blinkers United were unlikely soccer rebels.
“I didn’t realize at the time how unusual it was for women to be playing football in England,” Haraldsted tells me. She had recently arrived in England from Denmark, where women’s soccer was thriving. (The first two Women’s World Cups, in 1970 and 1971, were both won by the Danes.) Haraldsted was Best’s fiancée. The pair met in the summer of 1969 when Manchester United played a friendly in Copenhagen. Haraldsted asked for an autograph, and Best was smitten. Back in England, Best appealed via the media to find his “Danish dream girl,” and tracked Haraldsted down to her home city of Aarhus. He invited her to Manchester and, within a few weeks, they were living together and engaged.
Blinkers United was named after Manchester’s fashionable Blinkers nightclub, a horseracing-themed spot that was George Best’s favorite after-hours hangout. The club was owned by his pal, Selwyn Demmy, who also ran a local charity: the Manchester and Salford Underprivileged Children’s Toy Fund. When Demmy asked Best to help raise funds, the pair came up with the idea of forming a “Glamour Girls XI.” Best was a noted playboy, and the idea of beautiful women playing soccer neatly combined his two primary interests.
“The players were all very glamorous,” Haraldsted recalls. “Some were beauty queens, some were models, and others were football players’ wives.” They included reigning Miss Great Britain Wendy George, Pin-Up of the Year Jennifer Lowe, and Miss Book World Pat Morgan. Also on the team were Noreen Crerand, Tina Summerbee, and Lesley Ball, who were married to Manchester United and Manchester City players Paddy Crerand, Mike Summerbee, and Alan Ball, respectively. “We were all measured up, and the kits were tailored to fit,” says Haraldsted. “We wore white boots with George Best’s name on them. George trained us in shooting at goal and heading the ball into the net.”
There were further complications on top of the ban. First, torrential rain postponed the game for a week. Then, three days before the rescheduled date, Haraldsted and Best announced their engagement was off. “We are both sad,” Best told the press, “but I’m not the marrying type.”
There was a little more to it than that, according to Haraldsted: “George’s former girlfriend, Jackie Glass, turned up from London at his home in Manchester in a black cab and persuaded him to take her back. She didn’t want him to marry me.”
Women’s soccer was played competitively in England from the 1880s, but it soared in popularity during the First World War, when teams of female munitions workers began playing fundraising matches. The most popular of these teams was Dick, Kerr Ladies, made up of workers from the Dick, Kerr and Company munitions factory. The company was named for founders W.B. Dick and John Kerr, and the team was led by goal-scoring captain Alice Kell and teenage striker Lily Parr.
The Dick, Kerr team played in front of large crowds through the war and beyond. In 1920, Dick, Kerr played a French team that combined players from the Fémina and En Avant clubs in what was considered the first women’s international game. At Christmas that year, Dick, Kerr beat St. Helens Ladies at Everton’s Goodison Park in front of a crowd of 53,000 fans.
A year later, in December 1921, the FA banned women’s soccer—coinciding with the post-war resumption of men’s soccer. “The FA claimed the game was ‘quite unsuitable for females and should not be encouraged,’” says Gail Newsham, a former soccer player and the author of In A League Of Their Own: A History Of Dick, Kerr Ladies. “They came up with lots of excuses, but when I met some women who played before the ban, they told me it was because they were drawing bigger crowds than the men.”
The Dick, Kerr players crossed the Atlantic to look for games but were banned from playing in Canada by the Dominion Football Association, and struggled to find opposition in the U.S. They ended up playing under the assumed name of “Newcastle United Ladies” against men’s teams—defeating several of them. But back in England, the ban squeezed the team out of existence. “It was difficult for women because they had to find alternative grounds to play on,” Newsham tells me. “Many teams folded.”
So it was within living memory of the bans and break-ups that Eva Haraldsted led out her team at the Belle Vue stadium. Wearing the number 10 on her mini-dress, she jogged past spectators who were more sensibly wrapped up against the damp English weather. Then Best led out the All-Stars. It was the first time Haraldsted and Best had seen each other since their announcement, and tears were shed. The presence of reporters from Britain’s intrusive tabloids made things worse. The Daily Mirror’s headline on the day of the game was: “George Best And His Ex-Girl Meet In Soccer Match.” “It was difficult for me because the press wouldn’t leave me alone,” Haraldsted recalls. She says teammate Wendy George helped keep reporters away from her.
Pathé News captured highlights from the game on a black and white newsreel film that managed to make the affair look even more outdated than it was. “The ladies set off goal-ward,” said the newsreel announcer. “It was they who made the passes on this occasion.” There were plenty of hijinks for the cameras. Best shoved the ball up his shirt, and fellow All-Star Mike Summerbee donned a ladies’ wig. Best temporarily switched sides and went in goal for Blinkers. The Blinkers players pushed over an All-Star, then picked up the ball, passed it around rugby-style, and threw it into the goal. “It was an entertaining game,” remembers Haraldsted. “It ended in a fun fight in shaving foam, and George played his part.” The final score was 7-2 to Blinkers United. Not much of a showcase for women’s soccer, but there was a bigger victory to come.
In the same month as the Blinkers United match, the English Women’s Football Association (WFA) formed—entirely independent of the men’s FA. Also in November 1969, an “unofficial” England team participated at the first women’s international soccer tournament, the Coppa Europa per Nazioni in Italy. Then, in December, it was reported that the FA was considering rescinding the ban on women’s soccer “if the clubs and officials are willing.” They eventually lifted the ban in July 1971, following pressure from the WFA and European governing body UEFA.
“The formation of the WFA was invaluable,” says Gail Newsham. “That gave women the opportunity to play. As a kid growing up, I was never allowed to play except in the street or the local park. To finally get the chance of playing in a proper match, in a proper team, was a dream come true for a girl who grew up loving football.”
Although the ban was over, Eva Haraldsted never played soccer again. In December 1969, she went back to Denmark for a modeling assignment and was involved in a dreadful car accident. She was riding in the passenger seat of a Volvo Amazon when it collided with a Ford Zephyr. Both vehicles were crushed, and two people were killed. “I only survived because I was wearing a safety belt,” she says.
While Haraldsted recovered in Denmark, Best finished the English soccer season as Manchester United’s top scorer with 23 goals. By the end of the season, he was engaged again, to a Swedish nurse named Siv Hederby. Best, regarded by Pelé as “the greatest footballer in the world,” would go on to play out his career for a number of teams, including the Los Angeles Aztecs, Fort Lauderdale Strikers, and San Jose Earthquakes in the NASL. He died in 2005.
Haraldsted remained in Denmark and started a business designing women’s clothing. She later studied at the Danish Academy of Arts and became an artist. She has good memories of her short time in England. “I look back with happiness,” she says. Her Danish Academy graduate exhibit included 22 different pictures of George Best.
Paul Brown writes about sports history and lives in the north-east of England. His work can be found at www.stuffbypaulbrown.com.