by Rob Sawyer
Twenty-five years ago, a remarkable group of women representing Everton Football Club lifted the Women’s Premier League trophy for the first and only time.
The history of the side goes back forty years, to when Billy Jackson and June Gordon merged their teams to form Hoylake WFC, morphing into Leasowe and, later, Leasowe Pacific. Under the latter name, the club upset the odds to win the Women’s FA Cup in 1989, in a match staged at Old Trafford. Six years later, thanks to lobbying by club officials of new Everton chairman Peter Johnson, Leasowe came under the umbrella of Everton FC. It didn’t immediately bring riches or a huge commitment from the Toffees, but operating under an established brand helped the club, now playing at Marine FC’s ground, to grow and attract talented players. For example, England internationals Becky Easton and Karen Burke joined from Liverpool in the 1997 close season.
In addition to the new arrivals from the Reds, Everton’s squad for 97/98 contained a sprinkling of players who had lifted the Women’s FA Cup nine years earlier, including Welsh international forward and club captain Louise Thomas – plus Cathy Gore, Joy ‘Barry’ McQuiggan and Mo Marley. Everton fanatic and Goodison Park season ticket holder Andrea McGrady wore the number nine shirt in this era, although she had her injury issues during the campaign. Other regulars included Jackie Bertie, Jeanette Hill and Tina Mason, playing alongside Marley in a resolute back line – plus Mancunian Sarah Howden in midfield. Louise Ryde, ex-Doncaster Belles, added further experience to the side (and acted as club secretary off the pitch). Goalkeeping duties were shared by Jo Fletcher and Annie Wright, with utility player Tracie Johnson acting as back-up. Youngsters like Emma Wright and Tammy Byrne were knocking on the door for selection.
The ever-industrious Billy Jackson, ably assisted by his deputy Keith Marley and coach Keith Cliffe, had the side primed for an assault on the title. Reigning champions Arsenal posed a stern test on the first day of the season, but the Toffees came from behind to get a draw – putting down a marker for the season ahead. They would lose only once in the league, all season.
Speaking with the players now, they readily accept that they might not have been the most talented group in the league, but they were fit, organised and united in their desire to bring the trophy ‘Up North’. Many vital goals came from Karen Burke, Louise Thomas and Kerry Halfpenny (before injury) – while centre-back Mo Marley chipped in with a creditable total, aided by the brilliant set-piece delivery of Thomas. Veteran midfielder Cathy Gore had rolled back the years and was a clear choice as players’ player of the season.
At the season’s climax Everton travelled to Croydon. Losing Cathy Gore early on to a red card, the ten remaining players saw out a 0-0 draw, in spite of an almost unbelievable amount of injury time being added by the match officials. When Arsenal failed to win in midweek, the Blues were confirmed league champions for the first time in their history, with a match in hand (W13, D4, L1). A thrilled Mo Marley told the Liverpool Echo:
‘I’ve been here 10 years now, so I’ve had to wait until my testimonial year to get a [league] trophy. But I can tell you, it’s been well worth the wait. We’ve worked as a team all season. If you want to be an individual then you go and play an individual sport. So when the pressure was on, the pressure was on us as a team rather than on certain individuals. The pressure was on us in the last couple of weeks because we felt it could always slip away, but it didn’t – and I’m ecstatic.’
The victorious players were guests of the club at the final fixture of the men’s season – a home match against Coventry City. In spite of the threat of relegation overshadowing events, the women’s squad received a warm ovation as it did a lap of honour of the pitch, parading the trophy before the kick-off of the men’s game. For lifelong Evertonians like Mo Marley, Andrea McGrady, Tracie Johnson, Louise Thomas, Emma Wright, Tammy Byrne, Tina Mason and Joy McQuiggan it was a dream come true; but regardless of men’s team affiliations it was an afternoon to savour for all involved. Mercifully, Everton’s men scraped to safety with a 1-1 draw, thereby ensuring it could be an evening of unbridled celebration.
Early in the next in the season, Billy Jackson and Louise Thomas decided to step away from the game, so Keith Marley assumed the reins of management. The team could not emulate the glory of 1998, but Keith steered the club onwards – and when wife Mo had gained her coaching qualifications, he passed the mantle to her. In a decade at the helm, she would drive the club forward through continuous improvement on and off the pitch – capped by the Premier League Cup win in 2008 and lifting the FA Cup in 2010. Jill Scott was one of many players brought to the club who would gain international honours – she still readily pays warm tribute to the grounding she received with the Toffees.
Billy, June, Keith, Mo and all of the players – through their tireless, unpaid, efforts – have all helped the women’s game to advance. They are part of the fabric of Everton, forever. So, it is wonderful news that Everton, supported by Everton FC Heritage Society, has invited the 1997/98 squad and coaches to be special guests at the women’s Merseyside derby at Goodison Park on 24 March. Look out for some of the group at the Fanzone, pre-match and give them a massive cheer as they take to the pitch to accept the acclaim before kick-off.
by Rob Sawyer – with assistance from Sarah and Alison at EFCHS and the Everton Ladies 97/98 squad.
See also Bradley Cates’ Everton Ladies statistics for the 1997-98 on his EFC Statto site