Imagine this: you’re taken out of school to represent your country in its first unofficial Women’s World Cup. You fly to Mexico and play in front of a crowd of 85,000 at the Aztec Stadium. Every morning you sign autographs for fans and make several appearances on Mexican television. For a month, you’re away from home and are followed everywhere by the national press.
Now imagine doing all of that and not speaking about it for 48 years.
In 1971, 13-year-old Leah Caleb, 14-year-old Chris Lockwood and 15-year-old Gill Sayell made history, but it has remained hidden until now.
“It was like going into Doctor Who’s Tardis and coming out into another world,” said Chris.
Women’s football had been banned for fifty years prior to the 1971 tournament. In fact, Chris and her teammates, as well as their manager Harry Batt, were banned for three months when they returned home from Mexico.
“We always thought it would be a springboard for the women’s game and that they would take it further. Harry would have done had he been allowed because he had all the connections and the knowledge of the women’s game,” said Gill.
“What could have been didn’t happen and it set women’s football back I think,” she added.
Harry Batt was manager of Chilton Valley and he went up and down the country to scout players. Several women who were asked to fly to Mexico for the tournament had to decline because they would have lost their jobs.
This perhaps gave the young Sayell, Lockwood and Caleb a chance they may not otherwise have had.
The first unofficial Women’s World Cup took place in 1970. The competition was ‘unofficial’ because it was not Fifa-sanctioned, but the crowds recorded in 1971 have never, and likely will never, be broken.
“We had no idea what we were going to face,” Leah recalled.
Mexico was chosen as the hosts, a year after they had held the men’s tournament, and Leah believes this was in part due to the commercial possibilities.
“The businessmen involved looked how it would work in Mexico – the passion of the supporters and the men’s tournament the year before. There was a big financial gain for the promoters, and it was a major success to get those crowds in a poor country,” Leah said.
Chris remembers how the Mexican crowd embraced the England squad specifically and rooted for them after their home nation.
“We had more people watching us training than we ever had at home, there was always boys wanting autographs at 7.30 in the morning, they’d stand outside the hotel and wait for us,” she said.
At the end of the tournament Mexican children handed a sign to Harry Batt, saying: “You might have lost the games, but you’ve won the hearts of the Mexican people.”
England played three games in the 1971 tournament. Their first two fixtures against Argentina and Mexico were played within 24 hours of each other and both unfortunately ended in defeat.
“We had eight injuries after our first two games, two people went to hospital and came back in plasters and others had injections, it was hard football,” Leah recalled.
“There was a lot of gamesmanship that we’d never come across”, Chris added.
“We’d never been taught it and didn’t know to avoid it, we’d only ever played honest football.”
England’s final game was for fifth/sixth place and ended in a 3-2 defeat to France. Many of the squad had never played together before but it later emerged the Italian team had gone for warm weather training to acclimatise.
“We were used to park pitches with one man and his dog watching us,” said Gill.
“Going from that into the limelight of such a major event was totally alien and opposite to what we were used to.”
After returning from Mexico Gill began playing for Aylesbury United, which became what is now Arsenal Women, and was managed by Vic Akers who would go on to have a successful career in charge of the club.
The three players were reunited when Leah and Chris joined Gill at Aylesbury but the memories of Mexico remained hidden.
“Even then we didn’t talk about Mexico, I don’t know why,” said Leah.
“I think it’s partly to do with we came from a generation that didn’t like showing off and only our friends and family mentioned it,” Chris added.
Only now are the three players telling their story. With the help of the National Football Museum, a squad reunion from the tournament took place recently but there are four players still to be located.
One of those players is Jean Brekon who originates from Yorkshire.
The women are telling their story partly to find the rest of the squad but also for the tournament and the work of Harry Batt to have its place in football history.
“Any good that can come from it for girls not to be frightened to go and play their sport is a good thing,” said Leah.
Harry Batt never managed again after he was banned following the end of the Mexican tournament.
If Batt’s passion for the women’s game had been utilised the sport could have progressed so much quicker.
This summer England will take on Argentina in their World Cup group game and it will be a poignant moment for Leah, Chris and Gill as they look back on their experiences 48 years ago.
“They’re always talking about it in Argentina and how they beat England in 1971, they never shut up about it,” said Chris.
How sweet it would be for Phil Neville’s side to enact revenge this summer and show how far the game has come in this country.
The 1971 World Cup in Mexico may have been ‘forgotten’ for many years, but, now Leah, Chris, and Gill are sharing their story with the world, it is hoped they and Harry will rightly be given their place in football history.