Challenged to kick the ball as hard as she could a young Lily Parr squared up to the boy in goal and went for it – breaking his arm and giving birth to a legend.
Born in 1905, by the age of 14 she was recruited to her first woman’s team – one of many created during the First World War – and played for her country not much later in 1920.
Standing 6ft tall, the chain-smoking left-footed winger was an equal to any man – and one of the best players England has produced. In a 32-year career she scored nearly 1,000 goals.
As our Lionesses prepare to head to the World Cup in France next month, Lily will become the first female footballer to have a statue when a life-size bronze monument is unveiled at Manchester’s National Football Museum in the same month.
Cousin June Patten, 89, says Lily would be proud but humble about the honour.
“She was strong, she was forceful, she was determined,” says June. “It is safe to say she was the best woman footballer in the world.
“We all knew her as ‘Our Lil” and we are proud that she was one of us. She may have been fearsome on the pitch, but off the pitch she was one of the kindest, most gentle, funny and loveliest people you could have met.”
Lily was born in a rented house in St Helens, Merseyside, the fourth of labourer George Parr and his wife Sarah’s seven children.
She first honed her football skills playing alongside her brothers on waste ground near their rented family home.
The local lads soon counted her as their equal with her fearsome reputation on the pitch becoming the stuff of local legend.
June explains: “The boys used to call for her and ask her to play football. She was just accepted as one of the lads. But one of them one day said to her I bet you can’t kick a ball hard.
"He said I’ll go in goal and you kick the ball at me. She kicked the ball so hard she broke his arm. She had a kick like a mule. She was a better footballer than all the boys.”
It wasn’t long before Lily’s talents were spotted. It was towards the end of the First World War and most men were on the frontline fighting.
Women took the helm working in mills and munitions factories in tough conditions, so bosses decided that taking up a sport like football in the fresh air would be good for them.
So the beautiful game became the women’s game with 150 ladies teams dotted across the country attracting crowds of thousands, and raising money for war charities.
Dick, Kerr Ladies was the best of the bunch. It was run from a munitions factory in Preston, Lancs, with the factory girls grafting hard by day and taking the footballing world by storm at weekends.
Lily scored an incredible 43 goals for them in her first season.
And she represented England in the first recognised women’s international football game, helping her country beat France 2-0.
When Dick, Kerr played St Helens Ladies on Boxing Day of 1920, 53,000 people flocked to Goodison Park in Liverpool to watch the game, with thousands more said to be locked out.
But just a year later, in spite of the popularity of women’s football, the Football Association banned women’s clubs from its grounds, deeming the sport “quite unsuitable for females”.
The ban remained in place until the late 1960s, but that did not stop Lily from continuing to play.
She toured abroad with Dick, Kerr, staying with the team until 1951 and scoring more than 980 goals in her career, making her England’s most prolific goal-scorer of all time.
Lily was also known for her aggressive style of play, which didn’t always go down well with the referee or the opposition.
In April 1921 Parr and Hilda Durbar of Stoke United were sent off for fighting in Dick, Kerr Ladies’ fractious 2–0 win before 13,000 fans at The Old Recreation Ground.
But she also had a mischievous side – she was rumoured to swipe balls from the field and sell them for profit and asked for her wages to be supplemented with her beloved Woodbine cigarettes.
June remembers that cheeky streak well, laughing: “She was a chain smoker. One day she was playing and the ball was at the other end of the field.
“There was a man leaning over the rail smoking so she took his cigarette off him, took a big drag of it and then gave it him back.
“The smoking didn’t seem to bother her though.”
Her cousin lived with a woman called Mary, and June recalls: “Everyone was very proud of her. She used to come on a Sunday evening to my grandma’s house, she used to bring her friend Mary who was a lovely lady, she was delightful, and we used to look forward to her coming.
“She and Mary were such a joy to be with. In those days people didn’t contemplate it, but looking back now they were very likely to be gay. They were a very happy couple.
“But it didn’t register with us – they were just Lily and Mary.”
Lily trained as a nurse working at Whittingham Mental Hospital, near Preston, until she retired. She died from breast cancer aged 73 in 1978, but her legend lives on.
She was the first female footballer to be inducted into the Football Hall of Fame in 2002, and next month her statue, commissioned by chocolate makers Mars, will be unveiled.
Football historian Gail Newsham, who has written a book about the legendary Dick, Kerr Ladies team, says there is no doubt that Lily was one of England’s greatest players of all time.
She says: “The power of her shot was always a great asset and her ability. She was naturally gifted and fearless.
“The longevity of her career makes her stand out too and enabled her to score so many goals.
“The fact that she played for so long obviously shows her love of the game. She was always admired by team mates and opponents alike.
“People now look up to her as being one of the first ‘stars’ of the game. There can’t be many more players, if any, who have scored more goals than Lily did.”
And Gail believes England’s Lionesses need look no further for inspiration than Lily if they want to bring the World Cup back home
“If they can believe in their own ability as Lily did in hers, they won’t go far wrong,” she says. “Be fearless and never give up. I am sure the Lionesses won’t let Lily, or the rest of the Dick, Kerr Ladies, down. Let’s hope football is coming home.”
- Get involved in all the action and support England’s Lionesses this summer on social media using the Mars hashtag #SupportHer
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