Sir Denis Follows: the man who ended the ban on women playing football | Football

Much has been made of the Football Association’s 50-year ban from 1921 on female players using its affiliated pitches, which scythed down the women’s game just as its growth had accelerated, with matches attracting attendances in excess of 50,000. Little, though, has been said of the eventual lifting of the ban in 1971, or of the man who authored the letter rescinding it. Now, the University of Nottingham is set to induct posthumously Sir Denis Follows – the then secretary of the FA and an alumnus – into its Sport Hall of Fame.

The uncovering of the small but critical role of Follows, who died in 1983 aged 75, in the development of women’s football – which later led to him being named honorary life vice-president of the Women’s Football Association – happened by chance. Follows’s daughter, Maggie Ferris – another Nottingham alumnus – mentioned her father in a routine fundraising phone call with the university.

Sir Denis Follows’ daughter, Margaret Ferris.

Sir Denis Follows’ daughter, Margaret Ferris.

The student that jotted down a few notes from their call took them away and soon afterwards the university and Ferris began to explore the history of a man had a firm belief in equality and a person’s right to play sport and felt the lifting of the ban was natural.

“He was always campaigning about things,” explains Ferris. “That was just part of what he was. And he was quite self-effacing, he never made a big deal of any achievement. Well, he was pretty pleased about winning the World Cup,” she adds with a chuckle.

Follows was FA secretary in 1966. He introduced the idea of the first mascot for a finals – World Cup Willie – and separated the tournament’s organising committee, for which his daughter worked in the holidays, from the everyday running of the FA. He also presided over the loss of the Jules Rimet trophy – when it was stolen from a stamp exhibition on 20 March – and subsequent recovery.

“Dad brought it home [after it had been recovered on 27 March] and he actually slept with it under the bed until we won it,” recalls Ferris. “And then it went into a special place to be displayed. When it was due to be taken to Mexico for the 1970 World Cup there was a real issue of how they were going to get it there.

Sir Denis Follows outside the FA headquarters with World Cup Willie, the 1966 World Cup mascot.

Sir Denis Follows outside the FA headquarters with World Cup Willie, the 1966 World Cup mascot.

“The Jules Rimet cup was fabulous, it was absolutely beautiful. I’ve got a photo of my mum in our back garden holding it with our dog. Anyway, he decided that the best way to get it to Mexico was in his briefcase, so he just carried his briefcase all the time. In that way he was quite practical. It worked. First it was under the bed, then in his briefcase.”

When Nobby Stiles’ contact lenses went missing, it was Ferris’s sister who would go to an all-night Boots to get some more and Follows, who had connections with pilots as general secretary of the British Airline Pilots’ Association (Balpa), who would arrange for them to be flown out to Stiles.

Follows’s journey either side of 1966 is equally remarkable. Born in 1908, he started in student politics, becoming chairman of the University Athletics Union, representing the body on the FA council and being given the job of unpaid FA treasurer, before becoming president of the National Union of Students.

In those various posts, he travelled in the 1930s to Latvia before it was invaded by the Soviet Union and to Madrid as Spain powered toward the start of the civil war in 1936, attending student conferences. “In a lot of domestic ways he was not capable at all,” says Ferris. “He could just about do tea and toast or boil an egg but in some ways he was a real innovator. He was in his treatment of women. I found an old photograph of a 1930s committee that he was on at the university and a third of the people in the photograph are women. He had always worked with women in an equivalent role, he never expected women to be the underdogs.”

Follows was partially blind in one eye and was therefore ruled out of national service during the second world war but still joined the RAF as a lecturer. Postwar that enabled him to take on the general secretary role with Balpa, which he held until 1974. Meanwhile he succeeded Sir Stanley Rous as secretary of the FA in 1962.

The duel career paths gave him a unique role in the Munich air disaster in 1958. “When there was the the crash with the Busby Babes in it Dad was the general secretary of Balpa, but he was also treasurer of the FA,” explains Ferris. Follows became the union representative of the pilot, Captain James Thain, who was initially blamed for the crash, and spent more than a decade working on the extremely emotive case to clear his name. “Initially he was a scapegoat, guilty, that he had failed to clear the ice on the wings despite witnesses saying there was no ice, but Dad got him cleared in 1968,” says Ferris.

Three years later Follows drafted the letter that would lift the ban on women’s football. “I knew about it being reversed,” says Ferris, “but I didn’t know about the ban [coming into force] in the 20s. I just knew that there wasn’t any women’s football and accepted that as the status quo.”

Players from Southampton Women line up in 1971, one year after the club was founded. The team won the first Women’s FA Cup in 1971 and won it a further seven times in the following 10 years.

Players from Southampton Women line up in 1971, one year after the club was founded. The team won the first Women’s FA Cup in 1971 and won it a further seven times in the following 10 years. Photograph: Mirrorpix/Getty Images

It would be one of his final big acts in charge at the FA, leaving under two years later and taking up his post as chairman of the British Olympics Association in 1977. There Follows saw off intense pressure from Margaret Thatcher’s government to boycott the 1980 Moscow Olympics in protest at the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and defended the right of British athletes to compete at the Games.

“That was so stressful,” remembers Ferris. “I think that led to him having his first heart attack. It was traumatic. But he seemed pretty calm at the time, he just dealt with the complaints and just quietly said that, in his opinion, it was an individual decision and that the opportunity should be there for the athletes to participate. It was Lord Carrington [the foreign secretary] and Michael Heseltine [head of the department for the environment, which included sport] that were ringing him and putting the heavy screws on but he just stuck by his guns.

“Of course it was Seb Coe’s gold medal that year,” she adds. “And he has said himself, I believe, that if it hadn’t been for my father he probably would have never won a gold medal.” Instead, with government funding cut, Follows travelled the length and breadth of the country “trying to raise money for the Olympics, because he was just so desperate for them to be able to do what they wanted to do, without government money at all. And he did it.”

His induction into the hall of fame is on hold, coronavirus pending, but Nottingham’s head of sport, Dan Tilley, is looking forward to recognising “the affinity he had for student sport, the connection to the university, the fact that he has achieved a huge amount in his career”.

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Tilley says: “It feels only right that we celebrate him. We push a strong equality and diversity agenda here and it’s quite nice for our women footballers to reflect on the fact that someone who came through our university was someone who lifted the ridiculous ban on women’s football that had been in place since the 1920s.

“Sometimes sports administrators behind things get overlooked and actually some of the things they do are quite significant.”

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