There was a footballer, a century ago, renowned for having a ferocious appetite, swearing like a Trooper and chain-smoking unfiltered Woodbine cigarettes nicknamed: "Gaspers”. Known as such because those who tried them for the first time did just that - gasp!
A footballer and then-Scottish international: Bobby Walker described them as "the best natural timer of a football I have ever seen"
They could ping a cross, corner or switch play from flank to flank as if they were striking a softball. Instead, a leather football that when sodden through, weighed more like a cannonball.
Six feet tall, blessed with strength, incredible power, pace, skill and technique, all whilst possessing the physicality to cope with rough house antics.
It's a description that probably conjures up images of a roughneck centre half or forward, with a Peaky Blinder haircut, a neck like an American Brahman and a chiselled jaw, a double-barrelled chest and thighs as wide as ‘yer’ waist.
No, this player was a woman and her name was Lily Parr; a footballing prodigy; An icon of ladies' football past & present.
Lily Parr was born in 1905 in St Helens, the fourth of seven children. Her father worked as a labourer at the local glassworks, her mother a housewife, and they lived in a rented house in which they sublet rooms for extra cash.
She had no interest in girls' toys or activities such as sewing or cooking which were considered ‘the norm’ at the time. Instead, she followed her older brother, a keen sportsman, onto the grasslands around St Helens where she learned to play rugby and football.
Kicking a ball about with her brother and his friends, who no doubt would have been bigger, stronger and probably rough too, moulded her as a footballer. It was there she honed her skills and developed the tremendous power she would later be renowned for.
Parr was only 13 years old when she was spotted by St Helens who signed her up and put her straight into the first team for whom she made over 100 appearances.
Alfred Frankland, the Dick Kerr manager, was always scouting for the best talent to revamp his team. He obviously had an eye for a player as he built his footballing powerhouse.
The year was 1920 when he decided, after watching the 14-year-old St Helens left back, that she would be his next acquisition.
In making such an impression at that tender age, we can only imagine what an exceptional talent young Lily Parr was.
No fees and no laws against poaching it would seem, Lily agreed to personal terms of 10 shillings a game, a job at the Dick Kerr factory and of course a supply of Woodbines. She was known to have a ciggie during half-time intervals.
For Frankland and Dick Kerr Ladies, the deal that brought them Parr would prove to be a major coup. They had what would be described today as a generational talent. A term that seems to be thrown around loosely nowadays to portray any promising young player. However, Lily was the complete player - the real deal.
Lily Parr began her Dick Kerr career at left back, but realising he wasn't using Lily to her full potential, Frankland moved her to the left wing; a position in which she thrived.
Playing as a winger enabled Lily to fulfil her ability. Beating players for skill and pace and providing pinpoint crosses, meat & drink for Florrie Redford, a forward who scored goals for fun. Parr also weighed in with her fair share of goals too. Her first match on the wing was New Year's Day 1921, a game in which she bagged a hat-trick against a Rest Of Lancashire Eleven.
In her first calendar year, Parr chipped in with a ridiculous tally of 108 goals, 43 of which were scored for the season. Redford was the only player to outscore her with a stupendous goal count of 170.
Lily was a revelation. A local newspaper article wrote:
"There is probably no greater football prodigy in the whole country. Not only has she speed and excellent ball control, but her admirable physique enables her to brush off challenges from defenders who tackle her.
She amazes the crowd wherever she goes, by the way she swings the ball clean across the goalmouth to the opposite wing."
Team-mate Joan Whalley said of Parr.
"She had a kick like a mule. She was the only person I knew who could lift a dead ball, the old heavy leather ball, from the left wing over to me on the right...when she took a left corner kick, it came over like a bullet"
There were those in the men's game who felt she was good enough to play in the football league but there lies the tragedy.
The FA’s prohibition of women’s football denied Lily Parr and her peers the chance of a professional career and the opportunity to showcase their ability on the big stages.
Not just an exceptional player, Parr was an exceptional woman too. She never hid her sexuality. She was true to herself and was open about her relationships with teammate Alice Woods and her long-term partner Mary. Whilst homosexuality was illegal in those times, Lesbianism wasn't, and the star and pioneering advert that Lily was. must have made the FA wince.
Following the ban, Dick Kerr Ladies embarked upon a USA tour where again Parr won the Press' Plaudits.
The Washington Post wrote:
"Miss Lily Parr, at outside left, put up an aggressive game registering two goals in seven tries she had [at] the net".
Not quite the style of football reporting we are used to but we get the drift. In those days our American friends didn't really get "soccer". Some may argue they still don't!
Whilst on a later U.S. tour in the 30s, Lily along with Jennie Harris, Florrie Haslam, and Molly Walker took up the challenge of a 1/4 mile relay race against the American Women's Olympic Team.
The Preston Ladies, as they were now known, won the race regardless of Alice Woods’ absence who was already a top-class sprinter. Lily being Lily probably had one of her woodbine cigarettes in the warm-up
Parr was 45 when she finally hung up her boots in 1950. She had long been a trained Nurse and worked at The Whittingham Hospital & Asylum until her retirement. It was the end of a football career that had lasted more than 30 years and saw her score over 900 goals.
In her 60's she was treated for cancer, leading to a double mastectomy to save her life. Whilst in hospital she asked her visitors, not for the often sought-after bottle of Lucozade but a packet of Woodbines (No surprise there).
Lily lived for many years afterwards but finally succumbed to the disease in 1978 and passed away aged 73. She at least got to see the FA lift the ban on Women's football in 1970.
Parr's legacy lives on. In 2007 The Lily Parr Exhibition Trophy was held in support of LGBTQ+ History Month. The London Lesbian Kickabouts (LLKA) met the Paris side Arc en Ciel (Rainbow) re-enacting the first match between Dick Kerr Ladies and the French National side. The LLKA did Lily proud, winning 7-3.
In 2009 the Exhibition was played in Regent's Park featuring teams from Paris & the U.S.A.
Pilkington F.C. formed a ladies' team in 2017 and currently play in the Liverpool County F.A. Women's League Division One. They are known as Pilkington Lillies in honour of Lily Parr.
One would have liked for her to see herself become the first female inductee in 2002, to the Hall of Fame at the National Football Museum in Manchester. Along with the unveiling of her statue in 2019.
A humble woman who neither wished nor courted fame or celebrity, what she would have made of her Sculpture is anyone's guess. Our guess is she probably would have stuck a Woodbine between its lips whilst no one was looking.
Lily Parr: A true generational talent and a pioneer for women’s football.
© Joe Davison | The Aftermatch 2023