It was an historic moment for the Harrogate Town AFC Walking Footballer's team this February as they welcomed 64-year-old ladies footballing pioneer Laura Spencer, who became the club's first female player to join the squad.
Laura, who was born in Loughborough and raised in Grimsby but emigrated to Calgary, Canada in the 1970s, has always had a love and passion for football and it began in her home town when she was just a child.
“I was always interested in sport at school and participated in hockey, netball and football, and I would join in with the boys playing with a tennis ball in the playground,” Laura recalls.
“My brother was a very good player in the local leagues and I would often watch his games on Sundays on the playing fields in the community.
“It sparked my interest in playing football and so I asked him if he would show me some techniques and how to shoot and take set pieces. We would regularly practice in the park until dusk where we couldn't see the ball anymore.”
Laura would go on to join her local boys' team that was coached by their first female manager, Mrs Dale. It was here where Laura realised that – like her brother- she had a good level of stamina and ability on the pitch. She would play for the club before emigrating to Canada with her family at the age of 17.
With her parents wanting a “better life and future” for their children, the family packed up and moved to Calgary, Alberta, Canada in 1974 but that didn't stop Laura's love for football. Soon after arriving in the country, she was informed of a girls' league that at the time, only had seven teams registered.
Although not a massively popular sport among Canadians in the 70s, those teams would have corporate sponsorships to fund the kit and training equipment and then the teams played each other several times over the summer from May to August. Laura played for the Probe-Data Grasshoppers who would go on to become one of the top teams in the league.
A team photo of the Probe-Data Grasshoppers (Laura is the last person on the back row from the left).
Momentum began to build in the Alberta province and by 1978, major Canadian companies such as Labatts and Molsons sponsored the Calgary Ladies Soccer League. As rivalries grew between the teams, it was the Probe-Data Grasshoppers who would go on to dominate the division, winning the league title for six consecutive years. Laura regularly won MVP for her side and was known as ‘Sheela' by her teammates as they thought she was Australian.
“We become the ‘Man City' of the league, the team everyone wanted to beat,” Laura says.
“My teammates felt we were pioneering ladies' soccer in Alberta as we started the growth and development of girls playing soccer. National coaches began to take notice of individual players throughout the various provinces and particularly in Calgary. I was chosen along with some of my teammates to represent a team made up of the top players who would represent Calgary to play a Danish national team which was televised on cable TV.”
Laura pictured with the trophies that she won in the 1978 season.
The standard of women's football in Alberta kept getting better and better, and soon enough, Grasshoppers faced fierce competition from the ‘Blizzards'.
Some of Laura's teammates had made the switch to the new rivals and were enjoying some renewed success in the league. It led to a quite amazing story where after one too many drinks at the bar with some of her former teammates, Laura accidentally signed for her club's main rivals.
“I believe it was towards the end of my 12 year involvement playing soccer in Calgary that the transfer happened,” Laura explains. “During a night out after one of our games, the girls bought me a few drinks and I unfortunately had a few too many and that led to a transfer contract thrusted in front of me to sign.”
She continues and chuckles, “they had a ‘whip round in the bar' and I was transferred (under duress I hasten to add) for $5.00! My coach George was not impressed, but I was obligated to go through with the transfer and it is the moment I joined the Blizzards.”
After a successful career, Laura moved back to England in 1994 but she left knowing she had made an impact on the development of ladies football in Western Canada.
“I am very proud of the ‘small acorns and humble beginnings' and the part we played that went largely unnoticed in offering opportunities for girls/women to play soccer in Alberta and British Columbia.
“The progress of the professional women's game in Canada has made me feel even more proud,” Laura adds. “To see the ultimate goal of an established women's league in Canada is great and it's going from strength to strength.”
On her return to England, Laura continued her footballing journey, finding enjoyment in walking football.
She joined Dorchester Town's walking football team and became their first female player. She participated in tournaments in Poole, Bournemouth, Weymouth and Bridport before relocating to Harrogate in 2020 to be closer to her parents and family in Lincolnshire. Yorkshire has been a part of the country she's always “loved visiting” and she finds great enjoyment in the outdoors and leading Nordic Walking groups.
The Covid-19 pandemic put a brief halt on her footballing adventures but when the opportunity came about, Laura swiftly got in contact with the Harrogate Town Community Foundation who have a successful and talented walking football group. Laura went to her first session in February 2022 and in doing so, became the team's first female player.
Laura Spencer with the Harrogate Town Community Foundation Walking Football team.
“The gentlemen walking footballers in Harrogate have been amazingly welcoming and supportive of a lady ‘not cramping their style',” Laura says. “I'm so grateful to them as I just love to play football and keep fit.”
“I would be delighted to continue walking football with the ‘men's' groups and maybe attend some tournaments to meet new people and participate in social opportunities but should ladies be interested in developing ladies' groups, then I would welcome the opportunity to be involved.
“It seems I have come full circle from my childhood but it's my hope that more women will join me and who knows, maybe we can be pioneers once again.”
Harrogate Town AFC Community Foundation focus on improving health and wellbeing, connecting communities and enhancing life chances. Walking Football is one of the programmes that are delivered locally.
If you require any further information or would like to join our Walking Football team please email: firstname.lastname@example.org or connect with us on social media: Facebook – HTAFC Community Foundation . Twitter: @htafccf or via our website: http://www.htafccommunity.co.uk