Gill Coultard is an undisputed legend of women’s football. She joined Doncaster Belles at the age of 13 and won two Premier League Championships and six FA Cups with them.
After making her England debut at the age of 18, Coultard went on to captain her international side, and became both the first female and amateur player to reach 100 caps for England in 1997.
We spoke to her about her beginnings, her career, and what she makes of the women’s game now.
What’s your earliest football memory?
Playing with my brothers when I was about seven or eight. I’m the youngest of eight children - I have four brothers and three sisters. We lived in a street with lots of other big families. When it was football season we got together and played, football then when it was summer we swapped sports and played cricket.
It was a really long street, I think about 1.2 miles long. It wound round but we were quite fortunate that we had the green at either side of us and the road in the middle. There were two little posts that said ‘do not play on the green’ which we used as goal posts along with people’s gates.
I’ll never forget my roots or where I come from. In my era we didn’t have all the things that they have in today’s society - no media or telephones or things like that. You had to make your own pastimes and we did that with football. I think that street started it all. Then I got taken to my Doncaster Rovers match and it just went on from there really.
How did you get involved with Doncaster Belles?
Throughout infant school and middle school I played football for the boys teams. When I went to the grammar school at 13 I got told I couldn’t play for the school team because there was quite a physicality in some of the boys compared to me. I was used to playing with the boys, whether it be football or rugby or cricket. I never did any ‘girls’ games.
So going to the grammar school was a bit different for me - I had to go and have PE lessons with the girls and play hockey and, dare I say it, netball. I had to get used to those rules, but being quite sporty it wasn’t really a problem. The mixing side of it was the more difficult bit, I was used to playing with boys who treated me as one of their own even though I was a girl.
As I couldn’t play football at school the PE teacher told me there was a women’s team in Doncaster and asked if I’d like to go along for a trial. The rest is history really. I joined the Belles and wondered what I was doing there, but as soon as I stepped through the door it was unbelievable.
I joined the Belles and wondered what I was doing there, but as soon as I stepped through the door it was unbelievable.
I think I was the youngest then, the other women were ten or 15 years older than me, but it was like going into a big family. That’s what it is with the Belles: once a Belle, always a Belle. It stays with you for the rest of your life.
You had offers to move abroad, what made you stay with the Belles for all of your career?
For one, I was really too young. I came from a working class family with eight kids and we didn’t really have that much money. I’d never been on an airplane or away from my family. Then the Belles became my family. Going away to play Sweden, for example, sounded great, but I just thought there might come another time for that. I was so happy with what I was doing with Doncaster it never really entered my mind to go elsewhere really. I suppose it triggered at a couple of points when Kerry Davis and Debbie Bampton went over to Italy (Davis moved from Crewe to Roi Lazio in 1985 while Bampton moved from Mileall to Despar Trani 80 in 1987) and I wondered if I should be doing something similar, but it didn’t really interest me to be honest.
The 1995 Doncaster Belles squad, Coultard is middle row and centre
How does it feel to be a Belles legend?
It’s nice. When I go back to my hometown and I bump into people and they say ‘you know them days that we had,’ or call me the ‘best footballer that came out of the time’ it’s nice. They’re the memories that you’ll always have.
I didn’t have a big head or anything, I just wanted to play football.
But I’m no different to your Kaz Walkers of this world, or your Sheila Edmunds of this world, or your Janet Milners of this world. My time with the Belles came about through those people really. I got to play for a club where I was happy and a club that kept me grounded, along with my family. I didn’t have a big head or anything, I just wanted to play football. I dreamed of playing for England, I wanted to play at Wembley, I wanted to captain England, I wanted to score a goal at Wembley. Fortunately for my career I did them all.
So you achieved all you’d set out to in your career?
I think I did, and more. To play for England is one thing, to go on and captain them is another. And to know I’m up there on that scroll at St George’s Park as the first person to get 100 caps, in between David Beckham and somebody else, isn’t bad.
There aren’t many people who play 100 times for their country. To be the first woman to do that and to go on and get 119 caps is special. I think that was the best quiz question for anybody. The tiebreaker question: can you name five England players that have got 100 caps? People could always get the four men but they could never get me.
I’m quite proud of what I achieved, my family’s proud and my friends are proud. You can always look back and you think about if you’d do things differently. Maybe there were one or two things, but that’s just how football is. I’m quite happy with what I’ve done.
I look at the women’s game now and many people tell me I was born too soon but we’re in this world for different reasons.
I’ve got no regrets. I don’t think you can have any regrets in life to be fair. I look at the women’s game now and many people tell me I was born too soon but we’re in this world for different reasons. That time with Belles and the way that women’s football was in those days, not forgetting those before me who lit the torch, helped women’s football to get to where it is today. Nobody’s blown the flame out, it’s got bigger, and without all that came before players wouldn’t be in the position they are today.
Players nowadays don’t want for much, they get paid to play, and some of them have come to expect it. I think it’s important that players now listen to players like me and a few others - the likes of Carol Thomas and Liz Deighan - they can tell you stories that I probably don’t even know.
England Women, 1997. Coultard retired in 2000
What were the toughest challenges you faced in your career?
Discrimination - people asking why women were playing football. You’d get people saying you should be at home washing pots or cleaning up. There’s still that minority of people and I think that minority will always be there to be honest. Discrimination hasn’t gone away in men’s football so it certainly isn’t going to go away in women’s football. I just shut a lot of it out and got on with it.
What about the balancing act between working full time and playing?
That was a nightmare. It was very difficult training twice a week, playing on a Sunday and working. Internationally, we were under the Women’s Football Association (folded in 1993) with Linda Whitehead. We used to fly out on a Friday, play the game the Saturday or Sunday, then fly back on the Sunday and go back into work on the Monday.
I was quite fortunate I managed to get time off with pay but I know there were girls in my era that were going a year down the line with holidays and some even packed in work, went to play for their country and then started looking for another job.
When FA took over it was a little bit different. The programme became harder - training was a lot different for example - but the work situation was the same.
How did you know when it was time to retire?
It was Hope Powell who decided that. She gave me a call, and in not so many words told me it was time to retire. I went to work the next day, I was working up at East Durham College as a coach with Ted Copeland, and I knocked on his door and told him I’d had an interesting conversation. His advice was to send a letter to the FA and say I was retiring from international football.
Ted and I had chats every day, because obviously I lived up in Durham, and I spoke about how I didn’t think I could pay for Belles without playing for England considering how many years I’d done it for. Ted told me that if that was how I felt, I should make the decision and retire from both, and that’s what I decided to do.
Was there an adjustment period following your retirement?
Not really because I was still involved in football every day. I was in Durham coaching the girls and I had my own team on a Sunday so I was still in the bubble of football. If I wasn’t in that bubble then I think I could have quite easily been depressed about it. It’s a big part of your life for so many years so you do think about what you’ll do when it’s gone, but fortunately I had my coaching so it was easy to adjust.
Are you still involved in football now?
No, I left the college and I came full circle back home. I don’t really do much coaching now. I’ve still got all my lesson plans that I did for nearly ten years, but when you’ve been involved as much as I have, you look back and think about how you managed to train so many days a week. My weekends were just football, football, football. I suppose now I’ve got used to not going out and seeing any football. I do miss it because the gap’s so big from when I packed in the college job. But now I just think I can’t be bothered, though that might be a lazy attitude.
What do you make of how much the game has grown?
It’s now where it should be, in my view. My concern is that we’ve got all these players coming over, the latest being Sam Kerr, into the English game and potentially depriving one of our own to play for teams and go on and represent England.
I do believe in bringing players in, people learn from these players - I’ve seen it myself. But the ultimate for everybody in this country is for England to win a World Cup or a European Championship, and if the influx of players becomes like it is in the men’s game I worry we’ll deprive English players of the chance to play every week at the standard that they need to play at.
If the influx of players becomes like it is in the men’s game I worry we’ll deprive English players of the chance to play every week at the standard that they need to play at.
Take Leah Williamson as an example. If Arsenal get another influx of players is Leah going to play every week? She’s obviously just got herself into the national team and it’s an important time for her. The same goes for Lauren Hemp and the influx of players at Man City. These are the players that we’ve got to think about - the ones who are going to go on and hopefully one day win the World Cup or a European Championship.
With everything going on at the moment I think the next two years are going to be quite difficult for women’s football. I’m reading about players not getting paid, clubs not having money, Reading furloughing players and clubs like Fylde disbanding. Part of me thinks ‘welcome to the real world’ because we had that. I wasn’t paid for all my 23 years of career. What’s going on now is a wake up call really.
The Belles have had their struggles as well. Do you still follow them?
Once a Belle, always a Belle. I follow them and I do a few things for them. I try and help the club as much as I can, but we’re in a hard situation at the moment. We struggle to attract the players that we need to attract, we haven’t got the money the big clubs have - there’s a big gap.
I can remember when Hope Powell took over with England and she wanted a league with ten teams that would end up with more or less the same points at the end of the season, making it interesting and more competitive. That idea sounded great, but we’re no further on because you’ve still got two or three teams going out there to win the league. It was just the same in my era.
I'm sure the Belles will be back at the top one day.
The Belles know they’ve got a long way to go but they’re in good hands with Club Doncaster. I know Russ Green (CEO of Doncaster Rovers Belles Ladies FC) well, I’ve known him from when I used to be manager of Hartlepool United Ladies. He’ll work 24 hours a day to get that club back up to where it used to be but he can only do that with the support of others around him.
I’m sure the Belles will be back at the top one day. The Doncaster people will always say there’s only one club that came out of Doncaster: Doncaster Belles. Forget about Rovers, forget about rugby union, forget about rugby league. The Doncaster people will always go that extra mile for the Belles.
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Best game you ever played in?
When England played at Wembley for the first time. I scored a penalty.
Best goal you ever scored?
I scored a screamer from outside of the box that won the Belles the FA cup final against Friends of Fulham at the Baseball Ground in Derby in 1990.
If we dropped you, at your peak, into the present day, would you make the current England team?
Number one tip you'd give to an aspiring player
In the words of Liz Deighan: you’re only as good as your last game.
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