There once was a team of incredible women from Manchester who flouted convention. They were the Corinthians, a ladies’ football team based in Didsbury who became local superstars and refused to accept the Football Association’s 1921 ban on women playing in FA-affiliated grounds. 

At their peak from the 1950s to the 1970s, the Corinthians began touring internationally in 1959. Today, a team of equally defiant creatives are self-funding a film documenting the team, called Corinthians: We Were The Champions. Helen Tither is the director and is moving heaven and earth to make it a reality.

“I was reading a feature about the Corinthians a couple of years ago and I became transfixed. It’s an incredible story with strong, inspiring female characters. Why hadn’t I heard about them before?” 

Together with producer Sarah Walters, Tither tracked down some surviving players and pitched the idea of making a film about them. “They were totally on board,” she says. “And what struck me was they’d been dismissed and ignored for years. Even some of their families didn’t know they’d played football for such a successful side.

“The Corinthians were one of the most successful women’s teams in the UK, leaving behind a significant legacy. They won an official European Cup in Germany in 1957 and their defiance of the ban on women’s football was huge. They persisted, despite the obstacles thrown at them by the establishment and became key figures in the formation of the Women’s Football Association (WFA). Without teams like the Corinthians, would we have the Lionesses?” 

Corinthians boarding for America, 1960. Image courtesy of Helen Tither.

The beautiful game

Freda Ashton’s memories are crystal clear about her time with the Corinthians. The 79-year-old former prison officer began her footballing journey by answering an advert in the Manchester Evening News in 1959. 

“I was just 14 and loved football, especially playing with my brother in the street outside our house in Newton Heath. I spotted the advert in the paper for a ladies’ football team that said ‘Do you want to play football in America?’, and straight away I thought ‘yes, I do’.” 

Ashton applied and received a call from Percy Ashley, founder, coach and manager of the Corinthians, a club he formed in 1949 in Didsbury. He was keen for her to join the team, but she hadn’t bargained on the extra costs. For a start, she didn’t have a passport. 

“What would I need one of them for?” she laughs. “I thought I was never going to leave Manchester.”

When she told her parents, they were slightly bewildered, even more so when she revealed the cost: 30 shillings. “We didn’t have spare money like that,” Freda says. “Every penny was accounted for. We weren’t poor, but we were typical working class.” 

Freda Ashton and the Corinthians in South America (Freda on right). Image courtesy of Helen Tither.

Nevertheless, Ashton’s dad was determined that his young daughter was going to play football. The following Saturday morning, he took her to Shudehill in Manchester.

“They used to have lots of stalls there where you could buy and sell. We stood in front of one and my dad pulled his electric shaver from his pocket and asked the bloke ‘how much for this?’ The chap said ‘20 bob’ and my dad put it back into his pocket and told him it wasn’t enough. He said he needed 30 bob to buy me a passport to go and play football in America. The bloke was stunned but immediately handed over the 30 shillings and off we went to get my passport.” 

Of course, that wasn’t the end of the expense. She needed a blazer. “My dad said ‘don’t worry our kid’, and he went upstairs and came down with his old army blazer. My mum took the badge off and that’s what I wore, massive it was.” 

When Ashton’s neighbours heard about her opportunity, they had whip-rounds, including saving bottles so she could take them to the shop and get the money back. “A neighbour gave me a pair of old-fashioned football boots. I cut them to size with a pair of scissors, I thought I was the bees’ knees.” 

But her school headmaster wasn’t in favour, as Ashton explains. “He refused to let me go, and I went home and told my mum who promptly took me to the education offices and barged in without an appointment.” 

Within five minutes, she had been granted permission and was soon boarding a plane to the other side of the world for a three-month tour. 

“We played in north and south America, Ireland, Italy, Jamaica – and we never lost. We were a force to be reckoned with, we were brilliant. I played to win every time. I loved tackling – get ’em down and get the ball.” 

Freda Ashton, Centre Half, Corinthians 1959-1962. Image courtesy of Helen Tither.

The team were treated like celebrities, people asked for autographs, and they played to a crowd of 65,000 in Venezuala. Following a victorious match in Jamaica, Ashton remembers the referee running up to shake her hand.

“He removed his badge from his shirt and gave it to me. He said that he’d never seen anyone play like I had, even the men.” 

Ashton played centre half for the Corinthians from 1959 to 1962. 

“My boyfriend didn’t like me playing so I left,” she says. I ended up dumping him a month later and I really regretted leaving. It was the best time of my life. I’ve kept in touch with lots of my teammates and we’re all really looking forward to the film coming out. I hope we’ll be seen as an inspiration to young girls.” 

By Karen Connolly

Main image: Corinthians playing in Portugal, 1958. Image courtesy of Helen Tither.

Helen Tither and her team are crowdfunding to finance the film, which is supported by the National Football Museum and England and Manchester United star, Ella Toone. If you want to help, you can contribute as little as £5. Visit https://igg.me/at/corinthiansfilm/x#/ to donate.