If the Lionesses beat Spain in Sydney today, Millie Bright won’t be the first woman to lift a World Cup trophy with England – that honor belongs to Carol Thomas, who captained the Champions League world in 1985.
The 68-year-old was a true trailblazer, playing as a schoolgirl among women twice her age in the local Hull labor league when women’s football was still banned by the FA, then becoming the first woman to earn a badge. FA coach, and the first to reach 50 caps for England.
Then came her crowning glory, in Italy in 1985, when she steered England to success in the Mundialito, the precursor to the Women’s World Cup which FIFA introduced in 1991. “It was called the ‘World Cup unofficial ‘, and we went to Italy and won it. We played Denmark, USA and Italy, and beating the Italians on their home turf in the final was a great achievement.’
But there was no ticker tape parade, nor a homecoming ceremony in Trafalgar Square which welcomed Sarina Wiegman’s side when they won the European Championship last summer. “We took the cup, had a few drinks, went back to England and got back to work,” says Thomas with a smile.
However, she does not balk at the adulation or the rewards that Alessia Russo, Chloe Kelly or Beth Mead receive.
Former England captain Carol Thomas (left) remembers lifting the 1985 ‘unofficial World Cup’
“We picked up the cup, had a few drinks, drove back to England and went back to work,” she said.
The FA belatedly recognized the achievements of players that were glossed over when women’s football emerged from its 50-year ban, and now Thomas and her former teammates are regular guests at Lionesses games.
This is a far cry from when 11-year-old Thomas caught the soccer bug after watching Bobby Moore lift the Jules Rimet Trophy in 1966. Girls weren’t allowed to play soccer at school or in youth leagues, so she would enjoy kickabouts with her dad and brother Michael. She was able to play for a local team, the British Oil and Cake Mills, in the unofficial works league. “I was only 11, playing against women twice my age because there were no age brackets in women’s football.”
Playing on the wing or at right-back, she caught the eye of the Hull Brewery Ladies, then the Hull and District side of the North of England and then the full England team in 1974.
She made her England debut against France at Plow Lane. “It was mostly family and friends, plus a man and his dog!” she laughs. She quickly became a regular and captain while still a teenager.
Thomas was made captain aged 20 when England won their first tournament, the 1976 Home International series. England’s first game outside of Europe was the 1981 Mundialito, in which they finished third, then they reached the final of the 1984 European Championship against Sweden. However, like Gareth Southgate’s men in 2021, they lost on penalties.
A year later, she led England to the Mundialito, with four games played in seven days.
“Above all, I am proud to have been part of the generation that has been a springboard for the success of the Lionesses now”
Thomas was the first woman to reach 50 caps for England and was a true pioneer in the game.
Thomas, then 30, retired from international football later that year. But she played club football until her 50s, after a 43-year career. It was only last year that her record as England’s most successful female captain was surpassed by Leah Williamson.
She says the women’s game today is a world apart from the one she grew up in. “These Lionesses are role models for young girls, inspiring them to want to play,” she says. But she is irritated that the achievements of her generation have been largely forgotten, especially by the FA. “We thought we had been forgotten because there was a misconception that women’s football only started here in 1992,” she says.
When asked what changed that, her husband Alan steps in – half-jokingly – to suggest it was his @First_2_Fifty Twitter account that changed things. “A few of us started posting snippets of our story, our stories, and then we started getting more support from the FA.
“I am very proud to have represented my country and to have been my country’s captain. Above all, I am proud to have been part of the generation that has been a springboard for the success of the Lionesses now.
Your browser does not support iframes.