Retro Sport: Torbay's first lady of football

Torbay Weekly

These days, if you see that Arsenal v Manchester City is on television tonight, you have to look twice to see if it is a match from the Premier League, or from the Women’s Super League.

If it turns out to be a Premier League match, it is very likely to feature a lady commentator.

How times have changed!

Back in the late summer of 1976, the local paper carried a story which explained that a young lady had just become the first female referee to be registered with the Devon FA.

Until the Equal Opportunities Act of 1975, female referees had to qualify, just like their male counterparts, but were then only allowed to officiate children’s matches!

But now, registration with the Devon FA meant that women were, for the first time, eligible to referee in the South Devon League!

My first thoughts were 'Wow! What a brave girl!' and then 'I don’t fancy her chances down at East Allington if she gives the visitors a penalty!'

I imagined that she must be a big, beefy, sports teacher but, when I read on further, I found out that Lee Donnelly was a former Devon 100 metres junior ladies' champion, and was still just 21 years old!

That night I wrote her a letter of congratulation, and wished her luck.

A few months later, the new season was due to begin, and, as secretary of Torbay Gentlemen, I received our fixture list for the coming season, and there, on the top, was the first match.

We were away to Buckfastleigh Rangers and our referee was... Lee Donnelly!

On September 8, 1976, I parked our double-decker bus overlooking the pitch and caught my first sight of Lee, limbering up on the touch-line before her ordeal.

As it turned out, she had a fine game, and, afterwards, even Harry Smith, who never wasted praise, tapped me on the shoulder and said: “Aye! That lass was better than half the refs in the Football League!”

Although Lee enjoyed refereeing, her real love was women’s football, and when the first women’s league was formed later in 1976, Lee was there, acting as its referees’ appointments officer.

Soon afterwards, she joined Torbay United Women’s FC, and from that day forward, she became Torbay’s 'voice of women’s football'.

In those days, clubs like hers had to beg to use other teams’ pitches, and TUWFC relied on the kindness of Foxhole United to play most of its matches at Belfield.

As she grew older, she moved on to Exeter Rangers, Liverton, and eventually found her spiritual home at Brixham Villa.

Although she was enjoying her weekend football, Lee wanted a better structure put in place, so that real competition existed, just like it did in the men’s game.

After three years as a Devon FA councillor, during which she played a big part in introducing a county women’s cup, she set to work on her next project.

She didn’t wait for someone else to do the hard work, and, in 1996, Lee, herself, played a major role in forming the Devon Women’s League, which, of course, still flourishes today.

A few years later, I was chairman of Torbay Sports Council, and we were in desperate need of an unpaid secretary.

We advertised, and had one reply. It was from Lee, whose married name was now Hayward.

When I asked her why she had volunteered she said: “I love all sports really but I have to admit that I’ll have one eye on what I can do for women’s soccer!”

We all talk about what Sue Barker has done for ladies’ tennis in Devon, and how many young girls have been inspired by Bryony Frost, but often we miss the huge contribution made by local enthusiasts who spend their whole lives unheralded, but promoting the sports they love!

I met Lee in town recently and she told me that she played her last match aged 61 but just wished that she had been born 30 years later!

“If I was young today, I might be making a nice living at it... if only!”

So, the next time you drive your daughter to a football match, spare a thought for the very first lady who was brave enough to have put her head above the parapet!