When former England captain Gill Coultard received the email telling her she was to be awarded an MBE for services to football, in the New Year’s Honours List, she thought it was “a scam”. Humbly, she rang up to ask if the message was legitimate.
Yet, having been England’s first woman to earn 100 caps, England’s first woman to score in a Wembley international and the first to score for England in a Women’s World Cup, few could be more deserving of the accolade. Her surprise stemmed largely from the fact that, having retired in 2001, she had long assumed she would not be recognised.
“I’ve waited 20-odd years and thought maybe it’s not going to happen,” the 57-year-old told Telegraph Sport. “Then that email dropped in and I just can’t believe it. I’ve had to pinch myself, to put it bluntly.
“I’m amazed at how many people have said ‘well deserved’. My family can’t believe what they’re reading. That brings it home.”
What makes Coultard’s 119 caps and 30 goals more remarkable, in comparison to today’s international stars, is that she earned them during an era when England sometimes played as few as three matches over a year. For nearly 20 years, she was ever-present. In modern times, such longevity could lead to 200 caps.
Coultard, the youngest of eight children in her family, made her international debut in 1981, aged 18, but her career had started aged 13, when she joined Doncaster Belles.
“When I first started at the Belles, we used car lights to train,” she added. “We didn’t have a training base, we just used whatever grass we could find, at a local park for instance.
“There’s no comparison between the Women’s Super League and our old league, the Nottinghamshire league. The women’s game has come on leaps and bounds, from when I was playing.”
Coultard would go on to help the Belles win the Women’s FA Cup six times, scoring the winner in the 1989-90 final, as well as lifting two English league titles. She did so while working five days a week at factories, first in Castleford and then Leeds.
“The Women’s FA Cup was the only silverware that was really recognised,” Coultard continued. “It was all geared up for the cup final. You had media interest in the final for about a week, got your recognition if you won it, and then the publicity disappeared and you had to wait again.
“But I had the total support of everyone I worked for. I was quite fortunate. When we did international duty, they gave me leave off, with pay. Lots of the other girls in the squad, they had to take it without pay, but still had bills to pay. Some who got picked couldn’t make the squad because they simply couldn’t afford to go.”
Within three years of her international debut, Coultard was part of the England squad that reached the final of the 1984 Women’s European Championship, where they were beaten by Sweden after a two-legged tie that concluded in torrential conditions at Luton’s Kenilworth Road.
“It should never have been played, given the state of the pitch,” she recalled. “We had so much rain, we thought it’d be called off. [After a 1-1 draw on aggregate] ultimately it was decided on penalties. That old adage of England getting beaten on penalties…”
Coultard would make more history four years later, in April 1988, when she scored the first goal in England Women’s first Wembley match, as they beat the Republic of Ireland 2-0. She would stamp her name in the annals of the English game yet again in June 1995 when she netted England’s first Women’s World Cup goal, in a 3-2 win over Canada.
As she reflects on her MBE, she is simply full of gratitude, adding: “I am very grateful to all my coaches, and I want to give a special mention to Doncaster Belles. Without that club I wouldn’t have got this honour. They were a big part of my life.
“My family and friends, those who are no longer with us, all the players I’ve played with and against, as well the supporters, home and away – a massive thank you to all of you. The game has gone on from strength to strength and that is great to see.”