- Julie Welch the first woman to work on Fleet Street as a football reporter
- Welch looks back on her time in the press in her book Fleet Street Girls
- "I expected someone to tap me on the shoulder and tell me I had to leave"
Back in the 1970s, women who played football were faced with all sorts of prejudices. Men considered it to be unbecoming and contradictory to female nature, and that it would cause the women physical and mental damage. And it was not just on the pitch where women had to fight for recognition – the same applied to those who wanted to write about the beautiful game.
One of them was Julie Welch, who became the first female football reporter on Fleet Street – the traditional home of the British press since the 18th century. "The football season was approaching and I was sitting in the pub with Ron and Arthur [Hopcraft, sports journalist for The Guardian and The Observer and screenwriter]," said Welch, who was a secretary in the sports department of the latter at the time, to The Sports Gazette.
"Arthur had one of his ‘drama queen’ announcements that he couldn’t bear to write about football anymore. I thought ‘here’s my chance’, as they’d be short a football reporter. I turned to Ron and said, ‘why don’t you send me?’ Much to my surprise, Ron said he’d thought about that and that’s how I went to Coventry versus Spurs."
It was in August 1973 that Welch, who hails from Loughton in Essex, had her first football report published in The Observer, breaking into what was at the time an exclusively male domain. She was 24 at the time, but can still remember the match very well.
"Covering that first game, it almost felt like a bit of a dare. Like a trick you might try out at school and see if you could get away with it. I expected someone to tap me on the shoulder and tell me I had to leave,” she said to The Guardian.
She had to fight hard to establish herself in those early days, not least against the National Union of Journalists, who were on the point of calling for a strike when Welch had the audacity to write an article as a secretary, even though they were fine with men who were not journalists doing just that. All of this is detailed in the now 71-year-old’s book, The Fleet Street Girls.
When Welch dictated her first report by telephone, the entire room – populated solely by men – fell silent. Her heart was racing as she waited for the voice on the other end of the line to say that they were fine with what they had just had read to them. Fortunately that was indeed the case, and thus it was that Welch became the first female football reporter.
It seems strange now, but at the time Peter Corrigan, who was chief football writer at The Observer, had to inform the press officer at Highfield Road that Welch would be coming.
"He was chummy with the guy that ran the press operation at Coventry and he warned them in advance that a ‘woman was going to invade,’ so they looked after me. There was a microsecond of silence when I walked in the press room and everyone pretended they hadn’t noticed I had tits and lipstick, and it was really just lovely," said Welch to The Sports Gazette, recalling a time when it was necessary to give the men in the room advance warning of a woman’s arrival.
Not all of them were overly enamoured with the fact that a woman, of all people, might be competing for their jobs, and it comes as no surprise therefore that Welch’s experiences at the start of her journalistic career were not always positive. "It was terribly frustrating because I’d grown up loving the game. I had a brain, and I knew how to follow a match as well as any of the beardy, sweaty men alongside me.”
On the other hand, she enjoyed the almost romantic aspect of being part of the Fleet Street tradition. "I don’t think I can remember meeting a shitty footballer," she told The Guardian. "They were all just super. I remember walking with Brian Clough one day and Lucas, my middle son, his godson, was there and he’s lovely with him, chucking him in the air, and I just said, ‘Oh Brian, you are a good man,’ and he laughed and said, ‘I wish I was, love, I wish I was.’ But to me he was. His wife, Barbara, was too. They were just nice people."
Things have evolved for Welch since August 1973, and she has gone on to enjoy a successful career as a dramatist and screenwriter. Her credits include writing the script for the TV film Those Glory Glory Days inspired by her love of football as a child, as well as the books The Biography of Tottenham Hotspur (2012), Too Marvellous For Words (2017) and The Fleet Street Girls (2020).
"It sounds grim to say that there will never be another time in my life that felt like this, but it’s true. Because I had felt as though I was dead, then I came alive again. In that sense walking into The Observer was like walking into heaven. When I look back, it really was such a marvellous life."
A marvellous life indeed, and one that many other female sport journalists were able to adopt as they followed in her footsteps.