Report a Cup final? No, you’re a woman – the amazing tale of Mary Raine in 1969

Mary Raine was a pioneering football journalist who made history by becoming the first woman to be heard on Sports Report. PHILIP BARKER tells her extraordinary story.

Fifty years ago a football match report on a BBC Radio became national news in its own right.

In the words of Peter Barnard, writing in Goal Magazine, it was because: “The BBC risked the wrath of their listeners by sending a woman into a male bastion, the football ground press box.”

The female reporter in question was Mary Raine, a BBC sub-editor with a passion for football, and her words were heard on Sports Report.

Mary grew up in the football-mad north east. Her brother, a Newcastle fan, decreed she should support Sunderland.  At the time, FA rules did not even allow women to play the game, except informal kickabouts.

Mary was sent to report on the 1970 FA Cup final, but a senior editor told her he could not use a football report on such an important match by a woman

“My brother and his cronies would come, they would do target practice and I was stuck in the goal. I was a very good hockey goalkeeper as a result of all that,” she recalled.

At school, her collection of football annuals was considered “unsuitable” by teachers who confiscated them.

After university and a spell as a teacher, Mary joined the BBC and arranged her leave around the fixture list.

The opportunity to report on the game came as a result of a conversation at Roker Park with commentator Peter Jones. Others, like football correspondent Bryon Butler, were supportive.

She added: “Peter said it would be a good idea for me to do a broadcast. I was always discussing football with Bryon. He was very helpful and had a wonderful West Country burr.

“John Motson was always nice as well. He was just starting out, but he was wearing a sheepskin even then.”

One wintry day in 1969 came the call. Mary was sent to Stamford Bridge to report as Chelsea beat Sunderland 5-1. In those days Sports Report was produced by Scotsman Angus Mackay, renowned for his passion for the programme. “He thought I was a freak of nature,” she said.

Mackay’s assistant editor, Vincent Duggleby, insisted: “The reaction has been extremely favourable. Anyone who heard her broadcast will have noted her knowledge of the game. We always judge broadcasters on their merits and there is no reason why Mary or any other woman should not cover matches in the future.”

In the Daily Mail, Mary was “the girl who surprised soccer fans listening to Sports Report”.

The Sunday Times added that “her colleagues describe her as a walking who’s who of football”.

Mary Raine today (Picture courtesy of Charles Runcie)

In The Observer, Michael Carey struck a more jarring note. “I do hope one of her colleagues will put her right that all Sunderland need to do is give the ball to someone who can give it a mighty wallop from 30 yards. It is in the penalty area it counts my dear.”

Mary was sent to report on the 1970 FA Cup final, but a senior editor told her he could not use a football report on such an important match by a woman.

Undeterred, she continued to write about the game for the rip-and-read news service chattered out of BBC teleprinters around the world but her words did not appear under her own name.

 “Many sections would not have used a football report if it had been under a woman’s name,” she said. “My favourite aliases, used when they were on leave, were John Wilson and Alan Jones.

John Motson was always nice as well. He was just starting out, but he was wearing a sheepskin even then

“These sounded good for a sports report. Women and football didn’t go together. I am glad to say that things are very different now.

 “If a big football story blew up, the men would come and say to me, ‘you’d better look at this’. When there was hooliganism, I did things like that, so I wrote something on Heysel and other football-related issues.”

Raine enjoyed a long career with the BBC but admits: “I cannot bear to listen to that match report. My colleagues dug it out of the archives and played it at my retirement party. Too embarrassing!”

It took a long time but gradually barriers came down. Women were joining sports departments. Linda Spurr became a familiar voice on BBC World Service and In 1980 Joanne Watson was the first female sports reporter on Radio Four’s Today programme and regularly heard on Sport on Two, although never on football.

It was not until the nineties that Eleanor Oldroyd first presented Sports Report, and the new millennium had dawned before  female football commentators and reporters became commonplace.

Now Charlotte Green reads the classified football results and no-one bats an eyelid.