“I opened the first one up and found 200 photos of my granny which hadn’t been seen for 35 years,” says Steve. “She’d died when I was reasonably young, so I didn’t actually see that much of her and, all of a sudden, here were more photos of her than we even knew existed.”
But these weren’t just any photos.
“I knew from my dad that she’d played football and I’d once picked up a book by [Preston-based author and women’s football historian] Gail Newsham wondering if granny would be in it,” says Steve. “And she was, but that was back in the ‘90s before life took over.
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“Sorting through my dad’s stuff reconnected me to the story,” he adds. “I went on this beautiful journey of realising that she had this amazing career. I sat there going ‘oh she played for Dick, Kerr Ladies, oh she was captain, oh she led a tour to France’.
“I just thought ‘wow, this is dynamite’. It’s amazing.”
Steve’s grandmother was none other than Lizzy Ashcroft, one of the most preeminent pre-WWII women’s footballers in the 1920s and ‘30s and an influential part of the domineering Dick, Kerr Ladies side which transformed the sport.
Lizzy made her debut for St Helens Ladies in 1921 as a 16-year-old at St Andrew’s in Birmingham in front of a crowd of 30,000 and, after the FA effectively banned women’s football in ‘21, joined Dick, Kerr Ladies in ‘23, where she played until her retirement in 1935.
An imposing fullback standing at 5’8”, Steve says his grandmother was ‘tough as old boots’. She was Dick, Kerr Ladies’ vice-captain under her great friend Lily Parr from 1932 to ‘34, later donning the armband to lead the side on their second-ever continental tour to Europe.
But her family knew practically nothing of her achievements.
“She never spoke about playing football - the first time I heard about my nan’s career was years later when my dad showed me some pictures,” explains Lesley Bailey, Steve’s cousin. “I never understood the extent of her career until Steve brought it all to life again.
“My parents worked on Saturdays, so we’d be taken to my nan’s so she could babysit us. I really enjoyed going and, because I was the eldest, I was close to her,” adds Lesley. “She’d send me on errands to get her cigarettes and Guinness from the shop when I was about 10!
“I don’t think I ever saw her anywhere but in her chair! She had this open fire as well and, because this was before toasters and sliced bread, she’d cut off big slices from the loaf and toast them on the fire before covering them in Lurpak.
“She also never had her teeth in!” continues Lesley with a laugh. “The only time I saw her with her teeth in was in her coffin and I said to my dad, ‘that’s not my nan!’ He said ‘why?’ and I just said ‘she’s got teeth!’”
Owing to her lack of interest in football, Lesley paid little attention to her grandmother’s devotion to the scores of a Saturday afternoon. But, now able to appreciate Lizzy’s achievements and place in history with more perspective, she’s filled with admiration.
“Watching clips of her when she was young and strong is just amazing,” says Lesley, who lives in Preston. “I started becoming more interested in the history of what went on with all the different women’s teams and the money they raised for injured soldiers.
“For my nan to come from a poor part of St Helens and go on to be a big part of that…” she adds. “Growing up, there were 12 of them in a two-up, two-down terraced house and they didn’t have any money, so they’d just feed the kids and kick them out to play football.
“That’s how she got so good!” Lesley continues. “For her to then go on to be part of Dick, Kerr Ladies and travel the country and go abroad as the captain is wonderful. And it’s lovely that she’s finally appreciated.”
The family’s newly-awakened appreciation of Lizzy has also yielded something particularly special and unexpected. After writing about his grandmother in an article for Blackpool Heritage, Steve was contacted by the Blackpool-based actor Michelle Crane.
The article had lit a fire under Michelle, so the pair met up. Armed with memorabilia, Steve told Michelle all about his grandmother, which subsequently inspired her to write a script for a short film based on Lizzy’s life.
“I honestly cried when Michelle’s beautiful little story was delivered to me,” says Steve, who worked as a producer on the film which is titled ‘Granny’ and which premiered at the Genesis Cinema in London earlier this year. “I’m really emotional about it and so pleased.”
Filmed in Wigan and Preston in October 2021, the film was directed by the award-winning Francis Castelli and features the likes of Penny Ryder, who has appeared in Skyfall, Coronation Street, EastEnders, Casualty, and The Bill as Lizzy; Michelle Crane herself; and Robin Simpson.
The film, recently accepted at the New York Independent Film Festival, also uses songs by John Anderson of Jon and Vangelis fame and by Scottish singer Eddi Reader of Fairground Attraction, who herself recently learned about her grandmother Sadie Smith’s previously unknown footballing exploits with Rutherglen Ladies.
“I spent a long time thinking ‘why didn’t she tell us?’ because if I’d have had one tenth of her career, there’d be memorabilia all over the lounge wall!” says Steve. “But it’s almost like the men in the war: they didn’t talk about it, they just parcelled it away and started a new life.
“We remember this little old lady, but there are some astonishing pictures of her as this beautiful young woman,” he adds. “Not in a million years would I have said that was my granny but, back in her day, she was a glamorous superstar.
“Knowing she had this beautiful life from ‘21 to ‘35 when she was a friend to Carmen Pomiès and Molly Seaton and other top female footballers from the era fills me with pride because they were having the time of their lives. Some people never get that, so I’m pleased she did.”
Lesley firmly agrees. “She wasn’t just a skilful footballer, she was a decent person, too. I love the photos of her with her friends enjoying life - it’s nice she had that time because not long after she was married and her husband died after just 12 years at a time when it was hard for single mothers.
“The film is brilliant, too,” adds Lesley. “I’m not one for getting emotional at films, but when I saw it… it gets me even now. It’s fantastic and I think she’d have been overjoyed with it. She’d have been overwhelmed by the effort that people have put into it.”
“She’d be beyond flabbergasted with the film!” adds Steve. “She’d probably need a Gasper and a milk stout! I can’t thank everyone involved enough because, if any one part hadn’t come together as it had, the film would have happened.
“Hopefully, wherever she is up there, she’s pleased that she’s being appreciated. She was the most modest woman, so I hope we’re doing her justice.”