The UK’s first and so far only female poet laureate has written a sonnet to honour England’s Lionesses and a game she says she has “loved from childhood”.
Carol Ann Duffy, who said she grew up in a “footballing family”, pays homage to the trailblazers behind today’s squad in We See You, a poem described as a “team talk” to the nation.
It is “an ode to every woman from the pitch to the boardroom, the communities and grassroots who are helping to level the playing field”, said Duffy, who was poet laureate from 2009 to 2019.
The poem was composed for the WeSeeYou Network, which celebrates women in football and offers mentoring, training and networking opportunities for women in sport. The network was set up by the mobile phone company Three and Chelsea football club.
Duffy said: “I grew up in a footballing family. I had four brothers who all played in local teams and a dad who was a gifted an amateur. When we moved to England [from Glasgow] when I was about five, he managed the local team which was called Stafford Town. My mum used to wash all the strips and put them through the mangle. Football was ever present in my life growing up.”
Her poem celebrates the recent successes of the women’s national team and a “rich history of triumphant trailblazers”.
She pays tribute to Mary Phillip, who was the first black player to captain an England women’s international team and who now coaches and manages a men’s team.
Another to be honoured is Pat Dunn, who was one of the first women to qualify as a football referee, and had to fight to be permitted to oversee men’s matches. “Red card for misogyny. Free kick in progress. We’re all onside,” says Duffy’s poem. Dunn died in 1999.
The sonnet references Eni Aluko, who has challenged sexist, racist and misogynistic attitudes towards women in football, and it ends with a promise to today’s 10-year-old incredible “girl with ball” that she will be found.
“The Lionesses seem to spread such joy, and a sense of possibility,” Duffy said. “Young girls today really believe they can do it. People forget that for 50 years women’s football was banned by the FA. When the Lionesses won the Euros, they were effectively 50 years down at half-time. It was an incredible achievement.”
Zarah Al-Kudcy, the Chelsea FC women’s commercial director, said Duffy had delivered the “ultimate team talk” with her poem. The WeSeeYou project was a “fantastic platform that supports and recognises the amazing things that women are doing in their sporting communities”, she said.
Duffy said she hoped the project would identify talented girls from less advantaged backgrounds that could be nurtured to become great players. “It’s not called the beautiful game for nothing. It’s sublime to watch.”
Among many football poems she has written is Liverpool, about the 1989 Hillsborough disaster and the long struggle by the families of the 97 people who died “to get some version of the truth out”.
In 2010 she wrote Achilles (for David Beckham) after the player sustained an injury that left him out of the squad for the 2010 World Cup. The poem was “written in sympathy for this part of [Beckham’s] story and to draw a parallel with Achilles, who gave his name to Beckham’s injury”, she said at the time.
Duffy, 67, began supporting Liverpool FC when she was a student in the city, attending games at Anfield. She now watches football mostly on television, but saw Chelsea women beat Liverpool 5-1 at Stamford Bridge earlier this month.
As poet laureate, Duffy also wrote about the MPs’ expenses scandal, climate change, the banking crisis, the war in Afghanistan, and people who died from HIV/Aids.
She spent her early childhood in the Gorbals in Glasgow and in 2015 she was made a dame for services to poetry. She was briefly a poetry critic for the Guardian in the 1980s.
We See You – by Carol Ann Duffy
That rain-heavy, leather ball your left foot smashed a century ago
has reached us here, and so we see you, Lily Parr,
in hindsight’s extra time; linked to our female, family chain
of passing forwards … to Mary Phillip, first black Captain
of the Pride, Katie Chapman, Carly Telford, Millie Bright.
We see you too, Pat Dunn – you blew your whistle
and the game kicked off for women referees. Red card for misogyny,
Free kick for progress. We’re all onside. Team-sheets are the dreams
of managers – shout out the golden days of Emma Hayes – which make us visible
to thirty, forty, fifty thousand fans … so good, so good, so good …
from grassroots team to League to Euros to the World. Now.
Women’s voices – Eni Aluko, Karen Carney – tell the poetry of play
We’ll find you – 10 years old, girl with ball, incredible to be you.
So here’s our Team Talk: We’re right behind you. And we see you.