Photo: Jean Elliott (back row, third from right) with the 1971 Lionesses and One Show presenter, Jasmine Harman
Jean, who has worked in the warehouse team at Deliver Net for over 10 years, played in the sweltering heat of Mexico City, but the opponents on the pitch weren’t the only challenge for those first Lionesses, as Jean explained: “We were the unofficial England team as we weren’t recognised by the FA or FIFA, so we had to keep it all a bit hush-hush before we flew out there. It was a different time. I think you just made less of a fuss back then.”
Despite being Yorkshire born-and-bred, Jean’s footballing career began in Bedfordshire. “I was 19 and in the RAF, so I moved around a bit. I was stationed at Henlow in Bedfordshire at the time. The daughter of a man there played for a local team and asked me if I wanted to join, so I did.”
That team was Chiltern Valley Ladies, run by Harry Batt and his wife. Batt’s vision was to create a national women’s team and raise the profile of women’s football. He set about assembling the best team he could and secured an invitation to the next Women’s World Cup in Mexico.
“We travelled to Italy for a friendly before the tournament. When we finally got to Mexico, it was so hot we had to take salt tablets. I remember going to the Mexican pyramids and spending time on the beach. We stayed in the same hotel as the men’s team did the year before in the 1970 World Cup.”
For a teenager who’d rarely played in front of more than a handful of spectators, the vast stadiums came as a shock. “I’ll never forget walking out onto the pitch with 90,000 spectators cheering. It sent shivers down my spine. We carried a Union Jack out with us. When the national anthem played, it got me, I shed a tear. I still do when I hear it now.”
The Lionesses were in a group with hosts Mexico and Argentina. “That first game was brutal. We got hacked to bits. One girl suffered a broken leg and I got a boot in the ribs and got knocked down.”
Despite losing both group games and a subsequent fifth-place play-off again France, the England ladies were popular with Mexican fans: “Everywhere we went we got mobbed by fans, photographers and people waving flags and banners. We had a police escort and translators with us the whole time.”
After the tournament, Jean continued playing with Chiltern Ladies for a few years, before moving north to Yorkshire in 1976, still with the RAF: “That was the last time I saw any of the girls until the reunion. By the time I’d moved up north, I’d pretty much given up playing and there were fewer women’s team up here. Seeing everyone again was brilliant though – I turned up and just got a massive hug off them all”.
Despite being part of a pioneering team, none of Jean’s co-workers knew of her Mexican adventure: “I’ve always been quite shy, so whilst I enjoyed playing and had a brilliant experience, I didn’t really like the limelight and I still don’t. I enjoyed playing. It was so exciting to go out onto the Azteca stadium. I remember all the kids cheering.”
Nevertheless, Jean was recently persuaded to talk at a Skipton primary school: “I took my medal in and spoke to the kids. I wanted to explain to them, the girls especially, that if they enjoy playing a sport, they need to stick at it, whether it’s football, darts, cricket or rugby. It’s important and more and more sports bodies are recognising the women’s game.”
Jean has been following the current Lionesses progress at the Women’s World Cup in France and will be cheering them on: “It would just put the icing on the cake if the Lionesses win the world cup this year, almost 50 years after we played. We’ve had a video message from them, thanking us for what we’d done for the sport all those years ago, which was really nice.”
Jean will be appearing on the One Show at 7pm on Wednesday 26th June.