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Former Dolly explains how Palace pioneered "growing movement" in women's football


On International Women's Day, Irene Willis, one of the first members of the Dollies supporter group and founder of the John Jackson fan club, explains how Palace helped lead the way for women’s football, and sheds light on Selhurst in the 60s and 70s.

This interview originally featured in the Palace v Chelsea matchday programme, and is republished below in full. You can order programmes by clicking here.

“I remember dancing down the street,” says Irene Willis of England’s World Cup triumph in 1966. It was the moment that sparked her interest in football, a first trip to Selhurst Park, and 66 years and counting as a Palace fan.

Irene began following the club in the late 60s, after “not great” experiences initially watching West Ham from their ‘Chicken Run’ stand, and Chelsea. Bobby Moore and co.’s heroics piqued her interest in the summer, and when she first went to SE25 – just down the road from her native Sydenham – “it was just wonderful.”

She didn’t take long to become engrossed by Palace – “it was fun; the atmosphere, the people were so friendly,” she says – but shortly after began a deeper-rooted connection.

“People were talking in the programme about setting up a ladies’ section,” Irene remembers, recalling the founding of the Dollies – a women-only supporter group established in 1969. “I thought it sounded good fun, and was of an age where you want your social life involved.”

The Dollies were largely younger supporters who wore reappropriated club kits, carried out charity work and even played organised football – a relative rarity for the time.

Irene and her son David at the 2013 play-off final.
Irene and her son David at the 2013 play-off final.

“If we wanted to help do things and do charitable things it was set up for the girls to join in. Back in the day it was more male-orientated but the girls were coming to enjoy the football [too]. For us it was just being part of something that was a growing movement of girls who wanted to watch football and help their team.

“That’s what I found so lovely. We did parties like Halloween and Christmas in the supporters’ club. We invited children with special needs and had people like Brian Moore there, the commentator. It was genuinely a lovely party atmosphere… Palace enabled us to feel part of that."

As Irene speaks with the club from her home in east London – her husband is a Leyton Orient fan – she sits next to a signed John McCormick shirt, and holds several matchday programmes.

She remembers handing them out to supporters being treated in Mayday (now Croydon University) hospital, and a section for female supporters to express their views.

“I do think Palace were [pioneering],” Irene says. “I feel Palace were definitely, I would say, a leader in that area for women… We were supporting the team and it didn’t matter what size [you were] and what you looked like, you were part of it.

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It didn’t matter what size [you were] and what you looked like, you were part of it

Irene Willis

“The club itself definitely had that inward thinking to see opportunities here for girls and other people. I still think they’ve got that because of their involvement with the children and younger ones. It’s always been like that.”

It reads strangely in 2022 to regard women’s supporter groups or columns in a programme as progressive, or even deserving comment. But football in the 1960s was a different sport, with women’s teams banned from playing at FA stadia until 1971.

That meant Palace technically broke the FA’s demand to “refuse the use of their grounds for such [women’s] matches” when the Dollies took to Selhurst’s turf at half-time of Arthur Rowe’s testimonial, the match that christened the Arthur Wait stand.

“It was 0-0 and hard work playing on that pitch,” Irene, who played in goal, jokes. “We could get involved and entertain, if it was ‘entertainment’. It certainly was for me!”

Irene’s other formal connection with Palace was as founder of goalkeeper John Jackson’s fan club. The role entailed posting newsletters and running competitions, getting updates and signatures from Jackson and sharing them with supporters.

At its end the fan club had hundreds of members, Irene says, and involved her and fellow founder Christine rallying votes for Jackson as Player of the Season.

As so often happens, work and family life then began to reduce Irene’s availability on matchdays, but when her son David attended his first games aged 10, he was hooked for a lifetime’s fandom. Today, Irene has David, Katharine and Dawn, and nine grandchildren – four of whom support Palace.

“They all play football,” Irene says, “even the girls.”

They can thank their grandmother for that.