Notable figures from the past can often find themselves airbrushed from history, as their achievements and successes fade and disappear from the collective conscious of the wider public. Sometimes there is rationale, often it’s a complete mystery. For there’s little reason to explain why Edna Neillis remains absent from the Scottish football hall of fame, particularly when you consider her friend and fellow pioneer Rose Reilly has already been granted induction.
The two played in the first ever official women’s international game in 1972 when Scotland took on England at Greenock. The hosts lost 3-2 but Neillis and Reilly remained firm friends. Despite playing for different club sides, the Scots pair were almost inseparable off the park and took the decision together to try and make a professional living from the beautiful game.
In 1974, the nation was only three years removed from a 50-year ban on women’s football being lifted, so there was little chance of this dream occurring in Scotland. Neillis and Reilly went to former secretary of the women’s game, Elsie Cook, who came up with the idea of contacting the Daily Record in a hope of securing the two a trial with French club Stade Reims. The paper agreed and paid for the two to travel to France, where they made an immediate impression and each secured contracts.
It wasn’t long before the might of AC Milan became interested and made a double swoop for the pair, who would help the Rossoneri win the league and Italian Cup in their first season. Neillis and Reilly were the stars of the team, each scoring in the cup final against Lazio, with Neillis netting twice and Reilly bagging the third in a 3-0 win.
Their success encouraged other female players to make the journey from Scotland to Italy in search of a professional career, including Maggie Wilson (Bari) and June Hunter (Piacenza).
Their careers split off in different directions at this point, and this would perhaps go someways to understanding why Neillis’ accomplishments have been largely overlooked. She never again won the Italian title, though she did add a couple of more Italian Cups, while Reilly managed to lift the schudetto on eight different occasions.
The latter also represented her adopted homeland at international level, as the Italians took advantage of some lax eligibility laws to enable Reilly to play. She would captain the nation and later score in the 1984 (unofficial) Women’s World Cup final, helping Italy to defeat the United States, securing her place in history.
Regardless, it’s a shame Neillis has yet to find herself enshrined in Hampden’s history given her importance to Reilly’s story and generations of Scottish female footballers who would follow. There is an ongoing campaign to ensure some day she finds her rightful place in the Hampden Hall of Fame. Let’s hope it’s as successful as Neillis was with a football at her feet.