THE Scotland coach has taken the women’s team to their highest FIFA ranking and now the cusp of a European finals placing.
Four years ago, Anna Signeul was on a trip back from Russia. Her Scotland women’s team had just lost out on the chance to compete at the European Championship finals, narrowly losing out on away goals.
“A journalist called me and I said that we had been so close because we should have had a penalty at the end. I said ‘I think it is a fantastic achievement that we have come so close’, and he said ‘Anna welcome to the club. That’s typical Scotland, we never make it!’ I said ‘No, I will never buy into that. I don’t want to join that club. That club has a defeatist attitude.’ I didn’t like that. I think it’s too easy to hide failure behind bad luck.”
That mindset is one the Swede has been waging war on since her arrival in this country, in 2005, to take over from Vera Pauw as the women’s national coach. She has banged heads with people as a consequence and she knows she has put noses out of joint but what can’t be argued is that she is getting results. She has guided Scotland to their highest ever FIFA ranking and, once again her team stand on the brink of the European Championships. Qualification would be the biggest thing ever for women’s football in this country. They only have to clear the hurdle of a play-off. This time it is Spain, not Russia, who stand in the way. Another tough test but this time they really believe they are up to it.
“Spain were also in the play-offs four years ago and they lost to Holland but they have also developed. Women’s football in Spain has been very successful on the youth side and they have been winning European Championships and qualifying for the World Cup with their under-20 and under-17 squads so they have done very, very well but right from the start of this campaign, we have said that our target is to play in the European Championships in Sweden and we are not changing that goal. It has been the goal the whole time and I think we have a really, really good chance.”
More importantly, so do the players. “They know we can play on that level. Maybe we thought we had a chance against Russia but we are sure we have this time.” That battle with minds has been as significant as the tussle with matter, with the Scottish psyche proving a stubborn opponent at times.
“From when I came to Scotland seven years ago and now, there is a huge difference in attitudes, not just towards women’s football but I think there is a huge difference towards sport and all elite athletes. I really, really thought it was all about Celtic and Rangers and then the men’s national team but not now and I think that is down to the work that the Institute of Sport and Sportscotland have done. There has been a change in the culture. We have role models like Chris Hoy, like Andy Murray, and we are creating winners and changing attitudes. So many questions when I came in talked about Scotland as the underdogs and I didn’t like that.
“The first few years I was here, I spent most of my time trying to change people’s attitudes, trying to tell them where the level is for an elite athlete. I said to the players, the national team will never ever be any better than you. I can only select the best players in Scotland but if they are never on a higher level than this then the team will never get any better. We can try tactically but really, it’s all up to you. You need to raise the bar and then the national team will get better.”
She demanded the players trained more and the top players have responded, most of them now training five times a week, incorporating strength and conditioning into their training programmes. There is greater emphasis on diet, on rest, on the proper preparation and recovery, there are sports psychologists and physiotherapists. For most all that is juggled with full-time jobs. Some have benefitted from the national football academy at Stirling University, allowing them to combine studies with the life of an elite athlete, without having to move to USA or one of the English academies. For a handful of others, the strides taken mean they are now at a level where they can earn a living playing full-time in Germany, Sweden and Finland and semi-professionally in England. But still more can be done, with Signeul desperate to see more sponsorship attracted to the game to help stave off the necessity for the best to move away and, perhaps, help fund full-time club coaches throughout the top league. Having pinpointed Scotland as a major growth market, UEFA’s marketing teams are in the process of helping the SFA find the best way to do that. “When you start to train more, when you start to believe more, when you start to think and act like an elite athlete then that is when we get better,” says Signeul. “Early on, one of the older players said she had always felt she was good enough because she was selected for the national team. I said ‘no, not if the national team is not a high standard’. Early on, in my first qualifying campaign, we were so beaten in a game and I said to them ‘We have 18 players here and there are so many of you who are not on this level. I want 18 players in this squad who do 100 per cent what they should do, please. It was up to them. That was a real eye-opener for them.”
She says she is now proud of every player she selects for the national squad. The aim now is to provide the set up with greater strength in depth. That has meant challenging the attitudes from youth, to coaches, to volunteers, to clubs, to staff in the corridors of power. She wants a serious approach, where people recognise it’s not just a hobby for some, a leisure pursuit for many, but an opportunity to develop the elite.
“It has taken a lot of time and energy and it has taken longer than I thought. Where we are today, I hoped to be here after four or maybe five years but, now, every player I select for the squad I know they have worked hard to be there.”
They have earned the right to fight for a place at the Euros, they have also earned the right to play at the national stadium. On Saturday, the women’s team will play their first home match at Hampden, against the Spanish. They hope to do so in front of a decent crowd, with the SFA opting to make admission free. “One of the reasons for playing the game there was that the SFA wanted to tell everybody how highly they prioritise this game. I have had a lot of backing from Stewart [Regan, SFA chief executive], Campbell [Ogilvie, SFA president] and the board, from Craig [Levein, national coach] and from Mark [Wotte, performance director]. I think they are all people who want the best for football in Scotland. All football. I think that playing the game at Hampden sends out a message from the SFA saying ‘this is important’ and for the girls that is fantastic. It reaffirms what we have been telling them and what they have come to realise, that they are worth it. They have worked hard and they are now elite athletes who deserve to be on the biggest stages.”
The underdog psyche has been obliterated, the losers attitude replaced by self-belief. They know if they work hard enough and put their mind to it there is little that is beyond them. Chris Hoy, Andy Murray, Katherine Grainger are amongst those who have underlined that and helped mould the new mindset and Signeul is grateful to have real role models. It makes it easier to ram home her message. Which is why she wants the next generation of footballers to have something tangible to believe in, players who can show them the way. They have already initiated a role model programme where the national players will go out into clubs and schools.
For the current squad, the opportunity to make a difference is huge. When Arsenal Ladies recently beat Barcelona 7-0 on aggregate the in Champions League five of the goals over the two legs were scored by Scotland internationals Kim Little and Jennifer Beattie. They bolstered belief, proving to themselves what they are capable of.
When Scotland face Spain – in the first leg at 2pm at Hampden on Saturday and then in Madrid for the second leg four days later – they can prove that to everyone else and massively enhance the reputation of the women’s game in this country. More than that, they can gift young girls the realisation that they too can dream big if they work harder. They can give them something to aspire to and reiterate what our Olympians have already proved; with the right attitude, Scots don’t have to be unlucky losers. That, for Signeul, will be the biggest achievement.