Rose Reilly and the ‘first ladies of football’ honoured at Hampden

Rose Reilly, left, and Shona Robison hold a portrait by artist Stuart Gibbs. Picture: SNS
Rose Reilly, left, and Shona Robison hold a portrait by artist Stuart Gibbs. Picture: SNS
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Rose Reilly never thought she would live to see a corner of Hampden devoted to women’s football, so yesterday proved an exhilarating experience for one of Scotland’s most celebrated players.

Reilly’s name is etched into folklore in not just Scotland, but also Italy, where she played the game professionally. Now a portrait of her hangs in the Scottish Football Museum at Hampden, part of an exhibition of oil paintings charting the growth of women’s football in the past 130 years in Scotland.

The display has been created by artist Stuart Gibbs. As well as Reilly, the exhibition commemorates many unsung heroes connected to the women’s game in Scotland, from the first Scotland v England fixture in 1881 to Glasgow City’s progress into the last 16 of the Uefa Women’s Champions League last year. It is expertly timed, coinciding with Scotland’s 8-0 victory over Israel at Tynecastle last weekend, and also Hampden’s staging of women’s international matches during this summer’s Olympics.

The First Ladies of Football exhibition was opened yesterday by Shona Robison MSP, the Minister for Commonwealth Games and Sport. Even Robison would accept that she has to defer to the star quality Reilly exudes. Even though she has taken a step away from the limelight she enjoyed on the continent to bring up her daughter Meghan, Reilly made for a captivating presence as she moved among other stalwarts from the women’s game from the 1960s and 1970s.

Former players from Stewarton & Thistle, where Reilly started her career, gathered at Hampden yesterday, as did others from Edinburgh Dynamos, a club dating back to 1946. The roots of the game go back further, though, to a “grand international football match” between “lady players” at “Hibernian Park, Easter Road” on Saturday 7 May, 1881. In front of a crowd of 2,000, a Scottish side defeated an English XI 3-0.

Reilly blazed a trail herself when she joined the French side Reims in 1972, before being picked up by ACF Milan. Her story is a truly remarkable one, and includes a goal in front of a 90,000 crowd in a World Cup final, having transferred her nationality from Scotland to Italy in a manner that would struggle to be approved today.

“The reason I played for Italy is that they asked me to play for them after I had been there for five or six years,” she said. “They bent the rules. It was a good set-up in Italy at the time, where there was a women’s football federation and great media interest, and 12,000 at games. They asked me if I could get a dual passport, and I agreed. I wasn’t playing for Scotland, so why not? They were trying to marry me off to some old guy, which obviously I refused. But I played for Italy for a couple of years, then Fifa and Uefa stepped in. There was always a Scottish heart beating under the Italian jersey.

“I started with a boys’ team, in Stewarton. Much to my parents’ dismay I got a short back and sides at the barbers, and they changed my name from Rose to Ross. Obviously I would put my strip on at home. A scout from Celtic saw me and wanted to sign me on a S form. I scored about seven goals that day. I was nine or ten years old. But our trainer, John Roy, told him, ‘No, she’s a wee lassie’. I was heartbroken. I couldn’t understand why I couldn’t join Celtic. I was the one scoring the goals.”

An early hero was Jimmy Johnstone, who she ran away from home in Stewarton one afternoon to watch play. “Once I set eyes on him, I never looked back,” she said. “I improved overnight when I went professional. When I arrived in Italy it was so warm I could hardly breathe. But then I got the keys to the stadium near where I used to stay in Milan. I used to run round the track at midday, when it was warmest. I just wanted to better myself.

“My proudest moments was when I played for Lecce in the south of Italy, and we played on a Saturday. And then on Sunday morning I used to fly to Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris and play for Reims on a Sunday night. I won the two leagues in the same year – Italian and French. But Fifa and Uefa soon put a stop to that, they thought I would get exhausted.”

Despite offers to remain in Italy to coach, her football career was put on hold when she returned to Scotland 11 years ago to care for her sick mother, and raise Meghan, who could legitimately play for Scotland, Italy or Argentina, where Reilly’s husband, Norberto, is from. However, her interest lies in ballet dancing and tae kwon do.

Reilly, meanwhile, pines for an Italian life when she made a living playing football in the sun. A Sicily-shaped tattoo adorns one of her wrists, a salute to the island where she finished her football career. “That’s where I left my heart,” she said, though she does not rule out offering her services to those current keepers of the women’s football flame in Scotland. “Am I ready?” she wondered. “The game’s changed so much. The main thing I can transmit is my passion.”