Sheila Begbie crosses codes with confidence

Head of Women's Rugby Sheila Begbie (left) and Scottish Rugby President Ian Rankin. Picture: SNS
Head of Women's Rugby Sheila Begbie (left) and Scottish Rugby President Ian Rankin. Picture: SNS
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FOOTBALL is in Sheila Begbie’s blood. Her great-great-uncle, Isaac Begbie, won two championships and two Scottish Cups with Hearts in the 1890s.

It has been her life as well. She remembers playing it on the streets of Drylaw in Edinburgh when she was just seven or eight. She went to school with Gordon Strachan – and Irvine Welsh, more of which later – and won her first Scotland cap aged just 15. Working first as a teacher and then for Sport Scotland, she later joined the Scottish FA, serving 16 years as their head of women’s and girls’ football.+

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Then, last summer, it all changed. The national stadium she is based at now is Murrayfield, not Hampden. After decades of service to football, she has made an unusual, and some would say risky, career move to rugby.

There are still aficionados of both sports who have no time for the other code, and who would question the ability of an administrator in one, no matter how experienced, to transfer her skills to the other one. But Begbie, who took up her new role in August, has encountered no such resistance at Scottish Rugby.

And anyway, the job she has to do now is in many respects very similar to the one she did in football. The clue is in her new title, which differs by just a single word from her old one: head of women’s and girls’ rugby.

It’s a newly-created post, but one in which the expectations are close to those which greeted her when she started work in the same role at Hampden back in 1998. Working closely with the national coach – first Vera Pauw, then Anna Signeul – Begbie played a big part in professionalising the structure of Scottish women’s football. She does not think that process is complete, but she is confident that everything is on track.

In rugby, by contrast, there is a long way to go. The national women’s team have enjoyed isolated successes, most notably in 1998 when they won the Grand Slam, but Begbie and her new employers think a lot more work needs to be done at every level of the game.

If you can attract and keep more players, you will improve the level of domestic competition. If you can do that, players will be at a consistently higher standard by the time they reach the national team. And if, as a consequence, Scotland keep winning more games, more players will be attracted to the game, and then stay in it. A virtuous circle will have been created.

In the not-too-distant past there have been senior figures at Murrayfield who have paid lip service at best to the women’s game, but Begbie has been impressed by the active support from the current hierarchy, who can now afford to put their money where their mouths are thanks to their four-year sponsorship agreement with BT.

“When I saw the job in Scottish Rugby, I thought that would be a real challenge for me to go and do a similar job to the one I’ve already done in football,” she says. “I’d watched some rugby matches in the past – men’s and women’s – so I had a slight interest in rugby in general, and then when I spoke to Mark Dodson, the chief executive, and other people I could see there was a real desire to make a difference in the women’s game. There was support from the highest level in the organisation, and I thought yes, I really want to go for this.

“I’ve been really pleasantly surprised by the interest in what I’m doing, and wherever I go in the organisation people ask how they can help me. That’s been really fantastic. Mark has done a great job on making it clear that women’s rugby is a priority, and I think everybody has bought into it.

“At the Scottish FA we identified rugby as one of our major competitors in terms of recruitment of players. And we kept looking over our shoulders thinking ‘Where are they? They’re not coming’.

“It’s great that the board here have recognised that maybe they didn’t get things right in the past in terms of the women’s game, and that it is a priority for the organisation now. People have been really respectful of where I come from and what has been achieved in women’s football. And there has been a recognition of the similarity between the two: they’re women’s sports in very male-dominated environments.”

Of course, being in a male-dominated environment need not mean that you are dictated to by men, and Begbie believes that things such as the timing of the season could be changed in the women’s game, at least for younger players, even if there is no desire in men’s rugby to do the same.

“I really don’t see why we should ask young girls to play rugby over the winter,” she says. “In football we changed the season – it’s from March to November now – and I’d like to talk to clubs and explore the opportunity of changing the season for younger rugby players.

“Also, if we want to attract older players back into the game, I don’t think we can do it over the winter. We need to do it in summer where it can become much more of a social game. There has been some initial negativity from people who said we’ve always played over winter at the same time as the men’s game, but we don’t need to be the same as the men’s game.”

What the women’s game does need, she is sure, is more full-time staff. “Our national coach, Jules Maxton, is a full-time teacher and is also a club coach. I think Jules is out seven nights a week.

“So we’re looking at a full-time coaching position. Hopefully in 2015 we’ll see the introduction of lots of personnel within the women’s game.

“It might not be a post just as national coach for the women’s team. It will probably be a performance role, with part of it being with the national team. It would give whoever is appointed much more time to work with the players and the medical staff, and link with the clubs.

“There’s a real lack of structure and clubs. We need to make the opportunities much, much bigger for girls, on a local level as well. And we need to introduce higher intensity to our competitions.

“There’s no quick fix for us. No real shortcut to success. There will be a plan, which will be ten to 12 years in the making.

“When I look at what we did in football, Anna Signeul’s job is not finished. There are still another few years to go.

“It will be a similar process here. It’s a long-term plan, but we’ll have short-term successes on the way.”

The move to Murrayfield means that Begbie, who comes from a Hearts-supporting family, is now just a lengthy punt away from where great-great-uncle used to play at Tynecastle. “My dad had spoken about him,” she says of her famous forebear, who lived until 1958. “Then I remember someone telling me about a big photograph in the Diggers pub of the team, so I went in one day and looked at it.

“He just looked exactly like my dad looked. Really dark. He had a moustache which my dad didn’t, but he looked like a Begbie.

“We were looking at some stuff recently where he tried to lead a revolt at Ibrox. He and one of his team-mates had been sent off and he didn’t agree with the referee’s decisions, so he tried to entice the other players not to go out for the second half. But they did go out.”

That incident brings to mind the more recent attempt by former chief executive Chris Robinson to call the Hearts team off the park after four of their number had been red-carded at Ibrox. But then the thought of a man called Begbie with a moustache inevitably evokes the character of the same name from Welsh’s novel Trainspotting.

Francis “Franco” Begbie, played in the film with psychotic zeal by Robert Carlyle, is vicious, violent and vile. Sheila Begbie, it should be said, is amiable and chatty, and over the hour and a half for which we talk hardly says a bad word about anyone. But, given she was at school with Welsh, it has to be asked: is there a connection? She has often been asked the same question, and explains that, while she knew the current Scotland coach from their days at Craigroyston, she really cannot have done anything to inspire Welsh to create the ferocious Franco.

“Gordon and I were in the same English class at Craigroyston, and he was really well known at school, because when he was a schoolboy he had signed a contract with Dundee. Then after he left school and was playing for Dundee he would come back on sports days. So he was kind of like the hero of the school, and everybody knew who he was and what he was doing.

“I didn’t really know Irvine Welsh from school, but lots of people have asked me where he got the Begbie name from. I do have a big brother and sister that went to Craigroyston as well, but I don’t really know if he knew them. I think he’s younger than me. . .”

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