The beautiful game

IN THE rabbit warren of changing rooms snaking beneath McDiarmid Park, home to Scottish First Division football team St Johnstone, something strange is happening. In an atmosphere normally thick with testosterone, male ribaldry and "who-dropped-the-soap" humour, an unusual noise is ringing through the corridors: girls' laughter. Lots of it.

In fact, everywhere you turn there are girls. Girls trooping up and down stairs, girls carrying nets of footballs, girls talking to other girls and comparing footwear. But these girls are not fans. They're footballers.

Meet the Scotland women's under-19 squad: 20 young women for whom football is not just a passion, but a way of life. While many girls their age spend their weekends out clubbing or drinking - taking their first experimental steps in three-inch heels and hangovers - these girls are training, balancing school, college or full-time jobs with a serious dedication to a sport which, as it currently stands, they cannot even play professionally in their own country.

They're at McDiarmid Park today to take part in the final selection process for the squad that will play against Finland in a UEFA European Under-19 Championship qualifier (a game they go on to win 3-1). They stream out on to the synthetic training pitch, chattering and giggling, ready for their morning's training. As they warm up and the rain pours down, Tony Gervaise, the burly 51-year-old head of youth development for girls' and women's football, and Scotland's U19, U17 and U15 teams coach, stalks among them, dispensing words of encouragement.

"Some time today, please," he bellows sarcastically at one girl. "Don't kick the ball like that," he shouts at another. "Your ankle will go spinning in to next week." The girls giggle, clearly used to Gervaise's tough coaching style, and carry on.

It's an interesting time for women's football in Scotland. This weekend, Scotland's women's squad will play England for the first time in two years. In March 2005 the team got a new coach, the formidable Swede Anna Signeul, who has introduced a rigorous training schedule and is determined the team will play well on the international stage. In 20 meetings, Scotland's women's team have beaten the Auld Enemy just once, in 1977, although they came frustratingly close at their last attempt, losing 2-1 after an own goal.

"Having come so close to getting a result against the English last time, they are determined to go one better this time around," says Signeul. Most of the women who play in the national team - including star player Julie Fleeting, who was the first Scottish woman to play in the USA's women's league - work full-time. In sharp contrast to the men's game, where players change hands for millions of pounds and the game is worth billions annually, women's football is run on a shoestring budget and receives little publicity. So why, then, are so many girls - such as the current under-19 squad, which includes some exceptionally talented young players and who Gervaise says are "really special" - getting into the game?

"The desire among the girls has to be strong," Gervaise admits. "They have to sacrifice their work, their friends, their boyfriends, their relationships, to attain a level of international football. There's a lot of people in the A-squad who have given up seven years to get to where they are now. It takes a lot of time and commitment. They have to have a real love of the sport and a hunger to play it."

Amy McDonald, 21, has played for the A-Squad for the past three years and been capped nine times for Scotland. After graduating last year, she now works as a sports coach for Glasgow City Council, and says she is one of the luckier members of the team.

"My work doesn't start until later in the day, meaning I can train in the mornings, but a lot of the girls are working full-time and either have to get up really early in the morning to train or [do it] late at night. It's difficult. Once you're at that level in terms of fitness, and playing for the national team, trying to maintain it isn't always easy."

She admits sacrifices have to be made: "Trying to strike a balance between work, training all the time and seeing your family is tricky. There are a lot of demands on you."

So why do it? "Purely for the enjoyment factor," she says. "You're trying to reach as far as you can."

In common with many women players, however, McDonald gets frustrated with the coverage and money behind the men's game.

"All you read about is how hard they've got it with the games per season, or their training hours, whereas we as the national team are having to travel sometimes 12 or 13 hours to a game, and then go and train, and we're having to take unpaid leave to do it. The men have got it so easy it's unbelievable. You just want to let them see how it is for us - let them come and see things from our side for a week."

Things are, however, getting better for the women's game.

"There's a lot of work going on behind the scenes to change perceptions and the status of women's football in Scotland," points out Gervaise. "There's a whole programme of education to drag people out of the entrenched attitude towards it."

As well as an under-19 women's team, there are under-17 and under-15 squads, and training programmes for all the girls involved to make sure they're getting the support they need. Meanwhile, there are whispers that wheels may soon be in motion for Scottish Premier League clubs to start looking at having their own women's teams, and there may be some serious money put behind them.

At the moment the Scottish Women's Football League, comprising 38 teams, along with other women's leagues, is a non-profit organisation.

"I don't think there are many people on the street who could name a women's team," says Gervaise. "But everybody knows about the national programme, and that's our vehicle to promote and develop the game."

Kerry Montgomery, 18, is the captain of the under-19 Scotland squad, as well as playing for Edinburgh Ladies. She says she feels things are improving.

"There's definitely a huge gulf between men and women's football but, in my opinion, women's football is getting bigger. It's absolutely huge in America and they play it professionally there. But it's getting better over here and the A-squad get better results every time they play."

Montgomery, who is currently studying for a degree in sports fitness, says her sights are trained on the A-squad, but she would clearly love to play the game full-time.

"There's always the option of going down south and playing for the likes of Arsenal or Chelsea, or even going across to America," she muses. "The Scottish leagues are a bit different. It's part-time. You go for a kickabout."

"A lot of it is about attitude," says Gervaise, who admits there is a stigma attached to being a woman's coach but says it's "like water off a duck's back" to him.

"There's no question things have changed. Parents' attitudes have changed, girls are taking the sport up earlier and fathers are now finding it acceptable for their daughters to play football. Since 1998, when I started this job, there have been huge strides made. The whole status of the game is rising, and interest is growing."

But is there really the interest in women's football that those involved in it would like to think there is? Attendance at a lot of games is low. In September last year, only 1,113 spectators turned up to watch Scotland suffer a crushing 5-0 defeat to Germany in a World Cup qualifier.

"What a lot of people do is compare the women's game to the men's game," says Gervaise. "And yes, it's the same game, but it's played very differently. The men's game has more power, and it's quicker.

"On the surface it's a more attractive product, but if you get an eye for women's football or come and watch it, you'll find it's a bit more sophisticated."

As the girls jog off the synthetic pitch after their morning's training, soaked to the skin and red-faced, their dedication to the game is obvious. Fiona McNicoll, 18, a member of the squad and a computing student at Dundee College, outlines her average week for me: "I play football and train on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. In between that I've got my strength-training programme. Then I've got college full-time.

"If I go away for a training camp or a game, I make sure I take college work with me so that I'm still up to date with my work."

"Maybe I'm biased, but I think the girls work harder at it than the boys," Gervaise says, "simply because they haven't got the carrot of opportunity that the boys have of a playing career where they could earn some money," says Gervaise.

"The money issue does annoy me," Montgomery says. "If it was like the men's game, there would be loads more girls interested in football. But most of the girls who play football do it because they enjoy it. They're not interested in the money."

Still, wouldn't they fancy snagging their very own footballer's husband, or "HAB", along the way? Montgomery and McNicoll laugh raucously.

"Oh God yes!" says Montgomery. "Why not?"