Aidan Smith: Football’s gender equality progress

Referee Morag Pirie ahead of a Scotland v Iceland women's international with her team of officials.
Referee Morag Pirie ahead of a Scotland v Iceland women's international with her team of officials.
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HEARTS and Hibs might seem like they’re in the vanguard of equal opportunities right now, with the former having a woman owner and the latter a female chief executive. But way back in the 1950s the fairer sex was welcome at Tynecastle and Easter Road. A generation of young couples courted on the old terrace slopes of both grounds. Many went week-about to Leith and Gorgie, a quaint Edinburgh custom at a time when the quality of Embra fitba was never better. I know this because my mother and father were among them, and it wasn’t that Mum went to games under duress – she loved them, too.

Then came the 1970s, my era, when impressionable young men read Skinhead by Richard Allen, tried to sneak in to A Clockwork Orange under-age, bought themselves cherry-red 20-eye Doc Marten boots and scared women away from football. Not all those who stood on 70s piss-stained steps was a hooligan but everyone was determinedly, defiantly male, save for the lone junior woman police constable patrolling the pitch perimeter. At Easter Road I remember a kindly sergeant taking pity on one, spinning her round and away from the leering mob in mid-march, so she didn’t have to hear up close yet another rendition of “Get it up you while you’re young”.

Football has moved on from such grimness, but not as much as we would like. Last week a blazer in England’s north-east was suspended for four months for telling a female referee: “A woman’s place is in the kitchen and not on a football field.” Lucy May wanted to officiate in a local Sunday league. John Cummings, vice-president of Northumberland County Football League, told her she wouldn’t be able to hack it.

Both the FA and Sports Minister Helen Grant were quick to act, the former banning Cummings and the latter condemning him. The right responses, of course, but we should remember that Grant – quite apart from being part of a government which does nothing to stop sports fields being sold off and displaying a lack of knowledge of her subject which would shame the crummiest pub-quiz team – has declared that women who feel “unfeminine” when playing sport should try ballet, roller-skating or cheerleading.

And the highest echelons of football administration have hardly covered themselves in glory in recent times when Richard Scudamore, the chief executive of the Premier League, sends e-mails in which he calls women “broads” and makes jokes about “female irrationality” – never mind FIFA supremo Sepp Blatter’s suggestion that women’s football would be improved if the girls wore tighter shorts.

John Cummings is 70 years old. This would excuse him in some people’s eyes. Man has been well and truly emasculated, so the argument goes, and there are few places left where he can be a bloke, a lad, an idiot if he wants to be – although he would contend that at all times he’s simply being a man. Football provides such a place and he feels safe there.

I can understand this; as a football-loving chap I can be epicly sad on the subject of the grand obsession. And Julie Welch, Britain’s first and for a long time only woman football journalist, understands this. Writing in 2011 she sympathised with we clots. “The vast majority of blokes appreciate the game because it offers male-only companionship,” she suggested. Unlike the workplace, it was an area where they didn’t have to strive or compete or provide. “The truth is that talking about football is at the heart of male bonding. It’s a special world, where men can express their feelings without censure or criticism.”

Problems occur, of course, when these “feelings” go too far – that is, too far back in time, say, to the Neanderthal Age. In March, a survey found that more than two-thirds of women working in football had experienced sexism. They complained of being underpaid compared with men performing the same job and of being overlooked for promotion because of gender, with one revealing: “On my first day at work a senior figure walked past and slapped my bum.”

But women, despite these issues, aren’t going away and leaving the men to their football, as they did when the bootboys rooled, OK. Julie Welch wrote her words in the aftermath of the noises-off which cost Andy Gray and Richard Keys their jobs at Sky Sports. You’ll remember that the gruesome twosome slagged off linesman Sian Massey, insisting that women simply couldn’t comprehend the offside rule. But, rather than disillusion them, the FA reported that county associations had subsequently been “inundated by women wanting to get involved in refereeing”.

You’ve got to hope John Cummings’ crass remarks will have the same effect and not put women off. Men should take it as a compliment that women want to watch, play and officiate in a game they invented. There may even be room for some quiet smugness over this. In Scotland we should be proud that in May Kylie McMullan became the first woman to run the line in a top-flight game, that the land on which St Mirren Park sits didn’t cleave in two as a result of some kind of biblical wrath, that the match finished at the normal time with no fuss whatsoever.

In Scotland we also have the UK’s first female manager of a senior team – Stirling University’s Shelley Kerr. I met her recently and she’s a highly impressive individual, able to laugh at ludicrous photographers disappointed to find her in a tracksuit who then request that she slips on a pair of stilettos.

Women still have to laugh at men in football scenarios. The equally admirable Karren Brady tells a funny story about being at a Birmingham City match with her grandmother when the crowd were hurling abuse: “They were shouting ‘Karren Brady’s a whore’. I said: ‘They’re saying I’m 24, nan.’ Then of course my grandmother couldn’t understand why the fans wanted me to show them my teeth.”

More power to WiF – women in football – and frankly I’ve never understood why men would regard the fitba-savvy ones as any kind of threat. If this doesn’t sound too patronising, I’d view a woman with a vast knowledge – one able to name the Turnbull’s Tornadoes team from soot-eyed goalie to 
open-the-gates left winger, for instance – as the most sophisticated of the species, the apogee of all creation.