The untold story of Scot who was world’s best footballer – Brian Ferguson

Rose Reilly at the Scottish Football Museum's Hall of Fame in 2007
Rose Reilly at the Scottish Football Museum's Hall of Fame in 2007
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Rose Reilly became a huge football star in Italy but is only now getting the recognition she deserves in her native Scotland, writes Brian Ferguson.

When a youthful colleague asked for advice on what could be considered Scottish cultural highlights of the 1980s, there were a few obvious contenders. Deacon Blue and Wet Wet Wet provided the soundtrack to my schooldays, City Lights was the Scottish sitcom of choice and Taggart was the era’s gritty crime drama.

Looking back longfully, the early 1980s were a golden era of Scottish film, thanks to the likes of Local Hero, Restless Natives and Comfort and Joy, and others which were famously filmed here including Chariots of Fire and Highlander.

READ MORE: Women’s football trailblazer Rose Reilly’s life story set to be brought to the stage

READ MORE: ‘Edinburgh Seven’ to finally get degrees 150 years after campaign to allow women to study medicine

But the jewel in the crown had to be Gregory’s Girl, Bill Forsyth’s classic comedy-of-age comedy drama which put Cumbernauld on the world’s movie map, turned John Gordon Sinclair, Dee Hepburn and Clare Grogan into huge stars, and shook the world of Scottish football to its roots by the prospect of a girl playing in the boy’s football team. Even though the film is more than 40 years old, watching it again is a reminder of how Forsyth’s razor-sharp script lampoons the sexism among both staff and pupils at the school at the very idea of Dorothy holding her own on the pitch – before she promptly runs rings around them all.

Best footballer in the world

However I think of Gregory’s Girl and Dorothy’s efforts to shake up the school team in a whole new light after discovering the remarkable true-life story of Rose Reilly, the Ayrshire footballer, who quit her home country to pursue a professional career in the game overseas, became a huge star in Italy, and was crowned the best footballer in the world, but was banned for life by the footballing authorities.

Reilly retired from the game at the age of 40 in 1995, but only received official recognition of her achievements 12 years later, thanks to the advent of the Scottish Sports Hall of Fame, run by the National Museum of Scotland. The move ended the impasse with the game in her home country and she secured a place in the Scottish Football Hall of Fame within months.

But it is only since Scotland qualified for last year’s World Cup and the screening of a documentary on the life of Reilly on BBC Alba that she has achieved genuine public recognition.

The Edinburgh Seven

Now Reilly’s life has inspired a new stage production, which will be touring Edinburgh, Glasgow and Greenock, and is billed as the “incredible true story of a girl from Ayrshire who refused to play by society’s discriminatory rules”. When I interviewed the show’s writer, Lorna Martin, she was good enough to admit her own shame at never having heard of Reilly until she was approached about the show by actor and director Maureen Carr. It was a relief as I’d certainly never heard of Reilly a year ago.

It is perhaps no coincidence that just over a year ago I wrote about the development of a musical inspired by the Edinburgh Seven, Britain’s first female medical students, who upset staff and students at Edinburgh University so much that they were prevented from graduating and qualifying as doctors. There was no memorial to the achievements of Dame Muriel Spark in her native Edinburgh until the centenary of her birth in 2018, when a flight of steps and a pathway were renamed in her honour.

One of the most eye-opening books I’ve read in recent years was Sara Sheridan’s alternative atlas of Scotland, Where Are The Women?, which suggested hundreds of new tributes to women who have either been written out of the history books or had their achievements sidelined. If Scotland’s playwrights and theatres are struggling for inspiration they could do a lot worse than plough through its pages.