Scotland women’s football team on brink of big time

UNBOWED by prejudice and neglect, Scotland’s women footballers are on the brink of a breakthrough

Sheila Begbie at Hampden. Picture: Robert Perry
Sheila Begbie at Hampden. Picture: Robert Perry

A SUNDAY afternoon in the summer of 1961. Strandhead Park in the East Ayrshire town of Stewarton smells of cut grass and honest sweat. A football match has just been played. In a moment, in this unassuming locale, two revolutionaries will meet for the first time.

Here’s the first now – short-back-and-sides and a Celtic strip, seven years old, whippet-skinny, plastic ball tucked under an arm. “Haw, missus! Kin ah get a game?”

“Och,” says the teenager thus addressed, shaking her head. “Sorry, son, it’s a ladies team.”

Celtic-Strip starts at this, indignant. “But ah um a lassie!”

“Aw, I’m sorry,” says the teenager, gently. “Come back in a couple of years.”

“And sure enough,” says Elsie Cook, now 67 but remembering the scene as if it were yesterday, “Rose came back when she was nine, and she was like lightning. Tore through defences like they weren’t there. She had so much determination, and that took her all the way to being captain of Italy.”

“Rose” is Rose Reilly, the most successful football player this country has ever produced; though, as she is female, her achievements remain largely unknown. We’ll come back to her later. Elsie Cook, meanwhile, is a pioneer – she managed Scotland, was the inaugural Secretary of the Scottish Women’s Football Association, and has spent much of her life arguing that women players should have the same rights and respect as their male counterparts. This meeting, then, between a teenage Elsie and a school-age Rose, a visionary and a wunderkind, is, in its quiet way, a game-changing encounter: it’s Watson and Crick at Cambridge University; Lennon and McCartney in Woolton church hall.

“At that time, men still had the attitude, ‘You shouldnae be kickin’ a ba’, you should be at the sink’,” says Cook. “Well, I wanted every wee lassie in Scotland to have the opportunity of kicking a ball. Back in the 1960s that was my dream. And now it’s happened.”

Women’s football is the fastest-growing sport in the world. In Scotland it is on the rise. There are 146 clubs, an increase of 64 per cent since 2011. There are just over 6,000 club players; three years ago there were 3,000 or so. Look, too, at the team performances. Glasgow City FC have – since 2011 – twice reached the last 16 of the Champions League.

The national side is a fairy tale waiting to happen. The Scotland women, ranked 20th in the world (Gordon Strachan’s men are 37th), have a good chance of qualifying for the 2015 World Cup in Canada. They have won all four of their qualifying matches thus far, topping the group, and will play their latest qualifier, against Poland, on Saturday. Qualification now, or for the 2017 European Championships could be the tipping point that sees women’s football enter the mainstream; that sees it enter Scotland’s bloodstream.

“If we qualified for the World Cup, the game in Scotland would change dramatically overnight,” says Sheila Begbie, head of girls’ and women’s football with the SFA. “Everything should fall into line. From the grassroots to the elite it would have a major impact. I hope there would be commercial investment into the game. It would raise its profile significantly, and we’d have more girls who would want to play. The Scotland players would almost become household names. It’s what we’ve all been working hard and struggling towards. From 2017 onwards, for a Scottish team not to at least be at the finals of the Euros will be very unusual. This is really an exciting time.”

Not everyone is quick to applaud. Following Scotland’s beautiful 7-0 rout of Bosnia-Herzegovina last September, the pundit Tam Cowan used his Daily Record column to attack women’s football, calling for Fir Park, the Motherwell stadium where the match was played, to be burned as an act of cleansing. Ironically, the subsequent outcry had the effect of bringing the success of the team to the attention of many people who would not otherwise have known or cared. The online reaction, in particular, demonstrated what appears to be a real cultural shift away from knee-jerk sexism around women’s sport and passive acceptance of such.

“The public response was fantastic,” says Begbie. “That morning I looked at my phone and there were all these texts saying, ‘Have you seen this article?’ So I went online and read it. At first I was angry and thought some of these comments were bordering on being fascist.” But then she logged on to Twitter and saw that the public were taking Cowan to task so effectively that she had no need to respond herself. “He completely misjudged the market and it backfired on him. Maybe a bit of what he wrote was tongue-in-cheek, but it was clear that people weren’t going to accept it and quite rightly so.”

Scotland’s team, meanwhile, hit back in the best possible manner – returning to Fir Park for a 2-0 defeat of Northern Ireland. It was the sort of evening for which the word “dreich” is scarcely adequate. The rain fell with an intensity which took it beyond being merely unpleasant and into the realms of active malevolence. The play on the park, meanwhile, was lumpen, and the electronic scoreboard, intended to broadcast partisan tweets and texts from the home crowd, at one point lit up with a note of pure anguish: “Can’t believe I’m missing Strictly for this.”

Afterwards, Scotland’s head coach, Anna Signeul, admitted that, no, the performance had not been attractive, but still it took them closer to the World Cup. Signeul, 52, has been in charge since 2005. Although Swedish, she has settled in Scotland and has a fond appreciation of the people, the landscape and the single malt. One of her all-time favourite players, moreover, is Archie Gemmill (she, like him, was a central midfielder) and she remembers well his revered goal against Holland in 1978, a strike later immortalised in Trainspotting for its transcendentally erotic qualities.

Signeul is a serene presence, not at all the sort to hand out the “hairdryer treatment”, even to those squad members whose flowing locks might benefit from it, but her calm approach gets results. Under her leadership, Scotland have risen nine places in the world rankings, and have lately taken to defeating teams high above them in the table; arguably their greatest result came earlier this month – a draw with France, the fifth best team in the world.

To put that achievement into perspective, consider that France has a population 12 times larger than Scotland with seven times as many registered female players. Not only is the talent pool that much greater, there is also the fact that the French national squad is, in the words of one observer, “a team of millionairesses”. The women’s game in Scotland remains amateur – the players don’t get paid. Scotland goalkeeper Gemma Fay is still, at the age of 32, paying off her student loan. The midfielder Megan Sneddon, 2013’s Players’ Player Of The Year, is a postie whose tough round has caused her injury problems.

“Our achievement has been fantastic,” says Signeul. “We have passed countries in the rankings that have more football players, more tradition, more investment. I can honestly say that when I took this job I had not heard of Scottish women’s football, and I don’t think I was alone in that. Nine years ago no one would have dreamed that Scotland would be a major player on the European scene and absolutely not in the World Cup.”

Talk to the Scotland players and you’re left in no doubt that this is a team that believes it is going to the cup. “We work hard and have the talent to do it,” says Kim Little, “so let’s hope that by the end of this year we’ll have a smile on our faces.”

Little, 23, is Scotland’s highest-profile player. Growing up in Mintlaw, near Aberdeen, she joined Arsenal when she was 16 and played for Great Britain during the London Olympics. Earlier this month she moved to the United States, having signed for Seattle Reign. A number of the Scotland squad now play for professional or semi-professional teams in Europe, England and the United States, where women’s football is a much more accepted and widely supported part of the culture. At Olympique Lyonnais last season, the American player Megan Rapinoe was reported to be earning more than £9,000 a month; the Brazilian Marta Vieira da Silva is said to be on £16,000 a month with Sweden’s Tyresö FF. But these are the superstars; most players count themselves blessed if they can pay their bills without also holding down a day job.

Scottish Government funding of £200,000, announced last year, is being used to help those Scotland players who do work to go part-time, allowing for more training ahead of the World Cup qualifiers. In England, at club level, salaries vary widely but no FA Women’s Super League team is allowed to pay more than four players in excess of £20,000 annually. The reality is that unless you are at the very pinnacle of the sport, you are unlikely to become wealthy if you are a woman playing football. Wayne Rooney makes by lunchtime what some superb female footballers make in a year.

“I’m not asking for the money the men earn,” says Megan Sneddon, who is 28 and plays for Rangers Ladies as well as for the national side. “I think that money’s ridiculous. But it would be nice if you could make a living off it in Scotland. See most of the women involved? They’re not greedy. We’d just like enough to live on. We work a damn sight harder than you think. We actually train as hard as if we were professionals, and we’ve got to work a job on top of it. That’s so difficult. You don’t get any time to rest.”

But isn’t there, arguably, a psychological benefit in having a regular job which keeps you grounded? Wouldn’t it do Rooney some good to have a wee post round?

Sneddon snorts at this. “I couldn’t imagine half those guys working.”

Not even Luis Suarez? “Naw. He’d probably dive round it.”

The wages issue is linked to match attendances. The United States national team can get 15,000-20,000 people coming to see them play. The Swedish side draw crowds of up to 10,000. Scotland’s 7-0 hammering of Bosnia attracted just over 1,000 people. The hope is that qualification for a major tournament, plus resulting television and press coverage, would boost numbers significantly.

“I would love to see some of the Tartan Army coming to the games,” says Sheila Begbie. “I don’t understand why if they’re so passionate about Scotland and football, they don’t come along and support the women’s team as well. I’m sure the players would love to have some of that noise in the crowd.”

The fans at the moment are pioneers, just as the players are. Laura McGill, a 32-year-old nurse from Mauchline, has fallen hard for women’s football. First drawn in by watching Great Britain during the 2012 Olympics, she is now a stalwart supporter of the game in Scotland; if there ever is a female equivalent of the Tartan Army then she will be at the vanguard.

McGill was the only supporter to make the journey for Scotland’s recent run of games in the Cyprus Cup. She flew out on her own, stayed in the hotel on her own, and sat in the stadium on her own, surrounded by empty seats, wearing her replica kit, waving a Saltire, and leaping into the air when Leanne Ross scored against France. Far from feeling lonely, McGill considers herself privileged. “I was so proud that the team would see me in the stand, there to support them,” she says. “I feel honoured to be the only person to have witnessed that game and to have the memory of it.”

There is a certain old-fashioned purity to women’s football. It is untainted by money, ego, violence and bigotry. The players, too, are real people – accessible role models not isolated from fans by wealth and fame. Gemma Fay, the Scotland captain and Celtic goalie, is very smart and funny. She reads Murakami, listens to Bon Iver and Billie Holiday, wears natty white brogues, bakes a mean banana loaf, has a sideline as an acclaimed actress, once wrote to Jim’ll Fix It in the hope that she might meet Steffi Graf (being now rather glad he never replied), trains so hard that she keeps a bucket for vomit handy by the running track, and speaks about goal-keeping in a compellingly zen sort of way – “Your thoughts and actions are as one… I felt I was floating… I can’t imagine my life without it.” She is exactly the sort of sports person who would embellish our public life.

“If we go to a World Cup, we’ll have done it through determination and graft, every one of us,” she says. “Believe in your dreams because they are possible. We believe this is our chance.”

Well, let us hope so. Women’s football in Scotland has had plenty of false dawns. The game has a long history, as outlined in the BBC Alba documentary, Honeyballers, made by Purple TV. The earliest reference to women playing football anywhere in Europe can be found in Lanarkshire in 1628. The boom years came during the First World War when matches between female munitions workers drew thousands. Supposedly in reaction to the perceived threat of women taking over a sport which was seen as belonging to men, the Scottish Football Association, from the 1920s, refused to let affiliated clubs host women’s matches at their grounds, and many local councils were also unwilling to allow the use of their pitches. Women were unable to access referees, changing facilities, disciplinary procedures or any of the benefits of official recognition. Incredibly, it took until 1974 for the SFA to recognise the women’s game.

“We were treated like lesser people,” says Elsie Cook. “It made you angry. But that was what drove me to keep going.”

Cook loves football and strong women. A stack of biographies in her Stewarton home attests to that, ranging as it does from Marlene Dietrich to Sir Alex Ferguson, blue angels and red devils. She got the bug in her early teens. There’s a great photograph of her bedroom back then, the walls papered with cut-outs of her favourite players, among them George Best and Pele. Later, she spent time with both. She encountered Best at a post-match bash in 1973, joining him in a glass of pink champagne. Pele she had met in 1966, at the Marine Hotel in Troon, where the Brazil squad were staying ahead of a game at Hampden. She presented him with a kiss and a tartan tammy made at the factory where she worked, Stewarton being known as “the bonnet toun”. This meeting with the Brazilian star was important because, as a child, when her brother and his pals had refused to let her play football, she had replied, defiantly, “Who do you think you are, Pele?” Now here she was, a female footballer being treated with great respect by the greatest player on the planet.

Cook belongs to a generation of players and teams – the Aberdeen Primadonnas, the Cambuslang Hooverettes – that sounds quaint now. But these women were willing to struggle to play the sport they loved. Everything was ersatz: fishing nets for goals; flitting van for the team bus. Cook’s marriage even broke up over her commitment to the game. “It was either him or the fitba and I chose the fitba.” She would go to great lengths to recruit players, even writing to one young talent who had taken holy orders, tempting her to swap the convent for the sisterhood of the pitch. It was like something out of a film – Pope Gregory’s Girl.

Her greatest discovery, though, was Rose Reilly. The wee girl who asked for a game in 1961 – toes of her oversized second-hand boots stuffed with the Sunday Post – grew up to be some player. At the age of 17, she left Scotland to play professionally in Europe and spent the next 20-odd years with Italian clubs, notably AC Milan. Thanks to a certain looseness at that time around eligibility, she even played in the national team, captaining Italy. For one golden season she played with Lecce on Saturday afternoons before flying to France where, on Sunday evenings, she turned out for Reims, keeping herself going with a Walkman full of Ornella Vanoni and Barbara Dickson, winning both the Italian and French leagues that year. She lives back in Stewarton now, having returned to look after her mother, but the tattoo of Sicily on her right arm says a lot.

“When my plane first touched down in Milan, I felt at home,” she recalls now. “I didn’t know a word of Italian then, but I had a love affair with the country. For the Italians, football is a religion. It was more than a religion for me, it was a way of life.”

Incredible stuff. The sad thing – not that she’s bothered – is that Reilly, for all her success, for all that she is the only woman in the Scottish Football Hall of Fame, is not well known in her native land. She is not Denis Law. She is not Kenny Dalglish. Her moment came too soon. So it will be left to a new generation of players to attempt to win over the Scots and to prove that the Lion Rampant will fly just as proudly even if it does not have a mane.

Put it another way. Are Gemma Fay and her team-mates ready to be a national heroes?

“Why not,” smiles the Scotland captain. “Why not?”

• Twitter: @PeterAlanRoss

• Scotland vs Poland is at Fir Park Stadium, Motherwell, Saturday, 5.30pm, and live on BBC Alba. Honeyballers will be repeated on BBC Alba on 14 June at 9.50pm, the same day as the qualifier against Sweden