Anna Signeul doesn’t like to talk about her imminent departure from Scotland, claiming it makes her too emotional to contemplate leaving behind a country she has fallen in love with. It is also a nation she has helped change the face of.
A land where football is part of the soul, she has reminded everyone that it is a sport for all and when she bows out this summer, on the back of Scotland women’s first ever appearance at a major championship, she will do so with a heavy heart but plenty of pride in what has been achieved in her 12 years at the helm.
“I think we have done massive amounts in those 12 years. Not just with participation but also the culture,” says the 56-year-old. “It is now seen as a sport that it is possible for girls to play. I’m not saying it wasn’t before but maybe it was a little bit macho and a little bit intimidating. Now they love playing football and we see parents coming to games, along with brothers and grandmas. That is a massive change.
“I know Nicola Sturgeon said it, and I don’t know if it was her quote, but she said ‘you can’t be what you can’t see’ and I think it is fantastic that girls in Scotland now have these role models and the media now write about women’s football more and we see women’s football on TV. I have always said that if we want girls to have healthy and fit role models then we need to let them see them. We need to give them airtime.”
Thanks to reality television the notion of someone going on a personal or professional journey now seems twee and somewhat contrived; the kind of thing a contestant waxes on about looking for last-minute votes, often through some crocodile tears and against a backing track of corny music.
But when the Swedish-born manager of the Scotland women’s team uses that description, there is an authenticity to her words.
“I made this journey once before in Sweden and when I was asked to take this job I said no because I had done it before and it is very hard. When I grew up and was into sport, I was always very good at sport and was always selected anyway so when people started talking about quotas and about how women should be selected, I didn’t understand what they were talking about or what the need was. I thought, if you are good enough then you get the job, if you are good enough then you get on TV and if you are good enough you get the same money as a man. I honestly thought that was how it was when I was growing up. It wasn’t until I was maybe 30 that I started to realise that’s not how it works actually. It doesn’t matter if you are very good or if you invest as much time in something as men, it doesn’t matter because you are a woman and you are a football player and you are not worth as much as a man. It was the same if you were a coach.
“I think when you are young you haven’t met any of these challenges. It is only when you get older you realise that just because you are a woman you don’t have the same rights as men.
“I discovered that we don’t have the same right as men to do this, we don’t have the same right to go on that training pitch or on to that pitch on match day. You are elite players but you are fighting against division three men or even boys’ teams. They are given the best training times. I thought that cannot be right.”
Having fought the good fight in Sweden, seeking more money and more recognition as she tried to grow the girls and women’s game, she wasn’t sure she had the energy or the inclination to wage the same war in another land.
“It was a tough decision to go back to constantly having to argue, constantly having to sell and constantly wonder why people can’t see simple things like when promotional publications come out and you have to ask why there are no pictures of women footballers or you see a grassroots folder and 99 per cent of pictures are boys and maybe just one girl. You ask how that can be and they say it reflects society. My answer is that it will continue to be just one girl unless something is done to make them think that the sport is also for them and it is welcoming and accessible.
“It is hard to constantly be what I call the football police. That is what I was in Sweden and it was with politicians, with the FA, with football clubs, with society, and it is really tough to do that every day so after Sweden I said I did not want to take that journey again but anyway, I did and it has been exactly like that again.”
There is still a long way to go, though things are evolving. Participation levels have skyrocketed but it is more than that. These days women’s games are televised, spectator numbers are rising and young fans can even collect Scotland stars for a Women’s European Championships Panini sticker album – a sure sign that what was once seen as unusual is now mainstream.
Signeul takes her copy out of her rucksack and flicks through it, proud that she is well on her way to a full Scotland line-up. These are her girls and without her they would probably not be looking forward to taking on UEFA’s best in the 16-nation tournament in the Netherlands next month.
She has taken players with talent and imbued them with the professionalism needed to make it in such company. Others have been aided by the academy structure she put in place or the increased training she demanded of clubs, who moved from two sessions a week to at least five for those players competing at national level.
A fit and fiercely competitive individual, with a strong mind and a stubborn refusal to settle for anything she feels is unfair, Signeul says that has always been her personality. She competed in a cornucopia of different sports as a youngster, predominantly football, tennis, skiing and skating, and excelled. She is a winner. But while she understands the elite, she also believes in the equitable.
Opportunities, she says, should be open to all but to be the best you have to demand it of yourself and you need support and facilities. In her time in Scotland she had given out plenty of the former and battled to ensure improvements in the latter.
But it is not about her, she insists. It is about the clubs, the players, and the families and supporters who have lent their weight to the movement, buying into ideas and putting in the endeavour to help them close the gap on nations who had established a massive head start.
“I don’t understand someone who claims they are not a feminist – male or female – because being a feminist is about wanting equal rights. Who wouldn’t want that? Especially if you have daughters or sisters?
“My dream is that every girl in Scotland has the opportunity to play football. It is a wonderful sport, we all love it, and I think girls coming through now have many good role models.”
From players like Kim Little, last year’s world player of the year, who will unfortunately sit out the Euros due to injury, the current squad is comprised of individuals earning a living in the game abroad and down south. It is far from the wages offered to their male counterparts but it is progress.
Professionalism is about more than cash, though. In Signeul’s mind it comes down to attitude and whether paid or not she insists the dedication and commitment of every one of her players places them in that bracket.
“People tell me that they used to go out and party but now that has changed and I have huge respect for the players because they are elite athletes. Leeann Crichton is a great example of someone who came through the national youth teams and someone who was so good, but it was about the lifestyle and she fell back because she didn’t do what was needed. After two or three years she called me up and said she was ready to invest and train. But then she fell away again.”
She was forced to stay patient and prove herself again and again at club level but Signeul finally relented and gave her another chance. This time, she has grabbed it with both hands and is now playing professionally at Notts County and will be in the Netherlands in July, living the dream.
“The thing with Leeann is that she has a great trait. She is stubborn and you need a bit of that to get to the top.”
It is something Signeul’s friends and foes will testify she has in abundance. “But I just think every national job has a natural end. If I had been head of girls and women’s football or a performance director then I would have maybe stayed 10 more years. But that isn’t how it is.”
That role may have been open to her had the Scottish FA followed the example of other nations who split the responsibility and have a director for the men’s and the women’s game. Instead, at the end of August, Signeul will start her next journey, as Finland’s head coach.
In her wake, her successor Shelley Kerr will inherit something good but, according to the Swede, it is something that is far from finished.