Insight: Women's football can't be what you can't see

In the centre of Natalie Finch's bedroom stands a pretty pink, Princess-style tent draped in eight-year-old birthday bunting. 'That's my Glasgow City FC tent,' she says as she opens it up to reveal an emporium of club paraphernalia: programmes, orange and black scarves, and the signed balls she was given on the two occasions when she has been the team mascot.

The Scotland team, including goalkeeper
 Gemma Fay. Picture: Paul Devlin/SNS Group
The Scotland team, including goalkeeper Gemma Fay. Picture: Paul Devlin/SNS Group

Natalie’s walls are covered in football posters too. Dressed in the home strip – with its #10inarow reference to the club’s decade-long reign as champions of the SWPL – she points to the players. “That’s Erin Cuthbert,” she says. “And that’s Lee Alexander. The one at the end is Gemma Fay. She’s been capped 200 times and is on loan in Iceland just now.”

Natalie is an uber-fan. She has been following Glasgow City since she was five, now plays for the under-10s and is quite the evangelist, spreading the word among her classmates. Later this month, she is taking her pal Anja Boyd – also dressed in a strip – to the club’s “bring a friend” event.

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Before then, however, she is heading off with her parents to see the national team compete in the Women’s Euro finals which begin today. On Wednesday, she will be cheering as the national players – two-thirds of whom play, or have played, for Glasgow City – walk into the Stadion Galgenwaard in Utrecht for their opening match against England. “I don’t have a favourite player. I like them all,” says Natalie. “I would like to be able to play as well as them some day.”

Ardent Glasgow City fan Natalie Finch in her bedroom. Picture: John Devlin

The match represents a high watermark for women’s football in Scotland. This is the first time the national squad has qualified for an international competition, and though the absence through injury of several players, including Arsenal midfielder Kim Little, has diminished their chances of making it through to the next stage, it’s still a massive achievement.

With the matches being shown live on Channel 4, there are high hopes the tournament will raise the profile of the game in Scotland, encourage more young girls to get involved and act as a catalyst for more investment.

It helps that Channel 4 is running a gender stereotype-busting promotional campaign, which includes #Gamechanger billboards, and that, for the first time, there is an accompanying Panini sticker book.

“I think it also helps that we have drawn England because that will help stimulate interest from the beginning,” says Fiona McIntyre, recently appointed executive officer for Scottish Women’s Football – the body that governs all Scottish leagues and cups (while the SFA is responsible for the national team). “I hope girls watching at home on terrestrial TV will see the players as role models and think: ‘This is an option for me too.’”

Ardent Glasgow City fan Natalie Finch in her bedroom. Picture: John Devlin

It certainly feels as if Scottish women’s football is on the cusp of something; as if, after decades of apathy and under-investment, it is on the brink of breaking through to the mainstream. And yet, the question remains: can the inevitable Euro bounce be translated into something meaningful? Will it lead to the kind of long-term investment that will help the sport to reach its full potential?

Thanks to the efforts of a handful of women – including Glasgow City co-founder Laura Montgomery – Scotland is producing women players to rival any in Europe. Both Glasgow City and Hibs have qualified for the Champions League, and 8,230 girls are now registered to play across 249 clubs.

With the women’s national team boasting a higher Fifa ranking than the men’s and competing in a major international tournament – something the men’s team haven’t done since 1998 – it is an increasingly attractive proposition for a Tartan Army bereft of countries to invade.

But success has been a double-edged sword. With no money in the game up here, and players forced to work full-time, the best are snapped up by international clubs which can afford to pay them a living wage.

So the national squad includes players from top English teams such as Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester City, and European teams such as Hoffenheim and Tavagnacco. The top scorer in Italy’s Serie A during the 16/17 season was Lana Clelland from Perth with 36 goals.

“A lot of our success came about because, around ten years ago, we took the bit between our teeth,” says Montgomery, who still runs the club with co-founder Carol Anne Stewart. “We decided there was no point in sitting round saying there’s no investment in the game. We needed to make the game better.

“We could only make the game better by acting professionally, so even though there was no money and the club was run by volunteers, and most of our players had other jobs, we decided we were going to have to train every night, while I accepted I would have no life outside my work and Glasgow City.

“That allowed a lot of talented players to develop, but it also masked the fact that other countries were investing in the women’s sport.

“Scottish clubs are nowhere near having the infrastructure to pay their players so it’s no surprise most national squad members are no longer based in Scotland. What happens to us virtually every year is that the teams we come up against in the Champions League take our best players.”

For many years, women’s football in Scotland has been trapped in a vicious circle: without investment and media attention it fails to attract large crowds, but then the failure to attract large crowds and media attention is used to justify a lack of investment, and so the circle continues. Yet in other countries – where serious money has been spent and female stars are household names – big matches are well attended. Even in England an FA Cup final will fill a stadium, so clearly there is a market to be tapped.

In Scotland, many believe the sport has also been held back by regressive and misogynistic attitudes within sports journalism.

As recently as 2013, Off The Ball co-host Tam Cowan was taken off air after suggesting Fir Park should be “torched” to cleanse it of the “turgid spectacle” of a Scotland women’s World Cup qualifier, while journalist Gordon Parks said the SFA’s annual £1.2m investment was “based on nothing more than a sexual equalities argument”.

The lack of coverage on TV and in newspapers also means there are fewer role models to encourage young girls into the game. BBC Alba films some games and Scottish Women’s Football streams them live on YouTube, but the sport has little presence on more mainstream channels. Earlier this year, Glasgow City highlighted this deficit by producing an away strip with the campaigning slogan: “You can’t be what you can’t see.”

Things are slowly improving. After Scottish Women’s Football restructured, bringing business and strategy directors on board, it found its first commercial sponsor, energy company SSE.

The SFA says it has doubled its investment in the past seven years, and its girls’ soccer centres have been rebranded, with national team players acting as ambassadors for particular geographical areas. Its target is to have 20,000 girls playing by 2020.

Through Sport Scotland, the Scottish Government has also awarded a couple of grants so Scotland-based players in the national squad can reduce their working hours and focus on qualifying for or taking part in international competitions.

“That is fantastic and so welcome,” says Montgomery, “but I wouldn’t want anyone to be deluded into thinking this means we will have a extremely successful national team at the Euros.

“The reality is, if you have reduced hours of work from four to six months before a competition it will have a small impact, but it won’t have the same impact as if you’ve been doing that for six years.”

Dr Katharina Lindner, lecturer at the centre for gender and feminist studies at Stirling University, has played football in Germany (Frankfurt), the US (Hartford University, Connecticut) and Scotland (Glasgow City) so she is ideally placed to compare the three systems.

“When I moved to Scotland [for work] and started playing for Glasgow City, I had to buy my own football boots for the first time since I was 15,” she says. “At that time, the players there were still paying subs. It was a real culture shock.”

Germany – which has won the past six Women’s Euros – is reaping the benefits of its FA’s decision to invest heavily in women’s football back in the 90s. The final of the 2007 Women’s World Cup was watched by over nine million viewers while the victorious German team was welcomed home by a crowd of 20,000 in Frankfurt. Though the Frauen-Bundesliga games are not so popular, they still have healthy attendances and garner plenty of newspaper and TV coverage.

In the US, legislation forcing universities to invest equally in men’s and women’s sport means there is much greater parity between men’s and women’s football there.

Meanwhile, in England, the FA invested significant sums of money to enable clubs to go semi-professional, and incentivised international players to stay in the country.

“What’s missing in Scotland is a long-term perspective,” Lindner says. “There seems to be a sense that if they invest money one year and don’t see the results the next, then there isn’t any point in doing it again. But what Germany has proved is that investment needs to be sustained over a long time.”

After the Euros, Scotland national coach Anna Signeul is leaving to become coach for Finland. Shelley Kerr – who became the first female manager in British men’s senior football when she took on the role at Stirling University – will be stepping into her shoes.

Signeul has said she needed a new challenge, but some believe the failure to find some way to keep her in the country is further proof of an entrenched disregard for the women’s game.

It’s a shame because Scotland was once at the vanguard of women’s football. Indeed, the first recorded international match took place in Edinburgh, with Scot Lily St Clair scoring the first recorded goal.

During the First World War, the sport flourished with women in the newly feminised workforce encouraged to play to improve their fitness and raise money for charity. So popular did it prove that on Boxing Day, 1920, 53,000 people turned out to watch Dick Kerr Ladies and St Helen’s battle it out at Goodison Park.

The following year, however, the English FA imposed a ban on women using the facilities of affiliated men’s grounds. The SFA followed their lead, which meant women were relegated to Sunday league-style pitches.

Though Scotland continued to 
produce good women players – including Nancy “Cannonball” Thomson – the ban persisted for more than 50 years. And when, in 1971, Uefa members voted on giving official recognition to women’s football, the result was 39-1 in favour, with Scotland the only dissenting voice.

In 1991, Sheila Begbie – now head of women’s rugby at the Scottish Rugby Union – was appointed women’s football co-ordinator with the Scottish Women’s Football Association (later renamed Scottish Women’s Football). But according to Karen Grunwell, who has been collating existing research for her PhD on the history of women’s football in Scotland – the SFA didn’t take over responsibility for the national team until 1998 – 15 years after the English FA made the same move, and six years after Norway’s women’s committee was disbanded because the men’s and women’s football had been fully integrated.

“Back in 1985, Ellen Wille, who was chair of the Norway Women’s Committee in the FA, took her place on the Norwegian FA executive committee and became one of the first women to speak at the Fifa world congress,” says Grunwell, who is also based at Stirling University. “In contrast, at that point, Scotland still had Tennent’s Lager Lovelies on the side of its beer cans.”

Montgomery believes the consequences of the ban were far-reaching. “You can’t help wondering where we would be now if it hadn’t been imposed,” she says, “because when it was lifted it was like we were starting from scratch. People today view football as a man’s game, it’s because that’s what society has been telling them for almost 100 years.”

As the Scottish national team prepares for its first match, the fervour is growing; having settled their dispute with the SFA over “financial, commercial and equality matters”, the players are focused on the challenge ahead.

Though there will be no Tartan Army-style exodus to Holland, a contingent of supporters is heading over for Scotland’s three games against England, Portugal and Spain.

It includes Steven Lawther – former Labour special adviser and author of a book on Raith Rovers – who flew out yesterday with his 11-year-old daughter, Grace. Grace, who plays for her school and Boroughmuir Thistle, has been filling in the Panini sticker book with almost as much zeal as her dad. “Grace is a Raith Rovers fan like me, but we have also been to quite a few women’s games over the years,” says Lawther.

“I have definitely seen a rise in the profile of the sport in that time. And since qualifying there’s been a real buzz.

“The way things are going, the national men’s team might never qualify ever again. But the women’s team has reached the last 16 in Europe – and that’s an amazing achievement.”

Win or lose, it can only be hoped the flurry of excitement the tournament has generated leads to women’s football being more highly valued in Scotland. If the players can go this far, with so little funding, imagine the heights they could scale with more investment.