Scotland’s most successful women’s footballer has just bid farewell to a remarkable year that ended with her being awarded an MBE in the Queen’s New Year’s Honours list.
And the celebrations haven’t stopped. Reilly turned 65 yesterday. She marked this milestone in a local restaurant with her husband Norberto and daughter Valentina, who turns 20 next month.
This year is set to be as significant as the last one. As well as a date at Buckingham Palace and the official sports centre renaming ceremony in her hometown, she is the subject of a new play by writer and actor Maureen Carr, which is scheduled for runs in Glasgow and Edinburgh.
Reilly is continuing to receive belated recognition after a career spent at the very top of women’s football while also inspiring a new generation of budding female players.
“There are already around 40 wee girls who have subscribed to mini-football here in Stewarton,” she says. “Kids stop me in the street for selfies – and more often than not they are girls. It gives me so much pleasure when I see their wee faces and they are looking at me as if I was bloody Ronaldo or someone.
“I can’t go down the street [without being stopped]. Everyone is so proud. Everyone is happy for me. I just think: ‘wow’. I did not realise I had such an impact. Half of them I do not even know. I am proud for my wee village – and I am so proud of the honour.”
The MBE is for services to women’s football the world over, not just Scotland. Indeed, her impact was limited here at first due to narrow-minded authorities. Handed a life ban by the SFA in the early 1970s for having the temerity to play abroad, she made her name in Italy, winning eight Serie A titles, the first two with AC Milan, as well as a world championship medal (an unofficial forerunner of the World Cup) for her adopted country. She also won the league with Stade de Reims in France.
When she returned to her homeland in 2000, few except her old headmaster from secondary school in Kilmarnock recognised her. “Rose Reilly!” he exclaimed. By now a frail figure in a wheelchair, his eyes gave his identity away – they were the ones Reilly stared into as he told her she was being expelled for, among other things, missing lessons to play football. He told her he bitterly regretted this decision.
Reilly has been portrayed as anti-establishment ever since, her SFA troubles only helping to cement the reputation. Which is why, she reveals, some of her friends were surprised when she accepted her MBE. Refusing the honour didn’t cross her mind. “Not for a nanosecond,” she says.
In addition, she’s all for the pomp and circumstance of the actual investiture. “I would like the horse and cart – I would like the carriage. I want the bloody lot!” she laughs.
“I am anti-authority but I have never disrespected anyone in my life,” Reilly explains. “I speak my mind but I don’t disrespect anyone. They maybe thought I’d turn it down because I am a Catholic and it’s the monarchy. Maybe because I am Scottish and it is the monarchy. I do not know. I did not even dig into it because I am not interested. No one is going to burst my bubble.”
She’s enjoying such appreciation in her homeland, later in life though it is. She was awarded an honorary doctorate by Glasgow Caledonian University last year and was given a standing ovation after her speech. “All these bloomin’ intellectuals applauding me!” she says. It was a sweet moment for someone whose formal education ended with her expulsion from school aged 15. Ayrshire College, meanwhile, recently awarded her and former Rangers striker Kris Boyd honorary fellowships. They were bracketed together as Ayrshire footballing heroes, another step forward for the women’s game. She’s also been asked to support causes such as domestic violence against women in Ayrshire and took part in a torchlight march through Irvine.
Reilly attributes these accolades to the surge of publicity around a documentary about her life broadcast by BBC Alba on the eve of the women’s World Cup finals in France last summer, for which Scotland had qualified for the first ever time.
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon also presented her and three other former international team-mates with the cap they were denied during their careers before a friendly against Jamaica at Hampden in May.
As for the MBE, she was sworn to secrecy weeks ago following the confirmation letter. “If the Queen tells you to do something, you do it!” she says. “I just told my husband and my daughter because I trust them – obviously. Then I just put it aside. But it didn’t stop me savouring it to myself every morning when I woke up and every night when I went to bed.”
Valentina, her daughter, ensured her mother’s feet remained on the ground. “When I told my daughter, I think there was a wee tear in her eye. But she doesn’t ever show much emotion to her mammy. About two seconds later she said, ‘what’s for tea tonight?’ That’s the way I brought her up, that’s the way it is.”
Reilly found herself tossed unwittingly into one of the last great controversies of 2019. As she wryly notes, it’s not like her to be in the eye of a storm.
Hers was one of over 1,000 addresses of New Year Honours recipients published on a website in error by the Cabinet Office. The details were visible for around an hour last week. She has already had a letter of apology in the post – “Notification of data breach” stamped across it. At least there was no trouble locating her address.
“I have not stopped laughing,” she says. “They were apologising for blah, blah, blah. Elton John’s was one of the addresses – a villa in St Tropez! And a mansion in London. And here’s Rose – a wee house in a street in Stewarton!”
She’s sanguine about most things, including her past treatment by the SFA. “The lifetime ban thing was all in the past,” she says. “Even when it did happen, I was not angry so why would I be angry years down the line?”
While Reilly takes it all in her stride there’s a downside to becoming so well known. Social media sees to that. Sometimes she gives as good as she gets.
Her profile rocketed further when she was invited along with Hibs’ Steven Whittaker to make the draw for the Scottish Cup third round live on Sportscene in October. Inevitably, this inspired some cruel, sexist comments amid the supportive ones. A friend informed her of a tweet where she was unkindly described as the “mother of Methadone Mick”, a character from Still Game.
“It could be worse, I could be your maw,” she instructed her pal to reply. Don’t mess with Rose Reilly, MBE.