Leanne Crichton reckons the team’s ‘naivety’ as they face England is not a weakness, but its single greatest strength, writes Andrew Smith
It isn’t patronising to say there exists a purity in the attitude of Scotland’s women to representing their country on the global football stage that has appeared strained across sections of the men’s game. It manifests itself in a selflessness that flows from an appreciation they are serving a greater cause than personal advancement.
Leanne Crichton distills this in noble fashion. The 31-year-old midfielder is well aware that a starting place may be beyond her as England are faced in her nation’s first women’s World Cup encounter. The Glasgow City performer acknowledges she had a “difficult” qualifying campaign, in finding herself “in and out the team”.
Moreover, she did not feature as Scotland’s women attracted a record attendance of close to 18,555 – four times greater than the previous highest – for their Hampden send-off 3-2 win over Jamaica 12 days ago.
Yet, having earned the first of her 64 caps all of 13 years ago, her own situation will not diminish the sense of accomplishment she will feel for her sport in a national context as Shelley Kerr’s team take to the pitch tonight in Nice. The fevered anticipation for the encounter says everything about the road that Scottish women’s football has travelled from a starting point where, frankly, it attracted virtually zero interest to have now arrived at a place where it commands respect and recognition.
And Crichton, a part-time footballer who has developed an impressive sideline in television punditry, has been there every step of the way. And that is the case too for the Jamaica send-off, whatever her personal regret.
“That occasion was bigger than any individual performance on the night,” she said. “The fact that we had almost 19,000 people coming to support the team pre-World Cup, I would never have thought that would happen in my lifetime.
“So as much as I was disappointed about not being on the park, when you step back from it and look at the bigger picture, it’s an incredible achievement for us as a team. If that’s my wee niece in 15 years’ time, with people coming to watch her before a World Cup, I hope that crowd is doubled.
“For me, the picture is a lot bigger. The girls were great that night, because they had the emotional side of it to deal with – they had the pride, the performance, the risk of injury, and the pressure of being asked to win so things looked good going into the World Cup, so I think the girls managed that as well as they could have possibly done.”
Kerr’s squad have demonstrated a unity of purpose as they have shown themselves to be fine ambassadors for women’s sport and their nation.
In Crichton’s eyes, their fuel has been a fabled Scottish trait that, again, has appeared diluted recently in the male footballing domain.
“It’s total pride,” she said of what is driving her and her colleagues. “Anybody that currently plays in this national team, some of us have gained in financial terms from being involved in football, but not many of us.
“And when you take the money out of football, really, the reason you’re playing it is if you love it. That’s the beauty of this team – everybody involved loves the game. We love Scotland, we love making our families proud, we love making our team-mates proud, and it’s about us moving forward now.
“We’ve been part of this journey, and for us, that’s the bigger picture. We’ll enjoy this moment when we’re in it, but nobody needs to worry about us getting caught up in the occasion.
“It’s a game of football for us, and that’s the beauty of this team, the naivety, because we just take each game as it comes.
“But certainly for me, from when I started, when it would have been two men and a dog coming to games, nobody really interested, just being that wee lassie that kicks a ball, to being a player that part of a squad of 23 that’s walking out at Hampden in front of 18,500, that’s special.
“Women’s sport is criticised a lot. We’ve seen recently the pioneers of the game, the things they fought against.
“Our journey maybe hasn’t been as difficult as that, but certainly, it hasn’t been smooth, and I think we recognise now the hard work that other people put in to get us to where we are.
“We also recognise that the hard work for us begins now, and it’s about taking us to that next level. That’s an exciting journey to be on and for me to still be part of it is even more special.”
Crichton played in the sobering 6-0 defeat to England in the Euro finals two years ago. A Scotland side then shorn of pivotal performers Kim Little, Jen Beattie and Lizzie Arnot through injury simply could not compete with their ancient adversaries.
Now, perhaps dangerously, the talk is that Kerr’s team can hold their own against the English, before making it out of a group also containing Japan and Argentina.
Crichton, though, takes care to avoid any bold statements.
“The dynamic this time is great because everybody is fit, fresh and feeling good,” she said. “The preparation has gone as well as it can.”
Tonight comes a moment of truth.