Not an add on, flourish without SPFL, what Nicola Sturgeon can do, we want to be there - Henry McLeish on women's football in Scotland

I was as happy as anyone when England’s women footballers lifted the Euro 2022 crown last Sunday. It was a tremendous performance, a well-earned success and something to genuinely celebrate.

Chloe Kelly's iconic celebration and England's Euro 2022 victory was a seismic moment in women's football.
Chloe Kelly's iconic celebration and England's Euro 2022 victory was a seismic moment in women's football.

But for Scots, there are also lessons we can take from this. Whilst the English can now work to build on their legacy we can look in and see where we would want to go next. We need this triumph to be the fulcrum.

Since the publication of my report on the future for Scottish football in 2010 it has continued to be an uphill struggle for the women’s game in Scotland.

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It was always destined to be difficult. But a lot of people I spoke to didn’t think it would be that difficult.

Scotland did not make Euro 2022 but are in the play-off for the World Cup next year.
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That’s why women’s football should be represented at every level of the game, including the SFA and the SPFL.

I wrote in 2010 that “the women’s game is the fastest growing part of football in our country but suffers from underfunding and is often not given the respect, credit and attention it deserves”. I could write these words today. Or at least I could have before last Sunday. I applaud the Lionesses’ open letter to the next Prime Minister calling for all girls to have access to a minimum of two hours a week of PE.

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Perhaps the pace of change will now also accelerate in Scotland. Already we have the news that the SFA are to host the final and semi-finals of the new Scottish women’s Cup at Hampden Park. Today sees the start of the Scottish Women’s Premier League and a new second tier, SWPL 2.

England women’s triumph is not just something to celebrate today and then lose interest. The future of the women’s game is for real – in Scotland as well as in England. It needs to have its own identity.

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The SWPL gets under way on Sunday.

It has a huge future in Scotland because it is largely undeveloped in my view. We must make sure the response is not just a short-term reaction to the England victory but a long-term goal of transforming Scottish football.

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I would love to see the Lionesses victory usher in a new generation of finance, players, sponsors, referees, coaches and children getting involved in the grass roots.

I always come back to ambition. If you will the end, you have to will the means.

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I think Scotland wants to will the end. We want to be at World Cups on a regular basis, we want to be at European Championships.

So let’s look in on England but then let’s resolve to make this the start of a new generation of women’s football.

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We should take advantage of the mood in the UK and make sure Scottish women and Scottish girls can look forward with some confidence to their own future.

In the rush to professionalise the women’s game under the auspices of the SPFL it is important not to forget the grassroots. I believe it has been neglected in the men’s game.

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The SPFL have taken women’s football under their wing. I hope the motivation is to build success and it is not just for control reasons.

There is a tendency in Scottish football for everything to be controlled by the SPFL. That needs to be recognised as possibly something positive but on the other hand it should not be about control. The women’s game should be able to flourish without their involvement and say so.

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The hunger for professionalism is right if it doesn’t become divorced from the grassroots. The danger with men’s football just now is that professionalism is everything and clubs are everything. Development at grassroots level, which is the bedrock of the game and the pathway, is in danger of playing a secondary role when it should have an equally prominent role.

The role of the Scottish Government is crucial. There are 2400 schools in Scotland, primary and secondary, and we have some of the best university facilities and even pre-school facilities. We have an abundance of facilities. But local government is cash strapped and physical education is not given the prominence it deserves.

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I hope the Scottish Government and COSLA (Convention of Scottish Local Authorities) seize this opportunity to build forward.

Every child can make choices but they all have to go to school. We must have equal opportunity for both boys and girls in every school in the country with regards to playing sports. Since the mid 1980s schools have had less of a role in football and this has to change. There should be a parity of esteem between the two sexes. Development of the women's game answers so many questions and offers so many opportunities.

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That will be difficult in a culture that is dominated by men – and in a sport dominated by men like no others. These are the big challenges. Scotland must move towards the women’s game. We must embrace the women’s game culturally and not just see it as an add on, a moment in time – it has to be for the long term.

That is why I think the elite structure and academy structure has to be rethought for both boys and girls. What we have now is a club academy structure – nothing more.

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Half of the 42 senior football clubs in Scotland have no access to an academy at all – and it’s worse for young girls.

We have to break down this male dominated culture of football. But if we cannot persuade enough men – presidents, chairmen, managers, board members – to change their thinking it will be an uphill struggle for the women’s game. It need not be like that but that is one danger lurking in the background.

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I would like to think one of my successors as First Minister can play a pivotal part. It would be good if Nicola Sturgeon would step out and say Sunday at Wembley was a watershed moment for British football and she now wants to try to replicate that success in Scotland.

She is in a great position of ownership of women moving forward in terms of Government investment but also in encouraging young girls to get involved and generating interest among families, which is so crucial in terms of the women’s game. Other high-profile women in Scottish life should be getting behind this as well.

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We saw the pride felt in England when the Lionesses beat Germany. We want to be there. We want that to be us.

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