Rose Reilly MBE: The royal honour, the Celtic approach and the pioneer in the tartan dress

Although Rose Reilly’s feet once did most of her talking, she is very rarely tongue tied. There is always a first time for everything.

She feared being stuck for something to say at Holyrood House on Wednesday as she belatedly accepted an MBE awarded in the New Year's Honours list of 2020.

After so many battles in the name of women’s football, Reilly isn’t the type to stand on ceremony for anyone. But she is willing to make exceptions. A couple of days ago was one of those occasions as he curtsied in front of Princess Anne. Reilly looked resplendent in a Black Watch tartan suit.

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The tattoos on her lower right arm were still visible – a Celtic cross and the outline of Sicily, where the curtain fell on her illustrious football career.

Rose Reilly after receiving her MBE during an Investiture ceremony at the Palace of Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh. (Picture: PA)

She was a prophet without honour in her own country for decades but that isn't the case any longer. Work is already underway on a film by Skye-based Chris Young, producer of The Inbetweeners, with the working title “Life of Reilly”.

A BBC documentary chronicling her story was first broadcast three years ago and a play, ‘Rose’, is set for a run in Milan this Spring after being staged in Glasgow and Edinburgh last year.

There’s even a sports centre named after her in her hometown of Stewarton, near the pitches where she first engaged in what felt like the illicit act of playing football.

She kept her hair short so she could play in the local boys’ team but that could work only so long. She was causing such a stir that Celtic approached someone they thought was a boy wonder.

All this recognition is better late than never for Rose Reilly, MBE.

“You wait your turn until you are called,” she says while detailing the order of events at the ‘Investiture at the Palace of Holyroodhouse’, as it is termed on the front of the programme.

“When I went into the room, Princess Anne was there, the violins were playing Vivaldi or whatever – it was lovely. Your mind can go blank if you’re too excited. I approached her and curtsied and said: 'Your Royal Highness, it is such an honour to get an MBE from a fellow sportswoman. She said: ‘Thank you.’

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“You have to acknowledge that. She was in the Olympics. She is an Olympian. She said to me: ‘I read your story, Rose. How come you played for Italy? I don’t understand that.’

"I said: 'Because youse banned me!'

She said: ‘Oh dear.’ She added: 'Women’s football is growing now.' I said: 'Thanks to us pioneers!' And she said: ‘Absolutely!’"

Reilly is quick to add that Princess Anne wasn’t personally responsible for the Scotland ban. Indeed, she would have abhorred such restrictions for female footballers, common place at the time on both sides of the Border.

The Queen’s only daughter operated under no such constraints, even named BBC sports personality of 1971 – the year before Reilly and her friend Edna Neillis were forced to move to France to play professionally. The SFA blanched at such insurrectionist behaviour. They banned them sine die.

As Willie Allan, then secretary of the SFA, remarked: ‘It’s not a game for girls.’ That was not the case in France and Italy, where Reilly carved her name in history, winning eight Serie A titles and two golden boots with a variety of sides, including AC Milan.

Attitudes in her own country have now changed thanks to trailblazers such as Reilly. She was inducted in the Scottish sports Hall of Fame at an event not far from where we are speaking on Edinburgh's Royal Mile – her MBE has been passed around everybody present for inspection.

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That original recognition came as late as 2007, over a decade after she called time on her professional career at the age of 40. She then met her husband Norberto, with whom she has a daughter, Valentina, now 21.

Due to Covid restrictions, Reilly, 67, was only allowed one other guest at the investiture. She asked Valentina, who selflessly decided that her dad should be the one by his wife’s side.

Reilly had an option of waiting until the summer when a garden party is due to be held for the next batch of investees. Having already waited two years, she wasn't keen for another delay.

“They wrote a letter saying it might be quicker and easier to send it to me in the post,” she explains. “Otherwise, some local worthy could come round and give it to me. No, no …it’s a royal honour and I want it from royalty!”

A boyhood Celtic fan with Irish family ties, she had no qualms about accepting an award viewed by some as rooted in Britain’s imperial past. Brian Wilson, a Celtic director, was present to receive an OBE for services to British industry at the same ceremony.

“When the envelope arrived, from Buckingham Palace, I was physically shaking...I was so, so proud because it’s for women’s football. It was, literally, ‘for services to women’s football’," she says.

“I have Irish background, I’m Catholic – but that does not come into the equation. It is an honour. And when someone gives you an honour, you should be honoured. I am honoured.

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“When I won the World Cup, and the world’s best footballer accolade, that was... elation. You are feeling high, off the ground, because it is a sporting achievement.

“You have achieved everything you worked for, it is your love, your passion. But this award is when your feet are on the ground. You can take it all in. It is the first time in my life where I can rest on my laurels and say: ‘You’ve done it Rose!’

"To be recognised in your hame country – I always say hame country, never home – and now I feel like I am hame. That’s why I have my tartan dress on.”

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