Rose Reilly on Scotland’s World Cup hopes, her ban from football and playing for two teams at once

Scotland's First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and former Scotland player Rose Reilly. Picture: SNS Group
Scotland's First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and former Scotland player Rose Reilly. Picture: SNS Group
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No bitterness but no love for the SFA as World Cup winner says she is more emotional about Scotland’s new hopefuls, writes Alan Pattullo

Shortly after her belated return to the country she felt had forsaken her, Rose Reilly was in a stroke unit visiting her sick mother.

She noticed a frail figure in a wheelchair nearby. “Rose Reilly!” he exclaimed. She recognised her old headmaster, Mr Matthews. Once such an imposing presence, she now recognised him only from his eyes. They were the same eyes she stared into as he expelled a distracted, football-obsessed 15-year-old from secondary school in Kilmarnock. “I have regretted having to do that every day since,” he told her.

Contrition. Regret. Atonement. Reilly has become ever more acquainted with accepting such gestures from authority figures and smiling politely back. From headmasters to heads of football governing bodies. She met SFA chief executive Ian Maxwell at Hampden on Tuesday. He acknowledged the lamentable treatment meted out to Reilly when she and her friend Edna Neillis were given a sine die ban from the Scottish Women’s FA for having the temerity to go abroad and pursue a football career that was not possible in Scotland or even England at the time. Willie Allan, the then SFA chief executive, had been polite but firm: “It is not a game for girls.”

Times change. Females are now allowed to run our top football clubs as well as play football where they want, including imminently at a World Cup. Scotland have literally gone back cap in hand to Reilly and others. She and three former team-mates were finally presented earlier this week with an embroidered cap for an international match against England in 1972 that people seemed to want to pretend never happened.

The SFA forbade its member clubs from hosting the clash. It eventually took place at Greenock’s Ravenscraig Park on a freezing cold Saturday in November. There was barely a word written about Scotland’s 3-2 defeat in contemporary newspapers.

Contrast this with the coverage of Scotland’s 3-2 World Cup send-off win over Jamaica. A comprehensive report in The Scotsman, for example, was complemented by a photograph of Reilly being presented with her commemorative cap by Nicola Sturgeon on a night when the record crowd for a Scotland women’s game was exceeded four times over.

“It was very emotional for me to get it from Nicola Sturgeon,” Reilly says. “It’s nothing to do with politics. She’s a fellow Scotswoman and a fellow Ayrshire lassie. I told her it was an honour. She said: ‘No, it’s an honour for me. You are a pioneer of the game, thank you’.”

Reilly had not set out to be a trailblazer. But that is what she and Neillis were when they set out to pursue a professional football career, initially in France, after gaining sponsorship from a newspaper.

“I get more emotional about the women’s team of today than I do about my own career,” says Reilly. “I am excited for them, not envious. It is a great achievement now the men are actually acknowledging us. I am not sure if they are acknowledging us because there’s more money being pumped into the game from Fifa/Uefa. They [the women] are more than paying their way. Also, the men’s team is not doing well. It’s high time the women’s team got recognised.”

Not everything’s perfect. For example, Reilly won’t be present in Nice for Scotland’s opening World Cup game against England next Sunday evening. She isn’t currently going to any of the matches in fact, which seems odd.

“I don’t think my face will ever fit totally – I say what I think,” says Reilly.

She wonders why there are not more females included in Scotland manager Shelley Kerr’s backroom staff. She is aghast at Phil Neville’s appointment as manager of the England women’s team when she is aware of at least one better qualified candidate, her former team-mate Carolina Morace, who did not even get past the pre-interview stage.

“It would be nice to be heading to Nice. I have not been invited,” she adds. “Everyone asked me that at Hampden. All the SFA people will be there in the hotel, with their wives, lovers, daughters… I will watch it on telly. I am not even bitter about that. I am not that type of person. All us pioneers, not only myself, should be over there.”

It is an appropriate time to be meeting Reilly in her favourite local coffee shop in Stewarton’s main street. The inked outline of Sicily on one of Reilly’s wrists is her equivalent of a glow lamp on a day when the rolling Ayrshire fields are cloaked with misty wet rain. “It reminds me of the sunshine,” she says.

It was a particularly fraught homecoming in 2000 because she shared a difficult relationship with the land of her birth. There were also some unresolved issues with her mother, whose initial difficulty to accept Reilly as a star footballer reflected the prevailing mood of the time. More brutal and longer lasting was Scotland’s rejection of this prodigal daughter.

It was a new millennium but some of the old prejudices existed. It took a while before anyone in Scotland took notice of a football heroine being back in their midst. Recognition did not come until her induction in the Scottish Sports Hall of Fame was followed shortly afterwards, in 2007, by her entry in Scottish football’s equivalent. This meant everything to someone used to signing autographs abroad but who was hitherto unhonoured at home.

“I was getting acknowledged by the football men of Scotland: writers, journalists, the SFA,” says Reilly, now 64. “Obviously a lot were against me getting it, I know that, but I was up beside Kenny Dalglish, Alex Ferguson, you name it.”

Reconcilement with her mother, who lived a further nine years after being given a prognosis of weeks, was eased by Reilly bringing with her a beautiful baby daughter, Meghan Valentina. “My mum was from a good Catholic family and thought I was going to procreate and have a hundred weans,” says Reilly. “Instead I gave her hundreds of goals!”

This experience of becoming a mother herself at the age of 45 helped Reilly process past events. “Looking back, my parents had this wee person – I was neither boy nor girl really. I got expelled, tried to get a job, left a job at Johnnie Walker’s to play football every lunchtime. My mum did not know what to do with me. And it wasn’t just me, there were eight of us!”

Reilly was a twin but knew how to set herself apart. She fought the attitude: “don’t get above yourself hen”. She kicked against the pricks.

Playing for AC Milan and Reims in France among several other clubs and winning the the unofficial “World Cup” with Italy in 1984 certainly counted as getting above a girl from Stewarton’s station.

She sports a tattooed wristband in the colours of the Italian flag: Green, red and… bronze? “The white doesn’t work so well,” she says, with reference to her sun-kissed skin. It’s an attractive tribute to a country that allowed her to pursue her dreams and inspired her to learn another language. She is due to return in July for a month to see friends and top up what is, for Stewarton, a very noticeable tan. She further distinguishes herself by her coffee order: a macchiato.

When she lifts the cup to her lips it is possible to see she has another tattoo on a finger – a Claddagh ring. It is relatively new since it marks her and her husband’s 20th marriage anniversary, which fell last Christmas.

The story of how she met Norberto is football related, inevitably. She opened a sports shop in Sicily following her retirement and was playing seven-a-side football with local policemen when she aggravated an old injury. She was advised to go and see a local doctor, an Argentine who had recently arrived in the country after losing his savings back home due to government skulduggery. They bonded over stilted chat about Diego Maradona (Norberto was then learning Italian, his English was practically non-existent).

“I was not looking for anyone,” says Reilly. “I had a penthouse flat and my only problem was what silk blouse would I wear that day, and what colour? Now I can’t afford a silk blouse so problem solved!”

She is happy now but it is very easy to sense how much she misses the freedom of playing football, which she managed whether there were obstacles in her way or not. “There was nothing like it,” she says. Asked where she enjoyed playing football the most? “Everywhere. From the red blaes pitches of Scotland to the San Siro.”

She was unsure about agreeing to co-operate with a film about her life due to be aired tonight and “dingied” the first few calls from director Margot McCuaig. Eventually they met, got on and tonight’s excellent programme – containing fascinating footage of Reilly in her pomp – is the result. It captures the battles, frustrations and Reilly’s sheer love of sticking the ball in the net (she won two golden boots in Italy). It seems reprehensible that anyone would wish to deny her that right.

Never mind eight in a row and treble trebles, what about winning domestic league titles on either side of the Alps simultaneously? Reilly agreed to return to Reims for a season when she was with AC Milan. This was not the loan deal of the type we are familiar with now. She continued playing in Italy and caught a plane on a Saturday night to Paris, from where she travelled on to wherever Reims were playing the following day. She helped both clubs win their respective league titles in tandem.

“I’d pack two bags: my French kit here, my Italian kit there,” she recalls.

“I was always on my own but what was there not to like? People were like: ‘were you not tired?’ Naw! Never!”

• Rose Reilly, produced by purpleTV, will air tonight on BBC ALBA at 9pm and will be available for another 30 days on BBC iPlayer.