Young hosts up against some of the best as the sport looks to build on huge success of the recent World Cup, writes Alan Campbell
The unprecedented viewing figures at the women’s World Cup in France, and subsequent mushrooming of public awareness, offer a unique opportunity for the domestic game. In normal circumstances the second half of the SWPL season would now have resumed, but instead Scotland is hosting its first-ever UEFA women’s championship – the U19 Euros.
The head coach of the host country is Pauline Hamill, a former striker who won 141 Scotland caps at a time when the sport was barely acknowledged.
The task facing her over the next eight days, when the young Scots play France, Norway and Netherlands in Group A, will be as challenging as any she faced in her own playing career.
Whereas the senior side competed in France with a squad largely consisting of professional players, Hamill’s squad is amateur. All but two play their football in Scotland and three of the six midfielders are with clubs in SWPL2.
“We need to have perspective,” Hamill, who played for clubs in Scotland, England and Iceland, points out. “We’re under no illusions about the task we face.
“We’re playing France in the first game and they’ve got two players who have just played in the Champions League final for Lyon. But we have a group of players who will do their absolute best.
“We’re hosting the tournament and we’ll do everything we can in every game, but we have to be realistic about where we are.”
Scotland played France in Paisley last October, losing 5-0 in a preparation tournament, and meet at the same venue on Tuesday night. They play Norway at Firhill on Friday before returning to St Mirren Park to play Netherlands a week tomorrow.
If there is any consolation for Hamill it is that Group B looks even tougher. It comprises of Germany, who have won the championship a record eight times, holders Spain, who are three-time winners, and England.
Hamill feels a 0-0 draw and narrow 1-0 defeat against the English in recent friendlies are indications that her side might at least not be outclassed over the next eight days. They also beat China 1-0 in the game before.
“We’ve improved a lot in the last year – I can’t stress that enough,” she says. “The players have a belief in themselves and a real togetherness.”
The one aspect in Scotland’s favour is that nearly all of the 18 domestic players are first team regulars with their clubs.
If you are good enough age doesn’t matter in the SWPL. Hamill has two central defenders – Carly Girasoli and Jenna Clark – who have been Glasgow City’s first choices this season even although both are only 17.
The difference at club level is that the teenagers are surrounded by vastly experienced players, including right back and captain Leanne Ross, who won 133 caps for Scotland, and holding midfielder Jo Love who has 191 and counting. Other notable players in Hamill’s squad are captain Amy Muir, who moved from Rangers to Hibernian recently, and her new club team-mate Jamie-Lee Napier.
Nevertheless, and worryingly for the future, the U19 side is not of the quality of others in recent years, and especially those which qualified for the finals in Macedonia (2010), Norway (2014) and Northern Ireland (2017). With only seven European nations, plus the hosts, contesting the finals, these were notable achievements.
Scotland’s continuing participation in senior championships – they are hoping to make it three in a row when Euro 2021 is staged in England – now depends on the top men’s clubs upping their games and providing semi-professional opportunities for women players. Rangers took a step in that direction on Monday, while Celtic are promising to go full time in 2020.
In the meantime, Hamill hopes the U19 games – in both groups – will attract decent crowds. “Capturing the public imagination is what we would want from the World Cup – so parents can bring their wee girls along and see the next generation of players,” she points out.
“It’s the best under 19 players in Europe, and the best in the world in some cases. I think it will be an eye-opener for people to see what the level is.”