Sportscene pundit Leanne Crichton on why she's better qualified than most men to speak about football and what she thinks about Souness and Keane

When Leanne Crichton was sent up on Only an Excuse? the hair was piled comically high. But – and she laughs when I remind her of this – Steven Thompson’s hair was higher still.

Crichton acknowledges the pair had given Jonathan Watson and sidekick Joy McAvoy plenty of raw material for the sketch. Here were two live TV newbies flying by the seat of their pants in the unforgiving surroundings of a rickety Championship ground where every mump and moan could be heard - and with barely enough transmission time for them to analyse all the thud and blunder. Thus the joke was that every time the Sportscene presenter asked a question of the pundit, he would interject with a panicky follow-up before she’d the chance to answer.

“I absolutely loved it and wasn’t one bit offended,” Crichton, 34, says of the lampoon. “It made my family proud and I Instagrammed Joy afterwards to congratulate her on an excellent job. But I do think that Steven came off worse.

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“He’s got a fear of silence,” she continues. What, really? Actual sedatephobia, the official name for the condition which I’ve just Googled? “Well, he thinks that if he stops talking there will be this sudden and alarming absence of noise. I have to tell him: ‘Don’t worry, you can be quiet because I’ll always have something to say.’”

BBC pundit Leanne Crichton during a cinch Championship match between Hamilton Academical and Inverness Caledonian Thistle at the FOYS Stadium, on February 25, in Hamilton, Scotland. (Photo by Ross MacDonald / SNS Group)

And she does, certainly today as we talk on Zoom. Such as: “I think I’ve got a better understanding [of the game] than a lot of my male counterparts. Most of them never played at major tournaments or in major cup finals or in the Champions League. They are on shows speaking about football but maybe their only experience is of having played in the SPFL.”

Then, when I ask how she rates the big beasts of punditry such as Graeme Souness and Roy Keane, she says: “I always think about a lot of these guys that it becomes about them and their agendas. Some are okay but some are just not educated enough so they’ll go flippantly off track to deflect from the fact they don’t know how to dissect or understand.

“Souness and Keane have been out of the game for some time now and it’s changed considerably. Even in the last six or seven years social media on its own has brought about huge change. There’s behaviour from their day which just isn’t tolerated now. When I hear them talk I kind of feel sorry for them because they’re speaking from a place of opinion which no longer exists.”

Phew. Understood, guys? But here’s my favourite piece of the admirable Crichton who’s still getting a kick at the ball with Motherwell where she’s obviously just as no-nonsense and can-do and not about to defer to the male of species just because it’s been playing football for longer: “Those high winds five weeks ago damaged the dugouts at Bothwellhaugh in Strathclyde Park where we train. We’ve been on at the local council to have them fixed but nothing was being done so the other day when I was meeting a couple of the coaches down there I took along two shifting spanners. I handed them to the guys and they said: ‘What do you expect us to do with these?’ ‘What do you think?’ I said. ‘Honestly, the number of men who’ve used this pitch in those five weeks but it’s taken a woman to organise the job. Crack on!’”

Being sent up by Jonathan Watson and Joy McAvoy on Only an Excuse?

I’m laughing, even if not entirely sure I could identify a shifting spanner or what it does, and admit I didn’t expect Crichton to be this much fun. Reading up on her, there were a few stories about Twitter abuse and it probably wouldn’t have been surprising if she’d been a tentative interviewee, guarded about what she said. Not a bit of it, and these remarks about other pundits don’t sound like cockiness, rather someone who’s grown into the job but in any case knows what she’s talking about and has never lacked belief in herself.

For instance, she might have been the only girl in her school football team at Alexandra Parade Primary but this was never a reason to be self-conscious. “Growing up in the East End of Glasgow it was almost frowned upon not to like football,” she says. Even for the fairer sex? “Oh yes. But I came from a family of strong women - my mum, my nana and my gran - and at no point did I ever feel there was inequality. Obviously there was but I never felt there was a barrier to me doing anything.” The family archive includes video of the three-year-old Crichton demonstrating her skills in the back garden. “I’m saying: ‘Watch me, nana, I’m going to nutter it!’ That was what you called heading if you were a wee girl from the West of Scotland and it’s sweet to look back to my childhood and know that I was enabled, encouraged and empowered to express myself like that.”

Crichton would help empower the women’s game in Scotland at both the 2017 Euros and the 2019 World Cup - and the journey to 73 caps began in Mount Vernon behind her house. “We played football there all the time,” she says of big brother Colin, two years older, and his mates. The other boys didn’t think it odd, her being a girl, and especially after realising how good she was. “For big games in the field they’d be chapping at my door early: ‘Just making sure you can play today, Leanne … ’”

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School matches were on red blaes. “The only time we saw grass as kids was the Scottish Cup final on TV.” She remembers when an Edinburgh school, St Augustine’s, came visiting for a tie. “They looked at our pitch and went: ‘We’re not playing on that!’” Alexandra Parade were all-conquering at P7, beating schools containing future internationalists in the men’s game like Graham Dorrans, James McArthur and Robert Snodgrass. Has she reminded them of this since? “No, but maybe I should.” And these feats were achieved with a Mouldmaster. I thought these balls with the lethal dimples would have been banned by the time she came along, on the grounds of child cruelty.

Crichton with Steven Thompson on Sportscene - "He's afraid of silence!"

“We watched football on TV constantly and tried to replicate all the moves,” adds Crichton, who also has a younger brother, John. “I don’t speak about the professional teams I grew up supporting because it can be pretty tough in the media if you show any sort of affiliation. But I remember Paul Gascoigne scoring a hat-trick for Rangers against Aberdeen, one of the goals when he ran from halfway elbowing opponents off him, and I thought to myself: that’s the kind of midfielder I want to be.” For the sake of balance she adds that she also admired Paul Lambert at Celtic.

“It was sad that all my role models were male but I didn’t know there were female footballers out there. I had a USA strip with Mia Hamm’s name on the back but she seemed to belong to a whole different universe.” And then, suddenly aged 15, Crichton was part of it, albeit with a team calling themselves Cumbernauld Cosmos, a name which rivals those of my own Sunday league days for humour and hopefulness: Dynamo Mince, Unreal Portobello and Borussia Marchmontgladbach.

“I couldn’t believe that in Scotland there were other girls who played football and were so talented,” she says. Around the same time her interest in the men’s game cooled. “Celtic and Rangers weren’t doing anything for women’s football. They didn’t have women’s teams and if you were standing on the terraces [at their grounds] did the fans respect women? No. Why then would I invest so much energy [in men’s football] when really I wasn’t getting anything back?” Later, Celtic formed a women’s side and Crichton played for them along with Hibernian, Notts County and Glasgow City - while variously combining her football with being a pool lifeguard, running a carwash and very nearly ending up demented in a boring office job.

Within two years of joining the Cosmos she’d been recruited by the women’s national team and was flying off to tournaments in Miami, Poland and Hungary. “I was never at school. There would be an Under-17s camp Monday and Tuesday, and maybe I’d make it in for lessons on Wednesday, but the rest of the week I’d be with the Under-19s.” There wasn’t much support from teachers, but what did other girls make of her?

Leanne Crichton won 73 caps for Scotland and is now a pundit on Sportscene

“They probably thought I was weird. I got on with boys better and I don’t think the girls understood [her passion for football]. I was friends with some of them and maybe that was self-preservation. Growing up in the East End at that time there was a gang culture and it was useful to be seen as being part of a group.” Crichton, though, was a black belt at jiu-jitsu. Did she ever have to use its techniques away from the mat? “Never … well, maybe once or twice in self-defence.”

Defending yourself against attacks on social media, attempting a dialogue, is pointless. The unholy democracy of Twitter means absolutely everyone can air their views now but Kenneth Tynan and Dorothy Parker probably never leapt into print at 3am in their underpants after seven cans of lager. This is the gulf between bona fide critics and those who merely think they are, believing we urgently need to hear what they’ve got to say about a “wifie” talking about football on the telly.

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Does it hurt? Well, if the criticism had been about presentational style then Crichton admits that, while she fell into TV and loved it right away, the early broadcasts of Friday Night Sportscene had her and Thompson “all over the shop” and suffering afterwards from “PTSD”. But she’s got much better, as evidenced by this week’s coverage of the Dunfermline Athletic-Partick Thistle game. Any fool can see this - even the fools on Twitter. “You learn from the moments when you made a complete arse of it,” she laughs.

Other comments have been personal and sometimes quite nasty but Crichton, if you haven’t realised by now, is a tough cookie. “People have slagged off my hair and called me ugly. It’s not nice but I’m pretty comfortable in my own skin. Also I’ve got an incredible family supporting me and I genuinely wish other people could be the same and as content in their lives without the need to be so negative.”

Mum Liz, dad Liam and especially her brothers are very protective of her. She also pays tribute to her wife Marianne, right by her side these past seven years. “Probably the hardest to take has been criticism of how I speak. I used to say ‘yooz’ a lot, which seemed to drive folk mad. It’s a west of Scotland thing and I’m proud of where I’m from but I realise on the BBC that I probably have to dot my i’s and cross my t’s better so I’ve been trying to say it less. To be honest my mum’s been a bit disappointed about that.”

Then there’s the stuff about gender. “It’s still used as a reason to criticise and that’s quite scary,” she says. Although Crichton insists she didn’t venture onto TV as a means of striking a blow for the sisterhood and help redress the imbalance, I reckon that if this is how she’s perceived now then she will be quite proud about that. As well she should be.

Increasingly there’s good mixed in with the bad in her cyber-mailbag. The odd “You’re actually really good” and, every once in a while, “Smashed it!” Now she’s laughing as she remembers the chit-chat relayed by a friend from the 19th hole of a golf club. “The best of it was: ‘Ach I cannae stand women pundits on the telly - apart from that Leanne Crichton.’ If that’s a compliment I should take it, but come on, the amount of men on TV who just talk utter dross. And that’s tolerated!”

Now she must be going. She wants to get back on her brand new exercise bike in readiness for tomorrow’s game against Partick Thistle. We finish up by comparing men’s and women’s football. I moan about the amount of play-acting among the men - and pundits, though not Crichton, who categorically state the severity of a tackle then remain silent when replays show the victim wasn’t touched - and she says it’s a pet hate of hers, too.

“The time this wastes … it makes the men’s game so frustrating. I’m always shouting: ‘Just bloody get up!’ Women’s football is a better watch. For work ethic, application, commitment and resilience, the girls can’t be beat. Did you see the footage that went viral from a women’s match of the player who dislocated her knee? She just nudged it back in herself. Honestly, would you get a man doing that?”

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