THERE'S a new face in the Scotland women's football squad and, like policewomen, these girls are getting younger and younger. This one, indeed, is barely over eight months old.
Ella Stewart is Julie Fleeting's daughter, and has made football history by being granted SFA dispensation to accompany her mother on Scotland duty. Already adopted as the team mascot, she will be at Falkirk Stadium tonight when Fleeting and Co take on Bulgaria in a World Cup qualifier.
The Scottish women have never qualified for the finals of a major championship, but hopes are rising that the 2011 World Cup in Germany may break the mould. Anna Signeul's side have won their opening three matches in Group 3, two of them away from home, and if, as expected, they overcome Bulgaria tonight they will leapfrog favourites Denmark to head the group for the first time.
Much of this good early work has been achieved without Fleeting. The iconic striker last played on Scottish soil in 2008. She was suspended in October of that year when Scotland went down 3-2 to Russia at Tynecastle in the first leg of a play-off for the 2009 European Championships. But she returned for the second leg four days later when the Scots won 2-1 but failed to make the finals on away goals. A wearyingly familiar story for Scotland teams but, rather than sulk, Fleeting and her husband Colin Stewart, the Morton goalkeeper, decided the time would be ideal to try for their first child. Ella was born nine months later.
A difficult pregnancy and its aftermath meant Fleeting wasn't fit enough to take her place in the Scotland team for the opening World Cup qualifiers, a 1-0 away win against Greece and a 3-1 victory over Georgia at Tynecastle. But once the all-male SFA board signalled their approval for Ella to accompany her, Fleeting resumed Scotland duties at a tournament in Cyprus last month.
She also played from the start when Scotland again beat Georgia 3-1, this time in Tbilisi, on Saturday. She hasn't added to her record 107 international goals since the birth, but hopes that tonight's game against Bulgaria will provide the opportunity.
"It's nice to be back," she said, "but I've been battling against a hernia injury. I've had to pick and choose when I can train, and don't feel anywhere near where I would like to be, but I can still give the team something.
"Once you go into a game you can forget about the aches and pains and get on with it."
A friend accompanied Julie and Ella to Cyprus and took care of the babysitting duties during training and matches, but as the team prepared for tonight's match it was husband Colin, fresh from Morton's match on Tuesday night, who took over the reins.
There has been no shortage of helpers, though. "The other girls in the squad adore Ella," Fleeting said. "When we were in Cyprus everybody wanted to take a share of looking after her.
"Even some of the younger girls who weren't used to having a baby around got into the swing of things. Everybody got a lift from her smiley face."
Fleeting admits that she would have had to put her international career on indefinite hold if the SFA hadn't agreed to her request. It was one she was determined to make after watching team-mates take their children on official trips at her current club Arsenal, and a former one, San Diego Spirit.
"At this stage in Ella's life I couldn't have justified going away for 11 days for what is a hobby, because as women we don't get paid for playing for Scotland," she said. "I don't treat football as a hobby because it's such a big part of my life, but even so it wouldn't have been possible for me to continue playing for my country. There would definitely have been trips I wouldn't have been able to go on. I don't think it would have been fair to say I'm only available for home games, but not the away ones. I would have had to step back from international football until Ella was a bit older."
Without Fleeting – and even with her against Georgia on Saturday – Scotland have been guilty of slipshod finishing despite their splendid start to the World Cup campaign. The iconic striker hopes that will be remedied tonight.
"We can take a lot of encouragement from the fact we're creating a lot of chances," she said, "and I think the goals will definitely come because of the players we've got. Sometimes it's just your luck in games so hopefully we'll get a few against Bulgaria."
Tonight's World Cup qualifier, at Falkirk Stadium, kicks off at 7.30pm. Admission is 5 for adults and 2 for children and concessions.