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How the Hooverettes and Prima Donnas won the long game

Fifty years ago the women’s game in Scotland was a novelty characterised by exotic team names and beset by hostility from the SFA. Not any longer.


This article first appeared in Issue 4 which was published in June 2017.

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With the SFA ban on member clubs staging women’s football having been lifted, Jock Stein reached out, called Cook, and invited Scotland to play an exhibition match against a select side at Celtic Park prior to a European Cup tie against Olympiakos.
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We had a strategic plan that said 2017 would be the first time that we’d go to the Euros. Anna doesn’t buy into the psyche that it’s the ‘Scottish way’ to fail.

Can you imagine a Scotland team adorned with two players from Arsenal and Manchester City, plus one each from Chelsea, Liverpool and Bayern Munich? If you can’t, tune in to televised coverage of Euro 2017 in July and prepare to be enlightened.

A nation which has more often than not treated women’s football shamefully is about to have a presence in a major championship for the first time since the millennium. Enticingly, England, Spain and Portugal are on the Group D menu in the Netherlands.

In Kim Little, Scotland possess one of the best players not just in Europe, but the world. Like Rose Reilly [featured on the following pages], who was fêted in Italy but little regarded in her home country, the 27-year old Little could walk into any Scottish supermarket and fill her shopping trolley without being given a second glance. In Seattle, where she played in America’s National Women’s Soccer League before rejoining Arsenal at the end of last year, they demanded autographs.

Scotland’s conceit of itself as a football-mad country has always been discriminatory. “It’s a man’s game, son,” is the maxim which has been bellowed by generations of Neanderthals in tracksuits. But it’s a diktat which has also come from the very top of the Scottish Football Association.

When women’s football did threaten to gain a foothold in the UK in the years immediately after the First World War, the FA in England didn’t like it one little bit. Their red line arrived when 53,000 packed into Everton’s Goodison Park to watch a women’s game. An edict was issued late in 1921 ordering all member clubs not to stage women’s matches. The SFA obediently fell into line. The bans lasted for 50 years, and while England then retreated with some grace, Scotland did not.

In 1971 Uefa instructed its member nations to take control of women’s football, and a vote was taken. The motion was passed 31-1; embarrassingly, the SFA was the only association to vote against. It wasn’t until 1998 – the same year as the men’s team last qualified for a championship – that they assumed direct responsibility for the sport.

That, undoubtedly, was the catalyst for change, even if there was still an initial hostility to women’s football from key figures within the organisation. The last 20 years have never been anything other than a battle against the forces of conservatism, but despite this the women’s national side has continued on an upward projectory thanks to the vision and determination of a few key personnel – acting in tandem with coaches, volunteers and the players themselves.

Little is a professional footballer, and so, too, are the majority of players in the Scotland squad. Yet five years ago there were only a very few, and even now the opportunities lie predominantly in Germany, France, Sweden, England and the United States. No players in Scotland get paid, despite combining training commitments which go way beyond those at most SPFL clubs with their day jobs.

Two women in particular have borne close witness to the evolution of Scottish women’s football over the last 50 years. Elsie Cook, a player, administrator and early Scotland manager, gave Reilly her first outing when she was just nine years old. Back in the 1960s there were very few women’s teams, but those that did exist had wonderfully evocative names such as Cambuslang Hooverettes (a works team from the Hoover factory), Johnstone Red Rockets, Fife Dynamites, Tayside Toppers and, a personal favourite, Aberdeen Prima Donnas.

By contrast the team Cook and her mother – a sprightly nonagenarian who beams with delight as her daughter rattles off stories from the old days – founded in 1961 went under the prosaic name of Stewarton Thistle. “My mum, who was a netball coach, was approached by the provost of the town and asked if she would get the netball lassies to play football against a team from East Kilbride called Holyrood Bumbees,” Cook recalls. “It was a charity match for the famine in Ethiopia.”

As the SFA ban prevented the game being played on any Ayrshire senior or junior grounds – even for a charitable cause – it was played on a public park. And there was another problem. “The SFA wouldn’t allow any qualified referee to take the game,” Cook points out. “We were friendly with some of the Kilmarnock men’s players, including Frank Beattie, Bobby Ferguson, Davie Sneddon and Eric Murray – but the SFA wouldn’t let them officiate either, even although it would have attracted more people to the game.”

Stewarton won 7-1, largely thanks to a “suave blonde” called Susan Ferris from Kilmarnock who turned up 30 minutes before the kick off and scored all seven goals against the established works team. “At the end we were lining up for a team photo – and this wee seven-year-old got into the picture,” Cook recalls. “That was Rose Reilly. She had short cropped hair and asked if she could get a game with us. I said: ‘Son, this is a lassies’ team.’ She says: ‘But I am a lassie.’ She was so passionate and keen to play.

“I told her to come back in a couple of years – which she did when she was nine. Her first game was against the Red Rockets of Johnstone. I was daft playing a nine-year in a team in their early and late teens, but she was amazing.”

Cook has a fund of anecdotes which would fill this publication and several more, but three stand out from an age when women footballers were just as susceptible to the waywardness which characterised the Scottish men’s game.

Scotland’s opening Euro game is against England in Utrecht on July 19, but Greenock’s Ravenscraig Stadium was the venue for the first official international played between the sides, in 1972. Cook, who was secretary of the newly-formed Scottish Women’s Football Association, did most of the organising.

The build-up emphasised just how haphazard preparations were at a time when very few people owned cars. That club games were played on Sundays, when even hanging out the washing out was frowned upon in Presbyterian Scotland, only added to the fragility of relying on infrequent bus services. Fortunately Cook’s uncle owned a Volkswagen dormobile which the whole Stewarton team squeezed into; when it wasn’t available they commandeered a milk float.

The travel arrangements for the final Scotland training session before that 1972 England game were equally exotic.

“The girls were to meet at Anderston bus station in Glasgow,” Cook recalls. “The minibus never arrived, so I stopped this furniture van and asked the driver if he could take us to Greenock. We were sitting on the sofas and the other bits of furniture and giggled all the way down. I don’t remember to this day how we got back home.”

The Scotland strips, meanwhile, were paid for by a Provident cheque provided by Reilly’s father. Cook’s mother took them to the factory where she worked, and some of the women sewed the numbers on. The badges were bought by Cook, who sewed them on herself. None of your SFA kit men back in the day.

There was a shock awaiting before the game. When the players came out of the tunnel it became apparent that England were fielding a ‘ringer’ from Cambuslang Hooverettes – and that she was a cousin of the Celtic, Manchester United and Scotland legend Pat Crerand only added to the Scottish players’ indignation. Nevertheless the game went ahead and Scotland led 2-0 until shortly before half time. Reilly was prominent, as was Edna Nellis, who also went on to play professionally in France and Italy and was the female equivalent of Celtic’s Jimmy Johnstone.

It didn’t last. “The second half was a disaster,” Cook admits. “The game was taken from us by their midfield and they won 3-2.”

Cook was also involved in a hilarious episode with SFA secretary Willie Allan. This was in the days when the holder of that post was omnipotent – and Allan was as implacably opposed to women’s football as he was unforgiving of the most minor rule infringement in the men’s game.

Cook secured an interview through Allan’s assistant, Ernie Walker. She wanted Allan to agree to bring women’s football under the SFA’s umbrella, with all the advantages that could bring. But instead of meeting a martinet, she discovered a man who was painfully prim.

“He was such a gentleman, just lovely,” Cook recalls unexpectedly. “I can still see him now, and to me he looked tiny sitting behind this big desk with his wee smiley face. All he could talk about was the physical side of the game. He couldn’t bring himself to say breasts, but he kept patting his chest to indicate he thought it was a reason why women shouldn’t play football. He said it was the same with tackling.

“I told him women could do exactly the same as men. I said it’s not as fast, it’s not as physical, but because of that you have more time on the ball.”

In a nutshell that is the main difference between men’s and women’s football, just as it separates the genders in every sport. But Willie Allan was having none of it, and nor was anybody else in authority until just before the turn of the century.

Yet, one man was prepared to entertain the sport – and he was perhaps the most significant figure in the history of Scottish football.

“I remember putting the phone down and saying: ‘Oh my God,’” recalls Cook. “And him a European Cup winner.” She was entitled to be – for once – almost speechless. With the SFA ban on member clubs staging women’s football having been lifted, Jock Stein reached out, called Cook, and invited Scotland to play an exhibition match against a select side at Celtic Park prior to a European Cup tie against Olympiakos.

The bounce game lasted only 15 minutes each way, but the sentiment behind the invitation was enormous for the players. “After the game Jock Stein stood at the tunnel and shook every lassie by the hand and thanked her very much,” Cook continues. “That was the first time we’d officially been able to play at a senior ground, and it was at Parkhead before an important game like that.”

The captain of the Scotland side on a raucous European night in the east end of Glasgow was a young woman called Sheila Begbie. The Edinburgh Dynamos defender went on to become one of the most significant figures in the history of the sport. A long-time Head of Girls and Women’s Football at the SFA, Begbie now works for Scottish Rugby in a similar strategic role. We chatted over a coffee in one of the executive boxes overlooking the BT – as we must now call it – Murrayfield pitch.

“Jock Stein was an incredible man in terms of his social values,” she responds when I ask why the Celtic manager made his gesture back in September, 1974. “He was a socialist who thought there should be opportunities for everybody. We were delighted he’d invited us. I remember changing in the school across the road, and it was a packed house by the time our game started.

“I made a slide tackle and won the ball, but the crowd started chanting: ‘You’re an animal!’ That was quite good for my credibility. I remember coming off and seeing Kenny Dalglish and the rest of the Celtic team waiting to come on.”

In those days the Scotland players were lucky if they played more than one or two international games a year, but the following day they set off to play a double-header in Italy, where Reilly and Nellis were now ensconced.

Before recalling her memorable feat of scoring at both ends in the San Siro, Begbie rewinds to her Edinburgh schooldays. Gordon Strachan was a fellow pupil at Craigroyston High School, and they were both to be simultaneously in the SFA’s employ some 45 years later – albeit they didn’t bump into each other much.

Back in the late 1960s Begbie might as well have attended an educational establishment on another planet if she wanted to be afforded the same opportunities as Strachan and the other boys. Instead, she joined the kickabouts out of school hours and a chance meeting on a bus made her aware of Edinburgh Dynamos.

“At 13 I was probably the youngest player in the squad,” she recalls, “but it was quite common then for young girls to play for women’s sides. There was no youth structure in those days. You were either old enough to play, or you didn’t play at all.”

Begbie, an international standard sprinter with Edinburgh AC, won her first Scotland cap at the age of 15. It was against England at Enfield when Reilly and Nellis were both in the side. Begbie played against both regularly at club level and says: “They were like role models to me. It was exciting but challenging for me to play against a player of Rose’s speed. It meant I had to step up to the plate if I wanted to try to stifle her out of the game – which I did manage to do some times. Edna had amazing skills. She could turn on a sixpence, as they say.”

Begbie had switched to central defence by the time she captained Scotland in the second of the double-header against Italy in the San Siro, the first game having been played in Piscara.

“First of all I scored for Italy,” she smiles. “They got a corner and as the ball came in it bulleted off my leg. Then later in the game I took a free kick from 25-30 yards out at the other end. Quite honestly, as soon as the ball left my boot I knew it was in the back of the net.”

Begbie twice turned down offers to play professionally in Italy. Jobs for female physical education teachers were scarce in Scotland at the time and she didn’t feel the risk was worth it. She later moved from PE to the Scottish Sports Council, as it then was, and thereafter to her long-time job with the SFA.

Like Cook, she has a fund of stories, most of which won’t see the light of day until she has retired from what is likely to be her last post at Scottish Rugby. Suffice to say she still rails against some of the attitudes she encountered at Hampden, and the SFA’s continuing inability, or reluctance, to market women’s football properly and invest in it more significantly.

Football is regarded as Scotland’s ‘national’ sport. Yet Begbie reports that her bosses at Murrayfield have already shown more enthusiasm, and given her more support, for developing women’s rugby than she ever encountered for women’s football over a much longer time on Glasgow’s south side.

Although she won’t say it, Begbie is one of the main reasons why women’s football has improved so significantly since 1998, when she, administrator Maureen McGonigle and new head coach Vera Pauw were finally admitted into the SFA fold, first at their offices in Park Gardens, and then later on Hampden’s sixth floor. McGonigle, who went on to co-found Scottish Women in Sport, is another whose contribution cannot be underestimated.

The arrival of Anna Signeul to replace the outgoing Pauw in 2005 was a massive force for change, although Begbie reveals that the putative head coach initially had huge reservations. “She said to me: ‘In Scotland you must be at least 15 years behind where we are in Sweden. I’ve already had all these fights and arguments there, and I don’t know if I’m up for doing it all again.’”

Signeul, however, is nothing if not dogged and determined, and, once persuaded, set about transforming the sport from top to bottom. “She brought a structure and form to the women’s game that wasn’t there before,” Begbie explains. “Vera was very much focused on the national team, which almost became like a club side, and I understand that. She was trying to get quick results, raise the profile, and get increased support within the SFA for something which was seen to be successful.

“Anna said longer term that wouldn’t work, so we took a different approach. It took a while to get the necessary engagement from the clubs, but we took their coaches to Sweden and did a whistle-stop tour of aspirational clubs there. Their eyes were opened wide and the penny dropped as they realised they could make a difference. One important change was that instead of training twice a week, the top clubs changed to four evenings.

“We had a strategic plan that said 2017 would be the first time that we’d go to the Euros. Anna doesn’t buy into the psyche that it’s the ‘Scottish way’ to fail.

“I worked professionally in the women’s game for nearly 23 years, and before that was a player, so I’ve been involved in football for a long, long time. It’s fantastic to see a Scottish team at a finals. It’s something I always wanted as the pinnacle of the structures we were putting in place to develop and grow the game.”

Players such as Kim Little and Emma Mitchell (Arsenal), Jen Beattie and Jane Ross (Man City), Erin Cuthbert (Chelsea), Caroline Weir (Liverpool), Lisa Evans (Bayern Munich) and Rachel Corsie (Seattle Reign) didn’t reach the top of the women’s club game by accident either.

Like another of their predecessors, legendary goalscorer Julie Fleeting who played professionally in the United States ahead of her time, they have had to rise above traditional Scottish football attitudes; all are now playing at a much higher level than any of the boys they grew up alongside. They have done so by being prepared to work incredibly hard, make huge sacrifices, and above all play the game because they love it.

Mitchell, Ross, Cuthbert, Evans and Corsie were all previously amateur players with professional attitudes at the stand-alone women’s club Glasgow City. Without the record ten-times Scottish champions, coincidentally founded by Laura Montgomery and Carol Anne Stewart in 1998 – the year everything changed for women’s football – Scotland wouldn’t have qualified for the Euros either.

City, and former head coach Eddie Wolecki Black, provided the environment for younger players to move on to professional clubs elsewhere, while continuing to provide Champions League football for those that stayed, including captain Leanne Ross. The 35-year-old Scotland internationalist has, uniquely, played in every one of the club’s ten consecutive title-winning seasons.

The reality is that Scotland’s men’s clubs have made paltry efforts to promote and develop their women’s teams. The suspicion lingers that women’s football is still seen as a box ticking exercise. Yet the irony is that the box is now more successful than most of those doing the ticking.

This article first appeared in Issue 4 which was published in June 2017.

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