When Rose Reilly wandered away from her home in Stewarton, her three-year-old legs trudged 300 yards to the main road, right across from a big dusty patch of ground.
“My mum told me I disappeared around the corner, and she found me at the football pitch. I then wanted a ball with all my passion, but got a doll at Christmas, and in those days that was the only time you got something. I was so devastated I went out and swapped it for a ball. From the age of four, that ball went everywhere with me. I slept with it. If I went down the street for messages for my mum, I played keepie uppie on the way there, and on the way back. Sometimes there would be a wee hill or stairs, but on I went.”
On, and on – in a sporting journey that can be measured in the height of Rose’s triumphs, and in the miles travelled to achieve that success. She went from keepie uppie to a full-time professional career in women’s football, from the dark blue of a Scotland strip to the azzurro of Italy, scoring for them as they won the World Cup.
Rose, 62, has had her legendary status acknowledged in recent years, with induction into the Scottish Football Hall of Fame, the Scottish Sports Hall of Fame, and an honorary doctorate from the University of the West of Scotland. Yet as a young player, along with her friend Edna Neillis, who died two years ago, she was banned sine die from representing Scotland as she pursued a professional career overseas.
As Scotland’s women prepare for their first-ever major finals in this summer’s European Championships in the Netherlands, it’s intriguing to reflect that more than 40 years ago this country had already exported such playing talent to continental leagues.
The desire, the hunger, not just to play, but to play the best was what drove Rose at a time when girls and women footballers across Scotland faced prejudice, and discrimination. Even after a 50-year ban stopping women from playing on the grounds of FA-affiliated clubs was lifted in England in 1971, it took another three years for the SFA to follow.
The young Rose Reilly, meanwhile, had long displayed the determination, and single-mindedness that would take her beyond any restrictive rules or attitudes to thrive at the highest level.
“When I was seven, I started playing in the local boys club,” she said. “John Roy, my first mentor, was starting a team, and told me if I wanted to play in it I’d have to get my hair cut, and be called Ross. I’d get my strip on the day of the game, and get changed at home. I went to the local barber, and asked for a short back and sides. Afterwards my mum went down there, and nearly killed him, but I wasn’t caring, I had my short back and sides.
“In one game I scored about eight goals, and a Celtic scout wanted to sign the No.7 – the ‘wee boy who got all the goals’. John told him, ‘You can’t, she’s a wee lassie!’ Then John spoke to me, to explain, and I said, “But why can I not play for Celtic if I’m good enough? What’s the problem if they think I’m a wee boy anyway?”
Being more than “good enough” took nine-year-old Rose to Stewarton Thistle, where another Scotland star Elsie Cook was “centre-half, strip-washer, and a fantastic organiser”. One of eight children, Rose began to take on part-time work to keep herself in football boots and strips.
“At 12, I had a paper round, delivered rolls, and picked tatties in the summer, anything to fund my football,” she said. “I decided I had to go to see Celtic. A bus went through Stewarton for Glasgow, and I had enough money for a half return. I arrived at Anderston bus station and started following the crowds, latching on to the Celtic fans, and walked all the way to Parkhead. I asked for a lift over, and they thought I was a wee boy, so got me right down to the front in the Jungle. Jimmy Johnstone came out and it was love at first sight. I was watching Jinky beating all the players, and instead of scoring, going back to take the mickey and beat them again.
“When I came home I thought if I told anyone I wouldn’t be allowed back, so it was my secret. My dad came in from work, listened to the wireless, and told me Celtic won that day … Not knowing I had my ball out the back door, re-enacting Jinky’s moves.
“At primary school, there were boys’ and girls’ playgrounds, and at lunchtime I would go into the boys’ playground to play in their football game. I got the belt, and was told not to go back, but every day I got a game, and every day I got the belt.
“By the time I went to high school in Kilmarnock, I had also started cross-country running with boys clubs. We had a female PE teacher for the girls, but it was all netball and hockey. The male PE teacher spied me right away, and told me I was in the boys’ cross-country team. He’d noticed my potential, that was the difference from primary school. I was to bring my sports bag in every day, and he would chap the door of any of my classes, and say, ‘Reilly – out’. All the teachers agreed with it, so off I went. He would start the boys 20 seconds before me, and I’d overtake them, he used me to drive them on.”
An accomplished athlete, Rose was a pentathlon contender for the Commonwealth Games, attending Scotland training camps, while also playing at Stewarton Thistle. Eventually, her athletics coach suggested she quit football as she was developing too much thigh muscle.
“I stopped playing football for a week,” she said. “I kept looking at my legs, and I went to bed crying every night. It was a big decision, and I chose football. My mother and father thought there was no future in it. The SFA wouldn’t let us play in any grounds, we had to get changed out in the snow behind trees, there were no showers, no facilities, nothing. But still, in my head, I had a future in football.”
With Stewarton Thistle, she won the first Scottish Cup in 1971, reached the Women’s FA Cup Final the same year, where they were beaten 4-1 by Southampton, and won the Treble after a move to Westthorn United the following year. Rose, and her friend Edna, who both played for Scotland’s women in their first official game against England, a 3-2 defeat at Ravenscraig Park, in Greenock, in November 1972, were thinking big.
The teenagers headed to the Daily Record office in Glasgow, where their cause was taken up by renowned journalist Stan Shivas, who arranged a trial with Stade de Reims, in France, a team managed by another media name, sportswriter Pierre Geoffroy. However, this was not just a newspaper stunt.
“They couldn’t get the ball off us,” said Rose. “We ran riot, and they wanted to sign us right away. I was up front, and so fast nobody could catch me, Edna was a wing-half, very technical, with the same skills and the same size as Johnstone – we called her Jinky but she didn’t like it because she was a Rangers fan! We came home to get our suitcases, and I told my mum and dad I was going to stay in France. They were happy for me, but terrified too, as we didn’t even have a phone in our house.”
It was 1973, and Rose, just 18, was joining an incredibly successful side, as she and Edna helped Reims to the title, attracting the interest of AC Milan in the process.
“The Milan scouts wanted to sign us right away,” she said. “Geoffroy must have seen a deal, he asked if we wanted to go to Italy, and we said ‘aye’. When the plane landed at Linate airport, the doors opened, the sun was out, and it was like a mother’s embrace. We played at the San Siro, in front of more than 20,000 people, and we won the league.
“For me there was never any question, I was staying in Italy. I was put up in a hotel, near Lake Como, and walked half a mile to the restaurant for my meals. All I knew about spaghetti was hoops out of a tin, and I had to order in Italian. I bought a dictionary and decided to learn three words every day, and also bought La Gazzetta dello Sport, the first sports newspaper I’d seen. I starting speaking with local people as I walked towards the restaurant, and there I learned what to eat.”
In 1975, came news of a lifetime ban from the Scottish Women’s FA, and even as she recalls this, Rose lifts her head, still a touch of defiance. “It was their loss, I’d moved on,” she said. “I wasn’t being big-headed, but I’m practical, realistic. I just thought, ‘How small-minded’.”
Rose won two Serie A titles with Milan, before notching a total of eight Scudetti and four Italian Cups, as she moved on to Catania, Lecce, and Trani, in an Italian career spanning 20 years, at nine clubs. She won the golden boot in 1978, scoring 43 goals for Catania, and in 1981, hitting 45 for Lecce. In 1980, she answered a plea from old club Reims, who flew her in to play for them on Sunday evenings, the day after turning out for her own club Lecce, winning the championships of both France and Italy that year. Rose – having politely rejected the offer of arranged marriage to ensure citizenship – became an adopted Italian, and in August, 1984, scored in Italy’s 3-1 win over Germany to win the final of the Mundialito Femminile.
“Have sportsbag, would travel,” she said. “Wherever I was, I always double trained. I always found a wall, and a ball, I always thought I had to better myself.”
Aged 40, Rose retired, running a sports shop in Sicily, and playing in the local police seven-a-side. “I was back to my origins, in a men’s team. I still ran 16 miles every morning, I’d always loved running. When I was young, I’d get up and run in the field between the cows just for the love of it, the freedom.”
Rose tore a calf muscle playing for the police, and was referred to Argentinian doctor Norberto Peralta, her future husband. In 2001, by then also with a baby daughter, Meghan, Rose returned to Scotland, to help care for her mother, who was ill. Espresso-drinking Rose still switches easily from broad Ayrshire to fluent Italian, and her family visits Sicily every year. The island’s outline is tattooed on her right hand. A reminder, too, of how dreams can be realised.
Rose is delighted at the success of today’s Scotland team, and knows how crucial Anna Signeul has been to their development. However, she also believes Scotland needs a pro women’s league.
“Anna is a very professional, dignified, and knowledgeable coach, who has been working hard to get Scottish women’s football for the first time into the European finals without having a pro league, which is an Achilles heel.”
However, Rose agrees the talented squad will still be in good hands when Shelley Kerr, currently in charge of Lowland League Stirling University, and the first woman manager in the senior ranks, takes over as Scotland boss after the Euros.
“When I came back, I went to watch my old club Stewarton Thistle, now called Kilmarnock,” added Rose. “After the game, someone said a player wanted to talk to me. Shelley sprinted over full of questions, the only one to ask about my career, and I thought, ‘She’ll make it’.”