Scotland: The trailblazers behind women’s national game

Rose Reilly and Julie Fleeting have both been inducted into the Scottish Football Hall of Fame

The summer of 2019 will be remembered as the moment Scottish women’s football achieved global recognition.

Shelley Kerr’s Scotland squad qualified for their first World Cup, two years after their first major tournament appearance at the European Championship.

Last summer’s finals in France ultimately ended in heartache as a gut-wrenching draw with Argentina denied them a place in the knockout stages but, nevertheless, it was seen as the pinnacle of the national team’s achievements to be mixing it with the world’s best.

However, there are many whose dedication, perseverance and talent laid the foundations. Women whose sacrifices for years had gone largely unrecognised and appreciated in the shadow of the men’s game.

In the latest instalment of our National Treasures series, BBC Scotland looks at five players whose contribution changed the face of women’s football north of the border.

Helen Matthews Graham

Most will not have heard of the Montrose native who set up the UK’s very first women’s football team at the age of 23.

The goalkeeper was a suffragette and campaigner for women’s rights in Victorian times, when players often had to gather in secret on makeshift pitches using hidden identities. They dressed in blouses and bloomers.

But Graham’s mark in the history books is perhaps not as prominent after two games with England in 1881 went awry. Newspapers reports described the opposing sides in the first match at Easter Road on 9 May as “very smartly dressed”, adding the “Scotch team wore blue jerseys, white knickerbockers, red stockings, a red belt, high-heeled boots and blue and white cowl”.

After beating the English – led by Nettie Honeyball – “Mrs Graham’s XI” were summoned for a rematch a fortnight later at Glasgow’s Shawfield but chaos ensued, with hundreds of fans invading the pitch and the players and officials having to flee.

Graham moved down south after the game in Scotland was banned.

Rose Reilly

Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon presents Rose Reilly with a Scotland cap in 2019

A story fit for the big screen. In the 1970s, the teenager from Stewarton in Ayrshire was attracting attention for her goalscoring – but opportunities to make a living in the game as a women did not exist. So Reilly left her homeland aged 17 for French side Reims.

There, she caught the eye of scouts and was signed by AC Milan, who she helped win every accolade available. The striker played for nine Italian clubs over 20 years, winning eight Scudetti and four Italian Cups.

A star in her adopted nation, and banned for life from playing for her own, Reilly captained Italy to the unofficial Women’s World Cup in 1984 and was named world player of the year.

She became the first woman to earn a place in the Scottish Football Hall of Fame and in 2019 the Scottish FA belatedly made moves to acknowledge her contribution, awarding her the 10 caps she had earned in a Scotland jersey.

Edna Neillis

Edna Neillis, third from left, scores for Scotland in 1974

Neillis died, aged 62, a year before the 2017 Euros, so did not get to see the culmination to what her generation had set in motion.

A talented, technical right winger from Ruchazie in Glasgow’s east end caught the eye of Celtic boss Jock Stein, and was often compared to Jimmy Johnstone with her talent and mop of red curls.

Along with Reilly, Neillis was part of the first official women’s match against England in November 1972 after a 50-year ban on women playing on league grounds was lifted.

The two played together at both Reims and AC Milan, scoring all three goals between them in the 1975 Serie A title decider before going on to add the cup. Neillis won the latter twice more with Gorgonzola before retiring in 1990.

Anna Signeul

The Swede’s 12-year tenure as Scotland manager ended after Euros 2017. As midfielder in her younger days, she started coaching at 21 and would replace Vera Pauw as Scotland head coach in 2005.

Signeul – who oversaw 164 games – also coached centre-back Kerr towards the end of her Scotland playing career, as well as the likes of Scotland’s most capped player Gemma Fay, and Olympians Kim Little and Ifeoma Dieke.

She is now coaching Scotland’s upcoming Euro 2022 qualifying opponents Finland.

Julie Fleeting

Julie Fleeting scored 116 goals in 121 appearances for her country

With 116 goals in 121 caps and eight years as captain, Fleeting is Scotland’s all-time top goalscorer.

Starting her journey at Ayr United Ladies, the striker became the first Scot to sign professionally in America after being recruited by San Diego Spirit.

After two seasons in California, she also featured for Ross County, Icelandic side Valur and Celtic. But she is best remembered for her eight glory-filled years with Arsenal Ladies, for whom she netted 300 times and won the FA WSL, seven FA Women’s Premier League titles, five FA Women’s Cups, three FA Women’s Premier League Cups and the Uefa Women’s Cup.

At one point, the PE teacher was spending her weekends driving from her job in Inverness to London for Arsenal matches. The mother-of-three also made trips abroad to represent Scotland with a baby in tow.

The Scottish Hall of Fame inductee finished her career alongside her fellow Scotland stalwarts Leanne Ross and Joanne Love at Glasgow City and is a now a regular football pundit on BBC Scotland.

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