Written by Colin Byiers
“Arrival” charts the rise of the Scottish Women’s National team that culminates in them qualifying for the Women’s World Cup in 2019. The books author, Steven Lawther, spoke with me about the book and the successes of the women’s game in Scotland.
Was this a project you felt strongly about?
It was something I was thinking about for a while. I’m a huge football fan anyway, (I support Raith Rovers) and I’ve been a Scotland fan in the sense of the men’s team, like going to France ’98 and going to away games. It’smore recently that I got into the women’s game and 2013 was my first game, because my daughter started playing football, so we decided to take her along to see a woman’s game. From there, I have become a huge fan of the team and what they have achieved. They qualified for the Euro’s, we went to the Euro’s as a family and had a great time following them. Then we followed them through the World Cup qualification and to the World Cup. After the Euro’s I think I had thoughts that there is a story here that hasn’t been written about and maybe doesn’t get the coverage that other football stories get. Then, obviously, the World Cup took the to a whole new level. Back-to-back tournaments, which for Scotland teams, isn’t a very regular occurrence these days! Once I started researching it, and speaking to people, I realised that there is probably a much wider story in terms if the women’s game and what the players have battled against over the years, just makes it a more impressive achievement to have come all that way in such a short period of time.
What was Scottish Women’s football like prior to Anna Signeul and Shelly Kerr?
I was aware a little bit of the story of women’s football being banned in the 1920’s and for much of the last century. Scotland was one of the last countries to recognise woman’s football and once I started interviewing people, the reality of that hit home and there are stories everywhere of what that means. People like Shelly Kerr, for example, would play with the boys up to the age of 12 and be told that they can’t play anymore and there is nowhere to go because it’s all boys football at that point. Even some of the older players I spoke to said they couldn’t play at a league ground, so they couldn’t play at a Stark’s Park or a Pittodrie or any of these grounds as they were effectively banned which had a knock on effected and couldn’t use the normal football structures. The first Scotland v England official Woman’s International in the early 70’s, they weren’t supported by the SFA, (Scottish Football Association) and Elsie Cook, the woman who helped organise it, bought the strips from a jumble sale,sewed on the Scottish badges, borrowed socks from Rangers and had to find their own way to Greenock in a furniture van! That’s the 1970’s, it’s fairly recent. Even as recently as 1998, the SFA wasn’t responsible for the woman’s National team. The people that were there, really wanted to play because they had to battle all that to be able to play. It’s been a real battle for people on anindividual level not just for the National Woman’s in Scotland.
Was the appointment of Anna Signeul a significant turning point?
The book starts a little bit before that with the changing of things with Vera Pauw, who manages the women’s team of the Republic of Ireland at the moment, she came in when her husband, (Bert Van Lingen), came to Scotland when Dick Advocaat became the Rangers manager. She started the process of professionalising it, telling players to watch what they eat etc. Anna Signeulwas really the driving force behind it. She had worked in Sweden, who were much further ahead, and she was astounded by the lack of facilities, and lack of resources and support. Anna came in and didn’t just work with the squad, but she worked with club football, so started putting the emphasis on training, nutrition, strength and conditioning. Changed the season from winter to summer, set up the National Academy, where a lot of the players who play now, came through that system. She certainly was pivotal in the whole process, and you couldn’t meet a nicer and more humble person than Anna.
Shelly Kerr took on the reigns, but what did she do to improve on the foundations laid by Anna?
In hindsight, there was probably a benefit of someone being Scottish in charge. Shelly is incredible passionate about Scotland and Scottish football, so I think having someone who is Scottish and understands what it means to be Scottish and what football means to the Scots. A lot of the players talk about the more attacking formation she would use. She had a phrase which was “the ball doesn’t go into the net itself”, which was her mantra. I think she did that for two reasons; one being that it helps you compete rather than just setting up to not get beat, and with the types of players they have with the likes of Erin Cuthbert, Caroline Weir and Claire Emslie, you could see how the team took that on in the qualifying campaign. Also, she talks in the book about having a responsibility for women’s football and making it more entertaining. It’s not just about getting the result,it’s about making women’s football as entertaining in the attacking sense as possible.
The National Academy and systems put in place started producing big name players even prior to the World Cup qualification.
There have always been big names like Kim Little and Julie Fleeting before that, big superstars of the game. The systems put in place, in particular, by Anna, created more in strength in depth. The people who have come through the academy system like Christie Murray, Jane Ross, Lee Alexander, and Lizzie Arnott have gone on to have really good careers. The system wanted them to experience different things, so people like Kim Little and Rachel Corsie went to the US. People went to Sweden, to Denmark, to Finland, played professionally and now people are going to England to clubs like Arsenal and Manchester City, so it was all about getting people into an elite environment and that just made the squad stronger across the team.
Was World Cup qualification the ultimate aim?
Qualification for a tournament was the goal, and being Scotland, there were some near misses. Against Russia, they went out on away goals. Against Spain they lost to an injury time winner for Spain in a play-off, so getting over the line was the ultimate aim and they did that with the Euro’s and then the World Cup becomes the bigger stage. Shelly talks about getting to the World Cup as the aim and that’s what they did.
In both tournaments, the way it played out, with success in getting there and success in parts of the tournaments but ultimately it didn’t go as planned or as well as they would have hoped. When you are there for the first time, it’s a big experience to take in. A couple of the players talk about the “rabbit in the headlights” type thing when they got to a tournament because it’s something they hadn’t experienced before. I think the experience can be overwhelming but hopefully you learn from that so when you do go back where is less of the wide-eyed look about things and instead it’s a “we are here to do a job” type thing.
I know the World Cup ended in disappointment, but do the players take pride in what they achieved?
They do now. What I wanted to do in the book was to reclaim their story a little bit from those last 15 minutes in France. I was there. I was right behind Lee Alexanders goal for all that VAR stuff and for us and those watching, it was pretty torturous stuff. There is a danger that that defines them and that’s their story, which it’s not. The fact they were even there and the fact they were competing so well needed to be highlighted. There is disappointment and regrets, I think it did take a lot of the players time to get over that. Most have made peace with it now and most have seen the bigger picture that they were at a World Cup and competing well. It’sabout inspiring a generation and inspiring young people in seeing these young athletes compete against the best in the World. Part of the book is to take a step back a look at how far it’s come from to the battles that came first to then seeing them at the Euro’s then playing at the World Cup.
Has this shed new light on the women’s game in Scotland and people who haven’t watched women’s football are now watching regularly?
Definitely. There is a chapter in the book dedicated to Glasgow City who have been at the heart of this and taken on a lot of the changes that Anna Signeul brought in, and they have had a massive increase in interest post World Cup. The overall numbers of girls turning up to play across the country have gone up massively. One of the challenges in years gone by was that the women’s game was almost hidden away, and to an extent it still is. If you look at the Scotland games recently, yes they have been on TV, but they have been on BBC Alba withno commentary in English so I think there probably is still a distance to getting where it should be. But the World Cup has definitely raised the profile of women’s football in Scotland and the team.
The sub-heading of the book is “inspiring a generation…”, do the players feel like they are now role models?
They are acutely aware of that. One of the threads that runs through all the players is thinking about the players that have come before them and paved the way for them and thinking what they can do to drive things on. I’m not so sure that the same can be said for the men’s game, but there is a definite sense if community around the women’s game that we all have a responsibility around here to make things bigger. They are very open, very accessible. If you go to games, they will stay behind, and sign autographs and I think that comes from the responsibility to be seen and to make things better. Things are better, there are clubs and there are pathways and kids don’t have to stop playing at 12, they can keep going.
Someone talked about the battle has been won, I’m not so sure the battle has been won. You just have to go to the BBC website, and if there is anything mentioned about the women’s game and look at the comments below, the same hostilities are still there. You look at the stuff Graham Spiers wrote recently, questioning whether women can be goalkeepers or not. It’s nonsense. Look at what’s happening right now, professional teams with professional players aren’t allowed to even train never mind play, so there is a slight discrepancy.
Where is the women’s game in Scotland now from a structural perspective?
I think that it’s great that there are professional contracts and people can play full time, but my only question mark would be sustainability. Is that there for the long term or the short term? Clubs like Glasgow City have proven that they can be sustainable, but if you are a club that is attached to an established men’s club, like Rangers and Celtic, who are putting plenty money into it, is that going to be sustainable. My worry would be that say Rangers got themselves into the same situation as they did a few years ago, is the women’s team the first thing to be cut? Obviously, it’s great that some of the Scotland team can stay in Scotland and play professionally for one of these clubs and dedicate themselves to getting an open and competitive league.
The success needs to be built on. It has to have that parity with the men’s game in terms of resources and support. There is a squad there that is still really strongand full of household names as well, so I think there is still that potential to build on and making sure the next generation are coming through so the next Erin Cuthbert of the next Kim Little is working their way through the system.