Today is an historic night for women’s football in Scotland as the national team finally makes its debut in a major tournament – against England of all teams. There is no doubt that the team thoroughly deserved this debut as they were unlucky to qualify for both Euro 2009 (lost to Russia in a play off on away goals) and Euro 2013 (lost to Spain in a play off to a goal in the 122nd minute). So after the misery the team has gone through in the past they deserve their place in the sun (and the fact that they are playing England is a boost as this gives women’s football in Scotland far more publicity than they would have gotten had they been drawn in any other group).
But this is also a time to reflect on the players who helped make Scottish women’s football – the early pioneers like Nettie Honeyball, Nancy “Cannonball” Thompson and Julie Fleeting – and an unsung hero who has a claim to be the greatest female footballer this island has ever produced but yet got totally disowned by her own country and had to play for another country in international football.
The player I am talking about is Rose Reilly. Rose was born in Stewarton East Ayrshire. Now you have to remember in these days (the late 1960s) women’s football was still banned in the UK. Rose wanted to play football but the only way she could play was to cut her hair short and call herself Ross Reilly so she could play for Stewarton Boys’ Club. She was so good that a scout from Celtic who was watching Stewarton wanted “him” to sign for Celtic – but as she was a girl not only could she not sign for Celtic she could not play for the Boys’ Club anymore.
Luckily there was a women’s team she could join – Stewarton Thistle. In 1971 she played aged 16 in the first English women’s FA Cup losing to Southampton. She was a losing finalist in the English FA Cup Final three years in a row and played in the first Scotland international of the new era (1972).
But she wanted to be a professional footballer – but in the Scotland of the 1970s there was no career opportunities for women in football. Luckily she was able to make a career for herself abroad. In 1974 she moved to French professional team Reims but after just six months moved to Italy with Milan.
To show how ridiculous football in Scotland was for the heinous crime of having a professional career abroad Reilly was banned in 1975 (along with team mate Edna Nellis) for life from playing for Scotland. This was not unique to Scotland at the time. England’s Sue Lopez had to choose between playing for England and being a professional abroad but in her case she gave up a professional career for an international one. Even in men’s football there were people who wanted Kevin Keegan banned from playing for England when he joined Hamburg in 1977!
Reilly thought at the time that her career was over. Luckily it wasn’t as she went on to play for a variety of Italian teams including Catania and Leece as well as Milan. Amazingly in 1978-79 she won League titles in two different countries! She win the Italian League with Leece (playing on Saturday nights) and the French League with Remis (playing on Sunday afternoons). We can guarantee that will never happen again!
She was even able to play international football despite being banned from playing for Scotland. She got Italian citizenship and was able to play in a Women’s World Cup in China in 1983 because the event was not officially recognised by FIFA (FIFA did not hold an Official Women’s World Cup until 1991). Not only did she play for Italy she captained them to the title and scored from 40 yards in the final and was voted the “Best Female Player in the World”.
By 1984 Reilly was earning £12000 a year with Trani (for comparison current England captain Steph Houghton reportedly earns £60000 a year). She played in Italy until retiring at the age of 40. She won 22 caps for Italy and ten for Scotland during a career where Celtic tried to sign her, she would get banned from playing for her own country, won League titles in two countries in one season and won a World Cup with her adopted country.
Her story has a happy ending in that the Scottish Football Association (SFA) inducted her into their Hall of Fame finally making up for the injustice of banning her for life back in 1975. Rose Reilly has a significant claim to be the best female footballer off all time in the UK – never mind Scotland. Today she lives in her home town of Stewarton and I’m sure she will be watching her successors play England tonight with pride and might be wondering what might have been had the SFA had let her play for her own country….