GREGORY’S Girl was but a germ of an idea in Bill Forsyth’s mind when Sheila Begbie was lacing up her boots and taking on the boys at what they considered their own game.
Makeshift football pitches with jumpers for goalposts around Drylaw, Muirhouse and Davidson’s Mains were where she could be found, putting in sliding tackles on anyone who was prepared to take on “a girl” – including Gordon Strachan, the man who would one day become Scotland’s current national coach.
Her football skills were possibly even so inspiring back in the early 70s that a young Irvine Welsh would, decades later, remember her surname in his seminal work.
“Yes, I’ve always wanted to ask him if he got the name Begbie from my family,” she laughs. “There weren’t many Begbies around – not that any of us behaved like that of course. And with Gordon the first day we met in the corridor at the SFA [Scottish Football Association] he said ‘last time I saw you, we were playing at Davy Mains’.
“I wasn’t sure he’d remember but it was great to reminisce. We were at school together and even then he was playing for big teams and was a real hero.”
Sheila is something of a heroine herself, an inspirational figure to young girls who find they have a talent for the sport. She was just 15 when she won her first national cap in the first official England v Scotland women’s game. A further 24 were to follow and her skills as a defender attracted offers from teams in Italy and America. Yet she shunned them for a career as a PE teacher before going on to become head of girls and women’s football with the SFA, a job she’s been doing for the past 15 years.
And right now couldn’t be a better time for the game. “Our under-17s have qualified for the finals of the Euros for the first time beating really strong teams like Norway and Finland. It was a huge achievement for these young players and really bodes well for the future of the game.
“Then there’s the national side’s qualifiers for the World Cup in 2015 which are going really well as we’ve beaten the Faroe Islands and Bosnia. There are tough games to come but so far so good.”
Back in 1972, when Sheila first pulled on a Scotland shirt to play in the first home international, the idea of playing in a women’s World Cup was like some sort of fantasy.
“Girls playing football in Drylaw were looked upon like aliens,” she laughs. “But I played football and golf, and so did my sister. Cricket too. We just loved sport. Mind you I never played football at school, I just sort of knew it wasn’t the done thing, it was just in the street.
“I remember being on the bus to Craigroyston High one day and talking to a girl about what we were doing at the weekend and she said playing football. I was totally amazed. She was playing for a girls’ team called Edinburgh Dynamos and told me to come along. I didn’t think such things existed.
“I started playing when I was 13 and there were only eight girls’ teams in the whole of Scotland so there was a lot of travelling up to Aberdeen or through to Ayrshire. We trained at Royston Community Centre and it was only recently I found out that’s where the SWFA [Scottish Women’s Football Association] was actually first formed.”
So two years after joining Dynamos she was playing for Scotland – though they lost 8-1.
“It was horrendous. It was the only match my parents ever came to watch me in, though they were always supportive. It really was quite a devastating experience. One good thing though was that Rose Reilly (see panel) was in the team, and she was inspirational as she went on to play professionally in Italy.”
Sheila too had her share of offers to play abroad. “I got offered a couple of contracts to play in Italy and America but I was training to be a PE teacher. When I graduated they came back and asked me again but I decided to stay in Scotland. I think that was right – my destiny was planned out. I’m delighted to be here to do what I do and have the opportunity to influence the future for young girls and women and to be part of building the success story which is Scottish women’s football.”
Currently there are 4300 players in clubs in Scotland and 63 club teams making up a Premier League and First and Second divisions.
“Then there’s all the school teams,” says Sheila. “We have six girls and women’s club development officers now – one for each region – and they work with schools and clubs to create better links and to get girls interested and to keep them interested.
“Girls play for very different reasons to boys – it’s not all about scoring goals and glory. It’s more about fun and playing with friends. We’re also hoping to target the mothers because if they’re active and supportive then that has a positive effect on daughters – and sons – to get them interested in sport.
“We need to get girls involved early so football becomes a natural part of their lifestyle and they move up through the game with their friends.”
On the bigger footballing map Sheila is also vice chair of Uefa’s Women’s Committee and a Uefa match delegate, which this week meant she was in charge of Wednesday’s Champions League game between Barcelona and Brondby IF and next week will make the draw for the finals of that competition.
“It’s such a privilege and an honour to do this job,” she smiles. “And I get to see some great women’s football. When I was young, the idea of having a career in women’s football just wasn’t considered possible. It shows how much has changed.”
Some things, however, remain the same. While other countries with a supposed macho culture broadened their minds and the game as far back as the 70s – Italy’s failure in the ’78 World Cup focussed minds on developing women’s football there – Scotland either ignored it or made sure it was relegated to amateur status. In fact, it was also in 1978 that Scotland became the only country to vote against developing the women’s game through Uefa. Even now the game is considered, by the unenlightened, to be solely a male preserve, as the recent fall-out from a newspaper column by comedian and radio sports presenter Tam Cowan proves.
In his article he disparaged the players involved in Scotland’s trouncing of Bosnia and suggested the ground, Fir Park, the national women’s squad’s home venue, should be burned.
But perhaps there has been progress – the backlash against his “comedic sexism” saw him temporarily suspended from his BBC Radio Scotland show. At the time, Sheila refused to get drawn into the argument, but she admits that such criticism of the women’s game is incredibly harmful.
“There’s been a lot of in-built resistance in some quarters to the women’s game so we’ve made sure we’ve worked with those who are supportive in the hope that we can then change the opinions of others. For the majority of people, once they come to see a women’s game they are really captivated by it and come on side with what we’re trying to do.” She adds: “Our coach Anna Signeul, who is from Sweden, has said she’s never been in a country which is so passionate about football – that people will watch anything – but not women’s football.
“It’s very strange as it’s the same game, though I’d argue it’s perhaps a purer form as there’s less physicality and more emphasis on skill and passing. But we’re constantly having to argue a positive case, so anything which detracts from that can be harmful.
“We’ve started to build a bit of momentum in terms of media coverage especially with the games being covered by BBC Alba, and Radio Scotland is giving a lot of support, so that’s all very positive, as is the support from the Scottish Government. And there’s so much good news to talk about in terms of the progress of the national team and the clubs.
“In fact, Scotland is being looked at by other European teams as a shining example of how things can change and progress. A lot of that’s been done by Anna under the radar, but it’s making a real difference.”
Signeul was hired eight years ago and since then the structure of the women’s game has changed to make the league clubs much more involved. “She said if we wanted Scotland to be a force in Europe and the world then we needed to deliver more through the clubs. To train two nights a week and play on a Sunday was not enough. There was no point trying to shape a team if the players were technically not good enough to deliver the basic skills of the game,” says Sheila.
“There was some resistance at first but the clubs became committed to trying more and that’s had a major impact. Players are training four and five times a week and then playing at weekends. Players in the national squad are training ten times a week.”
The SWFA also got together with the women’s associations in Holland and England to create an annual cup competition in Cyprus, which says Sheila, really opened the Scottish women’s clubs eyes to what could be achieved nationally.
“We want Scotland’s women’s clubs to be among the top eight teams in Europe which will then benefit the national team, which at the moment is ranked 11th in Europe, 20th in the world.”
Certainly facilities are about to get better thanks to the £25 million national performance centre about to be built at Heriot-Watt University. It will be used as a training ground for Scotland’s women’s team, and Sheila hopes it will also lead to Scotland hosting the 2017 Women’s Euros.
“We’ve put in a note of interest to bid, because the new centre will have a replica Hampden pitch and a fantastic indoor pitch inside a bubble, so you can still see the outside, which will be a brilliant venue.
“It could be a great facility for Edinburgh to really sell itself. There could be a huge pay off in terms of numbers of girls wanting to play football – that’s what’s happened in countries hosting previous tournaments. There’s been more investment and the game has reached a higher standing. And that is what we’re all working for.”
Career started with the boys
ROSE Reilly was brought up in East Ayrshire and began her career aged seven with boys’ club Stewarton United.
She made her debut for the women’s side Stewarton Thistle Ladies in 1965 and was part of the team when it lifted the inaugural Scottish Cup in 1971. The following year she moved to play for Westthorn United, winning the Scottish treble, but by 1974 at the age of 17 she was playing football professionally with French women’s side Reims. She then moved to ACF Milan for four years, winning two league titles, before moving on to Catania, Lecce, Naples and Florence – overall winning eight Serie A titles, four cups and the Golden Boot twice. She was capped ten times for Scotland, but was also selected to play for the Italian national women’s side and was voted best player in the Italian team which won the women’s World Cup in 1984, scoring in the 3-1 win over West Germany.
In 2007, she was inducted into the Scottish Sports Hall of Fame and the following year into the SFA’s Football Hall of Fame – and is still the only woman in it.