The Story of Rose Reilly: A Scottish Football Pioneer

Gerry Hassan

Scottish Review, May 29th 2019

Scottish football is on the way up – at the international level, in quality, achievements and in its recognition by others. Our national team has just beaten the mighty Brazil for the first time ever, and if that were not enough, has qualified after a long fallow period for the World Cup finals taking place this summer in France.

This is not some parallel universe or fantasy Scotland, but actually what is happening now in women’s football which is currently undergoing a renaissance, and belatedly beginning to get the recognition it has long deserved.

It has been a long and difficult journey to get to this. Previously the Scottish women’s game was marginalised, patronised, dismissed, and even, the subject of banning for much of the 20th century, which denied at least two generations of talented women the opportunity to play football at a senior level in this country.

All this forms a backdrop to the timely, moving new film about the life and achievements of Rose Reilly, made by Purple TV and Margot McCuaig, and which will be first broadcast on BBC Alba this coming weekend. It tells how Reilly overcame entrenched resistance from football authorities in Scotland, and found fame and fortune in Italy playing for AC Milan, winning the Women’s World Cup with Italy in 1984, and the same year being awarded the accolade of Women’s World Player of the Year.

Her personal story provides the opportunity to bring to public attention the long forgotten Neanderthal attitudes of those who ran football in this country and saw it as the preserve of men, with the women’s game as something to be discouraged and actively suppressed.

Women’s football was formally banned in Scotland in 1921 in the aftermath of the First World War (it also being banned in England that year). This was a conscious attempt after war, and intensive female employment in industry, to re-emphasise traditional female roles in the home which football was seen to undermine.

For those who think such prehistoric attitudes lie deep in Scotland’s distant past prepare for a shock. In 1971 UEFA decided that the time had now come to promote and integrate women’s football and passed a near-unanimous vote to this effect – 31 votes to one – the single dissenting voice being the dinosaurs of the SFA. And it was to take until 1974 for the football authorities to finally relent and unban the women’s game here, the SFA’s official minutes recording that ‘they reluctantly gave official recognition to the women’s game’, waiting until 1998 before they brought the game under the auspices of the SFA.

This is the context of Rose Reilly’s life story, achievements and many successes – gained in the face of entrenched and unenlightened attitudes on the part of senior men in positions of power running the game in Scotland.

Born in Stewarton, Ayrshire, in 1955, into a working class and Catholic family where she was one of eight, Reilly knew from an early age that she was gifted and loved football. At the tender age of four, she had a crisis of identity when she was given a doll as a Christmas present, which appalled her. ‘I went straight out among the local kids’, she remembers, ‘and eventually managed to swap that doll for a football.’

This was not the end of things but only the beginning. ‘My mother didn’t know what to do with me’, Rose says, who showed her identification and love for the game by sleeping each night with her football for a whole year – ‘I fell in love with it. I was scared my mother or one of my brothers would take it off me.’

In her pre-pubescent years, Rose managed to play football in boy’s teams by cutting her hair very short to look like a boy and calling herself Ross. Playing in the boy’s game brought her success and attention, aided by her pace and growing ability, but this was to bring her first major disappointment.

After a particularly successful game in the boy’s team where she scored a barrel load of goals, word got around of the young player’s prowess. This led to the interest of a Celtic FC scout who said to the club ‘I’d like to sign right away yer wee number seven’, to which the youth coach replied, ‘sorry, you can’t, that’s actually a wee lassie.’ Rose remembers this defining moment well – ‘I got talking to that scout and I was raging about it. I just couldn’t understand why I couldn’t play for Celtic.’

Reilly continued to play boy’s football until puberty and biology made it obvious to all that she was a girl. This brought with it the weight of disapproval from school and church authorities in nearby Kilmarnock. ‘They finally got exasperated with me’ comments Rose, ‘and I got the belt, right across the hands. The headmaster said to me, ‘You are never going to learn, are you?’ I said, ‘Naw, it’s youse that are never going to learn. I just want to play football, I’m doing nothing wrong.’ Reilly adds poignantly: ‘Back then sometimes I felt like I would be burnt at the stake for playing football.’

Reilly as a young woman not only showed great aptitude as a footballer, but also in athletics, where she could have represented Scotland. But it was football to which her heart, commitment and skill belonged. Yet in 1970s Scotland the football authorities were doing all they could to discourage the women’s game, forcing talented players like Reilly to seek opportunity elsewhere.

She moved to France as a teenager in 1972, signing for Stade de Reims, before the following year taking the big step of moving to Italy and signing for AC Milan and playing at the legendary San Siro. This was to be the making of Reilly as she played seventeen years in Italian football, including for Lecce and Trani, winning eight league titles, four cups, and twice the Golden Boot for the most goals in a single season, scoring an outstanding 43 and 45 goals respectively.

Reilly’s years in Italy were among the happiest in her life. ‘I totally embraced Italy’ she recalls, talking of how she loved everything about the culture, from the cafes to nightlife, fashion and style. ‘I started drinking espresso coffee. My motto was, when in Rome, do as the Romans do. I was being wined and dined in restaurants all over Italy. Previously, the only place I’d been to was the chippie in Stewarton.’

Not only did Reilly perform at club level in one of the most passionate football countries in the world, but she also established herself at international level. Not for Scotland, but for Italy, with Reilly as the captain of the Italian team lifting the World Cup in 1984, scoring one of her team’s three goals in their 3-1 defeat of West Germany.

This is an uplifting, life-affirming story, about the triumph of talent, passion and belief rising above the small-minded and petty bureaucrats who ran men’s football, wanted to keep it as a closed shop and to keep women permanently outside of it.

Reilly is a wonderful character and witness to her own story and her achievements. She tells her account with wit, humour and a sense of authenticity which goes to her core. This is a woman who has encountered, what would have been to most people, insurmountable barriers and prejudice – and defeated them. When asked if she still feels anger towards those who banned her from football in her own country, she displays a Zen-like attitude with a soft degree of incredulity that people running the game could have been so stupid, along with a charm and great line in self-depreciation that belies deep courage and resilience.

Eventually the football authorities caught up. In 2007 Reilly was at long last inducted into the Football Hall of Fame, despite the disapproval and opposition of some of football’s dinosaurs. And this week Reilly and some of her fellow pioneers have been awarded in retrospect national caps for international games, before the SFA unbanned the game.

Reilly’s role as a trailblazer and ambassador is now widely recognised across the game, although unreconstructed male chauvinists still linger in parts of the football world. The Scottish coach of the women’s team heading off to France, Shelley Kerr, openly talks of the inspiration and pioneering role of Reilly (and her team mates Edna Neillis and Elsie Cook) all those years ago in what seem now like dark ages.

Rose Reilly’s accomplishments – as a player, as a role model and as someone aiding social change – is unquestionable and more than that, humbling and empowering, given the obstacles she faced from her earliest years. It is accurate, and right, to call her one of Scotland’s true football giants and legends – someone who should be seen and spoken of in the same breath as household names like Billy McNeill, John Greig, Archie Gemmell and Jimmy Johnstone, to name a few.

The film of her life, ‘Rose Reilly’, covers her story from her earliest years in Stewarton to the present, where at the age of 64 she reflects on a life that included retiring from football at the age of 40; marriage to an Argentinian doctor and psychotherapist, Norberto Peralta, and at 45, the birth of her only daughter, Valentina, who is now 19.

This is a story that needed to be told – about more than just football and the success of one extraordinary woman. It is also about the oppressive society Scotland was not that long ago, and how we all owe a debt of gratitude to the likes of Rose Reilly for refusing to defer to the mediocre men who said ‘no, you cannae dae that’.

But it also one where we should not imagine that the sexists and misogynists have been completely defeated – think in recent years of Tam Cowan’s dismissive remarks on women’s football; or that the accomplishments of Reilly and others have now been universally recognised – with no entry for Reilly or anyone else associated with women’s football in the just published New Biographical Dictionary of Scottish Women. It is wonderful that the women’s game is now being celebrated, but we still have a lot of progress to catch up on, and across society we are far removed from gender equality in any walk of life.

A special word has to go to Margot McCuaig who championed this as a project and saw it into production. ‘Making this film has been an emotional journey, but also an empowering one’ says Margot. Rose’s ‘legacy of self-belief, determination and hard-fought for success against the backdrop of deep-rooted misogyny in sport and society will undoubtedly inspire generations to come.’

It was appropriate then that as the successful Scottish national women’s team played their last match at Hampden against Jamaica before going to the World Cup in France that the SFA finally acknowledged the success of Rose and a generation of other women pioneers. At long last they have decided to recognise Rose and the team who played the international against England in 1972 – before the game was unbanned. Better late than never even if it is forty-seven years later. But as we cheer on Shelley Kerr and her talented squad over the summer let’s remember the giants they are standing on the shoulders of.