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In our latest foray behind enemy lines, our man in a tracksuit plays slow and slack with the footballing femmes fatales of the
Words: Andrew Burnet Photograph: Craig Sanders
I WAS ALWAYS picked last for the football team. Nobody wanted me, because I was a liability. I couldn’t kick straight, run fast or tackle. Any chance encounter with the ball was likely to result in an own goal. In short, I was a duffer. When I found myself dropped from the school’s eighth rugby XV, replaced by a boy three years my junior. I packed what was left of my dignity into an old kit bag and declared myself a non- sportsman.
One January night nearly two decades later, I am standing on a windswept football
22 THE UST 6—19 Feb 1998
pitch in Glasgow. quivering like an underfed whippet despite several layers of cheap
designer sportswear. All around me. the
I feel out of place on any sports field; but never more so than here and now. The other players in this game are female. They're good, and they know it.
Maryhill Eagles are ducking and weaving, dribbling and passing, shouting, shooting and scoring. 1, meanwhile, am hovering a few yards from the goalmouth, hoping fervently
that the ball doesn’t stray my way. Kenny Dalglish I ain‘t.
I feel out of place on any sports field: but never more so than here and now. The other players in this game are female, and they form one of ten teams in the Premier League of the Scottish Women’s Football Association. They're good. and they know it — they recently beat League winners Ayr United.
The evening begins painlessly enough. Arriving at North Kelvinside Academy. where the team trains. I am welcomed unexpectedly into the women‘s changing room. There, the team‘s secretary Carol Anne Stewart (Cas to her mates) and her right-hand woman Laura Montgomery introduce me to the girls. They’re a lean and hungry-looking crew, aged from 15 (goalkeeper Donna Harris) to 38 (centre defender Isobel MacGillivray). Football, Cas tells me, is now the UK’s fastest-growing participation sport for women.
Every Tuesday and Thursday evening, these twenty or so dedicated sportswomen assemble for two hours‘ training. They are led by two male manager/coaches: Tom Elliott, a former pro player for Partick Thistle and Stenhousemuir, and John Hollis, who spent several years as a soccer coach in America, and confides quietly that the women there are keener. more willing to work.
Lowered voices don‘t come naturally to Tom and John, I quickly discover. For no fee at all (everyone here is an amateur — in the true sense of doing it for love not money), they are happy to yell and cajolc, swear and gesticulate at the girls for two hours without a break. Their aim is simple: to instil in the Eagles the skill, drive and killer instinct that takes Scottish male footballers to the top of their profession.
This evening, the squad is working on ball skills and tactics, an area from which I can exclude myself with a clear conscience. Sectarianism is not an issue, but being a two- left-footer just ruins it for everyone else. I settle for watching the coaches harass the girls — who eventually perform nimble scissor- movements and deft passes guaranteed to confound an opponent - and chatting with Laura, who wins my personal Roy Castle award for dedication (that’s what you need). Twice a week, she takes time out from studies at Glasgow University for ‘light training’. despite nursing an injury that will keep her off the pitch for two years. ‘lt‘s the same injury that Paul Gascoigne had,‘ she says, with perhaps a trace of pride.
Fifteen minutes from the end, I am beginning to think I have got off lightly, when John announces a match: under-30s versus over-30s. And the latter team is outnumbered, so l‘m playing.
I have a vague notion that games like this are called ‘friendlies’. By the end, having repeatedly failed to defend our goals from the attentions of under-30 strikers, I am convinced I have no friends, even among my own side. Luckily, our team is declared the winner, possibly because John — who’s been playing on our side -— is the referee.
Back in the changing rooms, the girls are jovial and relaxed, beaming and bantering for the camera. For the final shot, they squish round me, even allowing me to hold the ball. I feel almost forgiven.