“I’d have went to the moon”, she said, with a steely, sincere gaze. “If they’d played football there, I’d have went”.
It’s 2019 and the Scotland women’s football team is on the verge of a big ‘first’. In just a few months, they will represent the nation at the Women’s World Cup in their opening fixture against England. No other Scottish team has qualified before.
And yet, a young girl from East Ayrshire once went one step better.
In a career spanning from the early seventies to mid eighties, Rose Reilly journeyed the distance of what must have felt like the moon from the red ash pitches of Stewarton to the hallowed turf of the San Siro and, finally, the annals of international footballing glory in 1984.
Until very recently, however, it’s a story that the Scottish footballing authorities wanted nothing to do with at all.
Reilly was born in 1955 into a large, Catholic family in Stewarton on the west coast of Scotland, just over twenty miles south of Glasgow. Reilly took to playing football from a very young age. It was a time in which the game was regarded as unsuitable for girls at nearly every level.
Scotland had first been represented in women’s international football as far back as 1881, but, by 1921, the Scottish Football Association (SFA) followed the example of their English counterparts and took steps to ban the women’s game altogether. Female teams were no longer permitted to play on SFA member pitches, be officiated by SFA referees, or even assemble a national squad in its name.
As a ‘wee lassie’ in East Ayrshire, Reilly got used to jumping over barriers designed to stop her playing. Sometimes literally. Every day at school she would scale the dividing wall between the girls and boys playground, whipping off her kilt into shorts to do battle on the concrete pitches. She was belted on every occasion. “I didnae care”, she recalled sheepishly. “As long as I got a game of football”.
She became incredibly creative to get a game. Following the advice of the local boys’ team manager, Reilly took herself to the barbers and got a short back and sides cut to try and fool opponents. Her mother was less than pleased. So convincing was Reilly’s appearance that she had a hard time convincing the newly formed Stewarton Thistle Ladies team at the age of seven that she really was a girl.
By nine years old, Reilly was permitted to play with the Ladies team. She more than held her own against her adult teammates who were amazed by her pace, passing ability and strength on the ball. Joining the ranks at Stewarton Thistle was a seismic step for Reilly. It provided her first real taste of competitive fixtures and, before long, silverware. In the newly established Scottish Women’s Football Association league, Thistle won the inaugural Scottish Cup and Charity Shield in 1971 and even clinched the Women’s Mitre Cup, a competition contested by teams across Great Britain, in 1972 with a win over Southampton.
It also introduced Reilly to two teammates, Elsie Cook and Edna Nellis, who would go on to become lifelong companions as they fought to play at the highest level. And they embraced the struggle with good humour.
In 1972, on their way to represent Scotland (unofficially, of course) against England, the bus they were travelling on broke down. Undeterred, the team all piled onto the back of a furniture van in Glasgow and eventually made it to Ravenscraig Stadium in time for kick-off. It was a stark contrast to the same fixture played by the men’s teams that year in front of a 119,325 strong crowd at Hampden Park (England, incidentally, won on both occasions!).
As time went on, Reilly sensed her playing opportunities had reached a dead-end. She read about Anna O’Brien, a young Irish midfielder who had gone to France and was now making a name for herself at the Stade de Reims. Reims was at the forefront of the developing women’s game in France. Along with Nellis and Cook, Reilly hatched a plan to become part of this exciting new world.
In a remarkable gesture of self-confidence, Nellis and Reilly marched to the Daily Record offices in Glasgow and convinced a secretary they had a meeting with top sports reporter, Stan Shivers. Armed with a portfolio of pictures and match reports compiled by Cook, they wasted no time in announcing to Shivers that they wanted a crack at the big time.
Amazingly, Shivers agreed to help. He arranged a meeting with officials at Reims and even had the two Scots girls flown out to France at the Record’s expense. By half-time in their trial game, Reims were already convinced by what they had seen. Nellis and Reilly were signed on the spot. The start of an incredible new chapter began and, by the end of the 1973 season, both women had their first French title to their name.
And then AC Milan came calling. Italy was at the epicentre of women’s football in Europe at the time. Whereas the game attracted derision in Scotland, Italy heralded the growth in women’s teams with interest and excitement. League and club structures were well organised and propped up by funding from a range of private investors and sponsors.
Reilly describes the moment she descended from the aircraft steps onto the tarmac at Rome Airport as one of ‘coming home’. Nonetheless, by her own admission, the Ayrshire teenager “hadn’t even had spaghetti hoops before I went out”.
Soon left to fend for herself after Nellis became homesick and returned to Scotland, Reilly set about immersing herself in the new culture as much as she could. She practiced the language in front of a mirror, and grew to embrace espressos and hearty dining at local restaurants. And then there was the fashion. In clips from the time, Reilly cuts a self-assured, bronzed figure, weaving her way through the streets of Milan in golden hoops and fitted trench coats as she picks out fresh produce from local markets. Reilly had more than found her place.
And then, out of the blue, came an announcement from the SFA. Reilly, Nellis and Cook were served sine die bans and prevented from representing their country ever again. It was a great shock for the three former teammates who, although outspoken about the lack of support from the Scottish authorities, had nonetheless done so much to promote the women’s game at home and abroad. No formal justification was ever given for the ban.
Reilly put the rejection to the back of her mind. She soon made a name for herself on the pitch. She shot past players at great speed, delivered pin-point accurate crosses into the box and threw herself into every tackle. Fans adored her. In the red and black stripes of AC Milan, Reilly won two league titles and two Golden Boots as the top scorer in Serie A across two different seasons, before going on to enjoy further successes with teams in Catania and Lecce.
Remarkably, in the 1978–79 season she even won leagues in two separate countries. Always eager to play, Reilly was persuaded by Reims to fly over to France and play for her former club on Sunday afternoons, having featuring for Lecce in southern Italy the previous day.
Yet Reilly was hungry for international football. Ever the pragmatist, in 1984 she persuaded the President of the Italian Women’s Football Federation to let her do the unthinkable. Without present-day FIFA citizenship rules, Reilly, who had by this point lived in Italy for around 11 years, was welcomed with open arms by teammates and supporters alike when she turned out for the national team in the first ever Mundialito Cup (the precursor to the FIFA Women’s World Cup).
In a fairy-tale like final against West Germany, Reilly scored to help Italy secure the coveted trophy. Fans rushed onto the pitch at the final whistle and hoisted the Scots girl onto their shoulders, her status as an Italian national hero confirmed.
Reilly continued to play domestic football in Italy until the age of 40. After retiring, she ran a sports shop on the isle of Sicily, started a family, and then finally returned to Scotland in 2001.
Back home, nobody even knew who Reilly was.
By 2007 they did. That year, along with household names including Alan Hansen, Ally McCoist and Gordon Strachan, Reilly was inducted into the Scottish Football Hall of Fame in recognition of her incredible career.
Twelve years later, at the final warm-up game for the Scotland women’s team before they left for the 2019 World Cup, Reilly was invited onto the pitch at Hampden during half time. The SFA formally recognised the 1972 Scotland v England game as an international fixture, and Reilly was awarded her cap in front of a record crowd.
Reilly’s role had, at long last, been accepted into the narrative of Scottish footballing history.
Today, Reilly recounts her career with great wit and a down-to-earth manner, framed by heavy, west coast of Scotland tones. She sports a trail of ink on her right arm: an outline of Sicily on the forearm, and thin parallel bands of red, white and green running all the way around her wrist.
It’s a reminder that, official recognition or not, Reilly has always comfortably occupied two different worlds in her own mind: “a Scottish heart beating under an Italian jersey”.