Women’s History Month – Scotland: Her Story, Part II

  08 Mar '21   |  Posted by: Birlinn

In our second extract from Rosemary Goring’s essential anthology, Scotland: Her Story, we present an interview with the only Scottish footballer to have played in a World Cup-winning team: Rose Reilly.

Rose Reilly with A.C.F. GBC Milan in the 1976 season, wearing the Scudetto as 1975 Italian champions. By Unknown author – Archive of the club, Public Domain, wikimedia

From Scotland: Her Story, edited by Rosemary Goring

There is little imminent likelihood of the Scotland squad matching Rose Reilly’s record as the only Scottish footballer to have played in a World Cup-winning team. Born in 1955, Reilly played for the Scottish and Italian national teams, and for clubs such as Reims and AC Milan, where she made her name. She is a member of the Scottish Football Hall of Fame and the Scottish Sports Hall of Fame. Yet when she was growing up in Stewarton, East Ayrshire, football was an all-male affair, and girls who wanted to play were chased off the pitch as if they were contagious. Women’s football is gradually gaining ground, but those who think it is still taking too long might find inspiration in her attitude to the game.

Scotland’s World Cup Winner

Hugh MacDonald, 1984

There is a tattoo in the shape of Sicily on the arm of Rose Reilly. It is a physical, tangible reminder of where her heart lies, but what precisely shaped this remarkable woman must remain mysterious. The Reilly story has its recognisable signposts on the journey to becoming a great footballer on foreign shores. There is the three-year-old escaping from mum and finding her way to a football pitch, the seven-year-old pretending she was a boy in a bid to be signed for Celtic, the child swapping a Christmas doll for a ball, the practised player nutmegging an infuriated Lorenzo Amoruso in a bounce match.

But there is more. This is a woman of substance. She gained fame, glory, medals and money by her exploits on the pitch. These include eight scudetti, four Italian Cups, a World Cup winner for her adopted Italy and league titles in France. But it is her very character, the strength of her conviction, that is her greatest triumph.

The story of how Reilly went abroad to work and the tale of why she came back is the most convincing testimony to her personality. At 62, Reilly retains much of her youthful exuberance and all of her determination which may, in terms of her native Stewarton, be described as thrawnness. But there is a softness, too. Reilly left for professional football because she was carried off by a love of the game. She returned because she bowed to her love of her mother.

Of her early career abroad that started at 17, she says of her exile: ‘I used to speak to myself in the mirror at night because there was nobody to talk to.’ Of her return three decades on, she says briskly: ‘My mother was sick in hospital. So we flew back home, abandoning my sports shop in Italy. My mum said: “Don’t leave me”. I didn’t. She lived on for nine years and we are still here.’ The ‘we’ is Reilly’s husband, Norberto, and the ‘wee miracle’ Meghan, the daughter she had 17 years ago.

The Stewarton lassie was a phenomenon. Her career in Italy encompassed Reims, AC Milan, Catania, Lecce and Tranni. She would play with Lecce on a Saturday then fly to France to play for Reims on a Sunday. Predictably, she won league titles with both clubs in the same season.

‘I never kept my medals. I always gave them away to guys or women at the side of the pitch,’ she says. ‘I never dwelled on what I won. I moved on to the next match.’

This is the precise definition of the insatiable winner. But where did it come from?

‘It’s in my genes,’ she says blithely. But its origin is more difficult to divine precisely. Dad was a football fan but not a formidable player, mum had no interest in football. The passion for the game alighted on Rose at three. It has never left her.

‘I nearly got burned at the stake,’ she says of the reaction in 1950s Ayrshire on discovering a girl who would not substitute a ball with a doll or a football strip for a blouse. At three, she found the local pitch. At seven, she was playing for the local boys’ club, attracting the attention of a Celtic scout. ‘The trainer told me I had to change my name and change at home,’ she says. ‘I scored eight goals one day and there was a Celtic scout. He wanted to talk to me but was told I was a wee lassie and so that was that. ‘I just thought: “How can I not play for Celtic?” I was devastated.’

She was an excellent athlete but football was a constant love. ‘I was training for the pentathlon but was told not to practise football because it was thickening my thighs. I lasted a week,’ she says of a time in her teens.

This passion for football has defined her. But so has the drive to make the most of her talent. With the help of a journalist, she discovered that professional football for women flourished in France.

‘I went over to Reims for a trial and I ran riot,’ she says flatly but accurately. Within six months AC Milan signed her.

‘As soon as I came off the plane, it was like a mother embracing me, I fell in love with Italy,’ she says. It was a romance that came with problems. ‘There was no communication back home then, no mobiles or email. Phone calls would have been out of the question. It was down to airmail.

‘I bought myself a dictionary and I learned three words every day because I thought four words a day would bamboozle me,’ she says.

This is an indication of her determination to master the practicalities of life abroad. Her faith in what she could do on the park, however, never required any bolstering.

‘Nothing fazed me,’ she says. ‘I remember walking out on to the pitch at San Siro just after I signed. I walked up to one of the goals and said: “I am going to score in that”. Then I walked up to the other end and said: “I am going to score in that”. I was mentally prepared. I was physically ready.’

She adds: ‘It’s not being big-headed. You must have belief.’ This confidence had enough reserves to enable Reilly to conjure up a nutmeg of a young Lorenzo Amoruso, a future captain of Rangers, in a bounce game in southern Italy. ‘He was not too pleased and stormed off in a huff after trying to put me up in the air,’ she says with a smile.

But this mental and physical strength was needed to take her from Stewarton to the very top of the woman’s game and then back to Ayrshire. ‘I remember as a kid I had this Stanley Matthews book and I would follow every instruction in it,’ she says. ‘I used to sleep with the window open because he talked of the importance of fresh air. There was five of us in the one room and my four sisters used to howl at me to close the window as an icy Ayrshire blast came in. I used to tell my mum that I had to have steak too. She would just reply that I would have mince and tatties once a week and get on with it.’

And she got on with it. A peerless professional career was followed by meeting Norberto, a political refugee from Argentina, and setting up a sports shop in Trani. The physical bond with Italy was broken when her mother’s illness necessitated a return to Ayrshire.

There are no regrets. ‘I am content. I did what I had to do,’ she says simply.

She now lives in a Scotland where the women’s team can qualify for major finals. ‘My thought is that is absolutely fantastic. But there is so much more to be done.

‘There has to be more football for girls in primary schools. There is a shocking lack of PE in primary schools and we have to address that. I am so proud that there is a [women’s] league in Scotland and of the success of the national team. That is great. It is a big, beautiful, blossoming tree but there are no strong roots. If a tree has not got roots it can wither. Get them young, get them interested and take it from there.’

She sips her macchiato and her fingers slip to touch the remembrance of Sicily on her arm. ‘I love it still,’ she says. She could be talking about football or Italy. She is probably speaking about both.

Click for more information about Scotland: Her Story
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