(Photo by Nathan Stirk/Getty Images)
Scotland face England in the Women’s Football World Cup on Sunday June 9 in what will inevitably be described in the press as a Battle of Britain – even if there’s hopefully a little less of the jingoism that usually accompanies the reporting of men’s football.
In this week of all weeks, the 75th anniversary of the D-Day landings, we are reminded that there are far more important things in life than sport. Yet make no mistake: for football lovers the length of the UK, any clash between Scotland and England is still a very big deal indeed.
England vs Scotland is the oldest rivalry in international football. The men’s teams from these two nations made history by playing against one another in the first official international in 1872. The game took place on Scotland’s national day, St Andrew’s Day, at a cricket club in Glasgow, and ended in a 0-0 draw. It was exactly 100 years before the women’s teams played the same fixture, again in Scotland, but this time finishing 3-2 in favour of England.
Yet that game took place at a time when women’s football was still all but banned in Scotland, with the football associations refusing to provide referees for games or to allow them to take place on proper pitches. These restrictions dated back to the 1920s, when those in charge of the men’s game decided it was not a suitable sport for women. The FA lifted the ban in England in 1971 but Scotland had to wait a few more years before women could officially play football there.
With such a long history of oppression and discrimination against women in football, it is pleasing to see this year’s World Cup tournament receiving so much build-up in the media. It’s Scotland’s first game in a Women’s World Cup finals – the men’s team hasn’t made it to the finals since 1998 – and there has been no attempt to brush the past under the carpet.
I have seen quite a bit of coverage given to the story of Rose Reilly, a striker who played for Scotland in the 1972 fixture, but was later prevented from playing for her country because she criticised the Scottish Football Association. She instead started turning out for Italy, and helped her adopted country lift the forerunner to the Women’s World Cup in 1984.
Becoming a world champion made Reilly something of a rarity among Scottish footballers. The men have usually underperformed at their World Cup, although the Scottish men’s 3-2 famous victory in 1967 over the English (World Cup winners in 1966) has meant that a few others may have staked such a claim once or twice in the past.
The number of players participating in girls’ and women’s football in Scotland has doubled in the past five years. Scotland’s last warm-up match for the 2019 World Cup, a 3-2 triumph over Jamaica, was played in front of a record crowd of 18,555 at Hampden Park. This shows the massive strides forward since the time they hosted England in 1972. On that occasion, no caps were awarded to the players – Rose Reilly and various players finally received their caps in the run-up to the current tournament.
Shelley Kerr and Phil Neville, the managers of Scotland and England respectively, are interesting figures to focus on as the second annual Coaching Week comes to an end in the UK. Kerr, who represented Scotland 59 times as a player and went on to manage Arsenal Ladies, was the subject of significant media coverage when she became the first woman to be appointed as the manager of a senior men’s football team at the University of Stirling in 2014.
The fact that this would attract such attention so recently demonstrates both the barriers that are still in place for female coaches – count how many women manage men’s professional teams – and is also a testament to Kerr’s undoubted quality as a coach.
Neville, meanwhile, is a former England international and perhaps has the highest playing profile of any coach to work in women’s football in the UK – thanks to his distinguished playing career. He is regarded as a good coach and a master of the step-over – a trick demonstrated in the video below.
Yet he’s perhaps only the second-best coach in the Neville family. No, I’m not referring to his brother Gary: Phil’s twin sister Tracey led England’s netball team to victory at the 2018 Commonwealth Games and also has a World Cup to prepare for this summer.
Whichever of these strategists comes out on top at the Allianz Riviera stadium in Nice, it promises to be a cracking game. As a Welshman, I can sit on the fence in predicting the final score, but it should be a lot closer than the last match between the two nations, when England defeated Scotland 6-0 at the 2017 European Championships. This Scottish team is considered much more experienced, and features a number of players who play their club football in England.
You have to go back to Euro 96 for the last time England played Scotland in a senior men’s international tournament, when the winning goal in the 2-0 England victory was scored by Paul Gascoigne. England fans will never forget him hitting the net followed by the famous “dentist’s chair” celebrations.
For Scots seeking happier memories, they might prefer to think back to the 2-1 victory in 1976 when Joe Jordan outflanked his English counterparts and chipped the ball across to Kenny Dalglish who pushed it through the legs of the goalkeeper.
With the latest clash between England and Scotland being screened live on BBC One, it’s a real opportunity for a woman to claim their place in the history of this fixture. Ten years from now, in the build-up to a future battle with the Auld Enemy, it would be fantastic if a goal by a female footballer at World Cup 2019 features alongside the likes of Gazza and Dalglish in montage clips of the greatest moments that this fixture has had to offer.