In hindsight, the freezing cold conditions while perched on a hill behind the metal fence that surrounds the pitch at Motherwell’s Braidhurst Academy was not the best introduction to women’s football in Scotland writes Andy Ross.
Having taken on the position of videographer for the Motherwell Ladies side at the beginning of February, my first task was filming their home fixture with Edinburgh University Hutchison Vale.
During the close season, Motherwell had moved across to be controlled by the football club rather than the Community Trust and one of the first acts was to appoint Eddie Wolecki Black as manager. Bringing the most successful manager in the history of Scottish women’s football to the club was a real statement of intent and the former Glasgow City boss quickly got to work on building a squad he believed would achieve promotion to the top-flight at the first time of asking.
To be honest, at the time of my arrival my knowledge of women’s football was limited and a few of my mates sniggered at the suggestion I was going to get involved in the game at all. I had watched Scotland in the European Championships in 2017 and through my work with the MFC Podcast had met a few of the players who had played with Motherwell, most notably Suzanne Grant who had starred for Arsenal, Celtic and represented Scotland on over 100 occasions. It wasn’t that I had a particularly negative view of the game, it had just never managed to hold my attention.
My first 90 minutes in my role at Motherwell certainly managed to do that – an 8-0 victory, featuring some fantastic goals and a standard of football well above what I anticipated. While the quality on the pitch was impressive, the ‘matchday experience’ fell way short. With the driving wind and the temperature falling below freezing, there was visible delight on the faces of both sets of players and the 50 or so spectators on the full-time whistle.
Entry to all Motherwell home games was free of charge throughout the duration of the season, but with no facilities for snacks, drinks or even a sheltered area to escape the elements, it would have been difficult challenge for anyone to justify charging anyone to attend the matches.
Before my first game I had only been briefly introduced to Eddie and his assistant Donald Jennow. I knew of Ed’s background, his unprecedented success at Glasgow City, taking over at Airdrie and the incredible resilience he had shown in his recovery after suffering a stroke during an away fixture at Cowdenbeath in 2016. On taking the job, Wolecki Black offered his thanks to Alan Burrows for giving him another go at management, it took me a matter of ten minutes after that win at Braidhurst to realise why there was very little risk attached to the appointment.
Eddie is a football obsessive, he commands respect from his players and furthermore, players want to play for him. So much respect, that some in the Motherwell squad had come out of retirement – such was their desire to play under the inspirational gaffer.
Assistant boss Jennow was charged with handling much of the coaching of the team and carried himself in an equally impressive manner. He and Eddie had been a partnership for almost five years at City before moving to Airdrie together. After the post-match debrief was complete, Donald copied all footage from the match on to his laptop ahead of spending his Sunday evening assessing what went well and which areas of the performance required work.
The management team, along with goalkeeper coach Andy Moran had demonstrated the qualities that had helped them achieve great success during their careers to date. It was clear this wasn’t a hobby, everyone was taking this very seriously and carrying themselves in an extremely professional manner.
Having the opportunity to witness the efforts of players and staff up close was a real eye opener for me. Almost immediately I felt a degree of frustration too, it seemed somewhat unfair that the efforts were rewarded by such a sparse crowd and that so many misconceptions surrounded women’s football in Scotland.
Following my debut, I was determined to try play a small part in improving the profile of the women’s game and the coverage of the Motherwell side. The talented media team at Fir Park is arguably the best in Scotland, they have won countless awards and continue to set the bar high with innovative and quality content. The problem lies in resources, with coverage of the men’s side and reserves taking up so much of the time of the three guys on the media team, quite often a Sunday is their only day off.
In university student Andrew Scott, we found a gem. Andrew is in his final year at university and is a diehard ‘Well fan. Starting with the SWPL Cup tie against Rangers, he quickly made his mark on covering the 90 minutes of the match to the levels you would expect for a men’s game. With that came elevated interest levels, we were slowly discovering that perhaps the interest was there, people just never had any information to fuel that interest.
Motherwell made a blistering start to the season and as the campaign headed towards the summer break, it was clear the ‘women of steel’ were right on course for promotion. It hadn’t been all plain sailing though, there was a points deduction for a team-sheet error meaning the 2-1 victory over Killie became a 3-0 defeat. The freedom of players to move to another club had seen some players depart and factors such as work, family life were also playing a part too. It was another area I hadn’t considered, the dedication to give up the majority of Sunday’s to play football, while still maintaining families, professional jobs, studies, etc is commendable enough, to do so without financial gain and just for the love of the game is quite extraordinary.
One of the final games before the break was a trip to Aberdeen, with the team setting out early on the morning of the game and arriving home after 9pm. A fiery affair would see three ‘Well players sent off, while Wolecki Black was sent to the stand – only for Moran to explain that given he walks with the aid of a stick, the lap of the running track would be the equivalent of a marathon for his gaffer – eventually the ref settled for him positioning himself behind the dugout.
The game ended 1-1 and on the bus home, passions were still running high. I was probed to bring up incidents on my laptop by both players and staff, Eddie’s usual relaxed demeanour had been replaced by anger. I always enjoyed a long trip with Ed as it meant long conversations about all things football, on this occasion though I opted just to do what I was asked with little dialogue in between. An hour or so later though, he’d cooled down and his head was buried in Johan Cruyff’s autobiography, he was getting over his frustrations about a game of football, by reading about a footballer.
Going into the break, I felt the profile of the team was building. The club had worked with me in creating a schedule of content that would appear on the official website, goal highlights would appear on Twitter shortly after games, I’d write a match report for the ‘Well website and Andrew would work with the local papers, as well as covering the 90 minutes in-depth on social media. A source of frustration continued to be the crowds, even the second fixture against EUHV, which was played at Fir Park, was poorly attended – the team were producing the goods and results, but the supporters were not turning out.
The summer break in women’s football lasts around six weeks and it represents somewhat of a missed opportunity in my view. Of course, there were some overlap with the men’s World Cup, but that was the case with some of the fixtures in June too. The summer is notoriously a time where there is a lack of domestic football and sports writers across the country are scrambling to find copy, yet with what seemed like an open goal the women’s game also shutdown.
During the summer break Eddie was approached by Celtic about taking over as their head coach and after a period of deliberation he accepted the role. The news came as more of a disappointment than a shock, he and Donald had overseen massive change in the women’s setup at Fir Park and it had been bringing results. As part of the terms of his move to Celtic Park, Ed vowed to complete his aim of securing Motherwell promotion to the top flight, which looked to be just three victories away.
Fixtures resumed on 5th August, perfectly coinciding with the start of the Scottish Premiership season. Doubly frustrating for me was that the kick-off time in our match against St Johnstone, clashed with the men’s team taking on Hibs at Easter Road (though later I would regard that as a real bit of good fortune). It would be almost impossible during points of the season to schedule a full fixture list to avoid the men’s and women’s team’s games clashing, but staggering the start times would surely be a more sensible approach? Except for friends and family members, just one Motherwell supporter made the trip to McDiarmid Park – a level of devotion that if demonstrated in the men’s game would go viral, whereas here it’s just considered the norm.
Another fixture clash came when ‘Well hosted Rangers in the Scottish Premiership and travelled to EUHV in SWPL2 action. I had yet to miss a match since coming on board and opted to give my season ticket to a friend and make the trip along the M8 to cover a game where, if Motherwell were victorious, they would clinch the title. By the time we arrived at Peffermill Sports Grounds, Motherwell had taken the lead against Rangers, but by the time we reached half-time, the Ibrox side were 3-2 ahead with minutes remaining. We clamoured round a phone, trying to get a reception to watch on the BT Sport app, when that failed, we resorted to the digital pitch on a betting application – I still maintain we were lucky not to be cautioned for over-celebrating Peter Hartley’s stoppage time equaliser.
While the men were celebrating a hard-earned point, the women of steel captured the league title with a 5-1 success in the capital. The players celebrated on the pitch and the coaching staff emphasised the importance of savouring the moment. On social media the messages of congratulations flooded in, the team had delivered silverware for Motherwell FC and for that reason the fans were rightly delighted.
Having secured his aim of the title, Eddie departed for Celtic and ‘Well moved quickly to promote Jennow to the post of head coach. It was an opportunity richly deserved for a coach who had served his apprenticeship under a vastly experienced boss, but also dedicated so much time and effort into preparation and training. What impressed me too, was Donald making it his priority to speak to everyone involved in the setup, to gauge what they felt could be improved and whether he could contribute anything to making those changes. I had been made to feel very welcome since arriving at the beginning of the season, but I did feel the workload was heavy with match build-up and then commitments around a matchday, knowing that your contribution is valued helps makes a huge difference.
The league title was in the bag, so the focus turned to success in the Scottish Cup, where the team had progressed to the semi-final stage after another battling win over St Johnstone. The draw would pair Motherwell with Spartans, the conquerors of Wolecki Black’s Celtic in the previous round. A meeting with Celtic would have been an interesting scenario so soon after his departure, especially as his wife Emma had remained at the club following his departure and while it would have made for a good story, there wasn’t too much disappointment on our side that the scenario didn’t come to pass.
Stirling Albion’s Forthbank Stadium was the venue for Scottish women’s football’s version of ‘Super Sunday’. Glasgow City took on Hibs, before ‘Well faced Spartans. While there wasn’t what you’d describe as a ‘bumper crowd’ on hand for either fixture, there was a notable buzz around the ground. City v Hibs is a meeting of the two juggernauts of the women’s game in Scotland, while our meeting with Spartans threw up the opportunity for a side in the second tier to upset the odds and reach the Scottish Cup final. There was more media interest, a few more fans with claret and amber in the stands and both matches were broadcast live on the BBC Sport website.
Motherwell recorded a 3-1 victory over their top flight opponents, in a game where I realised, I’d certainly caught the women’s football bug. It was brilliant to see all the hard work of everyone involved paying off, I felt Andrew and myself deserved to enjoy the victory too, we’d both given up a great deal of time and effort – the success was described as a ‘team effort’ in Jennow’s post-match interview and you could tell he meant it.
The Scottish Cup final took place at Firhill on the first Sunday in November with ‘Well taking on a Hibs side aiming for their third successive Scottish Cup triumph. The build up to the big day was tremendous, with the SWF and both club’s working in tandem to ensure the game was promoted to the maximum of our abilities. All of the efforts were on show as we arrived at the home of Partick Thistle just under two hours ahead of kick-off, the stage was set for the biggest game on the women’s football calendar.
Now as a Motherwell diehard, I’m becoming somewhat accustomed to the referee blowing for kick-off to be the point where my cup final experience takes a turn for the worst and unfortunately this occasion was to be no different. Hibs represented a step too far and they smashed home six goals without reply in a relentless first-half display. They’d add two further goals in the second-half to confirm an 8-0 win. All the excitement and pride had been replaced by feelings of embarrassment and disappointment – it was not how any of us envisaged the day would go – it simply had passed us by.
It’ll hurt for a bit, but in time we’ll reflect on 2018:
SWPL 2 Champions ?
SWPL 2 Record Points Total ?
Scottish Cup Finalists ?
1️⃣1️⃣0️⃣ Goals in 26 Games ?
Suzanne Mulvey: SWPL 2 Top Scorer?@ScotWFootball Team of the Year Nominees ⚽️ pic.twitter.com/tnJTK7mH0U
— Motherwell LFC (@MotherwellLFC) November 5, 2018
A record women’s Scottish Cup final crowd of 1943 turned up to Firhill for a matchday experience which couldn’t have been more contrasting to my first game just nine months earlier. It was a proper family affair, the pyrotechnics for the teams walking out, the confetti following Hibs lifting the trophy all contributed to creating the feeling of a big occasion. It demonstrated that if done properly, then the Scottish women’s game has a great opportunity to expand and this will only be enhanced as the coverage of the national side is ramped up ahead of next summer’s World Cup in France. Of course, there are many more contributing factors, particularly in the development of youth players, providing them a pathway into the top teams in the country and in moving the game towards gaining semi-professional status but it would take far more than the remainder of my word count to get into any depth regarding both factors. [Maybe next time Andy? 😉 – SK Ed]
What I have learned though, is there is an abundance of talented footballers, coaches and staff as well as those involved in senior roles with the authorities governing the women’s game that are devoted to making the game better. The Firhill final should be used as a benchmark and hopefully we’ll gradually see the days of standing in the freezing cold, without shelter, become a thing of the past.
At Motherwell, our output continues to expand, and we are already making plans ahead of our SWPL1 campaign, with the aim of returning bigger and better. Hopefully playing a small role in breaking down those misconceptions.
Check out Andy’s blog in it’s original home HERE: ANDY ROSS
and follow him on Twitter: @AJR2022
IT’S THE SCOTTISH WOMEN’S FOOTBALL (SWF) AWARDS TOMORROW NIGHT – WE WILL BRING YOU NEWS OF THE WINNERS AS IT HAPPENS. HAVE A GREAT NIGHT, IF YOU ARE ATTENDING!