Friday 31 May 2019, 20:37

Recognising the Ravenscraig pioneers

  • England and Scotland’s debut women’s international took place in 1972

  • The pair face off in France 2019 opener on 9 June

  • Women involved in 1972 match recall the early struggles of women’s football

History will be made when England and Scotland step on to the pitch in Nice in their FIFA Women’s World Cup France 2019™ Group D clash – the Scots' first-ever match at the global finals. But while it is a debut for one of these sides, their rivalry is steeped in five decades of tradition.

In 1972, they met in both nations’ inaugural international, a friendly at the Ravenscraig Stadium in Greenock, Scotland. Those involved that day spoke to to paint a picture of the game itself, what it was like to be a true pioneer of the women’s game, and the challenges and hurdles female footballers faced in the 1970s.

The historic game, which took place almost exactly 100 years after England and Scotland met in the first men’s international, would not have happened were it not for the collaborative efforts of Pat Gregory, then honorary secretary of the English Women’s Football Association (WFA) and Elsie Cook, then secretary of the Scottish Women’s Football Association (SWFA). Gregory contacted Cook, both helped arrange the travel and logistics, and the venue of Ravenscraig Stadium was settled on, partly because of a longstanding ban by the Scottish Football Association (SFA) on the use of professional-level pitches.

Scotland v England - poster for first women's international in 1972

“Scotland were the most appropriate first international [opponents] to play,” Gregory said. “We had no idea we were making history. We were having an international match, which seemed the logical thing to do. We were just playing a game. There were no grand thoughts.”

“We didn’t have any financial backing,” Cook said. “The strips were bought by a provident cheque [Editor’s note: a sort of loan], the shorts were borrowed from Rangers Football Club. The badges and the numbers I bought myself and stitched on.”

With the WFA more established (inaugurated in 1969) and having a pool of almost 200 teams to select players from, the SWFA were the underdogs, with just six club sides from which to select their squad at that time. There was further adversity as the SFA did not recognise the women’s game formally until 1974. This game was played without the backing of their nation’s governing body.

“A lot of people always maintained that women shouldn’t play football,” said Jean Hunter, right-back in the 1972 Scotland side at the age of 17. “I think the attitude towards women in the game was reflective of society at the time.”

That adversity was a driving force for many of those involved on 18 November 1972. The passion and ability on both sides certainly provided an entertaining match. Scotland raced into a two-goal lead, thanks to goals from Mary Carr and Rose Reilly – the latter direct from a corner kick. England hit back through Sylvia Gore before half-time, with goals from Lynda Hale and Jeannie Allott after the break sealing a 3-2 victory.

Two players battle for the ball during the Scotland-England first women's international at Ravenscraig Stadium in 1972

“For me, and for my family, to score a goal for my country, it was something special,” recalled Hale, then an 18-year-old right winger. “Outside of my family and the few friends that knew, it didn’t really get any publicity. People I worked with didn’t know anything about it.”

“There’s no feeling like it,” echoed Reilly, who was a 17-year-old striker at the time of the game. “Because you’ve got the national pride, it’s not just another football game. It’s scoring for your country, it’s one of the best feelings in the world.”

“The thing I remember the most is that it was absolutely freezing,” Hunter recalled. “There was snow and ice on the ground. I remember doing a tackle and sliding right off the pitch across the ice!”

Players and technical staff celebrate a goal during the Scotland-England women's international match at Ravenscraig Stadium in 1972

“It was exciting,” said Wendy Owen, an 18-year-old substitute that day. “It snowed heavily during the second half, and I watched the match from the bench from underneath a blanket!”

The result, a 3-2 win for the visitors, almost paled into insignificance when compared to what the occasion represented: a first women’s international for both nations. It came during a period of intense difficulty for the women’s game, in terms of battling prejudice and seeking recognition.

“We weren’t taken seriously, the SFA refused to acknowledge us,” Cook said. “They said, ‘Football’s not for women’. We had that attitude from the Scottish population – men and women. We were ridiculed in the press, by everybody. Because of the prejudice we faced, it made us all the more determined to keep going.”

Even when recognition was forthcoming, there was always a caveat. Before the Ravenscraig game, there was a press day at Wembley Stadium for the England side.

“Being a naïve 18-year-old, I said I’d do a photo opportunity with some eye make-up,” Owen said. “I’d never worn it before on or off the pitch. I got the compact and held it up pretending to put the eye make-up on. That photograph appeared in the newspaper the next day. Over the years I cringe about it – ‘Why did I fall into that trap?’ It’s typical of the early press coverage that we received, which focused on how we looked rather than how we played.”

Wendy Owen applies make-up before a training session ahead of the first women's international between England and Scotland in 1972

Those early struggles continued for decades. The organisation of women’s football was only taken over by the English FA in 1993, with the SFA following suit in 1998. Now, long overdue recognition is slowly coming for those pioneers of the women’s game.

Before Scotland’s send-off game for France 2019 against Jamaica, several members of the 1972 side – including Reilly and Hunter – were presented with a cap by Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and current SWNT coach Shelley Kerr.

“This is what we’ve missed out on,” Hunter said, smiling. “It would’ve been great to have played in a stadium like Hampden. I felt really proud that these girls are achieving what they are – because of us, they’re here. That’s what Shelley Kerr told us: if it wasn’t for us, they wouldn’t be where they are now.”

Scotland v Jamaica - Women's International Friendly

“It was very emotional,” Cook said. “At the end of the day, we’ve been appreciated. The SFA couldn’t have done any more for us on the night. These girls can show off their caps to their families and their friends. That means a lot to them.”

And what about that upcoming France 2019 clash?

“I just hope that the girls have got a quarter of the passion that I had and still have got for the game,” Reilly said. “I think they’ll do us proud.”

“We just wish all the current players and staff well,” Gregory said. “As much as we wish them well, we hope that they can remember yesterday too.”


ELSIE COOK was banned by the SFA from any involvement with the senior women’s team, and went on to set up and coach junior sides.

PAT GREGORY was a qualified referee, but wasn’t allowed to officiate in men’s/boy’s football for several years until the Sex Discrimination Act was passed in 1975.

LYNDA HALE says she feels "almost embarrassed" to be an effectively unrecognised England international. Went on to coach boy's and men's teams in her local area.

JEAN HUNTER hardly played for Scotland again after the Ravenscraig game, having been forced to choose between home life and playing football. “My boyfriend at the time didn’t like to tell people that his girlfriend played football.”

WENDY OWEN was initially told she couldn’t play for England by her college principal, who said: “Surely, women playing football is just a joke?”

ROSE REILLY was banned from playing for Scotland by the SFA after she played professionally in Italy. She went on to play more than 20 times for her adopted nation Gli Azzure.