How far we’ve come since the days of the Aberdeen Prima Donnas, Cambuslang Hooverettes, Johnstone Red Rockets, Fife Dynamites and Tayside Toppers.
And, although team names may no longer be so telling, Scottish women’s football will take another big step in its colorful journey when Celtic and Rangers meet in the first-ever Scottish Old Firm Cup final on Sunday.
Last weekend’s thrilling three-way finish in the Scottish Women’s Premier League title race drew record crowds to Celtic Park and Rangers’ Ibrox Stadium as both sides were beaten off the post by Glasgow City.
Another outstanding turnout is expected at Hampden Park on Sunday – another indication of how far the competition has come from its humble beginnings.
When exactly this debut was is a matter of debate.
Go to the competition’s Wikipedia page and it lists Stewarton Thistle as the first Scottish Women’s Cup winner in 1970, when Ayrshire City’s 4-2 side victory left the aforementioned Prima Donnas somewhat deflated .
The Scottish Football Association website doesn’t start its list of past winners until Cove Rangers’ 5-1 derby win over Aberdeen – some 26 years later.
Talk to Elsie Cook, who founded Stewarton in 1961 and was player-manager as her side won the cup two seasons in a row, and even she admits the first official winners were Edinburgh Dynamos, with a 5- 3 that let those Hooverettes dust themselves down in 1972.
Why all this confusion? For an explanation, we have to go back even further in time.
Church documents record women playing football in Carstairs, Lanarkshire, as early as 1628, while Scotland beat England 3-0 in the first women’s international match at Hibernian Park, Edinburgh, in 1881.
With preoccupied men at the front and women encouraged to work, the game really took off during the First World War. However, fearing that some women’s matches would draw crowds of over 50,000, the Football Association in England officially banned women’s football in 1921 and the SFA fell in line.
Period 1 – Young Reilly helps secure inaugural victory
Go back to 1970 and Cook recalls a surprise phone call.
“Out of the blue, the presentation of a Scottish Cup was offered to me by the Sunday People journalist Hugh Farmer, asking me if I could organize such a football tournament among the few Scottish teams playing regularly”, she told BBC Scotland.
She could only find “five or six” women’s teams still struggling despite being denied access to qualified referees or club or council-owned grounds – and their dressing rooms.
Rose Reilly, 16, who would play for both Scotland and Italy, was on the wing of the Stewarton side as she lifted the H Samuels Trophy for the first time.
Stewarton would beat Aberdeen 8-1 in the 1971 final, with BBC football commentator Archie MacPherson making the presentation, and there was also good news off the pitch as the European governing body’s motion he UEFA ordered its member nations to take control of women’s football.
However, the SFA were the only member to vote against the proposal and 11 women’s clubs still lacked the backing of the governing body when they formed the Scottish Women’s Football Association in 1972.
Era 2 – “Women shouldn’t play football”
After harassing SFA secretary Ernie Walker during a personal meeting with chairman Willie Allan, Cook was confident her pleas for help would be successful as the game’s development in Scotland had taken a hit. behind England.
“I met this little smiling Willie Allan in one of those mahogany-walled men’s estates,” she recalled. “He was very gentlemanly, but then he just shook his head and patted his chest and said ‘Women shouldn’t play football, Elsie’.”
It was in 1974 before Allan gave in. “It was just tokenism,” Cook recalls. “They didn’t help us in any way, but at least we could use the right referees and the right pitches.”
By then Scottish sides had been met with more enthusiasm by their English counterparts, with Stewarton, twice, and Cook’s new club, winners in 1973, Westthorn United, having each been beaten by Southampton in the the first-ever women’s FA Cup final.
Meanwhile, Edinburgh Dynamos had won the first official Scottish Cup and would win three more and come second twice in the first eight years.
Era 3 – ‘Abuse and ridicule’
Motherwell AEI, Whitehill Ladies, Inveralmond Thistle, Cumbernauld Ladies, Hutcheson Vale, Cove, Cumbernauld United have all lifted the cup more than once as success spread across the country – almost everywhere other than Glasgow.
It was still difficult to advertise, with the SWFA pointing out at the time that the only promotion it got for the cup final came from paid advertisements as no media had picked up its press release. For a finale, confectionery receipts did more than door receipts.
“The abuse we suffered from local and national newspapers, they were so derogatory and the ridicule of it was absolutely disgusting,” Cook recalled.
While the SFA had long recognized women’s football, they would not accept SWFA membership until 1996. This is why the second of Cove’s three consecutive cup final wins is the first to be listed by the site. National body website.
Era 4 – City-Hibs Duopoly
Kilmarnock’s Cup final victory on penalties against Ayr United in 2001 seemed to usher in a new era.
Dr Karen Fraser, who is researching the lost history of Scottish women’s football, points out that the SFA did not finally allow women’s coaching qualifications until 1992 and suggests that it “took some time to as the expertise develops”.
“There were a number of factors that came together at the turn of the century – the SFA had taken over the management of the national team and the development of the SWFA girls – which gave the SWFA more resources to focus on domestic football,” she said.
“It was also the time of the creation of the original SWPL, which started to attract sponsors, although there were no prize money until 2016.”
Kilmarnock beat Glasgow City 5-0 the following season, but when the Ayrshire side lost the 2003 final to Hibernian and City beat Queen’s Park the following year, a new duopoly where dominant clubs would sign players of more local clubs has been established.
City would go on to win eight more finals and Hibs seven as the Covid pandemic canceled the competition two years in a row.
The dawn of a new era?
A new era of professionalism has since changed Scottish women’s football, with Rangers, Celtic and Hearts in particular enjoying closer ties to their established men’s outfits.
City lost their 14-year hold on the league title to Rangers last season as they were beaten by Celtic in the Cup final.
Although City are back as SWPL champions, Sunday will be the first Scottish Cup final to feature neither Petershill nor Hibs since 2001.
“The fact that they have now been allowed to use Ibrox and Parkhead and that fans are showing up in huge numbers is fantastic,” adds Cook. “England’s win at the Euros really improved the girls’ game. Everyone was talking about it and no one was being more derogatory.”