How Scottish Women’s Football Continues To Evolve: Interviews With SWF Executive Officer Fiona McIntyre & Stonehaven Ladies Manager Matt Smith

Women’s football is growing in popularity and stature, that’s not changing – weather you like it or not.

With the new season of Scottish Women’s Football kicking off a fortnight ago, it’s clearly a changing landscape. More investment has been thrown into teams, with the likes of the former Aberdeen Ladies becoming a full part of Aberdeen Football Club and now becoming Aberdeen FC Women.

NE98 investigate which changes are happening in Scottish Women’s football – and speak to SWF Executive Officer Fiona McIntyre and Stonehaven Ladies manager Matt Smith.

The dropping of the name Ladies isn’t something that has only happened in the Granite City, in fact just one team, Hibs, still use ‘Ladies’ as part of their name in the top division of Scottish Women’s Football – Scottish Women’s Premier League 1. Teams such as Motherwell removed that part of their name in the build up to the current campaign.

Now most clubs are referred to simply in the same way as their male sides. For example, the SWPL 1 table lists the likes of ‘Celtic FC’ and ‘Rangers FC’.

The name changes have come in large part as many believed it would only be fair to make such changes, in order to give the teams the proper respect they deserve and to take Women’s football as seriously as Men’s football. In addition, this has been seen as an act of inclusion – similarly to a youth team set up, the female sides of a club are as much a part of individual football clubs as any other team.

Several different aspects could be credited with being the reason behind enhanced backing of the Women’s game. Increasing pressure in all walks of life for equality, the rising popularity of the game elsewhere and the acknowledgment that this could be a lucrative financial opportunity for many sectors all likely contributed.

Such a rapid rise however, suggests that Shelly Kerr and her national side deserve a great degree of credit.

Last year the Scottish Women’s side found the most dramatic way possible to confirm their qualification for this year’s World Cup. First coming back from 2-0 down to beat Poland, the team would then manage to beat both Switzerland and Albania 2-1 in just a matter of days later in the year.

This would see Scotland finish above the Swiss by just two points – booking their place in France for this summer’s tournament.

What is happening off the pitch to continue to move on Women’s football though?

For a start, the team names are changing. This might seem small, but for many of the women involved in the game it means a lot – it mean proper inclusion with the overall clubs they play for. Instead in many cases of being more of a side project of a men’s team, many women’s teams are now just that – they are the section of a club, be it a Celtic or Motherwell, that play in the Women’s League. Of course there is a lot more still to happen in order to make them truly equal with the men – but moves like this make the player feel like they are a true part of a club.

In the case of a team like Aberdeen, they have truly become part of the on-goings at Pittodrie. Aberdeen FC Ladies technically used to be an entirely different entity – they played in the same kit as the men’s side and received a degree of funding from the club, but they really weren’t properly part of it.

That has changed this season – They are officially recognised by the club as being owned and operated by the same entity, the women’s side have a whole new staff in place who are employed by Aberdeen FC and they’ve helped bring in new sponsors to better fund the team.

NE98 had the pleasure to speak to the Executive Officer of Scottish Women’s Football Fiona McIntyre.

Fiona has been playing football since the age of ten and played for Kilmarnock at youth level and most of her senior career with Aberdeen, before injury led to her retirement. Fiona joined the SWF, initially in a voluntary roll, in a time where there was just one full-time member of staff. This has grown as of late, with a marketing team and full time day to day on-goings.

Fiona is now looking to help grown Scottish Women’s Football – which was almost none existent when she began playing the sport.

Fiona said:

“ The changes are incredible.”

“I played football at 10-11 years old, you trained all year and you got a tournament in the summer if you were lucky – a 5-a-side maybe. I was the only girl in my year group playing, there wasn’t any sort of interest or infrastructure for this.”

“There wasn’t much of a performance pathway, not a clear performance pathway.”

“There certainly wasn’t any media around the game, no visible role models for me”

“If you’re looking to when I was a player, the difference is wholesale, but if you’re looking over the last 4-5 years, the game has gone under a significant growth spurt – probably in part due to the national team doing so well.”

“In terms of the numbers of players we’ve got, it’s growing in each age group – the difference is phenomenal”

“Even in the media coverage – BBC, SKY and STV are all coming along. It’s no longer us phoning up and trying to get people to come along. The difference is huge.”

We asked Fiona what she felt the SWF themselves had been doing over the past few years to help this surge in interest and attention.

Fiona said:

“Our main focus at Scottish Women’s Football is the club game.”

“ We changed the competition structures back in 2016 – the two Premier Leagues of eight came in – It was at that time we had a far bigger Premier League, but there was far too much disparity between the top teams and the lower teams.”

“We were finding the score lines were 10-0, 12-0 etc.”

“We’ve started to bring in criteria across the game – in terms of what’s the minimum standard across the SWF – that’s to create sustainability for the clubs.”

“If you’re a Premiership club there is a certain minimum standard we expect, in terms of the coaching staff you’ve got, the infrastructure of the club and the support services there for the players.”

“It’s all about at the top end of the game, growing the standards.”

“One of the big things we’ve done is grow the profile of the game – when we came in, Scottish football didn’t have a particularly strong brand or presence.”

“That was one of the first things we did, we re-branded the entire organisations, found sponsors for the competitions – We’ve made the Women’s game something that’s interesting from an investment point of view.”

We asked Fiona about just how much the National team’s success has helped in growing the game, but also getting more girls involved in the game.

Fiona said:

“Undoubtedly helps”

“Nearly all of those players in that national team have played in domestic competitions in Scotland”

“That’s something we are really proud of, this brings a focus on women’s football – it brings a visibility – it shows young girls who maybe thought football wasn’t something they could do, that it is, it gives them role models.”

So why are so many young Scottish women emerging as really talented footballers – with clear talent down south now supplemented with younger developing talent north of the border.

Scottish football on the pitch has certainly evolved – the quality continues to grow, as would be expected when a Sport itself is growing. The national team have obviously achieved a place at a World Cup and more Scottish Women are becoming top players down south – including Jane Ross, Kim Little and Erin Cuthbert. With the likes of Kirsty Smith and Lizzie Arnot moving south to join the newly formed Manchester United Women, from Hibernian, during the last off season.

Fiona believes there are a few reasons for this, Fiona said:

“Young players get a chance early in senior football here. You look at the men’s football, you maybe aren’t breaking out of your academy until maybe 19,20 and so on. Whereas with Women’s football you’re probably in and around the first team around 15-16.”

“The exposure to first team football so early is a big part of it.”

Six Scottish Women’s club games are to be screened on BBC Alba this season – that’s clearly progress, but can that be expanded on?

Fiona said:

“We’ve already made quite a huge inroads in that sense with the six games live on BBC Alba – that’s a national broadcaster – so that’s a huge step having live games.”

“Ideally, we’d like to see more live games over the next five years – we’d like to see a highlights package similar to Match of the Day or Sportscene.”

“We’d like a more permanent presence –  we’d like everyone to be able to access Women’s football every week.”

We asked Fiona about what the club’s themselves having been doing to aid the development of Women’s football,

Fiona said:

“It certainly seems to be the case – there was a period there around Christmas that several sides (Aberdeen, Rangers, Hearts etc) made announcements along the same lines of more investment or becoming more connected with their women’s sides.”

“That’s positive – because as the game grows and you’re trying to make it more professional, you’re asking a lot more of volunteers. You need to build a bigger infrastructure.”

“Clubs are showing that in terms of Women’s football it should be part of the club and not just something peripheral.”

Finally, we asked Fiona about what hurdles are still to be faced as Women’s football continues to develop in Scotland.

Fiona said:

“It’s about where we invest our resources – we’ve now got a dedicated marketing and communications officer – a big part of his remit is to bring the game to people who might not otherwise see it.”

“We know that a lot of the crowds that come along to our games are maybe somehow connected to it – family members of friends of players – so we need to connect with that wider football audience.”

“Clubs can certainly help. But we need to try and showcase our games as best we can – we live steam our games when we can, we do more digital coverage and let people find out more about the players.”

“It’s all about trying to create that interest in the game. When people do actually come along – and that is our job to try and get them there – it’s not too difficult to convert them because the product is good.”

You can hear more from Fiona’s detailed discussion with NE98 in audio form this Monday. A longer version of the interview will be broadcast during the Mearns FM broadcast of the NE98 Monday Night Football Hour (9-10PM) which is available in podcast format shortly after broadcast.

It’s brilliant to hear from someone so crucial to the development of Scottish Women’s Football when looking into this – really giving an interesting insight into the beating heart of the game. To fully investigate the developments of the game, NE98 wanted to speak to someone involved with a club – we had the opportunity to chat with Matt Smith who manages SWFL Divison One North side Stonehaven Ladies – they play in the third tier of the SWF, having been promoted last season.

We asked if he agreed significant progress was being made in the Women’s game in Scotland.

Matt said:

“The progress being made at the top end of the football pyramid has been significant and seeing the womens national team qualifying for the euros in holland and the world cup in France has been fantastic for the womens game in Scotland.”

   “The battle really comes down to money at the end of the day, the teams in England for example are an attractive draw for the Scottish players looking to move to that next level they may not find here.”

  “Its disappointing but the top teams here are making strides to remedy this and im sure in a year or two thse players who might have moved on will want to stay.”

We were also interested specifically as to how Stonehaven as a town was getting on with getting young girls involved with football,

Matt said:

“The youth teams at Stonehaven are being fantastically run by the youth coaches but they have their own challenges similar to the clubs losing players to England.  The local area girls are attracting attention from bigger clubs who then sign the players as they have the draw of a larger club backing them, Every kid wants to play for their childhood club and if that team comes calling you dont want to miss that opportunity.”

“With that in mind all of us at Stonehaven have to be on the top of our game from the coaching aspect and do the best for those girls/women who may wish to make that next step in the footballing ladder.”

“ Strong teams and local derbies being publicised will hopefully highlight the womens game to the younger players and show them that the women’s game is thriving in the northeast.”

Finally, similarly to the questioned posed to Fiona, we wanted to know at the lower level what barriers Matt still felt the game had to overcome,

Matt said:

“prejudiced and bigotry comes part and parcel with the majority of sports but the womens game has to deal with that quite regularly, usually in small doses that many people miss but when you are close to the game you notice it more i.e. small comments on social media or conversations you may here if womens football is mentioned in a public place.”

  “Is the world changing for the better towards womens football ( and sport in general), yes it is. but you will never please everyone so you have to maintain your composure and always remember the bigger picture that participation is key and in order to improve the womens game, you have to keep them playing the sport they love.”

Things are changing for the Women’s sport across the board – not just across Scotland. A restructure of the league system in England shows they are giving the Women’s game more focus down south. International competitions are receiving greater focus, air time and media attention. Plus, Women are being given the opportunity to act as pundits – and for the most part shining in the role and continually proving people wrong.

We’ve spoken to Fiona about how things can continue to grow, but there are multiple stakeholders who need to give it their all to achieve these things. With all the will in the world of the SWF and Fiona – and coaches like Matt – Women’s football will slowly move forward, but it can be accelerated by other parties.

Clubs need to continue to support their women’s sides. The commercial benefits might not come instantly, be an investment of money and team will eventually see them reap the rewards. They must continue to attempt to attract sponsors and offering incentives and marketing strategies to help bring more supporters along to games.

Football fans themselves have a part to play in this development – go along to a game, give it a chance. If you feel the game is of a lower quality, watch a game, put your preconceived ideas to the test. You want summer football? Guess who has it.

The media too have a part to play. This is a growing market and if media outlets cannot see the benefit of getting involved now, they will end up paying for it in the future monetarily. More women are interested in football than ever before, and they want to see other women playing, they want to play themselves – they will support the Medias efforts to broadcast games, to report on games and to interview the talented players already involved.

Finally, here is a suggestion – we moan often enough about how Scottish men’s football is disadvantaged on a large European scale by its size. The odds are stacked against us in the form of finances, size of our country and quite simply the amount of time and effort European governing bodies are willing to put into leagues and set-ups of this size and stature. The Women’s game provides a much more level playing field at this point – and Scottish ground is producing some seriously impressive talent. So why not invest heavily now and get ahead of the game and enjoy the success that could come along with it – get behind this, get behind our girls – #OurGirlsOurGame

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