By Colin Byiers
Following the conclusion to the SWPL season, one of the games most recognised names, Clare Gemmell, played her final game as she is to hang up her boots. In a career that has seen her play at the highest level, including the Champions League, Clare got a well deserved send off from her club and those within the game.
I was lucky enough to be able to have been able to speak with Clare shortly after her finally game, as we spoke about her decision to retire, what’s next and her thoughts on the women’s game in this country.
So, Clare, you’ve made the decision to hang up the boots, what made you decide that this was the time to do it?
It’s actually something I’ve been thinking about, and I knew it was coming all season, even from the initial start of the season. There’s a combination of factors. I’m obviously getting a wee bit older now, and in an amazing way the women’s game in this country has come on a long way. I also work, so this is only part-time for me, and I just felt it was the right time for me to call it a day. I always wanted to go out at the top level, so being at a really good club, (Rangers Women FC), I knew I wanted to end my career at the club. So, in a funny way it was an easy decision to make but a hard one at the same time.
What’s the response been like from people within the game to your retirement?
To be honest, I’ve been so overwhelmed. After the final home game, I didn’t know any of that was going to happen, with the guard of honour and things. People who I have played with over the years have said so many kind things about me and that’s taken me a back slightly, how much I have influenced the game. Which is really nice for me to have done something, even if it’s in a small way, to help the game or help the players around me. It’s really humbling and emotional and I couldn’t have asked for a better way to retire.
If I could, I would play forever! Unfortunately, your body doesn’t allow you to do that. For me it’s the right decision, and when I look back on the last couple of weeks and the response from everybody else and the club and the send-off I got, it’s made me know I’ve done the right thing. I take pride in the fact it was my own decision and wasn’t because of an injury or petering out on a bench for years. I liked the fact I had control over it myself, and it was on my terms and even though I knew it was coming, maybe others didn’t, you have time to prepare yourself, or at least you think you do! For a lot of athletes, it can be a difficult transition because playing has been such a big part of your life, so I don’t know myself how I’m going to be in the weeks and months ahead, especially when pre-season starts. Right now won’t affect me as much because everyone is on a break anyway, but when you know people are back for pre-season and start watching the games and you are not involved with that, I don’t know how I will be. Because I knew it was coming, I have made peace with the fact I won’t be playing, but I just hope the women’s game continues to go up and up and it’s such a good thing to see and I’m privileged to have done it for so long.
I’d like to go back to the start of your footballing journey and ask how you started in the game?
I’ve been kicking a ball around since I can remember! So much credit has to go to my Granda. I used to kick a ball around with him with the little balls when I was about 4 and he used to take on a Saturday morning to a boy’s club in Port Glasgow, where I lived. At the time, I was swimming from the age of 7 to 12, and when I turned 12, I decided I wanted to give up swimming and I wanted to play football for a girls’ team. At the time, my Granda made some enquiries, and I went to Largs Girls, which doesn’t exist anymore. That’s where my career started, and it took off from there.
When I first started, there wasn’t a lot of coaching involved on the women’s game, it was more just go and play. At Largs, it was two women running the team, and coaching wasn’t their thing, but what a job they done. It was just about giving girls a platform to play football. There were good players in that team. I played with Jo Love, so still some familiar faces in the game, but there wasn’t much coaching. That came later in my career.
Do you think there might have been a lot of girls and young women that have been lost to the game because of the lack of coaching or facilities?
I played with so many players over the years that had potential, and though a number of different factors, like having to travel because there wasn’t a team around where they stayed. This generation coming through don’t realise how lucky they are because they can be professional, but a lot of folk had jobs and they were tying to balance all of that along with training. Back then, we only trained twice a week and played on a Sunday, so the intensity of what’s expected has massively increased and that probably started 10 years ago, so I’m not surprised so many players left the game. Because it becomes a balancing act and you need to live, but I’m a stubborn person and I wasn’t going to give it up! It’s just meant so much to me playing football. I love the sport so much and being part of a group, you can’t get that anywhere else. I love to win, and if you heard what other people say about me, I’m quite aggressive and passionate when I play! It’s the winning and the competing, I just had to have it as part of my life.
You had been with Rangers for 7 years, what was it like joining them?
I was brilliant, it’s such a good club. Before that, I was at Hamilton Accies, which was a really good side. It was Kevin Murphy who brought me in at Hamilton and after 2 seasons, Kevin moved to Rangers and asked to go and I really respected him as a coach, and as a manager and as a person, so I was absolutely up for giving it a go and I don’t regret it.
Was there any indication that early on that the club would move into being a full-time club?
There were always rumblings within the women’s game about wanting to do it, but what it comes down to is money. Off the back of the Women’s World Cup (2019), when Scotland did so well, I think it kick started that. The country had to take notice that this is going somewhere and thankfully, not just Rangers, but other clubs have as well, bought into that vision and helped to push it forward. I know some many people over the years have been trying to fight for it, but it has to be at the right time, but I’m just thankful it’s finally happened. Going full-time has meant that you can put your full focus into it and you’re not having to worry about a second job and balancing them. It also means you can focus on other parts of the game. If you are part-time or amateur, you can only get a couple of hours to work on everything, where as full-time, you get 6 hours a day, two sessions a day, lunch there, you are getting looked after by the medical staff and backroom staff, so there is no question it gives them a huge benefit and it’s one that I hope other clubs can find the funding and find a way to do it can only benefit the game as well.
Was one of the highlights of your career becoming Rangers captain?
It’s a privilege to be captain regardless of what team you are at. I think it shows the value that a club and a team put in you. It’s not the first club I’ve captained, but it’s the best club I’ve captained so it’s been such a privilege. Over the years, it’s been such a good group of girls, it’s made my job easy. If you ask anybody, and I certainly try to be this way, I’m pretty honest, so if someone is looking for advice from me, I’ll tell them exactly what I think, but I’ll also back that up with how I can make them better, and I think folk over the years have respected that about me. It’s all about opinions and folk look for different things in a captain and sometimes you need to adapt and change for different people.
Knowing that this was your final season, did you have any targets you wanted to achieve?
Obviously, I wanted to win the league! I think we played some really good football this year, but ultimately you need to score goals to win leagues and we didn’t manage that in key games. So, in a way, I’m disappointed not to have done that, or at least get Champions League football because the girls worked so hard and they deserved something out of the season, but that’s the way football is, and you need to take it on the chin. They can look back on it and take it into next season to make sure it doesn’t happen again, and I have every faith they will do that because it’s such a good group.
How emotional was your final home game, the win against Motherwell?
It really was. It was more emotional because it was the first time, I heard other folk saying I was retiring. When you hear it out loud from someone else, it’s almost like there’s no going back now. I managed to keep it together on the pitch thankfully, but when I went into the changing room and looked on Twitter, and when I seen all the messages, that was me gone. I was crying half the night! I think it just means how much the sport means that I had that reaction. After the initial shock, I was fine and even after the game against Glasgow City, which was the final game for me, I had come to terms with it. It was really emotional. Happy and sad.
And typically, you managed to get on the scoresheet.
That was a must! I was asked to play a litter deeper that game, and I was like “come on, I want to score!”, and thankfully in the later stage of the game when Daina (Bourma) came on, she said she would sit for me so I could get forward. I managed to get in the box and score a header, but I should have scored in the first half, when I was through on goal and a couldn’t miss, but I did! I did manage to score in the 80th minute and it was a nice way to round off my final home game.
You also received a guard of honour at the end too.
I didn’t know what was happening. Then the next minute everyone was lining up. I’ve played with a lot of the Motherwell girls over the years as well, so I knew a few of them so it was nice to see familiar faces on both sides. It was a nice thing to do, and the club didn’t have to do that for me, Motherwell didn’t have to do that for me, but I’m honoured they did do that for me.
When you look back at your career, can you sum it all up?
I’ve so much. Thinking about success, I played at Glasgow City for 5 years, which was at the start of this 14-in-a-row that they have managed and what an achievement that is and even though I’ve been at Rangers for 7 years, I’ve been apart of that. I’ve played in the Champions League, I got offered to go on trial in Germany when I was 24, played under 19’s for Scotland. I’ve had so many highs in my career, that other people just haven’t been able to do, and it makes me smile and positive when I look back over it.
So, what does the future hold for you?
I don’t want to walk away from the game completely, I don’t think I’d be able to. Even if I go and watch a game, I’ll still be standing shouting from the side! I’d like to remain at Rangers in some capacity. I’ve had discussions with them about how that would look, but I’ve got a lot of experience in the game, I’ve seen it transition from where it was 20 years ago to where it is now, so I’ve been through a lot, and I think it would be a waste if I didn’t pass that on in some way.
Finally, I’d like to get your thoughts on the women’s game in Scotland. Where do you see it on a national level?
There is no reason why it can’t follow these other counties across Europe and in England in terms of the structure of women’s football, but what folk need to realise is that the have had so many more years at it than we have, so we are right at the start, and it takes time. For me, women and men’s football, yes, it’s the same game, but it’s different. Women should be looked at in their own merit, and it’s about giving the game time to develop to see what it’s going to look like. When clubs are turning professional, they do that because they have a vision of the game, but in 5 years’ time, that vision might be different because of so many outside factors. The most important thing is that it keeps going forward, it can’t stand still. It’s about pushing the game and trying to attract better players into playing in this country and then encourage fans to come and support whatever team they support. It’s also about being role models for the younger girls and that gets them into the sport also and all that leads to giving it a better base. I know it won’t stop here and it will continue to improve and I’m glad it’s finally happening. You look at the talent in the national squad, some play in this country but most play all over the World. If you look back 10 or 15 years ago, maybe one or two played else where across the World, so the fact that these girls are playing in leagues that have been doing it for a lot longer than we have and playing with better players, it’s no coincidence that the national team is pushing on and doing better. We will have success in the national team I’m sure and there are some class players in there.
Thanks to Clare for taking the time to speak with us.