The 2019 Scottish Women’s Football Review

As the end of the year approaches Leading the Line has jumped upon the reflective bandwagon to review what was another massive year for the continued growth of Scottish women’s football.

From heartbreak in Paris to cup final drama at Tynecastle, Editor Chris Marshall brings you the year that was for Scottish women’s football based around five fairly loose themes.

A good year for the Scottish Women’s National Football Team

Paris still hurts. A bump of scar tissue that may never fully heal. A twenty minute spell where we struggled to halt the Argentine waves after Milagros Menéndez’s strike had got her side back into the game. Whilst questions were rightly asked during the post-match autopsy about how our shot at progress was managed, it was those final few minutes that really stung as FIFA experimented with VAR at one of their showpiece tournaments. 

Lee Alexander a heroine denied, having seemingly risen to the challenge of repelling Florencia Bonsegundo’s injury-time penalty only for North Korean official Hyang-ok Ri and her officiating team to hog the spotlight. First she forced a re-take, with the Glasgow City stopper having been adjudged off her line, which Bonsegundo duly converted before ignoring the near ten minute rigmarole of those events, blowing the whistle with Scottish fans and players alike adamant there was plenty of time left to salvage the situation. It was a cruel way to end what had been a momentous tournament as Scotland’s women qualified for their first ever World Cup, a nation united behind it’s football team at a global finals for the first time since the men’s side had appeared in France 21 years earlier.

This summer’s exploits, where narrow defeats to England and Japan also occurred, came off the back of a 3-2 victory against Jamaica in the squad’s World Cup farewell where a modern Scottish record of 18,555 were in attendance at Hampden and where a long range strike from the braggadocios Erin Cuthbert saw the Chelsea forward announce her talent and personality to a much wider audience. That summer, despite its gut-wrenching end, was both a dream come true and inspiration for so many.

The year had started slowly though with back to back defeats to Norway and Iceland in La Manga as Shelley Kerr began fine tuning her final 23 for France. A strong showing at the Algarve Cup followed with Scotland falling 1-0 to traditional women’s football heavyweights Canada before comfortable victories over both Iceland (4-1) and Denmark (1-0).

The squad returned to Spain in April, this time to Murcia, where a disappointing 1-1 draw with Chile, in a game where the Scots dominated, was then followed by a 1-0 victory over Brazil as Kim Little’s 38th minute finish at the end of a clever attacking move ensured that her side would become the first Scottish assembly to beat Brazilians counterparts at any level male or female.

Their form in making it to the World Cup saw Scotland take their place as a top seed for Euro 2021 qualifying. An 8-0 win over Cyprus, where Little would score five in front of a qualifying record crowd of 6,206 at Easter Road, was followed by a 5-0 victory away to Albania, although bigger challenges in the shape of Finland and Portugal are to come in 2020 should Scotland make it to a third successive major tournament.

Scottish talent is scattered throughout the top sides in the FAWSL with current leaders Arsenal boasting four within their ranks. Caroline Weir, if she wasn’t already, is rapidly maturing into a key player for Manchester City and Erin Cuthbert remains key at Chelsea, although will face a fresh challenge with the arrival of Aussie goal machine Sam Kerr to Kingsmeadow this January. 

In fact, of the 12 FAWSL sides only Brighton currently have no Scottish internationalists in their ranks with Everton’s Lucy Graham and Manchester United’s Kirsty Hanson just two of a number of rising stars with tartan connections. 

Captain Rachel Corsie and winger Claire Emslie are coming off the back of strong seasons state side, with the latter currently turning out for Melbourne City in the A-League whilst Lana Cleland is making her way back to full fitness after an injury hit post-World Cup spell with Serie A side, Fiorentina.

There is a freshness and vibrancy about the women’s national side that our men’s side have long been searching for with a strong spine that can be used to give some well-placed hope that in 2021, Scotland could maybe breakthrough past the group stages in England, provided we qualify of course!

Glasgow City remain the benchmark

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This year’s 13th successive title will have a level of added significance for all those involved with the Glasgow club. A season that started in tragedy, with the untimely death of club legend and partner of co-founder Laura Montgomery, Kat Lindner, ended with what turned out to be a comfortable defence of their SWPL1 crown, a first Scottish Cup victory since 2015 and a place in the last eight of the UEFA Women’s Champions League for only the second time in their clubs history. City disposing of full time sides FC Chertanovo and Brøndby IF with the Danish side falling at the hands of Scotland stopper Alexander on a dramatic All Hallows Eve in Springburn.

Success didn’t come straight away though as Hibernian sealed a 7th consecutive domestic cup trophy courtesy of a penalty shoot-out victory over Scott Booth’s side with goalkeeper Jenna Fife the hero, a trophy that provided a testament to the hard work and talent shown by the now departed Head Coach Grant Scott in rebuilding a squad pillaged during pre-season.

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In the league though City were relentless, defeating the Edinburgh side and fellow challengers Celtic each time the moment mattered eventually ending the campaign with an 11-point winning margin. Hibs struggled for the consistency that saw them run City so close the previous year whilst Celtic were never able to put any momentum behind their title push, although the Hoops did inflict City’s first league defeat in 72 games with a 3-1 victory at K Park with the title already won.

The Scottish Cup Final in November will live long in the memory, as the two biggest sides of recent times went head to head in front of a record Scottish Cup Final crowd of 3,123 at Tynecastle. In a game that ebbed and flowed breathlessly from first minute to the very last it would be City’s Republic of Ireland international striker Clare Shire who would prove vital. Arching her neck back to head home an equaliser before providing a moment of magic to seal the trophy for her side, getting on the end of a Sam Kerr through ball before cutting past the Hibernian defence and curling the ball into the corner. It was a mesmeric end to a spellbinding game.

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Can anybody stop them in 2020? Scott Booth has already made moves to strengthen his side with the signing of former Celtic midfielder Mairead Fulton from Icelandic side Keflavik but it is perhaps the movements of the chasing pack that will have the biggest bearing on the level of competition the former Aberdeen striker’s side will face. 

The biggest movers at the time of writing have been Rangers. Having released nearly an entire squad’s worth of talent they have been quick to make their moves as they enter a new era of full-time football at the HTC. Demi Vance was first to come, with the Northern Ireland international crossing the Irish Sea from Glentoran but it has been the signatures of Scotland international Jenna Fife from Hibernian, former Hibee Kirsten Reilly from Bristol City and stopper Megan Cunningham from rivals Celtic that have made people sit up and take notice. 

Emma Brownlie and Brogan Hay have both been awarded full time contracts while a link up with one of women’s footballing powerhouses has also been mooted. The squad still has some way to go to be considered true contenders but with business far from over for Gregory Vignal and Amy MacDonald it’s an exciting time to follow the bears. 

Whilst Rangers are on the charge City’s main two challengers last season currently sit in a state of flux. Grant Scott announced his departure from Hibernian at the start of December having led his side to multiple cup successes and the Leith side’s squad has already been picked of some of its prize assets. 

Outside of Fife’s transfer to Rangers, the most notable move has been recently crowned SWPL1 Player of the Year Jamie-Lee Napier’s transfer to Chelsea whilst Cailin Michie has moved on to the Damallsvenskan signing for last season’s Swedish champions Piteå IF. Hibernian’s strength in recent seasons has been their ability to re-generate but reinforcements plus a need to stem the flow of familiar faces going outwards will be needed if progress is to be continued. 

On Celtic’s part, things have been relatively quiet since the departure of Eddie Wolecki Black at the end of the season (now back at Motherwell), one that promised a lot but never quite delivered. However with the moves being made by their city rivals you would imagine it won’t be too long until they too enter the fray. The race for titles in 2020 could be the most competitive yet.

Competition is growing across the levels

Speaking of competition, whilst the SWPL1 title race never quite reached the heights of previous years a number of other issues across the divisions went down to the wire. Stirling University saw their stint in SWPL1 effectively come to end following a 2-0 defeat at home to Forfar Farmington towards the back end of the season, a defeat the following week to Hibernian sealing the university side’s relegation to SWPL2.

Nothing was competitive as the race to the top of Scotland’s second tier in 2019. In a league where anybody could win come Sunday it looked as if one of Hearts, Hamilton Academical, FC Kilmarnock, Partick Thistle, Dundee United or Glasgow Girls (now Women after a re-brand ahead of the new campaign) could seal the title and the promotion that it would bring. 

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In the end though it would come down to just two as leaders Hearts faced Partick Thistle and second-placed Accies travelled to FC Kilmarnock on the final day of the season. It would be the Jambos who would emerge victorious as Andy Enwood’s side sealed the title with a 3-0 victory over the Jags in front of 1,050 fans at Tynecastle as Accies fell to defeat in Ayrshire. The Jambos have been vocal in their ambitions ahead of a debut SWPL1 campaign but are also fully aware of the challenges they are set to face.

For Accies, who just missed out, SWPL2 this coming season looks set to be equally competitive with Glasgow Women, Partick Thistle and Dundee United all having made early and significant moves in the off-season with more expected across the board before the new campaign begins. 

The league has also been boosted by the arrival of two new teams. Aberdeen, who swept the board at the end of season SWF Awards move up from the SWFL1 – North whilst Queen’s Park sealed their promotion place on a dramatic last day of the season in SWFL1 – South. Needing to better Renfrew’s result to secure promotion, their cause was aided somewhat when the ‘Frew’s match against Boroughmuir Thistle in Edinburgh was called off after just twenty minutes as a result of an altercation between the Renfrew coach and the match official.

At Lesser Hampden the game was yet to kick off with the match official forty minutes late but the delay for those in attendance would prove to be worth it as two injury time strikes would see the home side come back from two goals down to seal a 4-4 draw for the Spiders against visiting Hibernian Development and the point required for promotion sparking wild scenes on the touchline.

2019 would turn out to be the last season in which development sides would participate in what is now dubbed the “performance” grade of women’s football meaning that player availability has never been at its highest this window as clubs have been left with tough decisions to make in relation to player retention. Add the introduction of promotion/relegation play offs (more of which you can read here) to this increased player movement and 2020 has the potential to be transformative for the lower levels of the women’s game in Scotland.

Player movement is increasing in both directions

A long held concern across those that follow Scottish Women’s football has been the effect that a talent drain, particularly to south of the border, could have on growing the game and attracting fans and sponsors alike so it is somewhat heartening to see that some established players have made their way back north in 2019.

Emma Brownlie returned from Everton to sign for Rangers whilst her new team mate at the Gers Kirsten Reilly has been and come back after a two month spell at Bristol City following a summer move from Hibernian. Brownlie’s signing in hindsight was a sign of things to come at the HTC and her excellent delivery along with Reilly’s composure in the middle of the park are valuable commodities for Vignal to have at his disposal this coming season.

Perhaps the biggest success story in terms of returning talent has been that of Rachel McLauchlan. The former Hibernian defender was left in the cold after Yeovil Town were unable to continue in the WSL due to financial difficulties and the 22-year-old Scotland cap has been a quality addition to the Glasgow City squad. Her bombing runs down the City right have helped to provide key moment for her side in the second half of the campaign including a rasping drive that sealed victory against Chertanovo in the Champions League Last 32 and a double in City’s 4-1 Scottish Cup Semi Final victory over Rangers.

You could argue that circumstances helped in the facilitation of these returns and It would be naive to think that the draw of full-time football will not see players look to forge a career away from the Scottish game in the manner in which Jamie-Lee Napier, like many others before, has done but, if the league is to grow and European success is to be maintained and built upon then making our domestic competition as strong as possible will be key, and these early moves will hopefully be a sign of more to come.

We’ve come a long way but there’s still work to do

Overall it has been a hugely successful season for Scottish Women’s Football, the profile of the game has never been higher but with that heightened profile comes greater scrutiny and it is important that those involved in the game, either through promotion or involvement don’t rests on their laurels.

Attendances are still in the main, poor. Yes there has been some high’s when conditions have been right. 300+ attended two successive Hibernian Scottish Cup ties in Penicuik against Stirling University and away to Hearts at Oriam. Equal numbers attended the first Old Firm game after the summer break although the presence of the Green Brigade at K Park brought a new dynamic to what is still a family orientated game.

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200+ saw Hamilton Academical take on Hearts at New Douglas Park in an SWPL2 title showdown whilst European nights at Petershill Park and Easter Road have seen attendances push four figures. At the other end though there are still SWPL games where the number in the stands and the numbers on the fields and in the dugouts aren’t a million miles apart and it is vital that ahead of the new season that clubs make clear their match day propositions: Where? When? How Much? and, What facilities with be there?. There’s also no escaping the much publicised circumstances in which City sealed their title win on that wet and windy Wishaw night. It wasn’t a good look for anyone and as well as the clubs, the governing body, and the newly created match delegate role will be vital in supporting and driving a continued raising of standards.

It will also be interesting to follow how an organisation with powerful and now seemingly engaged club brands at their disposal uses their reach without alienating those who have got them to this point. Surely the question now is when, as opposed to if, we will see, Rangers v Celtic at Ibrox or Hibernian v Hearts at Easter Road to name just two examples. Not as a matter of course, but as marquee events to promote the growth of the women’s game.

Events like these, and the successful 2019 Scottish Cup Final can only help encourage the mainstream coverage that is still not where it should be. We still live in a world where the most commonly used UK sports websites don’t carry SWPL tables, news wires don’t report results and unless you’re at the game you’re not always going to get see what has happened. 

Thanks to the efforts of the national side there was a wave of positivity this summer, but the tide is coming in as decisions around how to use the funding those performances earned rumble on before they’ve even started.

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Scotland has the potential to have a very bright future in the women’s game but it cannot find itself in a position where it gets left behind. The achievements of both Glasgow City and Hibernian in Europe have been rightly lauded but with the Women’s Champions League already undergoing one format change to accommodate more sides from the “bigger” leagues how long is it before Scotland starts to suffer. Now is the time to strike, to grow the game exponentially, to share the resources and build on the goodwill, to reward the years of volunteering and to ensure a bright future for our game.

The next year is always the biggest one as women’s football continues to grow, but perhaps 2020 has the most responsibility attached to it yet.


 

Have you listed to the Leading the Line End of Season Awards podcast yet with Chris Marshall, Campbell Finlayson and Stuart Mitchell? If not you can do so below, or download it for later. See you in 2020!

 

Remember you can follow Leading the Line on Twitter, @LeadingtheLine. Here there will be live insight from the games, comments on the breaking stories from the world of women’s football news as well as early sight of what will be coming via the podcast and on the website. It’s right good!

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