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CHAMPIONING GENDER EQUALITY IN FOOTBALL: HONOURING THE TRAILBLAZERS ON INTERNATIONAL WOMEN’S DAY 2023

ByBenjamin Long

Mar 16, 2023 #Awards
Scotland squad heading to Italy in 1974 and Elsie Cook, Scotland Manager (far back right)
  • Nationwide Building Society spoke to ex-Scotland Manager Elsie Cook about her influence and contribution to Women’s football
  • Landmark achievements include helping to incept the Scottish Women’s FA alongside other key figures, managing the Scotland Women’s team, and being personally recognised by Jock Stein – one of the most influential figures in Scottish football
  • Elsie also uncovers her encounters with Brazil-legend Pelé, along with how far she feels women’s football has come

International Women’s Day is a time to reflect on the progress made towards gender equality, recognise the work that still needs to be done, and celebrate the accomplishments of women around the world.

One such woman is Elsie Cook. From helping to reverse the women’s football ban to organising the first-ever official Scottish Women’s international game against England in 1972, Elsie, 76, is a pioneering figure within women’s football in the UK. She was the Scotland Manager for the women’s team and secretary for the Scottish Women’s Football Association – Elsie played a key role in institutionalising the Scottish Women’s FA through her various endeavours.

Elsie reminisces on the beginning of her football journey

Speaking to Nationwide Building Society as part of their ongoing Mutual Respect programme in partnership with The FA in all of their home nations, Elsie revealed: “I first fell in love with football in 1960 at the age of 13, after going to watch my first game at Kilmarnock F.C.’s Rugby Park. As soon as I saw captain Frank Beattie dictate play in the middle of the park, I was hooked.”

After that, Elsie decided she wanted to play for herself. Coincidentally, her mother, who was a keen humanitarian in her own right and had received an MBE from the Queen, was asked if she could set up a girl’s football team for a charity football match. Elsie’s mother and netball coach, Betty Bennett, asked Elsie, aged 14, in 1961, to help her form Stewarton Thistle Ladies Football Club.

“Our first match was v Holyrood Bumbees of East Kilbride. We borrowed strips and begged for boots, but this match was a real eye opener. I played centre half, my mother was the right half, and both my aunties as fullbacks” Elsie laughed. “Most of the players came from the netball team my mother taught.

“We were also told about a girl called Susan Ferries who was 17. Her technical ability was outstanding, and it showed people women and girls could play football. We ended up winning the game 7-0, and Susan scored all 7.

“Because of Susan I made this my life’s mission to expand the game of football for girls and women of all ages from Under 9s to adults. I became a football Suffragette from 1961 until 1993.”

From that game, Elsie was determined to get as many women playing as possible. She put up fliers in her local town, calling out for women and girls. However, she faced a huge problem – women had been banned from playing football officially for almost 40 years. The sport was deemed unsuitable for females and their participation wasn’t to be encouraged. As a result, Elsie and her teammates weren’t allowed to play on any proper pitches or use any referees or other officials.

“I remember the other boys my age would tell me I was being stupid and that girls couldn’t play football, but I was determined to prove them wrong. We didn’t let the pitch ban stop us either.

“My local team Stewarton Thistle would sneak onto the council-run grounds on Sundays when nobody was playing because of the Sabbath. If we got lucky, the caretakers would even slip us the changing room keys if we promised to clean up after the men’s weekend games. We didn’t have proper referees, coaches, or kit, we’d make our kit from what we could, and we got on with it.”

Moving the beautiful game to new heights for women

Elsie spent the next 33 years advocating for the acceptance of women’s football, and her efforts did not go unrewarded. After being the Scotland representative in the English Women’s FA in 1969, she helped others found the Scottish Women’s Football Association in 1972, which she was the Secretary for, and worked tirelessly to help reverse the ban on women’s football, which was lifted in 1974.

That same year, after the ban was lifted, Elsie retired from being Secretary in the Scottish Women’s Association due to personal reasons, and was invited to manage the Scotland Women’s team. She accepted.

In 1974, the day after the ban was lifted, Elsie received a call from Jock Stein, one of the most notable football managers in Scottish history.

Elsie commented: “It was my mum who picked up the phone, I couldn’t believe it when she said who was on the other side! Jock Stein called and asked me to select our top players provide pre match entertainment at the Celtic v Olympiakos European Cup tie at Celtic Park!

“It was such a shock. It was a huge honour and a monumental moment in time. The game was fantastic – we got a standing ovation, and Jock Stein came on the pitch and shook hands with our team. It was the first time in history we’d be acknowledged as football players.

“The following day my Scotland International team left for two matches in Italy, playing their second match in the San Siro stadium, Milan!”

The pioneer reflects on some of her heroes, and key moments

Elsie also has some fascinating stories to share throughout her footballing history. Amidst the World Cup frenzy in the year 1966, which was hosted in England, Elsie was working in a factory making Tartan Tammy hats for the fans.

“I was at work when I found out that the Brazilian Men’s team were down the road from me at The Marine Hotel in Troon. I’m a massive fan of Pelé so I grabbed my friend and two dozen Tammy’s and raced down to hopefully meet him.

“We were a bit hesitant about going in at first, as it was such a high-class establishment. That was until a wee jovial man came forward and asked what we were doing there. That man turned out to be Dr Hilton Gosling, Brazil’s team doctor. We explained to him that we wanted to meet Pelé and showed him the Tammy’s we wanted to give him.

“He was a real gentleman and told us to wait where we were as they were just coming out from their lunch, and sure enough… out came Garrincha, Tostão, Gérson, Jairzinho, and finally, Pelé! I started crying and Pelé came up and put his hands on my shoulder, kissed me on the cheek, and asked if I was okay. It was amazing. Then, they realised we didn’t have tickets for their friendly against Scotland at Hampden Park, so they brought us on the bus with them and we got to watch the match. They gave us tickets for the posh part, so we could watch the game from a box!

“After meeting Pele at Troon, we were invited to follow Brazil to the 1966 World Cup in Liverpool – we were treated like stars and invited to meet the entire Brazil squad!”

Elsie’s love for football is still at the forefront of her life

In 1974, Elsie resigned as the Scotland Women’s manager following the Italy game and has dedicated 33 years to expanding the game for girls.

Now aged 76, Elsie spends her time following Kilmarnock Home and Away, as well as taking buses for young boys and girls to go and watch the Scotland team play for free at Hampden Park.

“That’s how I enjoy the game these days, through the children. It’s exhilarating to watch kids see a packed Hampden Park for the first time. The game today is everything I’ve dreamt about and I’m really happy with how far it’s come.

“My advice for young girls looking to get into women’s football is to make sure they have proper coaches as it can really make a difference. Football is such a great thing because you can make friends for life. We all keep in touch, whether it’s with teammates or players from other opposing clubs. We have many great memories to share of those happy days.

“And for anyone looking to join at a volunteer level – just go for it. You won’t regret it. I’m just glad now that the players of my time and pioneering women are finally getting the recognition they deserve.”

For more information on Nationwide Building Society’s Mutual Respect partnerships with the UK’s home nations as it aims to build mutual respect within grassroots football, making society more tolerant and inclusive, click here:

https://www.nationwide.co.uk/about-us/mutual-respect/

https://www.nationwide.co.uk/about-us/mutual-respect/football-associations-partnerships/