INTERVIEW: The cap fits – at last! Inverness woman Therese Coffey speaks of her pride at being honoured by the SFA at Hampden Park almost 50 years after playing for Scotland and of the prejudice she encountered as a girl footballer in the 1970s
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She had just represented her country at football, but as Therese Coffey returned to school on Monday morning there was no great fanfare – no round of applause in class or headmaster’s commendation at assembly.
A swell of pride would have been understandable for a 16-year-old selected for Scotland’s women against Ireland, but this wasn’t 2023. This was industrial Scotland, 1974.
Women’s football was banned by the SFA until that very year. Very different emotions were at play.
“There was always this underlying… shame, almost,” the retired publisher, social work and psychiatric nurse from Inverness recalled.
“I didn’t talk about it at school. People were aware I played football, but there was very much a feeling it wasn’t the right thing for a young lady to do.
“There was something kind of embarrassing about it. I felt quite abashed. It was something not to talk about, like bed-wetting. I’m so glad it is so much better now for so many girls.”
Almost half a century after November 23, 1974, at Kilbowie Park, Clydebank, Therese is at last earning due recognition. Special guest for Tuesday evening’s Scotland v England match at Hampden Park, she will be awarded a retrospective cap in recognition of her status as a women’s football pioneer.
Born in Forres to an RAF serviceman dad and devoted mum, Therese and her five siblings moved to the Fife village of Limekilns, near Dunfermline.
She kicked a ball in the back garden, first with eldest brother Michael and later with youngest, Brendan. Graduating to park football with local boys, no quarter was given.
A nippy right-back, with good feet and a powerful shot, Therese more than held her own. At primary school, she might have been a star.
“I wasn’t allowed to play for the primary team on account of being a girl,” Therese explained. “The boys, to be fair, would tell teachers ‘she’s better than at least six of us’. They knew, because I played with them every single day. At High School it was hockey and netball and I used to look over longingly at the boys playing football.”
At 13, Therese spotted an advert in the local newspaper. Dunfermline Ladies were looking for recruits.
“A wonderful chap called Bob Hogg started Dunfermline Ladies,” Therese recalled.
“At 13, I thought ‘there’s no way I’ll get in there’ but I grew a bit and at 14 thought ‘why not?’
“For Bob to take us as a team was very much against the times. It was quite courageous. Even in those days, he risked people questioning why a middle-aged guy was showing interest in a bunch of teenage girls. It helped that his wife was our goalkeeper! He was a thoroughly decent man and very respectful.”
The same couldn’t be said of all.
“We would train on Wednesday evenings by streetlight, and on any scrap of ground we could find,” she said.
“Women’s football was still banned, so we weren’t allowed on council pitches.
“A lot of the girls were tougher than me and worked in local factories, but having played with the local lads I found it quite an easy transition. We could be playing or training and we’d hear a shout of ‘show us your bra’, ‘can we watch you swap jerseys’ or ‘bunch of lezzers’. It was either very sexist or homophobic.”
With family finances tight, Therese had to scratch and save from odd jobs to pay her team dues, before taking Saturday work at Fine Fare supermarket at 16.
Her mum was acutely aware of prejudice and negative attitudes, but supportive enough to buy football boots at Christmas.
Then came a fateful evening.
“I was staying at my brother Michael’s house in Dunfermline overnight,” she remembered. “The doorbell went and there was Bob, all excited. He said ‘you’ll never guess – you’ve been picked for Scotland’. I was gobsmacked. I hadn’t even known scouts were watching.
“I hadn’t met the Scotland squad prior to the match, although I knew some of the players from playing in the league. There was Rose Reilly, Edna Neillis and Sheila Begbie who have gone on to become quite legendary.
“I was the second youngest, but came on as a substitute. I was quite in awe of the occasion. From memory, I just did my usual thing and certainly didn’t disgrace myself.”
Ireland took a double figures hammering and a newspaper report from the following day again highlighted attitudes of the time, happily unacceptable these days.
“It is now in the Hampden museum, with a colour photo of our Scotland team celebrating,” Therese said. “Someone has their hand raised in jubilation obscuring my face. I was so disappointed – my big day of glory, and you can’t see me.”
The report says it was a shame the 16-year-old schoolgirl’s face was obscured “because she is a looker”.
It would be Therese’s first and last Scotland bow. Soon after, with exams and a social life working against football’s demands she stopped playing.
“Bob would often get in touch to ask me back,” Therese said. “It just became so much like pushing a boulder up a hill, partly financial. I came from a big family that didn’t have much money to indulge me in football. There were exams I wanted to get and a growing awareness of the opposite sex. Something had to give and football was the easiest one to go.”
Over the years, Therese – an Inverness resident since 2005 – has only occasionally spoken of her Scotland feat, mostly late at night after a few drinks with friends. Sometimes the revelation was greeted by disbelief.
It almost came as a jolt to hear her grandchildren begin to speak in awe about how “granny played for Scotland”.
Perhaps for the first time, there will be that swell of pride on Tuesday evening, accompanied by daughter Claire and partner Juliet.
“We’ve all done things we’re proud of and this is it for me. There’s now tangible proof in the historian’s research. It has been nearly 50 years and in all that time, I’ve mentioned it to very few people.
"I can mention it now.”