Women, Women in Sport, Writing

When fiction chips away and comes closer to fact…a new era in Scottish women’s football.

I was looking for an old document in my archives earlier and stumbled on a YA short story I wrote for a Christmas special Celtic View magazine many, many years ago. It’s fiction, but in a new era of women’s football in Scotland it has become so very wonderfully close to the truth.

My YA story is about a talented young footballer called Bronagh. She has one football dream. To play for Celtic. Unfortunately, the story is set in an era many of us girls were all too familiar with; football wasnae for lassies, it was a man’s game and that was that.

In the story, (which I’ve posted in its original published form below despite the urge to rewrite it) Bronagh is forced to leave the boys’ team she plays for when she turns thirteen. To add to her agony, her twin brother Brian, who plays alongside her, is signed for Celtic just as she’s being forced to hang up her boots. Anyway, there’s a few Christmas surprises in story for her and at the climax of the (fictional) story she suggests her day may come. And it just has.

Celtic has recently announced that its Women’s team are turning full time professional, becoming the first Scottish club to make the prolific leap forward. There’s been a spike in intent and actual commitment from other clubs too; Aberdeen, Hearts and Rangers to name just a few have opened their eyes and their wallets to the other 50% of the population and it can only be good news for a game that is absolutely flourishing in Scotland. This is in part due to the real ‘Bronagh’s’, modern football pioneers like Rose Reilly, Elsie Cook and Edna Neilis, and then more recently players like Sheila Begbie, Shelley Kerr, Pauline Hamill, etc etc, talented women who have been plugging away in Scotland for decades, never giving up on their desire and their determination to win deserved recognition for their talents. Let’s not forgot too the massive impact of France 2019 and the fact that the Scotland Women’s side is off to participate with the rest of the best at the World Cup this summer.

Ah jeez my wee Bronagh would have loved that!

Exciting times ahead (and more exciting storytelling news to come too soon in my next film project..) but first, here’s wee Bronagh’s story…

A CHRISTMAS TALE OF TWO HALVES

By Margot McCuaig

“That was nevera penalty!” 

A look of incredulity swept across the young keeper’s face.  “Ach come on ref, you’ve having a laugh… There was nobody within a hunner miles of him.” Long arms flapped, waving hands reaching for a cool winter sky like a crow sizing up for a confrontation. The voice, high pitched and angry flew in rage across the field and settled on the ears of the supporters on the touchline. The protestations continued.

“My granny was nearer to bringing him down and she’s been dead an’ buried for five years.”

The referee ignored the keeper, resisting the urge to dig deep into his pocket and flash the red card for petulance. Enjoying his position of power he raised his head and pointing at the penalty spot strolled superiorly past the flock of ten pecking noisily at his resolve. The keeper’s plea to the ref was an apprehensive one. The second-half of extra-time was ticking away, the seconds disappearing, tiny memories transported softly into the air in chariots of December frost that carried alongside them a slipstream of dreams. If Ballycastle United could hold on to their slender lead, they would lift the prestigious Community Schools Cup for the first time in their history. The 1-0 lead was deserved, with much credit to Brian Roddy who had scored with a delightful Larssonesque chip over the keeper from a breathtaking 25 yards out. But, as seems to be the way in Cup ties, the last ten minutes had more resembled a game of table tennis.

Throughout the match the opposition had had their chances and if it hadn’t been for the superb antics of the United keeper, whose grandfather had repeatedly professed reminded him of the late, great, Johnny Thomson, 1-0 could have easily been 1-4. United’s keeper was easily the best in the North Schools League, somehow taking flight in mid-air and diving to divert the most difficult of shots on goal. Consistently throughout the last three seasons it was the keeper who had excelled, match after match, to ensure that Ballycastle emerged as League Champions for two years in succession, on the verge of securing the prestigious double.

Striker Brian Roddy was all too aware how important this penalty was. He was the keeper’s twin brother, not identical in image, but in thought and perception there was little to separate the two who understood both the game and each other methodically. During a match, two became one, with Brian anticipating the keeper’s delivery with scientific accuracy whilst the defence remained motionless awaiting the goalie’s boot thrashing against the leather of the ball. Brian knew when and where to make his run and with his natural talent a delicate flick or thunderous header often left the opposing keeper struggling with the netting as he lifted the ball from its bowels.

The striker looked on at his other half preparing for the penalty and smiled. The smile was met with a nod of acknowledgement as Brian’s twin confidently paced the line before slamming black leather football boots off the post in a rhythmic fashion, the metallic thud… thud… thud… providing the type of drum roll the moment demanded.

Despite the chill December wind, there was a substantial crowd for the match. Earlier in the game their incessant rumblings swept along in the wind as far as the two miles to the town centre, but all that stood now was an eerie silence. Even Ballycastle Primary’s younger pupils, who had travelled to the game dressed as elves, wanting to play not on this occasion the role of Santa’s little helpers, but United’s, now refrained from chanting their repeated cries of “we wish you a merry Christmas” in favour of holding hands, lips firmly sealed.

School Chaplain Father MacAteer was the only supporter who was mildly audible, as he rhythmically repeated the rosary, his lips shaping and reshaping Hail Mary full of grace as if he was attempting to master a tongue teaser. The twins’ mother stood still, a standing stone, holding her breath in absolute silence. But soon she was dancing. The Ballycastle United keeper dived to the right to pull off the most incredible mid-air save that anyone at the match had ever witnessed – including Celtic’s chief youth scout who had watched the best in Europe play throughout the season. This keeper was breathtaking.

Amidst the chaos of excitement that followed, the referee somehow managed to break free from the melee of United players and supporters, carrying their acclaimed hero triumphantly high in the air, to blow the full-time whistle. United had won the double and the town breathed in the victory deeply, exhaling its delight in the kind of laughter that was so overwhelming you might have found it in a crock of gold. This was the beginning of an exciting new period for United. For the Roddy family though, it denoted something completely different.

The twins eased themselves from the hub of the celebrations and made their way to the sidelines and to their mother, who as always, waited patiently to pass on her warmth to her two children ahead of their post-match deliberations. The traditional Roddy family post-match huddle, though, was tinged with sadness and there was nothing either Brian or his mother could do to ease the pain of the situation. Brian was the first to speak.

“You are magic. The best keeper I’ve ever played with. And will everplay with.”

Bronagh Roddy smiled, and as she did a solitary tear rolled down her cheek. She attacked it with her sleeve, drawing her jumper across her face to collect any more evidence of her pain. She had decided she was going to deal with it. Tomorrow, Christmas Day, she would be thirteen and whilst most young girls longed for that capitulation to teenage life and all the excitement of impending adulthood, for Bronagh it was the beginning of the end. The law stated that on reaching puberty, girls couldn’t play football in the same competitive environment as boys. In short, the powers that be dictated that it was a man’s game.

Kathleen Roddy was in an unenviable position. She knew her wee lassie had wanted for nothing other than to play football, and to play at the top level. When Bronagh was a youngster a letter to Santa had been simple.

Dear Santa, I’d like a contract with Celtic. I’m no bothered about getting anything else, that’ll do fine. Thanks, Bronagh Roddy.

 To be fair to Father Christmas he had secured a deal with Celtic, but for Brian not Bronagh.

Bizarrely, Celtic’s initial interest had been with the United keeper, she was young and in football kit easily mistaken for a boy. As soon as the scout knew the fledgling player was as useless to him as a broken egg shell he diverted his interest to the team’s star striker, Bronagh’s twin brother Brian. It was a nightmare scenario for everyone in the Roddy family. While Kathleen wanted to run down the street shouting ma wean’s signing for Celtic she had to think of Bronagh’s feelings, and Brian, who would have puffed a big cigar if he’d been old enough, didn’t want to upset his other half either.

Bronagh didn’t want anyone to see how hurt she was. She was an astute girl, maturing beyond her years when she lost her father to cancer fifteen months earlier. Her stomach was in knots but she pushed her heartache to the side and congratulated her brother, teasing him with her plans to spend all his money when he was rich and famous. She hugged him, pressing her face tightly on his shoulder. She could use it to soak up any tears that were cheeky enough to escape her resolve. 

After the presentation of the trophy and stovies and milk in the community hall, the Roddy’s headed home with their mother and the Celtic scout to arrange Brian’s tenure with the Hoops. Bronagh slipped quietly upstairs as soon as they got home, using the need for a bath as an excuse to avoid listening to talk about Celtic. She turned the radio on, turning the volume up louder than she would normally get away with. She climbed into the bath and screeched in anger, dragging herself under the water in fear that her mother would hear her screaming this is a lot of bloody crap. Safe in solitude, the tears fell with a flourish. If this was puberty Bronagh thought to herself, she could damn well do without it. 

She thumped the water angrily as she acted out thefutile dream in her head, running out of the tunnel on to the hallowed turf at Celtic Park to the rapturous applause of the supporters. During the pre-match Huddle, the rest of the players would listen intently as Henrik Larsson explained that she was as the most important player in the team, that she held the side together. The illusion always had the same ending, with her pulling off a world-class save in the dying minutes of the match to ensure that three valuable points – and the Championship – was won against Rangers. 

For the very first time, Bronagh Roddy realised that her dream was nothing she could cling on to, it was floating away in a puff of smoke, the last vestibule of smouldering ashes. She gritted her teeth in anger; she had been a fool to believe in any of it. She stormed into her bedroom and threw her medal across the floor where it fell with a soft plupp on top of her goalkeeper gloves. She punched the light switch with her fist and crawled under her Celtic covers. She muttered as she fell asleep. This duvet’s got to go.

When Bronagh stirred the bright winter sun was stealing in through a small gap in the curtains and she rubbed the sleep from her eyes brushing away with force any lingering notion of her dreams. She made her way downstairs slowly, her legs as much weary from life as the previous day’s game. Soft whispers from the living room floated towards her like little invisible butterflies on the stairs. “They’re stillat it”, she sighed, aware that the excitement of Brian’s impending signing hadn’t been lost in the transition from darkness to light. She glanced in the mirror at the bottom of the hall and looked twice, seeing a different person from the day before. Everything had changed. With a deep breath, she entered the room. 

“Morning pet,” said Kathleen Roddy with an anxious smile. 

Bronagh could only take in bits of the words that followed; most of what her mother was saying was beyond belief. On Christmas Day, Christmas Day, the day that the twins also celebrate their birthday, in the year of Bronagh’s impending end of the world depression, they were going to Celtic Park for Brian to sign on the dotted line officially, with much pizzazz in the presence of the management team with a photocall for the Celtic View. If they were having a laugh, it wasn’t very funny. On this evidence, Bronagh deliberated, teenagers and irony had to be inextricably entwined.

After a short flight from Belfast to Glasgow Bronagh was in a seriously bad mood and sat with her fist and her cheek pressed against the window of the taxi that was taking the Roddy family up Kerrydale Street. Kathleen Roddy was also emotional. This was a big day for the family but its poignancy was spoiled, not by Bronagh’s constant sighs, but by the fact that her husband Liam was missing it all. Liam’s father Paul was with them, and all too aware of Kathleen’s turmoil, he laid a warm hand on her shoulder and embodying that same said characteristic he winked, indicating he was there for her.

The wink stirred another sigh from Bronagh who, on exiting the taxi shivered, drawling that Celtic Park, in the throes of a wet, windy, wintry Christmas afternoon looked boring. When the family gathered on the doorstep, she made her way to the back of the pack hoping that out of sight would mean out of mind. 

It’s not like as if anyone is going to notice anyway….the hormonal teenager mumbled as she did her best to look unimpressed. As she walked through the front door, Bronagh shuffled her feet, her head hanging on her chest like a bat. Not caring to look where she was going she bumped into something and tuuuuuuttttttttttttttttingloudly she raised her head ready to snarl at whoever had impeded her.

Rab Douglas and Magnus Hedman were standing in front of her.

            “Awrite Bronagh? How’s the birthday girl? And Happy Christmas as well, hope Santa was good to you” they laughed, full of Christmas spirit, each holding out a hand to greet her. “I believe you’re a goalkeeper as well,” Magnus said. Bronagh smiled nervously. Confused she turned to the family she had tried to disassociate herself from moments before and looked for the support she thought was lost with the news that Brian was signing for Celtic on, of all days, Christmas Day. Kathleen and Brian Roddy simply smiled and whispered “Happy Birthday” before edging her toward the keepers and the sacred door, the one that read, ‘Players and Officials only’.

After Bronagh had gone to bed on Christmas Eve, obviously distressed despite her attempt to project to the contrary, the scout poised to accept Brian’s signature had made a wee call to the manager at Celtic, and, after explaining the situation emerged with a plan. Consequently the morning couldn’t come quickly enough for Brian, not just because of his eagerness to sign for the Hoops but because he was worried he wouldn’t be able to keep a stocking in it.

Emerging from the away dressing room wearing Celtic goalkeeping attire, Bronagh walked towards her brother revelling in the rattle her studs made as they clipclip clippedoff the hard ground.

“Awright sis.” He smiled, she looked the part. “You know, I might’ve been given a wee chance with this contract but it might no come to anything. Mibbae I’ll no make it an’ I’ll never get a chance to run down that tunnel.” Bronagh smirked, she wasn’t buying that, even today. Brian, conceding, turned his palms up in submission. ‘Aye, awright, I’m totally brilliant and I’m going to make it no bother but at least you’ve got a chance to do it an’ all. You’re the best keeper I have ever played with and you deserve it.” 

“You’ve no played with anyone else apart from me Brian….” Bronagh tried to look serious but the moment was about fun and her shoulders fell forwards under the weight of her heavy laugh.

“Shut it you or I’ll get the manager to drop you.” 

Brian threw a ball which Bronagh caught calmly even though it came at her from a difficult angle. 

“Happy Birthday to the best goalkeeper and sister in the world!”

Magnus and Rab led the twins towards the tunnel where the rest of the squad stood ready for action. They cheered and patted Bronagh’s back as she walked through the door. She blushed, overwhelmed at seeing her heroes in the flesh. A deep breath signalled her sighting of Larsson, an enigma for any goalkeeper. As she took her place in the line Brian whispered “I wonder what Larsson will say in the Huddle.”

Bronagh laughed, “Brian, I already know, I’ve been listening to what the Magnificent Seven’s got to say for himself every night for years!”

Celtic’s signing for the day played for both sides in a lively training session. Her grandfather Paul managed to bore the manager into giving him five minutes on the pitch if only to avoid hearing the I could have been the greatest ever… story for the fifth time in fifteen minutes. The teenager was so happy she felt she could do anything, even fly if she had really wanted to. She jumped high into the air, her arms outstretched like an eagle when ‘Bronagh Roddy, player of the game’ flashed on the big screens.

After Christmas Lunch in the Walfrid, and the photo session with Brian signing on the dotted line, Bronagh gave her other half his Christmas gift. He opened it animatedly and when he witnessed the contents of the package the two joined their gaze and smiled, Brian understanding its significance immediately. It was a Louis Vuitton toilet bag. It was a bit of banter they shared, the twins surmising that you hadn’t made it as a footballer unless you had one. It was fake of course, Bronagh’s pal Shaunagh’s dad had picked it up for her in Thailand for a tenner, but for Brian it meant that Bronagh was proud of his success and despite her own disappointment was content with his ability to evolve and realise their dream without her.

As they made their way to the front door, Martin O’Neill was waiting to bid farewell, and to congratulate Bronagh for her commitment and enthusiasm at training. Not to mention offer his respect for her obvious talents. 

“That was a great performance out there on the pitch Bronagh, if it were possible I’d have a good mind to sign you myself!”

Bronagh folded her arms across her chest and lifted her chin. 

“Well Mr O’Neill, you might yet rue the day you said that. If Perugia can sign a woman, then the day might not be too far off that I join you here right enough!” 

And with that she turned on her heels and made her way outside. Snow was falling, flecks of white filtering softly from the sky, an army of birds carrying a crisp new world on their wings. The flakes congregated on the ground leaving a bold white canvas in its wake. Celtic Park glistened. 

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