We meet former Scotland manager Elsie Cook, who helped overturn the ban against women playing football
From playing in FA Cup finals at Wembley to her date with Pelé, Elsie had quite the adventure on her journey to equality in the beautiful game…
When England Lionesses lifted the UEFA Women’s Euro trophy at Wembley last year, it signalled a landmark moment in the beautiful game.
A cool 87,192 people watched on in the stands – the largest crowd for any Euros match, men’s or women’s, in history. Another 365 million people watched on TV around the world, a record global audience for the tournament.
People were taking notice.
But it’s important to remember this interest in women’s football hasn’t appeared overnight. It has taken countless volunteers – often without any support or training – decades of work, passion and commitment to get the women’s game back to where it should be: right alongside the men’s. And there’s still a way to go yet.
We say “back” to where it should be, because it wasn’t always the case that women’s football was the men’s poor relation. Back in the early 1900s, women’s football attracted crowds in their thousands week in, week out – St James’ Park often holding around 35,000 spectators for their Newcastle United Ladies matches.
Then the FA decided to ban women from playing.
From then on, women were forced to fight for their right to play football: playing in the shadows, facing derision from their communities and obstacles at every turn. And that would still be the case were it not for the likes of women like Elsie Cook.
Now 76, Elsie is a true pioneer within women’s football in the UK. Having dedicated 33 years of her life to campaigning for the acceptance of women’s football, she became Scotland Women’s Manager and was a founding member of the Scottish Women’s Football Association, organising the first ever Scotland Women’s international game against England in 1972.
Finally, after the blood, sweat and tears of Elsie and countless other women like her, the ban against women playing football was lifted in 1974 – and the game could really progress…
It was unbelievable, what we managed to do.
All these interviews should have happened years ago. It shouldn’t have taken all this time to be recognised. All the people who ran these football teams, most of them mums and dads of the players, worked so hard with no funding or organisation. And all the brilliant girls I worked with from 1961 right through to 1993… It’s an honour to tell my story, but if it hadn’t been for them, I wouldn’t have had a story at all.
I first discovered football in 1958.
I didn’t know anything about football at the time, but seemingly there was a World Cup that year.
As a kid, I used to run around with the boys. We were down the swing park one day and one of the lads came along with a football. I got in the line-up to be chosen for a team and I was told in no uncertain manner:
Elsie, lasses cannot play football.
I was astounded. I genuinely believed girls couldn’t play football because of some impediment or something. But I stood my ground and got a game. That was the start of it.
I fell in love with football when I first watched Kilmarnock under floodlights.
I can see it now as I’m talking about it: there were only four women in the crowd – my two neighbours, my friend Isabelle, and myself – the rest were all men. They were all wearing those Peaky Blinder hats and had cigarettes hanging from their mouths. The smoke was leaching up into the frosty air… I’d never experienced anything like it.
That was me hooked. I started following Kilmarnock home and away and the boys on the buses were so accepting of me.
I first played football by fluke.
My mother was the coach of a local netball team. The head of the council took her to one side and said: “Betty, there’s a women’s football team in East Kilbride who’ve got in touch and would like to come and play against your team.” My Mum just looked at him; “but I haven’t got a team!”
He assured her the netball girls would do. It was a charity match to raise funds for Ethiopia, so we were really up for it.
My mum, myself and my two aunties made up the defence of what became Stewarton Thistle Ladies Football Club, along with the netball girls. We had a couple of kickabouts with my uncle, who tried his best to train us.
My mission started the day I saw Susan Ferries play football.
In the supporters’ bus for the next Kilmarnock away game, the boys were all laughing at the idea of us playing football. But there was an old guy at the front of the bus who shouted up: “Elsie, you need to get this girl from Kilmarnock, Susan Ferries. She’s incredible on the ball.”
When I first set eyes on Susan, I couldn’t believe she was a football player – she looked more like a model! She was beautiful and came to the match in her stilettos with her blonde, curly hair and this starched, sticky-out petticoat under her dress. Over her arm, she was carrying a brown, leather shopping bag, out of which she pulled her football boots – which was when I knew it was her!
We beat the team from East Kilbride 7-0 and Susan scored all seven goals.
People had been deriding us all week, but we drew a crowd of around 700 people. The men in the crowd were flabbergasted at how clever Susan was with the ball. I thought to myself: if there’s one lassie as skilful as this, there must be others.
Right through the ‘60s, I discovered quite a few brilliant girls around Kilmarnock and I spent the rest of my life trying to expand the game for them.
Women in Scotland were expected to be at the kitchen sink.
They did the housework and looked after the family. The man came first. We wanted to play a man’s game, which was why people were so derogatory about us.
We had an awful lot of obstacles to overcome. We didn’t even know women were banned from playing football until we tried to book a pitch. But they couldn’t stop us from playing on a Sunday.
Nothing happened on a Sabbath day back then. The pitches were all lying silent, so we could just go on and play without needing to change, (as we weren’t allowed to use the facilities).
Every Sunday I’d go to church, hurry home straight after, get changed into my kit and pick up my bag of sawdust (for the ground if it had been raining the night before), and the nets. It was unheard of for women to be kicking a ball about, but we managed fine.
It took a lot of hard work to turn my passion into a career.
I was only 14 in that first charity match, so whilst I was still in my early teens I was organising everything. Nobody had phones in their house back then and nobody had a car.
As the years went by, I practically bankrupted myself for football. I started working, got married, had two kids, and I was broke. I also had a husband who didn’t like women playing football! I sacrificed an awful lot, but it was an honour.
Becoming Scotland manager tested my marriage.
In 1972, the Scottish Women’s FA came into being and I was asked to be the Secretary, organising the leagues and cups. I did that for a few years until my husband lost the plot with me! The night before a meeting in Edinburgh he said: “If you don’t resign your post as Secretary, I won’t be here when you come back.”
So, I resigned as Secretary. The next point on the agenda was finding a new Scotland manager. The girls at the back of the hall, who I mainly knew from playing on opponent teams, shouted out: “We want Elsie!” I became the Scotland manager overnight.
When I told my husband what had happened, he just went into the other room without saying a word and watched TV. I loved him to bits, but I couldn’t pack in my football just because I was married. I had to be myself.
We had some incredible experiences in the ‘70s.
In 1970, the English Women’s FA started and they invited us to take part in the WFA Cup games. In 1970 and 1971, Stewarton Thistle reached the FA Final both years against Southampton. Our village has a population of around 3,500, so to get to a women’s FA Cup final was a huge achievement.
In 1973, we were invited on a tour of Morocco. That was another milestone because none of us had ever been on a plane before! We raised £50,000 for the Red Cross in Morocco just by playing there.
In 1974, I was up at my Mum’s with the kids and the phone rang. My Mum answered and then clamped her hand over the receiver. She mouthed to me: “Elsie, it’s Jock Stein!” [One of the most influential figures in Scottish football]. He was inviting me to bring a Scotland select team to play as half-time entertainment at Celtic’s European Cup tie the following night.
We didn’t have any time to get ready, but it was amazing. It was bucketing with rain and every girl ran their socks off. Some of the girls were Rangers fans, so had vowed not to celebrate if they scored. But Edna’s goal was hilarious – the moment the ball hit the net, she ran round the whole side of the park in front of the Celtic fans celebrating with her arms outstretched!
The worst thing was the newspaper headlines.
The coverage in the local papers following the first-ever Scotland v England game at Greenock, in particular, was disgusting.
“Hey there, stop the game – the left-back has broken a bra strap.”
“22 curvaceous kitties battled out the first ever Scotland v England soccer international.”
“At this point, the normal Sunday Post football crime count might read as follows – Scotland: three needless nudges, one wee hair-pull; England: two hard slaps, one wee shove, one posterior propulsion.”
“If women’s lib means equal pay for equal work, I’m all for it. If it means 22 crackpot females running around a football pitch, bouncing boobs all over the place, then they can keep it.”
I mean, what’s all that about?
My proudest moment was carrying the FA Cup out at Wembley.
The captains of all the teams that had got through to the finals of the WFA Cup were invited to Wembley in 2021, on the 50th anniversary of the first FA Cup Final.
I was standing in the tunnel with Lesley Lloyd, who was the Southampton captain we’d played against twice, and automatically we just reached out to one another and held hands.
After I finished coaching the Scotland women’s team, I set up under-9s to under-16s teams, which kept me 110% involved with football. The children were amazing. Standing in that tunnel, I felt as if all those girls were beside me. When I walked out onto the park, I was in bits!
The world was a better place with Pelé in it.
I met George Best, Sir Alf Ramsey, Tommy Doherty, Bobby Charlton… but meeting Pelé was amazing.
Just before the 1966 World Cup, Scotland had arranged a friendly with Brazil at Hampden Park. I worked in a factory that made Tartan Tammy hats at the time – those bobble hats that Scottish football fans wore to Wembley. I asked my boss if I could have two dozen tammies because I’d heard the Brazil team were staying in a hotel in Troon and I talked my friend into coming with me.
We walked into this posh hotel, two silly teenagers giggling like anything, and ran into Dr Hilton Gosling, the Brazil team’s doctor. We told him we wanted to meet Pelé. He laughed and told us the players would be five minutes. Sure enough, the players came out – Garrincha, Jairzinho, they were all there – and the last to come out was Pelé.
He came over and I burst into tears. He put his hand on my shoulder, kissed me on the cheek and asked why I was crying. I turned to my friend, who didn’t even like football, and she was crying as well! He had such charisma.
While they were getting on the bus, Dr Gosling came up to us with tickets for us for the game. We had to say we didn’t have time to go because we didn’t have a car, so they took us in the Brazil backup bus and we got a police escort to Hampden.
After the match, as their bus was pulling away, Pelé shouted out the window: “Are you coming to Liverpool?!”
Four years ago, I started up free buses to take children to Hampden Park.
I wanted children to experience what I had – shouting for their team under the floodlights. Seeing their faces full of excitement has been amazing. Half of them don’t know the words to the songs, but they mouth off anyway! It’s so uplifting.
The women’s game has such a following now.
I watch the WSL and the standard of play is unbelievable. They’ve got fantastic coaches – the likes of Sarina Weigman and Emma Hayes – they’ve played football so they know the game inside and out.
We still need to encourage more grassroots opportunities. I feel like girls should play alongside boys until they’re 12 because the boys will do their best to upset a lassie in a park and the lasses will be desperate to prove they’re as good as the boys. It gives the girls’ game an edge.
All I ever cared about was expanding the women’s game.
I just wanted to make people accept that lasses could play football.
My dream back then was that I’d pass a bus stop one day and see a group of girls with their holdalls full of football gear, waiting on a bus to pick them up and take them to their match.
It took a while, but I think we shut the boys up eventually!
Nationwide Building Society is partnering with Football Associations across the UK to help promote mutual respect on and off the pitch, from grassroots upwards.
To find out more, visit the Nationwide website