Having a Blether with Elsie Cook

Chris Marshall
11 min readMay 14, 2024
Photo Credit: Andrew Crawley (as seen in the magazine)

This piece was commision and first appeared in the Scotland Edition of Glory magazine which you can purchase here.

It’s a midweek afternoon and I’m sitting at the Hampden Park Museum Café talking to Elsie Cook, one of the founding mothers of the Scottish women’s national football team.

Despite never taking to the pitch Elsie’s name has become synonymous with the side that competed in Scotland’s first ever women’s international; a 3–2 defeat to England at the Ravenscraig Stadium in the port town of Greenock on a frozen November afternoon in 1972.

Talking though, is too formal a term. ‘Having a blether’ is more apt. A Scottish turn of phrase that loosely translates to friendly chatter; one that values connection and tangential frivolity over the directness, and time constraint that most interviews are conducted in.

“Guys would do exciting things but I wasn’t allowed to play football”, Elsie begins as she starts to share the story of her love affair with football, “I didn’t take that, I played and I made a bit of a fool of myself”. The first of many laughs breaks across her face.

There is a charming scatter to Elsie’s memories. And, I’ll soon discover, a romantic lilt to her tone is never far away, understandable given a life devoted to the growth of the women’s game in Scotland.

Born in the Ayrshire town of Stewarton and having been entranced by the 1958 World Cup, a tournament where Pele would emerge and led to her seeking out future icon to present him with a tartan tammy at Troon’s Marine Hotel as Brazil prepared for the 1966 World Cup on Scotland’s west coast. Elsie’s first taste of football closer to home came under the floodlights of Kilmarnock’s Rugby Park. Frank Beattie, the Ayrshire side’s title winning captain in 1965, was her favourite player. “There was something balletic about him. It was so natural to him, it was amazing”.

While her life on the terrace began in a conventional manner, her start on the pitch was anything but. Her mother, a netball coach, had been invited to set up a women’s football team to compete in a charity match against a factory team from East Kilbride, a town a few miles down the road. When asked to take part Elsie’s immediate reaction was immediate, “Mum, wummin’ don’t play football…”

She would though, and on the 1 May 1961, a 14-year-old Elsie lined up alongside her mother and two aunts in a familial defensive line. “Having football boots on for the first time and hearing the studs clattering on the floor, it was great…I was so excited”.

Elsie’s infectious love for all things football beams from her eyes as she continues to recall the memories of that first game. “We had old copies of The Sunday Post as shin guards and as we played I could hear all the old codgers at the side of the park. It was brilliant listening to them, folk that had ridiculed the idea, saying how great one of the goals we scored was”.

Not that Elsie would be on the scoresheet that day. Goalscoring honours would fall to Susan Ferries who arrived prior to kick-off, “looking like a model, dressed in white with stiletto heels and a brown leather bag on her shoulder”. Susan would later leave with the metaphorical match ball under her arm, scoring all seven goals as the team that would become Stewarton Thistle defeated their East Kilbride rivals 7–0. Ferries talent would be the inspiration Elsie needed; there were more young girls with footballing talent, out there waiting to be discovered.

Thistle were initially founded alongside Stewarton’s men’s side who had given their female counterparts kit to play on for their charity contest. But having made their debut, they would begin to make connections with other women’s sides across the country. Not that there weren’t challenges to overcome…

It was difficult keeping a team together”, Elsie explains, “the really top players from my team sometimes couldn’t turn up, because they were doing things like babysitting and it was difficult to find a quality replacement”.

“We were banned from using football pitches with changing facilities, even on Sunday’s when nobody was using them and it was a case of grabbing any boy passing the park and asking them to come and referee a game for us as we weren’t allowed an SFA one”.

Despite all that, ad hoc matches would be arranged against a collection of exotically named sides: Cambuslang Hooverettes, Johnstone Red Rockets, Edinburgh Dynamo, Aberdeen Prima Donnas and Fife Dynamites all would be faced on the football pitch. When I query whether there was ever any disappointment that Stewarton’s moniker wasn’t licked with a bit more razzmatazz, Elsie laughs, “don’t be daft, they were stupid names. But they were great names”.

In the first of what would become many friendly interludes, the arrival of Andy, one of the guides at the museum, a familiar face to us both, sees one of Elsie’s beautifully comforting tangents start to unravel before my eyes.

In the warm up area that connects the Hampden Park changing rooms a new mural has been put together showcasing the faces of Scottish football successes past; to inspire the current men’s and women’s national sides to their own versions of glory. Elsie had heard that one of its most recent additions was a former protegeé, Julie Smith, “27 years she played for Stewarton Thistle (later to be named Kilmarnock), she was the quietest wee lassie but she was constant and consistent. I’m so proud of her”.

Tears of pride gently trickle down Elsie’s cheeks as she first sees Julie and then the other names from Scottish women’s football past mosaiced across all four walls. As she looks, Elsie points to the faces of Fleeting, Little and Robertson in the way a child looks up awestruck at Ursa Minor during their first night at an observatory, before quickly adjusting herself to ask, “How come there isn’t something representing the 1972 side there?!” Even when you think you have done it all, there’s always an opportunity to ask for more.

Back upstairs and with Andy booked in for later I ask Elsie how the formation of Scotland’s first women’s national team came about.

“I got a letter from Charlie Leggett who was in charge of the Edinburgh Dynamos (another side of Scotland’s east coast). He asked if Stewarton would like to send representatives to set up a Scottish Women’s Football Association. We did, and I was made Honorary Secretary”.

It was news that would be greeted with indifference by Elsie’s husband, “women all through the 1960s were second class citizens and even right into the 1970s too. Women standing up for equality in America was easing the situation for us” she shares, “but it was still hard”.

Her husband, despite having played football, retained very little interest in the game following his retirement and it would be during his time working a night-shift that Elsie would drag her typewriter onto the desk and put it to work. The clickity clack of Scottish women’s football administration had begun and before long Elsie would find herself tasked with setting up the first international between Scotland and England’s women’s sides.

“Pat Gregory, the secretary of the England’s association in England got in touch and asked if I would organise the very first international” Why was it held in Scotland? “I think they just liked the idea of seeing the mountains,” Elsie jokes. Once again though, despite the formation of an association, appetite for the women’s game from decision makers remained low and it was only courtesy of an offer from the private owners of Ravenscraig Stadium that a venue for the contest was found.

Although whether it should have kicked off remains a question to this day. “The weather was atrocious”, recalls Elsie, “just before kick off I said to the referee who we’d brought in from a local association because we weren’t allowed an SFA official, ‘this pitch isn’t playable, it’s rock solid, somebody’s going to break a leg’. He agreed but then we looked at each other and everyone has come so far… I’m so glad we did it, it’s become such a significant moment”.

Of course football is not just about where the game is played, there is a plethora of logistics involved. Strips had to be bought; with no financial backing Elsie took out a “provy cheque” loan to buy blue shirts, meticulously stitching on badges and numbers herself.

The 27 mile journey from Glasgow to Ravenscraig on the day of the game is a story which has been the subject of much mythology over the years. “Biff (or Liz Smith to give her proper name at the time) had said I was taking on too much so had arranged for her friend and their minibus to take us to Ravenscraig”, as Elsie recalls one of the few instances where she allowed somebody else to take over arranging an element of the events from that day. “It was 12:55 and we’re standing at Anderston Bus Station in Glasgow and I ask. ‘Biff, where’s the minibus’” and she just looked at me with a blank look on her face”. Elsie had to find alternative transport quickly.

“I saw this big white van and so I ran like the clappers down the hill towards it and knocked on the window. I don’t know what possessed me to do it, I must have seemed totally off my head and I asked if he could give the first Scottish women’s national football team a lift to Greenock offering him £30 in the process?” His response? “Aye hop in”.

As the back doors of the van swung open Elsie and her soon-to-be international footballer companions were greeted with a collection of household bric-a-brac and burst couches, “I’d love to find him. Imagine he’s still out there somewhere, somebody who without hesitation said hop in and then once we got to Greenock he buggered off again”. For a brief moment Elsie pauses to take in the absurdity of her story, “it’s bonkers isn’t it.”

Despite being an onlooker from the sidelines that day Elsie can recall each moment in vivid detail. Mary Carr would open the scoring getting on the end of an Edna Neillis cross before Rose Reilly sent a corner straight into the postage stamp, a skill she had practised for as long as Elsie had known her. Scotland were 2–0 up, in dreamland. But, England would come back to claim victory.

Sylvia Gore would slalom past the Scottish defence, somehow keeping her feet to pull one back before half-time before Lynda Hale and Jeannie Allott secured victory for the visitors.

Post-match not everyone was in the mood to celebrate the blazing of a new trail with newspaper headlines less than complimentary. “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.” one would proclaim.

There was another annoyance from that day for Elsie. “We never got a team photo in our Scotland strips. I always have a camera with me but I was working. There were lots of photographers, snapping the game but they never took a team photo. I can’t fathom it. The lassies deserved a team photo”.

It is when talking about those involved on that day, the players who became more than friends but fellow revolutionaries in dark blue, that Elsie’s voice begins to crackle with emotion. During a conversation that recalls a cast of many there is one in particular that always comes back to the fore. “Edna Neillis should be in the (Scottish Football) Hall of Fame. She was amazing. I loved that wee lassie”.

Elsie’s story drifts into sepia tones, her ability to recall the events of her extraordinary time in football in the finest and most evocative of detail about to set the backdrop to a moment that neither of us could have anticipated.

“I remember our (Elsie and Edna’s) first game competing in a Butlin’s tournament. We thought it was a farce and we didn’t really take it seriously. The two teams were to line up before heading out and I could hear this singing from behind me. It was Edna singing ‘Maggie May’. She loved Rod Stewart and she was belting it out as she was walking out onto the park, I was in absolute raptures and then…”

I ask Elsie to stop, and to listen…

I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a heart melt in real life before, but if I was to imagine how it could happen then this would be close as over the speaker in the cafe, and unbeknown to us as we chatted, the playlist had begun to play that same song Edna had sung as she and Elsie left the tunnel at Butlins. It was hard not to get caught up in the emotion of it all, a moment of serendipity that I hope will live with me for as long as my mind will let me.

Thanks Edna”, Elsie says with a smile as she clears a joyful tear from her eye.

Following that game in Greenock, Elsie would continue to push for the growth of the women’s game in Scotland. She would lead Scottish side’s in competing in the first three Women’s FA Cup finals, although on each occasion it would be her opponents from across the border that emerged victorious.

In 1973, having been on the bench in Nuneaton as Scotland were battered 8–0 by England Elsie returned home to an ultimatum from her husband, “it’s either me or the football. I want you to resign”.

At an association meeting in Edinburgh Elsie resigned, receiving recognition for her services to the game. But the meeting wasn’t over and with Rab Stewart, the man who had been manager of that first Scotland side having resigned on the journey back north, a new manager was needed. For the players, there was only one choice.

“Well did you dae it?”, her husband asked as she returned home later that day. “Of course I did”, recounts Elsie, “I promised him that I would, and I did, but then I had to tell him that they’d made me Scotland manager”.

“He just finished washing his cup and went through and watched Kojak on the telly but I seriously believe he was kind of chuffed because he never got angry and a few days later we got an invite to go and play in Italy. You don’t turn that down do you?”

Elsie’s time in charge of the national side, which included a trip to the San Siro, would be brief but she continues to make an impact to this day.

Having stepped back from international football she returned her focus to developing the next generation of young female talent in her hometown of Stewarton setting up youth teams and organising supporters buses to take children to games. “I want them to feel the same way I did when I watched Kilmarnock under the Rugby Park floodlights”, she reflects.

In 2021, she would be part of a group, now known as ‘The Ravenscraig Pioneers’, to carry the trophy out at the Women’s FA Cup Final, 50 years after the first ever final. A year later the Scottish contingent from that day would be present on the Hampden pitch, a surface on which they were never allowed to play, as Scotland faced Austria in a Women’s World Cup Qualifying play-off. Elsie led them out.

Along with museum staff some of the most influential people in the Scottish women’s game today know Elsie by name, during another conversational detour the SFA’s Head of Women’s and Girl’s Football stops by. There is a discussion around when the next wave of pioneers will be recognised at Hampden. Elsie’s task seems to be managing expectations, a manager’s work is never done.

“I had a brilliant life. I still do”, she responds, as I try to bring a conversation that could happily roll on forever to some kind of conclusion.

She is working on a book about her life and there is interest in committing her story to film but throughout our two hour stroll through her life in football one thing endures over most, Elsie wants to ensure nobody who blazed a trail is forgotten.

So with that in mind here’s the Scotland team from that day: 18 November 1972.

Starting XI: Janie Houghton, Jean Hunter, June Hunter, Linda Kidd, Marion Mount, Sandra Walker, Rose Reilly, Edna Neillis, Mary Anderson, Margaret McAulay ©, Mary Carr.

Substitutes: Angela Creamer, Mary Davenport, Linda Cooper, Diane MacLaren, Irene Morrison.

Manager: Rab Stewart.

Elsie’s name may not appear on the squad list from that day, nor in a squad photo never taken, but her impact on the women’s game in Scotland remains undeniable.

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Chris Marshall

Writer | Piehopper | Scottish Women’s Football Hype Man.