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Whole new ball game: Begbie switches sports and cities . . .

THE swinging sixties had melted into the cerebral seventies when the two best footballers at an Edinburgh school struck a deal.

Sheila Begbie, after overseeing an upsurge in womens' football  in Scotland, is off to  try to do something similar for rugby. Picture: Colin Mearns
Sheila Begbie, after overseeing an upsurge in womens' football in Scotland, is off to try to do something similar for rugby. Picture: Colin Mearns

The fiery midfielder agreed to sell his coveted Medicine Head single to the prolific striker for an undisclosed sum which might have been 29p.

Like the title of that 1973 hit, One and One is One, this footballing story doesn't add up. The midfielder was Gordon Strachan, but the striker was a girl: Sheila Begbie. They would play against each other in kickabouts and, implausibly, become friends reunited when Strachan was appointed Scotland manager 40 years later.

"We were in the same year at Craigroyston School in Edinburgh, and in the same class for some subjects," Begbie, who is about to leave her job as the head of girls' and womens' football at the Scottish Football Association, reports. "He supported Hibs and I'm Hearts. Gordon was a bright guy in school but left early because he signed for Dundee. We've had quite a few chats about the old days recently."

Their contrasting footballing careers - despite both ending up in significant roles in the national set-ups - demonstrate that, literally, it doesn't pay to be born a female.

It would be unthinkable, for example, for Strachan even to consider taking Begbie's next step: moving to a similar position, but much better paid, in the Scottish Rugby Union.

Begbie won her first Scotland cap several years ahead of Strachan: she was just 15 when selected to play alongside the famous Rose Reilly against England.

"The game was at Nuneaton and it was the only time my parents came to watch me play," Begbie recalls. "They travelled down from Scotland in a minibus and we were beaten 8-1. It was a really devastating experience."

A much better memory was made against Italy at the San Siro. Begbie scored twice, albeit the first was an own goal. Redemption followed. "It was a 30-yard free kick and, as soon as the ball left my foot, I knew it was in the top corner," she recalls.

That match led to Begbie being offered a professional contract to join Reilly in Italian football. Whereas today's generation of players would have packed their bags on the spot, the reality for Begbie was different.

"I graduated from Dunfermline College as a PE teacher in 1981 and jobs were very scarce," she points out. "I was one of only two in my year to be offered a post in Lothian and it was made clear there would be nothing to return to if I went to Italy.

"People ask me if I regret not having gone, but I enjoyed teaching and I was captain of Scotland, so I believe I made the right decision."

In 1991 Begbie was alerted to an advertisement placed by the then Scottish Sports Council. It was to be the start of nearly 25 years service to girls' and women's football.

"I was coming in with a blank canvas," she says. "There were little pockets of girls' football in the west, but nothing was really happening in the east. My remit was to build the sport up."

Although employed by the SSC - now sportscotland - Begbie was based at the SFA's old offices in Park Gardens. Her colleagues were Andy Roxburgh, who interviewed her for the job, and Craig Brown.

Also eventually brought in was Maureen McGonigle, who was administrator for the separate Scottish Women's FA. "Maureen was working from what was little more than a cupboard with an answer phone at the Kelvin Hall," Begbie recalls. "She was also part-time administrator for wrestling, so we got her an office at Park Gardens and brought her closer to the football family."

There was more progress in 1998 when Vera Pauw, wife of the Rangers assistant manager Bert van Lingen, was appointed national coach. Her method was to focus almost entirely on the Scotland side, a job she did well, but the clubs felt her approach was too elitist.

"The whole game changed when Vera left and Anna [Signeul] came in as national coach in 2005," Begbie says. "She was the real agent of change. Anna said it wasn't sustainable to deliver the women's programme with all the focus on the national team, so we embarked on a different journey.

"We need to have Scotland in major championship finals and our leading club, which is currently Glasgow City, reaching the last eight in Europe, but what is happening under that is just as important.

"For a long time the number of registered players had stagnated at 2500, but it was up to more than 8000 at the last count. Only 10% of these are aged 25 or over, so it will be a few years before we have the strength in depth we want for our club competitions."

It is, let's hope, water under the bridge now to state that Begbie, Pauw, Signeul and other significant figures in women's football encountered hostility and sexism in their attempts to grow the game.

Some of it came from within the SFA, but she has only praise for Jim Farry, who was in charge when she joined, as well as Stewart Regan and Campbell Ogilvie.

"When Stewart arrived he told me: 'I'm not going to go from zero to hero, but I will make a commitment that under my tenure the girls and women's game will move on'," recalls Begbie, who will step down as vice-chair of Uefa's women's committee.

"I genuinely believe he means that, and Campbell is fantastic: a really enthusiastic supporter of the Scotland women's team. John McBeth is another who was very supportive, and I have to mention Dick Shaw, who always stood up for us when others took a very different view."

Begbie will clear her desk this month when 23 years of traversing the M8 twice a day will end. Now 56, she sees her new job in the SRU as her last great working challenge. It will be a wrench, obviously, to leave Hampden and she says it is essential that the SFA find a suitably qualified replacement.

"Getting the correct person will be absolutely critical to women's football," she maintains. "We need somebody who has a strong strategic background to drive the game forward. Anything else would be a backward step.

"It would also be great to have a woman on the board of directors at the SFA very soon. It's well known that women bring a different dimension to decision-taking and we are now a big part of the football community at every level."

Begbie's third wish is for Scotland to qualify for a major championship. Saturday's defeat by Sweden means Signeul's side will probably have to look to the play-offs if they are to reach next summer's women's World Cup in Canada.

If they do, as with her first cap for Scotland, it would give Begbie bragging rights over the boy Strachan.

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