50 years ago today, Rose Reilly stepped onto the pitch at Ravenscraig stadium in Greenock for one of the most significant matches in Scottish football history. 

It was one of many high points in an illustrious career, but in order to play for local club Stewarton she had to cut her hair short and call herself Ross. 

A true trailblazer of the national game, Reilly won the inaugural Scottish Cup with Stewarton in 1971 before joining French club Reims. She signed for AC Milan at the age of 18, and in 1984 captained Italy to victory in the World Cup, scoring in a 3-1 victory against West Germany in the final. 

HeraldScotland: Rose Reilly is the only Scottish person to win the World CupRose Reilly is the only Scottish person to win the World Cup (Image: Herald and Times Group)

Voted the world’s best female footballer that same year, the striker won eight Serie A league titles, four Italian Cups, two Golden Boots and a French league title in her playing days.

The subject of a BBC Alba documentary in 2019, Reilly was inducted into the Scottish Football Hall of Fame in 2007 and awarded an MBE in 2020. 

READ MORE: Women's football in Scotland celebrated ahead of major anniversaries

Scotland took part in their first official international women’s football match on November 18, 1972, with England the opponent.

On the anniversary of that historic occasion, the National Galleries of Scotland (NGS) have acquired a portrait of Reilly.

In the first half of 2023, she will be immortalised in the National Portrait Gallery’s ‘Modern Portrait’ exhibition.

“This is the conclusion of everything”, says Reilly. “I gave my medals and cups away and never dwelled on what I’d won, but these kind of honours sum up my career. It’s more than an honour, because it’s in my home country, where I was a wee bit pushed out before, and I just think that’s great.

“A lot of tourists come to Edinburgh, a lot of sporting personalities, and if I’m up there it gives a voice for women’s football.”

“Ever since the BBC Alba documentary aired, we’ve had consistent feedback from visitors to the Portrait Gallery saying we should have a portrait of Rose Reilly”, explains NGS curator Imogen Gibbon. “Hers is such a wonderful story, and she’s making her story count now.

“She’s part of the history of Scottish football.”

HeraldScotland: The portrait of Rose Reilly that has been acquired by the National Galleries of ScotlandThe portrait of Rose Reilly that has been acquired by the National Galleries of Scotland (Image: Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert 2019/National Galleries of Scotland)

Photographer Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert has fond memories of taking the picture in 2019. He says: “I’ve photographed for newspapers and magazines for 32 years, and it’s not often I come out of assignments thinking ‘I wish that person was my friend’. I came out totally enamoured with Rose.

“’I’m delighted for Rose. She is a pioneer not just of Scottish women’s football, but of Scottish football in total. Her story is incredible and inspirational. I want my young daughter to lead the life that she wants to lead, and that’s what Rose did in her own era by going to Italy and playing football in Italy and France.”

HeraldScotland: Rose Reilly during her playing days with MilanRose Reilly during her playing days with Milan (Image: Herald and Times Group)

Today, the Scottish women’s game looks very different to Reilly’s early experiences. “It was an abyss”, she recalls. “We were banned from playing 50 years ago by the SFA in stadiums, so we played in public parks. We didn’t have any referees because they weren’t allowed to referee the game. 

“They did everything to stop us playing football. Our changing rooms were behind a tree in some random park, but we insisted, we persevered, and such was the love for the game that we went on with it.”

Italy was altogether more welcoming. Reilly says: “As soon as the plane arrived in Milan’s Linate Airport I felt at home. It was like a mother’s embrace. I’d come away from the red ash pitches of Scotland - I’ve still got some glass in my knees to prove that - and was playing in the majestic San Siro. The difference was day and night. 

“The Italians embraced the women’s game entirely, because for them football is a religion. Maybe at the start they came over to see our legs, we got all sorts of snide remarks, but then they saw that we could play.”

HeraldScotland: Rose Reilly was awarded an MBE in 2020Rose Reilly was awarded an MBE in 2020 (Image: Herald and Times Group)

Scotland’s women reached their first World Cup in 2019, but the woman who won titles in both Italy and France during the 1978/79 season feels more could be done to nurture future talent. 

“We have to get sport in primary schools, and we need to get padlocks off sports centres”, she insists.

“We’re not going to get the results if we don’t let them start young.”

READ MORE: Scottish World Cup winner Rose Reilly set to be honoured with university doctorate

Reilly was banned from playing football in Scotland, but turned adversity into triumph, saying: “I didn’t even jump over hurdles or go round them, I just smashed them down.”

For young women inspired by her achievements, she offers these words of encouragement: “Follow your dream. If you want to play football, don’t let anybody stop you. Never, ever, ever take no for an answer.”