THE ambition for Fiona McIntyre relates to pounds and pence, to bricks and mortar. At its soul are the hearts and minds of a generation who can dare to dream.

McIntyre was once the girl that played football, the exception to the rule. Now, as managing director of the Scottish Women's Premier League, she is the figurehead who has the ability to shape careers and inspire kids of all genders and ages.

When the starting point was as relatively low, the only way was up for the new league organisation and clubs who were committed to the cause last summer. A glass ceiling will be hit one day but the rise and rise will continue apace until a level is found and the game is established in its own right and on its own merits.

"Blue sky thinking would be the top league full of professional clubs where the players and coaching staff and everything around that is full time," McIntyre said. "That would raise the level on the pitch massively. Blue sky thinking has to relate to investment.

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"From an infrastructure point of view, I would love to have more quality small stadiums in Scotland and that is a real challenge for our clubs at the moment because they don’t have security of tenure over the venues they are playing in.

"In the top level of men's football, they generally don’t have to worry about those aspects. If we can get to that point I think the product on the pitch will fly and the interest will keep growing."

That interest has been lifelong for McIntyre. The hours spent kicking a ball around the garden of the family home or local parks in Ardrossan alongside her younger brother were the beginning of a love affair with football.

It was a family, she says, that would turn to the back pages of the newspaper before the front when it dropped through the letterbox each morning. Aged just eight, she joined her first club twenty minutes down the west coast in Largs and the fact that girls in her hometown don't need to travel to play today highlights the advancements of the game in terms of opportunities and exposure.

"When I was at school, I made a point of selecting PE and pushed to play football with the boys rather than taking hockey," McIntyre said as she recalls her formative years and tells of a journey that saw her graduate from Stirling University and hold positions with the Grampian Institute of Sport, Aberdeen University and Scottish Women’s Football before moving to the Scottish FA nine years ago. "I was lucky that I had people throughout my childhood that didn’t stop me playing football.

"My mum and dad, my brother, my PE teacher said I was playing football. I think I was the first girl that did football at Higher PE at Ardrossan Academy and I was lucky that I had people who made sure I didn’t deviate away from the game."

At 16, McIntyre was academic enough for university and her mind centred on the beautiful game. A job in a sports shop helped her through her studies and the time with the SWF was the precursor to roles at the SFA, where she was involved in the strategic review of girls and women's football during Covid, and now her position in another Hampden office.

Her first dealings with the Association arose in unique circumstances as a phone call to Anna Signeul, then the manager of the national team, resulted in Scotland facing the Cameroon side that were training at her Aberdeen base ahead of the Olympics in 2012.

As the game has evolved, McIntyre has been there every step of the way. The open doors she was once denied are now there for her two daughters, aged seven and four, that are as accustomed to watching the women's game - from the Lionesses' success last summer to the SWPL title race - as they are the exploits of their male counterparts for country and club.

"It is the classic analogy now if you get in a taxi in Glasgow and mention women's football, they say ‘oh, it is doing really well’ and they know players, managers and far more than they used to," McIntyre said. "From a participation point of view, more girls are playing football and it is seen as something normal. That is not to say there is not still progress to be made."

That has long been the case. One of McIntyre's earliest achievements was scoring in the final of a youth tournament - a moment that saw her congratulated by Manchester United and England striker Andy Cole - in Bolton city centre and in front of the Sky Sports cameras, but her career was destined to take her down a different path after it was decided that coaching wasn't the right fit.

Her story will be familiar to many of those from her generation. What was once out of the ordinary is now more normal than it has ever been.

"I was the girl that played football, that was probably a big part of my identity growing up," McIntyre said. "I think for girls growing up now, it is just part of who they are and it doesn’t necessarily define them in the same way because it is not as different as it was back in the day when I played.

"That is where you want to get to, that it is completely normal for girls to watch football, play football, have an opinion on football. I think normalising women's football and women in football is where we are getting to and that has been a huge sign of progress in the last 20 years."

The growth of the women’s game can be defined in many ways. There will always be those who take a passing interest in the fortunes of their side, in the same manner that B Team or youth level results are looked out for, as a by-product of their affiliation to the club that is closest to their hearts.

But many are now supporters of a women’s team in their own right and new memories are being made and moments cherished. International figures, especially those such as Chelsea's Erin Cuthbert or Caroline Weir of Real Madrid, are icons but players are becoming idols due to their domestic endeavours and the investment – in terms of infrastructure and personnel – from Rangers and Celtic has invigorated the League.

"What is nice now is that girls are getting names on the back of the shirts that are female players, they are waiting for autographs with female players because they are the ones they look up to," McIntyre said as she reflected on a youth that was bereft of females to follow in the footsteps of. "I think seeing that is probably the biggest testament you can give to the game.

"To be fair to the players, they are brilliant and they understand that responsibility of being a role model because many grew up without those female figures and they take that responsibility seriously."

A division that was dominated by Glasgow City for so long had new champions last season as Rangers lifted their maiden title. A successful defence now looks unlikely after their Old Firm defeat last Friday evening and Celtic host City on Sunday evening in a fixture that could go a long way to determining the destination of the trophy.

The decision to bring clubs under the SPFL banner was revolutionary. A deal was agreed in May and the first fixtures were played in August and there is a drive towards greater professionalism on and off the park as the likes of Hearts and Hibernian seek to join those at the top of the table.

"I think the league needs to be competitive," McIntyre said. "For years and years, without speaking out of turn, it pretty much came down to Glasgow City versus Hibs and whoever won those games would win the league because they would generally be expected to beat everyone else in the league.

"That certainty of outcome isn’t good for sport and football. It leaves apathy and a lack of interest if you know what the results will be before games are played.

"That is what the investment has done, it has created genuine competitiveness and when you get that competitiveness it drives standards because everyone wants to be the best.

"For me, it is not just about what they have done for their own clubs. It is what it has done for the rest of the league in raising standards and there are clubs that will follow suit. It will take time."

Those fixtures are now being staged in front of significant numbers and 7,000 supporters watched the Edinburgh derby at Tynecastle last weekend. The crowds and the cash are on an upward trajectory and inspiration can be found across the border.

Like for like comparisons with the Women’s Super League are pointless but they do not frustrate McIntyre as she works on a success rate of ten per cent in relation to attendances or finances when judged against the game that is growing at a rapid rate down the road. She believes the SWPL punches above its weight and dialogue is regular as ideas and information are shared.

"We are trying to stay ahead of the curve on the bits that we can," McIntyre said. "The finance is the finance and we need to do what we can to generate it but if you look at some of the players that are or have been in England – Erin Cuthbert, Caroline Weir, Jen Beattie, Lisa Evans – they have played in Scotland and come through our clubs.

"The positive I take from that is that our clubs are capable of producing world class players. Can we keep an environment that keeps them here a little bit longer so that our league stays competitive?

"That then drives broadcasters, it drives commercial. The English comparison doesn’t bother me, it lets you see what can happen."

The debate over the governance of the English game – whether it be via national association, the League or an independent body – has still to be solved. In that regard, Scotland is leading the way and clubs, with five representatives on the SWPL board, shape their own futures.

The situation is the best of both worlds for McIntyre. She can lean on the SPFL or SFA for help and advice on legal or financial matters but the League, who agreed a historic broadcast deal with Sky Sports and contract with Mitre in the summer, maintain a free hand that allows them to promote their value and their values.

"We have an independence to go out to market and project our own ambitions, which are different from the SPFL because our game is in a different place," McIntyre said. "The views of the clubs have been important and we project that when we speak to potential partnership.

"I view it as the best of both worlds, we can lean on the SFA and SPFL but we have got independence if we want to do our own thing. That is what has allowed us to hit the ground running."

The efforts of McIntyre and her small team will be appreciated by those with a vested interest but dismissed by some who fail to see the merits in the women's game. Time has altered many mindsets but distance must still be travelled on that particular road to equality.

The likes of Ann Budge, the Hearts chairman, and Leeann Dempster, formerly of Motherwell and Hibernian and now overseeing Queen's Park's bid for Premiership football, stand as strong female figures in Scottish football. The support of SPFL counterpart Neil Doncaster and board members Andrew McKinlay and Chris Duffy, of Hearts and Celtic respectively, has been invaluable.

"There are scenarios where it helps to have female leaders," McIntyre said. "Sometimes it is not a deliberate discrimination against women's football, it is just a weight of history and people are set in their ways, almost forget women's football. You see comments about the most capped player, but actually it is the most capped male player.

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"My experience has been positive and some of the biggest advocates of the women's game have been men. I think having more visible females in football is helpful but I wouldn’t underestimate the role that males can play as well because they can be the most positive advocates for women in sport and that has thankfully been my experience."

The women's game will not be for everyone, but it need not be. It is there to sit alongside clubs the length of the leagues and breadth of the country, to hold its own place in the affections of those who are invested financially and emotionally in it rather than compete and pretend to be something that it is not.

An interesting, insightful 90 minutes with McIntyre in the Hampden cafe draws to a close with talk of tactics, players and media relations. Before the tape was turned off, she encapsulated the progress that has been made over the decades and sums up the drive to go again, to provide to the next generation the opportunities that those of hers did were not afforded.

"We are in a good place and ahead of where we think we should be given the timeline and the resource we have," McIntyre said. "We are recruiting for a new partnerships manager, which is a massive role. We have only got three of us at the moment, which is a wee bit crazy but we are managing.

"The message is that we are in a good place, probably ahead of where we thought we would be, but we are certainly not sitting still and are trying to take the game to the next level."