International Women’s Day is a time to reflect on advances in gender equality, recognize the work still to be done and celebrate the achievements of women around the world.
Elsie Cook, from Stewarton, was Scotland women’s team manager and secretary of the Scottish Women’s Football Association. Through her various endeavors she played a key role in the institutionalization of the Scottish Women’s Association.
Elsie, 76, said: “I first fell in love with football in 1960, aged 13, after watching my first game at Kilmarnock FC Rugby Park. When I saw Captain Frank Beattie dictating the game in the middle of the park, I was blown away.”
After that, Elsie decided that she wanted to play for herself. Coincidentally, her mother, who was an avid humanitarian herself and had received an MBE from the Queen, was asked if she could start a girls’ soccer team for a charity soccer match.
Elsie’s mother and netball coach Betty Bennett asked 14-year-old Elsie to help her start Stewarton Thistle Ladies Football Club.
Elsie said: “Our first match was with East Kilbride’s Holyrood Bumbees. We borrowed strips and begged for boots, but this match was a real eye opener. I played middle half, my mom was right half and my two aunts played full-backs.
“We were also told about a girl named Susan Ferries who was 17 years old. Their technical skills were outstanding and they showed that women and girls can play football. In the end we won the game 7-0 and Susan scored all 7 points.
“Because of Susan, I’ve made it my life’s mission to expand the game of soccer for girls and women of all ages from under 9 to adults. I became a football suffragette from 1961 to 1993.”
Women have been officially banned from playing soccer for almost 40 years. The sport was deemed unsuitable for women and their participation should not be encouraged. As a result, Elsie and her teammates were not allowed to play on proper pitches or use referees or other officials.
She said: “I remember the other guys my age telling me I was stupid and that girls couldn’t play football, but I was determined to prove them wrong. We didn’t let the parking ban stop us either.
“My local team, Stewarton Thistle, snuck onto the town grounds on Sundays when nobody was playing because of the Sabbath. If we were lucky, the janitors would even slip us the locker room keys if we promised to clean up after the men’s weekend games. We didn’t have proper referees, coaches or equipment, we made our equipment from what we could and we carried on with that.
Elsie spent the next 33 years campaigning for the acceptance of women’s football. After representing Scotland in the English Women’s Association in 1969, she helped others found the Scottish Women’s Football Association in 1972, of which she was secretary, and worked tirelessly to reverse the ban on women’s football that was lifted in 1974.
The day after the ban was lifted, Elsie received a call from legendary Scottish manager Jock Stein. He asked Elsie to select top players to provide entertainment before the game of the European Cup match between Celtic and Olympiakos at Celtic Park, in what was a monumental moment for the women at the time.
During her soccer career, she met professional soccer player Pelé and the Brazilian men’s team, who came to Troon for a game.
She said: “I’m a big fan of Pelé so I grabbed my boyfriend and two dozen Tammys and ran down to hopefully meet him.
“I started crying and Pelé came to me and put his hands on my shoulder, kissed me on the cheek and asked if I was okay. It was incredible. Then they realized that we didn’t have tickets for their friendly game against Scotland at Hampden had park so they took us on the bus and we were allowed to watch the game, they gave us tickets for the posh part so we could watch the game from a box.
“After meeting Pele at Troon, we were invited to follow Brazil to the 1966 World Cup in Liverpool. We were treated like stars and invited to meet the whole Brazilian team.”
Elsie’s love of football is still at the forefront of her life. Now aged 76, she spends her time following Kilmarnock at home and away, taking children’s buses to watch the Scotland team play at Hampden Park for free.
She added: “That’s how I enjoy the game these days through the kids. It’s exciting to see children see a crowded Hampden Park for the first time. Today’s game is everything I dreamed of and I’m really happy with how far it’s come.”
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