From the ashes: defiant McDermid Ladies stand firm in the spotlight
Think of an impressionist painting. Think of Degas’s pastels of ballet dancers rehearsing: all legs and stretches and skittish bustle. Now replace the satin pumps with football boots and the pale tulle tutus with fuchsia-pink tops, and you will have a sense of the McDermid Ladies in the dressing room of Windmill Community Campus, Kirkcaldy, on Sunday 20 March 2022.
Everywhere: a blur of motion. To my left, the right-back Chelsea Duncan is having her calf strapped with K tape. To my right, the captain, Tyler Rattray – a skelf of a woman yet apparently unbreakable – is shouting for hairspray while out-of-action Katie Donaldson tells the gruesome story of how she slashed her knee when she tripped and fell on her mother’s garden scissors. At my request the striker Demi Gear holds out her arm to show me her tattoos. She points to one: a ball amidst heartbeat pulses on an ECG chart. “That’s how important football is to me,” she says. “It’s my lifeblood.”
Related: ‘Darkest moment in our history’: Raith fans on David Goodwillie row
McDermid Ladies are preparing to take on Central Girls in the last group stage of the Scottish Women’s Football League Cup and they have every right to be giddy. It is seven weeks since they broke away from Raith Rovers in protest over their signing of David Goodwillie, a player found by a civil court to have raped a woman in 2017. Their principled decision has brought them more attention than a team at their level could ever have anticipated.
Today’s match is particularly nerve-racking. Firstly there is bad blood. The last time the teams met, McDermid Ladies’ youngest player, Daisie Donegan, 15, was red-carded for lashing out at a rival. The dressing room consensus is she was provoked. “The referee only saw Daisie retaliating,” I am told on multiple occasions, “so only Daisie was punished.” Then, there is the previous Sunday’s result: a 9-1 defeat and the source of much soul-searching. Most dauntingly, though, BBC cameras have turned up to film them for Football Focus and a sizeable crowd is gathering outside.
One of the unexpected consequences of the split from Raith has been a growth in the team’s fanbase. The players’ relatives still turn out, home and away, rain or shine; families such as the goalkeeper Chloe Hunter’s – grandad Leslie, gran Betty, mother Kelly and sister Katy – who count on one hand the matches they have missed in the nine years she has been there. They have been joined by disaffected supporters of the men’s team, who have ripped up their season tickets and forsaken their pies and the shelter of Stark’s Park to stand on one of the most exposed touchlines in the country.
McDermid Ladies now also have a coterie of celebrity fans, led by the crime writer Val McDermid, whose father was a scout for Raith. McDermid withdrew her sponsorship in fury at Goodwillie’s signing and transferred her emotional and financial allegiance to the women’s team. Which explains why it, too, now bears her name. And why, Sunday afternoon, a section of the ground could be mistaken for an academic or literary convention.
There is McDermid and her wife, Jo Sharp, recently appointed Geographer Royal for Scotland. There is Emma Smith, professor of Shakespeare Studies at Oxford, up on a flying visit. There is Nick Barley, the director of the Edinburgh International Book Festival. McDermid and Sharp are wearing the team’s new tops. Sharp’s has the number 19 on the back, McDermid’s the number 79, so when they stand together it reads 1979, the title of McDermid’s latest book. These shirts are in high demand. The Glasgow Women’s Library wants one. “So does Ali Smith,” McDermid says.
The women’s team ditched the Raith kit the day they defected. The first time I met the head coach, Neil Sinclair, in February, he preferred to shiver in the snow than pull on his old jacket. The assistant coach, Grant Malcolm, opted for warmth but had covered up the club crest with black tape.
The women have been playing in ad hoc strips with the logo of the anti-male-violence charity Zero Tolerance. On Saturday Sinclair finally took possession of the new ones. They still carry the ZT logo but the old Raith lion has been replaced by nearby Ravenscraig Castle set in a diamond. The badge was designed by Gear’s artist girlfriend, Leasha Jackson, who also inked her tattoos.
In the dressing room there are gasps and groans as the players put them on. They love the look but some of the sizing is awry. A tentative knock on the door, followed by a shout of “Is everyone decent?” and Sinclair appears bearing more. Tops and shorts are tossed about like silk shirts in The Great Gatsby until everyone is happy. Sinclair gives his team talk in the gym hall. “Try not to think about the cameras,” he says. “Focus on what’s happening on the field.” And off they troop, to the astroturf and the adulation.
Central Girls have fielded only 10 players, so McDermid Ladies have the advantage. McDermid is cheering them on. “I don’t know what to shout,” she laughs. “I can’t yell: ‘Go McDermids.’” She says they are fighting hard, “not sitting back at all”. Even so, at half-time the score is an underwhelming 1-1. As Haribos are handed round, the oldest player – Jude Shepherd, 32, once of Hearts – tells her teammates to keep up the pace. “Don’t let them slow it down. It makes it easier for them,” she says.
The second half is a triumph, with three more goals for McDermid Ladies and none for the opposition. The TV crew encourages them to play up their celebrations for the cameras. Someone puts on Yes Sir, I Can Boogie and they jump up and down in a joyous parody of the men’s Scotland squad the night they qualified for the Euros. Sinclair is more phlegmatic. “They got there in the end,” he says. “It just would have been easier if they’d done it in the first half, like I told them to.”
McDermid Ladies are assured a place in sporting history. The signing of Goodwillie sparked a backlash in which they played no small part. Rattray’s resignation, followed by the team’s unanimous decision to break away, made international headlines, turned them into instant role models. Given Goodwillie had played at Clyde for five years with no repercussions, their defiance was remarkable. Finally someone was saying: “Enough.”
But the women do not see themselves as feminist crusaders. They agree leaving Raith was “the only choice [they] could make” but they shy away from grand ideological statements and are wary of the hype. From their first outing as McDermid Ladies on 6 February it was clear they harboured no desire to be poster girls for a campaign against toxic masculinity. Rattray’s only public statement, made shortly before kick-off, was prepared jointly by Sinclair and Rattray’s mum, and delivered under duress.
Raith announced Goodwillie’s signing late on 31 January just before the transfer window closed. Rattray quit, by tweet, the following morning. “I woke up, saw the news and told my mum: ‘That’s it, I’m going,’” she says. “There’s a lot of young girls at the club, and the way you need to think about it is that they are going to be looking up to [Goodwillie].
“I didn’t expect it to kick all off in the way it did. I thought my tweet would get one or two likes but I had to turn my phone off for a week. I got some horrible abuse but twice as many messages of support, and my Twitter follower number went sky-high.”
I didn’t expect it to kick off. I thought my tweet would get one or two likes, but I had to turn my phone off for a week
McDermid Ladies went to a Wetherspoons before that first match which took place in a media frenzy. “We thought it would be good to chill but I couldn’t eat and it made us worse,” Rattray says. “In the changing rooms before the game, I felt sick and then, obviously, walking out on to the park I felt I had to play well.” And did she? “No, I was way too nervous,” she says.
Rattray is still struggling with the attention. “I hate my face being everywhere,” she says. “Even when I was out last night, I had people coming up to me, asking me about it all. I’m used to being this quiet wee person and now everyone seems to know me.”
It took guts, that stand against misogyny. After all, the women had no idea how everything would turn out: that they would be lauded; that McDermid would help them go it alone; that the Raith board would be forced to backtrack, promising that Goodwillie – while still on the books – would never play for the club. “I wasn’t sure we would be able to continue as a team,” says Sinclair. “It might so easily have been over.”
Instead McDermid Ladies were the beneficiaries of a response to the groundswell of anger that peaked when Scotland’s first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, backed calls for a “fit and proper person test” for footballers. For a brief moment the team had more money than it knew what to do with. McDermid was happy to put her hand in her pocket and Dundee-based Tag Games, who previously sponsored Raith’s away kit, redirected its resources to the women’s side, too.
John Murdoch-Paul – known to everyone as Johno – owns 4eyedimensions, a furniture design business in Kirkcaldy’s Olympia Arcade. Murdoch-Paul has sponsored the women’s team home strip since 2018 but the Goodwillie furore has turbocharged his ambitions. He wants to set up a website selling McDermid Ladies merchandise: replica tops, mugs, maybe keyrings. “We need to strike while the iron is hot,” he says. It would be easy to mock but the kindness is real. After the women chittered through their first match, he bought them fleecy blankets. Murdoch-Paul’s latest mission is a minibus for away games. “We could sell advertising on the side to keep the costs down,” he says.
Contrast his concern with Raith. The club did not tell their women’s team they planned to sign Goodwillie and they have not been in touch since. Sinclair has been reluctant to speak out, perhaps because he has not lost hope of a reconciliation. But on 15 April – just as the fury is subsiding and fans returning – he texts to say: “Have you seen today’s Courier?”
It turns out John Sim, the club’s owner and former chairman, has given the paper an exclusive interview in which he doubles down on the decision. In it he says his first instinct when it became clear Goodwillie would not play was to close the club. He also appears to equate Goodwillie’s plight with that of the player’s victim, Denise Clair.
There is renewed shock at Windmill Community Campus. It is difficult to see a way back for the women’s team now.
As I get to know the players, I come to appreciate their qualities: their stubbornness, their sense of humour, their ability to get back up whenever they are knocked down. Over the time I spend with them, they settle into their celebrity, while simultaneously sending themselves up.
I admire their commitment, too. They had to fight to play at school; and now most of them are juggling caring duties and shift work with training and matches. Tiffani Easton has a toddler son, while Rattray is a bar manager, working long and often unsociable hours. And then there is Shepherd who left Hearts for Raith because she found it too difficult to combine her work in a residential children’s unit with the bigger club’s more punishing schedule. Sometimes she works a 24-hour shift from 10am on Saturday to 10am on Sunday, sleeping in the unit, then turns out for a 12pm kick-off.
On the field as off, these weeks have their ups and downs. I am there for the 9-1 away defeat to Linlithgow Rose. The ball crashes past Hunter again and again, her red hair flying until, after an injury to her chest, she leaves the field in tears.
I am standing next to her family, who wince at every goal. They tell me Hunter started out as a striker but took on the role of keeper after the last one left. She is prone to rib injuries, so they are worried about the repeated blows and the car journey home. “She will blame herself. She always does,” her grandad says. “We will travel back in silence.”
Sadly Covid prevents me from travelling to Peterhead, where they beat Buchan Ladies 7-3, though I hear all about the singing that sustained them on the long journey up. The McDermid Ladies have bonded through adversity. They may still have their falling outs but, in the face of outside opposition, they are indivisible. “I think immediately after the split there was tension. It affected their play no doubt,” says McDermid, “but they settled down and began to enjoy the attention.
“It’s a joy to watch. There’s so much pressure these days, with all the criticism on social media, so it’s good to see a bunch of young women who are there for each other. There’s no money, glamour. There’s nothing except enjoying the game and the camaraderie it engenders.”
The last time I see McDermid Ladies play is 1 May: the quarter-final of the SWFL Cup at Windmill. It is a beautiful day. The sun dances along the astroturf creating pinpoints of light like dew drops. But the game against Bayside Women is not great. The players seem out of sorts and by half-time they are one goal down. Even their own fans are restless. “There’s no football being played,” shouts an angry man who looks like actor Gary Lewis playing an angry man. “Yous are just hoofing it up the park.” Things liven up in the last 15 minutes. With the score at 2-0, McDermid Ladies score, then Bayside score, then McDermid Ladies score again. They are pushing for an equaliser when the whistle blows. They are out of the Cup. The women head back to the dressing room, their eyes on the ground. “It’s disappointing,” Sinclair says but he is still proud of them.
This is not (as yet) a story of underdogs raised to sporting glory. It is a story about sticking by what you believe in and one another. It is a story of women who understand that football is about more than what happens on the pitch.
Raith, who had been eyeing promotion, finished their season mid-table. What they lost – trust, self-respect, a connection with the community – McDermid Ladies gained. They will always be the players who followed their conscience. Win or lose, they should hold their heads high.
• A longer version of this article appears in the new issue of Nutmeg, the Scottish football periodical, out on 6 June