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Acclaimed Scottish singer songwriter Eddi Reader has spoken of her pride on discovering that her granny was a female “Jimmy Johnstone” at a time when women were publicly ridiculed for playing the sport.
Women’s football gained legitimacy and momentum during the First World War but after it ended they were expected to return to the family home.
However, one football team steadfastly ignored all attempts by the SFA to discourage women from playing on their pitches.
Rutherglen Ladies, who were managed by former miner James Hislop Kelly, toured extensively, playing to thousands of spectators whilst raising huge sums for charity.
Their star performer was Sadie Smith who was nicknamed ‘the female Alan Morton’ in the press because her style mirrored the talented Glasgow born left-winger who won fame with Rangers and Scotland.
Remarkably, she never discussed her celebrated football career with her family, a fact that shocked her famous granddaughter, who was eight when she passed away.
Born Sedania Smith in Glasgow in 1907, she joined Rutherglen Ladies in 1922 and played with the team at the height of their dominance, playing in Dublin to a crowd of 12,000 and in Dundee in front of 4,000.
Whilst on tour in Ireland, a story emerged in the press that Sadie had signed for Linfield – a men’s team.
She never played for the Belfast club but she was regularly in the news. Rutherglen Ladies were adept at grabbing headlines, declaring themselves ‘Champions of the World’ after beating the famous English Dick Kerr’s Ladies at Shawfield in 1923.
Their victory was all the more memorable because they had been banned from playing the match at their local park. They were able to play at Shawfield Stadium and won 2-0.
Following the victory, a civic reception was hosted for them in Rutherglen Town Hall.
Eddi Reader goes on a journey to learn more about her granny’s secret past in a new documentary produced by BBC Alba which draws on research undertaken by historians including Dr Fiona Skillen of Glasgow Caledonian University and journalist Dorothy O’Connor, the granddaughter of Rutherglen Ladies manager JH Kelly.
She said she was excited to share the news about her “superhero” granny with her surviving daughter Elizabeth, who lives in Connecticut, USA, and son Brian.
“We come from a long line of people that push themselves forwards and she did,” said the 62-year-old Glasgow based singer who is best known for hits including Perfect with the band Fairground Attraction.
“I’m really proud of it and so proud to tell my sons, not only was she a footballer, she was like Jimmy Johnstone.
“I think the tradition amongst working class poor women is quite brave, sometimes when you’ve got nothing, you’ve got nothing to lose.”
“I’d have loved to have seen her play football", she added. "The fact that she kept it quiet from her own children is strange.”
Looking back on her granny’s life and career, she wonders if giving up football was a source of sadness for her.
Her uncle Brian used to play football in Bilsland Drive, out the back court, and their mothers pals, mostly men, would come up and coach them.
She said: “Some of them would say to him, aye you’re good son but you’re not as good as your mother. He didn’t pay much attention at the time but it all makes sense now.”
A formal ban on women playing football was introduced in Scotland after World War Two .
Dr Fiona Skillen described Rutherglen Ladies as one of the most important teams in Scottish Women’s football history.
She said: “They were touring.. raising hundreds of pounds for charity and breaking down barriers, simply by just existing.
“I’m sure many of them experienced discrimination or hostility even within their own families or communities because it would have been a controversial thing for women to do, to take up this ‘men’s’ sport.
“Some do break that rule, because they’re continuing to raise money for local charities, so they see it as a good thing and let them play.
(actors recreate the team)
“But there’s no doubt that the SFA and wider popular opinion is not encouraging of women playing football at this time.”
Writer, producer and director Margot McCuaig, said: “Every now and then we are fortunate to be blessed with influential individuals who make an extraordinary mark in history and inspire, empower and excite future generations.
“Sadie Smith was one such role model and it is a great privilege to be able to share her story, and indeed that of J H Kelly’s trailblazing Rutherglen Ladies, to a wider audience.”
‘Sadie Smith’ is produced by purpleTV for BBC ALBA. It will air on Saturday, April 9 at 9pm and thereafter for 30 days on BBC iPlayer.