When Scotland’s captain, Gemma Fay, damaged an ankle at the start of the year and lost her starting place at Glasgow City, she feared the worst: she was going to miss out on Euro 2017.
What the 35-year-old did next was bold and unorthodox: she packed her bags and departed for the Icelandic side Stjarnan. “It happens in football all the time – people get injured. My situation was just very time sensitive, so I made the decision to go and play in a league that, to be honest, I didn’t know much about. Their international team has been to the European Championships a couple of times and they have various international players playing at their clubs, that was the limit of my knowledge.”
It was a risk but a risk that has seemingly paid off. “I’ve come out of this injury fitter and stronger than I’ve ever been. I’ve changed clubs, I’ve had different experiences, all which generally have been really positive and help me grow as a person as well. So from the bad comes the good. For every knock you get it’s not the knock that matters but how you get on from it, how you respond.”
Fay picked up her 200th cap in the side’s last friendly before Euro 2017 gets under way on Sunday, a 1-0 win over the Republic of Ireland last Friday. It is a landmark she is pleased to have passed before the tournament.
Iceland offered a chance to experience something new. Fay had played her domestic football in Scotland since 2007, after spells north and south of the border, and a league abroad gave her the chance to test herself further. “It’s been great for me because it’s a really, really physical league, a different style and really competitive,” she says. “I’ve loved it.
“The way Iceland run things is really good. They have a community feel to it. Every community has a club, all the kids in that community go to it to play and the men and women are on an equal footing. The facilities have been fantastic, the support has been fantastic. There’s a lot to be learned from what they are doing out there.”
It is being willing to make these bold decisions that makes her a good captain. Being able to lead Scotland at a first major tournament means a lot: “Personally, it makes me feel very proud. It’s mainly the fact that we’ve finally got somewhere where I believe we should be. We’ve come quite close a number of times now and I’ve always believed that we have more to show.”
Fay is eager to point out that reaching Euro 2017 is not a fluke. It has been decades in the making. Ensuring the national side reach this level has been a core part of the Scottish Football Association’s plans for the women’s game. “About 20 years ago the then head of girls and women’s football, Sheila Begbie, put in place a development pathway for young girls in Scotland. If you talk to anyone in sports development it takes 15 or 20 years for that to come to fruition and I think we’re bang on schedule for that one. We’ve now got a bigger pool to pick from, we’ve got a squad who are that little bit older and who have more football experience under their belt at a higher level, and I think all these factors come into play in the qualification.”
However, key components in their rise to the finals will be missing. Manchester City’s Jen Beattie and Arsenal’s Kim Little and Emma Mitchell are the most notable players to miss out through injury. “It’s a huge blow,” Fay says: “They’ve been massive parts of this squad and they contributed so much to it. We all feel for them.” Their absences are not dampening the mood in the camp, though, with Leicester City’s unlikely Premier League win under Claudio Ranieri offering inspiration to the underdogs. “Leicester didn’t have what people would say were the best players but they created a formula, which used what they had, and built a team which was unbeatable at the time.”
The goalkeeper is a leader not only on the pitch but off it, too. It is said she spearheaded the team’s campaign for better terms and conditions with the Scottish FA, resolved days before their squad was announced. It is a deal that will benefit future international players. “I think it was important because women’s football is becoming more and more professional, not just in Scotland but all over the world. These agreements are standard between associations and national teams and we didn’t have one in place, probably because we’ve not needed one before, so it was very important we took that step and provided a platform that can be built on in the future, too.”
Scotland are the latest in a host of international sides who have fought for better pay and terms from their respective associations. Some have been forced to threaten strike action, in Scotland’s case they implemented a media blackout, but Fay diplomatically suggests that the seeming intransigence of football associations is natural: “It’s like with anything – things take time to evolve. Some people, organisations, or parts of organisations, move faster than others. I don’t think it’s about an unwillingness, I think it’s just about a timing issue and making sure the processes and procedures are in place and developed. Something grows organically and then people have to catch up with it and I think that’s where we were. But now everyone has caught up.”
With that dispute out of the way, the team can focus on their tournament opener against England on 19 July. “It’s fantastic, everyone loves a Scotland-England game and I think there’s probably some unfinished business after the guys’ game not too long ago, so I think they set it up nicely for us,” Fay laughs.
When questioned about whether the tournament can propel the growth of the game in Scotland as it has for their neighbours south of the border, Fay is cautious: “England have qualified for international competitions for many many years. Then came the explosion of support around the 2012 Olympics and the 2015 World Cup. We see this tournament as the start of something. It’s an opportunity to start creating the depth of passion for women’s football that England now seem to have.
“Our main goal is to go out there and perform the way we know we can. We want to make sure that when we step off the pitch after each game we can say that we left everything out there and that we couldn’t have asked for anything more from the players.”
They may not being going to the Netherlands with lifting the trophy in mind but the opportunity to usher in a new era for women’s football in Scotland is evident. Whether Fay, at 35, will be a part of that future after this tournament is not yet decided. She will fly back to Iceland for her club football but as for her international future: “I don’t know yet, I’ll have to figure that one out later.”
The pre-Euro 2017 friendlies continue apace. Most notably, France secured a 2-0 win over Belgium, thanks to a Heleen Jaques own goal and an injury-time tap-in from Camille Catala. Wales suffered a heavy defeat at the hands of the tournament hosts, Holland, with Arsenal’s Daniëlle van de Donk among the goalscorers in the 5-0 drubbing.
Camille Catala, right, celebrates her goal for France against Belgium. Photograph: Alexandre Dimou/Icon Sport via Getty Images
In an attempt to build support for the Lionesses before Euro 2017 the England sponsor Vauxhall released an incredibly cringe-making set of chants for fans to pick up, including “Izzy Izzy let’s get busy” for Manchester City’s Izzy Christiansen. Whether they make it into the stands remains to be seen. Meanwhile, the FA has teamed up with Little Mix to launch a “Salute” to the England women’s team and it is genuinely a little bit brilliant.
Barcelona have continued their impressive recruitment for the new La Liga season by snapping up Manchester City’s Toni Duggan to much fanfare. Not to be outdone, the current champions, Atlético Madrid, have captured the Champions League-winning Lyon player Aurélie Kaci.
Across the pond, the Australian Sam Kerr became the all-time National Women’s Soccer League scorer with a 12-minute hat-trick that gave Sky Blue a 3-2 win over Kansas City at the weekend. Marta scored twice for Orlando Pride – only for her team to be held to a draw by Mallory Pugh’s matching double for Washington Spirit. Carli Lloyd was sent off as Houston Dash drew 1-1 with Portland Thorns.