Singer Eddi Reader discovers her gran had a 'secret life' as a footballer

·4-min read
A new documentary tells the story of Rutherglen Ladies Football Club Pic: Purple TV/BBC ALBA
A new documentary tells the story of Rutherglen Ladies Football Club Pic: Purple TV/BBC ALBA

SINGER Eddi Reader remembers her uncle telling them he’d play football out on the Bilsland Drive back courts and the cry from local men was always the same.

“They’d say, aye, you’re good, son, but not as good as your mother,” smiles Eddi. “He didn’t pay much attention at the time – but it all makes sense now….”

Glasgow Times: Eddi Reader, being filmed for the new documentary Sadie Smith Pic: Purple TV/BBC ALBA
Glasgow Times: Eddi Reader, being filmed for the new documentary Sadie Smith Pic: Purple TV/BBC ALBA

Eddi recently discovered her grandmother Sadie Smith had an incredible secret life as a footballer in the 1920s.

Glasgow Times: A new documentary tells the story of Rutherglen Ladies Football Club Pic: Purple TV/BBC ALBA
Glasgow Times: A new documentary tells the story of Rutherglen Ladies Football Club Pic: Purple TV/BBC ALBA

For a new documentary on BBC ALBA, the singer goes on a journey to find out about her remarkable relative’s life and career.

Sadie Smith, superstar left winger, toured with trailblazing Rutherglen Ladies in the 1920s. In a period when women in football were ridiculed and even banned, Sadie was both a pioneer and an inspiration, answering critics the way she knew best - by overcoming her opposition and striking hard on goal.

Glasgow Times: Eddi Reader Pic: Purple TV/BBC ALBA
Glasgow Times: Eddi Reader Pic: Purple TV/BBC ALBA

Women’s football gained legitimacy and momentum during the First World War but after it ended, women were expected to return to the home.

Sadie started playing for Rutherglen Ladies in 1922. A year later, the club was banned from playing a high-profile match against Dick Kerr Ladies, one of the biggest British teams of the period, at their local park.

They were able to play at Shawfield Stadium and won 2- 0 – a historic moment for the team.

Following the victory, a civic reception was thrown for them in Rutherglen Town Hall, and by 1926 they were famous across Scotland, playing in front of crowds of thousands of fans. In 1927 and 1928 they toured in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.

For the documentary, Eddi met historian Dr Fiona Skillen from Glasgow Caledonian University.

Dr Skillen explains that Rutherglen Ladies were the most important women’s football team in interwar Scotland - and one of the most important teams in Scottish women’s football history.

Glasgow Times: Rutherglen Ladies Football Club Pic: Newsquest
Glasgow Times: Rutherglen Ladies Football Club Pic: Newsquest

“They were touring, raising hundreds of pounds for charity and breaking down barriers, simply by just existing,” she says.

“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’.”

Dr Skillen adds: “Sadie, as a footballer and a beloved granny to Eddi Reader, was an inspiration, a powerful pioneering woman who, along with her teammates, challenged the misogynistic narrative and pushed women forward.”

A formal ban was introduced in Scotland after World War Two but even before then, the Scottish Football Association discouraged their members from letting women play on their pitches.

Dr Skillen adds: “Some did break that rule, because they continued to raise money for local charities, so they saw it as a good thing and let them play. But there’s no doubt that the SFA and wider popular opinion was not encouraging of women playing football at this time.”

Looking back on her granny’s life and career, Eddi wonders if giving up football was a source of sadness for Sadie.

“I’d have loved to have seen her play football,” she says. “The fact that she kept it quiet from her own children is strange. We come from a long line of people that push themselves forwards and she did.

“I find those women in between the wars to be so pioneering - not only my granny doing the football and smoking in the street, wearing her flapper dresses and with her ‘don’t mess with me’ attitude, but the other women that were shoving detonators in their hats and fuse wires under their skirts to get on a train at Glasgow Central to go to Ardrossan and cross to Dublin for the Irish Rising.

“My granny and grandad’s house was often full of socialists, shipyard workers and fun parties. She’d sit in a chair with a cigarette. What I loved was that she opened her house – a two-bed flat in Ruchill - to neighbours, friends and family on a Saturday night, and people would get done up to the nines to have a singalong and a dance and chat. I was brought up in a welcoming household.”

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Eddi adds: “I’m really proud of it and so proud to tell my sons that not only was she a footballer, she was like Jimmy Johnstone…”

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, produced by purpleTV for BBC ALBA, will air on Saturday, April 9 at 9pm and thereafter for 30 days on BBC iPlayer.

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