Michael Houston ©ITG

My athletics training group often echoed motivation to each other on Tuesday night sessions when in the doldrums, trying to get through the final 600 metres.

They were often the repetitive clichés of "this is where champions are made" and "five down, five to go", while each of us would become the leader of the train and volunteer to break the wind for the rest of the runners on each effort.

Another session in the bag, we collectively looked towards the National Cross Country Championships every season where we had many successes, regarded as one of the finest eras in the young history of Inverclyde Athletics Club, dating back just 26 years. 

"The Ravenscraig" is situated in one of Scotland's poorest towns, Greenock, in one of the town's poorest schemes, Larkfield. Although facilities are gradually improving, it is rarely used for athletics competitions and is overshadowed by a facility of the same name in Motherwell. 

Unbeknownst to us, our achievements on the track were miniscule to what else had occurred at the Ravenscraig Stadium.

For over a decade, I would cut across the grass during recoveries, the same soil that saw Scotland play England in both nations' first-officially-recognised women's football match. Fittingly, it took me several years to be made aware of this historic event taking place in my hometown.

November 18 1972, 50 years ago this week, the two rival nations kicked off at 2:15pm; almost 100 years to the day since the men's national teams competed in the first-ever international football match on November 30 1872 in Glasgow.

The Scotland and England women's football match was advertised ahead of time ©FIFA
The Scotland and England women's football match was advertised ahead of time ©FIFA

FIFA recognises it as the second-ever international women's football match, following France's 4-0 victory over The Netherlands on April 17 1971 in Hazebrouck.

Entrance was cheap, costing just 20 pence or £2.50 ($3/€3) today, with Scottish great Rose Reilly recalling the crowd being "numerous" and far larger than an average women's match at the time.

Reilly, who was just 17 years old at the time of the match with the Auld Enemy, said a bus was either not arranged or broke down on the day before the match, causing host players to hitch a lift on the back of a furniture lorry on the 45-minute journey from Glasgow.

Although the English team were said to have got to Greenock from the city by coach, their journey to the north was not easy either.

Sixteen-year-old Jeannie Allott, met with her team-mates in Waterloo station, travelling from Crewe in the north-west down to London by hitchhiking and sleeping in the train station overnight.

It was far from professional, but that was by design. FIFA only retrospectively recognised these matches decades later, and it took the joint efforts of English Women's Football Association (EWFA) honorary secretary Pat Gregory and Scottish Women's Football Association (SWFA) secretary Elsie Cook to break those systemic barriers.

Gregory contacted Cook with the proposal, and both parties worked on the travel and logistics together.

Why the Ravenscraig? Because the unspectacular stadium of today... well it was also unspectacular back then.

Gregory and Cook agreed on the venue as it was not a professional-level pitch, meaning the parties could circumnavigate a long-term ban implemented by the Scottish Football Association (SFA).

The SFA effectively blacklisted any venue in Scotland that allowed women to play on its pitch, with a threat of professional status being revoked as a result.

That said, it was not clear if a progressive team at Parkhead or Ibrox would have caused their iconic stadiums to be shut down by supporting women's football.

England celebrated victory against Scotland in 1972 ©FIFA
England celebrated victory against Scotland in 1972 ©FIFA

"We didn't have any financial backing," said Cook.

"The strips were bought by a provident cheque [form of loan], the shorts were borrowed from Rangers Football Club."

Women's football was met with contempt at the time, yet England prevailed through it. There were 200 teams across England at the time of the match, while only six existed in Scotland.

The hosts were the underdogs, but took a 2-0 lead thanks to Mary Carr and Reilly, with the latter scoring directly from a corner; before Sylvia Gore pulled one back for the visitors before the interval. Lynda Hale got the equaliser before the hitchhiker Allott turned the match around for England who won 3-2.

The local newspaper Greenock Telegraph pulled its report from the archives recently on the match's anniversary.

"For sheer stamina as well as football ability you've got to hand it to the 22 girls who took the field at Ravenscraig on Saturday in the first-ever official women's home international", it read.

"They gave a lively and entertaining display in conditions which would have tested the most experienced male players, and won the hearts and vocal support of an enthusiastic crowd of about 400."

Reports like this are as close as we get to finding attendance figures or statistics from the match, with little care taken over keeping records by the SWFA or the SFA when it took over operations.

The Football Association (FA) recognised English women's football the previous year, but the clear chasm in depth was down to the SFA's refusal to recognise women's football at the time.

The SFA did not recognise women's football until 1974 and would not incorporate the sport into its operations until 1998 ©Getty Images
The SFA did not recognise women's football until 1974 and would not incorporate the sport into its operations until 1998 ©Getty Images

Despite the plucky performance, perceptions would not change at the SFA until 1974.

"We weren't taken seriously, the SFA refused to acknowledge us," added Cook.

"They said, 'Football's not for women'. 

"We had that attitude from the Scottish population - men and women. 

"We were ridiculed in the press, by everybody. Because of the prejudice we faced, it made us all the more determined to keep going."

Nearly 50 years on, Inverclyde Council decided to hold a match between Scotland and England's under-15 schools teams at the Ravenscraig Stadium in April to mark the occasion, albeit seven months early; with the score finishing 3-3.

The FA eventually merged women's football into its governance in 1993 and the SFA again followed with delay in 1998.

Sexism continued through the decades, with Cook being banned by the SFA from being part of the senior women's team set-up, while young defender Jean Hunter - and future mother-in-law of future all-time Scottish top scorer Julie Fleeting - quit the sport due to her partner's attitude to her playing.

In the English team, Gregory was banned from officiating male football matches until the Sex Discrimination Act of 1975 was passed.

Even prior to the Ravenscraig match, teenager Wendy Owen said she would take part in a photo opportunity before the game of her putting on makeup, despite never having worn it before. When the pictures surfaced, they backfired in the press and were used as a chance to ridicule the women's game through stereotypes of the players caring more about beauty than sport.

Rose Reilly earlier this year received her Member of the British Empire medal ©Getty Images
Rose Reilly earlier this year received her Member of the British Empire medal ©Getty Images

Reilly's adversity is the most erroneous and infamous. Regarded as one of Scotland's greatest women's football players ever, she was banned from playing for the national side after turning professional at a time where men could represent their nation and earn money to do so. Earning just 10 caps, Reilly was eventually adopted into the Italian national team, where she had been playing club football, and went on to win the 1984 Mundalito - the predecessor to the Women's World Cup.

This had been after impressing scouts at Celtic - who had made two European finals in 1967 and 1970 - as a teenager, but they turned Reilly down after realising she was a woman.

While in the present day critics of the women's game lambast the quality of the product and accuse the media of "shoving it down our throats", it is the least that can be done to amend more than a century of sexism. To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Ravenscraig match itself feels like a false landmark, considering the first unofficial game took place between England and Scotland in 1881 at Easter Road in Edinburgh, although no score was kept.

After 40 years of struggle, women's football was banned in Scotland in 1921 with similar suspensions in place south of the border too.

And when UEFA ordered its members to take control of women's football in their respective territories - with the vote finishing 31-1 - Scotland was the only member to vote against it.

Across the United Kingdom, women's players could technically play, but were still held back by the attitudes of those around them. We hear of the English men's close calls at the 1990 FIFA World Cup and Euro '96, but few know England were the finalists in the first official European competition for women's football in 1984 - seven years before the tournament was finally brought under the UEFA umbrella and renamed.

The EWFA did not have the means to set up a sophisticated league system until 1991, two years before the FA takeover.

Grassroots development was not set up by the FA until 1997, and a year later, England had its first full-time manager appointed - Hope Powell.

Hope Powell was the English women's national team manager for 15 years ©Getty Images
Hope Powell was the English women's national team manager for 15 years ©Getty Images

Powell's appointment was symbolically a turning point in England towards better representation. Born to Jamaican parents, she was first in the news in 1978 at the age of 11 when FA rules stopped her from representing her school team. Powell said her teacher appealed against the ban because she was part of his best starting 11, not out of the interest of gender equality.

After an illustrious playing career with the likes of Millwall, Fulham, Bromley and Croydon, Powell hung up the boots to take the England job, during a period where players were not able to make a living in the sport. 

Fifteen years later, she was sacked, remembered as one of the memorable figures in British women's football, with current national team manager Sarina Wiegman showing again what women in management can do.

And the gap is starting to be bridged across the game. Punditry is becoming more diverse, and for the better. England and Arsenal great Alex Scott can be regarded as one of the best football analytical minds in Britain at the moment, showing prejudice against her based on her gender was incorrect. 

Then we have had Chelsea manager Emma Hayes being linked to senior men's jobs due to her work with the Women's Super League side. There continues to be pushback against the two versions of the sport overlapping, but this is not some new trend.

What we have historically seen is women's football has been popular. The First World War saw the shutdown of the Football League as young men were conscripted to serve in the armed forces, meaning the "unladylike" game now had, ladies. 

Thousands attended matches and some, like the famous Dick, Kerr Ladies Football Club, continued that success into the peacetime period, attracting a crowd of 53,000 people against St Helens Ladies in Liverpool in 1920 before the ban came in the next year.

Wrongs are starting to be righted, with television coverage of the top women's league globally, while even the Scottish league is starting to move towards a professional game, but gaps still exist.

Celtic and Rangers are two of three professional women's teams in Scotland ©Getty Images
Celtic and Rangers are two of three professional women's teams in Scotland ©Getty Images

Scotland were notably off the pace of England when they met again at the 2019 FIFA Women's World Cup, with the lack of full-time professional players showing clear differences in fitness.

Full-circle, Celtic became the first team to have a full-time professional women's team in the country and are now joined by rivals Rangers and women's specialists Glasgow City with that status.

Even in England, the Women's Super League was not completely professional until 2018.

Meanwhile, England's breakthrough came this summer at the European Championship, with the national team's victory in the final over Germany.

More can still be done. In an open letter to Prime Minister candidates Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss - who both became Prime Ministers over the past few months - the Lionesses said only 63 per cent of girls in school have the option to play football and called for that to change. 

Meanwhile, it took Scotland qualifying for their first World Cup for the Scottish Government to guarantee financial security for the players, paying them to focus on training in the final months before the tournament.

Professionalism is beginning to become the norm for the top women's players in the UK and with that, an ever-improving coverage and development of the game.

The Ravenscraig match may not be the first-ever, nor the start of a golden era of women's football, but it is one of the most important milestones in the revitalisation of the forgotten side of the beautiful game.