The beautiful game is not just for boys

18th July 2008 at 01:00
Julie Fleeting is a striker for Arsenal and captain of Scotland's women's football team. She has scored 103 goals in 104 international games. But to her pupils, she insists, she's just another teacher. Emma Seith reports

Julie Fleeting is a striker for Arsenal and captain of Scotland's women's football team. She has scored 103 goals in 104 international games. But to her pupils, she insists, she's just another teacher. Emma Seith reports

Men playing for Arsenal can expect to earn up to pound;100,000 a week. Julie Fleeting also plays for the club but for her, football is a hobby; it's teaching PE at St Matthew's Academy in Saltcoats that pays the bills.

"Women's football has never been about money," says the 27-year-old. "Since I started playing, I knew football was never going to pay my way in life. That's probably the case for a lot of women's sports, but it doesn't upset me. I don't do it because I want to be paid a lot."

Julie does it because she loves it. She can't remember when she started to play, she just always has. Her father, Jim Fleeting, played for Norwich City, Ayr, Morton and Clyde and managed Kilmarnock Football Club. Today, he is head of football development at the Scottish Football Association.

You could argue that football is in Julie's blood. But her enthusiasm is not all down to her dad. "I have an older sister who never played at all, so I suppose if it was down to my dad my sister would also have played," she says. "I was just always active in terms of all sorts of sport. I played football because I loved it."

She played football in the street with friends but not at school, where she says she was "normal" and hung out with other girls. Aged nine, urged on by her male classmates, she joined her first team: a boys' club. There she describes herself as "just a normal player" and she stayed until she was 12, when girls and boys had to go their separate ways. Julie had always known that 12 was the cut-off but admits she was gutted nonetheless.

"They were a great group of boys," she says. "Because I had such a good experience playing with them, that's part of the reason I continued. I thoroughly enjoyed those years."

Julie set out to find a girls' team and joined Prestwick Girls, which later became Ayr United, 25 minutes from her home in Kilwinning. Because the girls' game was significantly less developed than the boys', they had to trek all over Scotland in search of worthy opponents.

The move to a girls' team had its advantages, however, and meant that Julie finally met girls who also liked to play football. "It was the first time I'd come across girls who shared the same hobby."

Julie made her Scotland debut against Wales in 1996, aged 15. She doesn't remember being intimidated. "At that age you don't think like that, you just want to play."

Already she had turned down offers of scholarships to the United States, but at 21, after completing a BEd in physical education at Moray House in Edinburgh, she finally went Stateside and became the first Scottish woman to play in the professional WUSA league. "I am a home person, always have been. To move to another country where I did not know anyone was very tough for me, and I did struggle."

Nevertheless, in her two seasons with San Diego Spirit, Julie was named Most Valuable Player by her team mates and coaches, and picked up the club's Golden Boot award. But then the WUSA folded.

Back in Scotland, she played a few games for Ross County and in January 2004 signed for Arsenal. "I had spoken to the coach a few times prior to that but at those points it hadn't been the right time to go down there. Then, when I came home from America, we spoke again and sorted out an arrangement where I would live in Scotland and travel down for matches. At first it was just a trial, but I haven't looked back."

So Monday to Friday Julie teaches PE at St Matthew's Academy in Saltcoats but virtually every other waking moment seems to be about football.

Every evening she trains either independently or with men's team Kilwinning Rangers under-21s. Then, at the weekend, husband Colin Stewart, the Morton goalkeeper, goes off to play his Saturday match and on Sunday the couple fly to London together, where they are picked up at the airport and taken to wherever Arsenal Ladies happens to be playing. After the match, they fly home.

"Occasionally there are games mid-week. If it's a Thursday, then I'm down that night and get the first flight on Friday for work. Then you're down at the weekend again. Weeks like that are tiring but we just take each one as it comes."

Last month, in the Queen's Birthday Honours, Julie was awarded an MBE for services to women's football. She said at the time she hoped the award would help boost the women's game.

At St Matthew's, she is optimistic that her presence will make the girls more inclined to see football as something for them. But more importantly than making them appreciate the beautiful game, is that they take up sport - any sport - and lead healthy, active lifestyles.

"I'm a big fan of single-sex classes. It does put girls off when boys are in the class. It can make them self-conscious, but boys also often have a different attitude towards competition. If girls come across boys who are rough and determined to win, it can have an adverse effect on sport for them."

Predictably, playing with the boys never bothered Julie.

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