Kilmarnock has caused a stir in Premier League football by appointing a women's coach. Roddy Mackenzie talks to Donna Cheyne about her hopes for the game
Donna Cheyne does not give the impression that she is a trail-blazing pioneer. She is the only women's coach attached to a Scottish Football Premier League team and she is only 23.
If she is optimistic about the future of the women's game, she knows there is still a lot of ground to make up on the men's game. Her appointment at Kilmarnock Football Club last month caused a few ripples, but it is a sign that some of the barriers blocking the women's game in Scotland are being dismantled. The fact that a senior club of Kilmarnock's standing is willing to create a corner for her gives the women's game a bit more credibility.
Although the club has a senior women's team, which she plays for, and sides at under-16, under-14 and under-12 level, in many respects she is laying the groundwork for girls' football in Ayrshire. "One of my main priorities just now is increasing participation levels in East Ayrshire," she says, "and I have set up centres in Darvel, Mauchline and at the Hunter Centre in Kilmarnock.
"It's just a taster for girls between the ages of six and 12," she explains. "but I'm hoping that, if I get the numbers, I can split them into two groups of six to eight years and nine to 12.
"One of my main aims when I am here is to bridge the gap between under-16 and full level. At present, there is no girls' under-18 league in Scotland and players have to go straight from under-16 level to play in senior teams. That is too big a gap in some cases and, unfortunately, it means that a lot of players are lost to the game, especially at that age when there are other attractions."
Miss Cheyne knows there is also a credibility gap to be bridged in some people's eyes but believes that attitudes are changing.
"I've spent the past three summers in America and there is a different attitude completely to the women's game," she says. "They don't have the same strong traditions of the men's game over here and it is seen as a sport in its own right. The American women's team has its own stars and the games are regularly on television, so young players aspire to be like the top players.
"There is a different attitude over here but the fact that Fulham has recently become the first British club to have a professional women's side and has signed top international players from Norway will help change things.
"The Americans have a professional league starting up next April and there is talk of a similar women's league in England by 2003. I think the American league will have a big influence on the women's game. There are already semi-professional leagues in Norway, Italy ad Japan. I just hope that all our top players do not leave for America.
"I can't honestly see a professional league being set up in Scotland for another five, or perhaps, 10 years but that is something we have to aim for."
Miss Cheyne is well aware that she won't be able to change attitudes among some of the older generation who see football as only a man's game, but she believes that if boys see her going into primary schools and coaching football, then maybe they will see it as the norm.
"If they see girls playing football a lot, then there will not be the same hesitation about girls joining in football games in the playground.
"It's just a pity we lost out to the Czech Republic and just failed to make the European Championship finals, as I believe that would have given us a lot of media coverage."
Certainly, there is tremendous growth in the women's game. Nicky Grant, Sportscotland's schoolgirls' football co-ordinator, oversees five women's football development officers now. They are Miss Cheyne, Wendy Carrick (Aberdeen), Ian Steele (South Lanarkshire), Sophie Hearn (Dundee) and Alison Mackie (Forth Valley). She reckons that there are around 25,000 girls playing in schools, compared to around 12,000 five years ago.
"There is so much happening at the moment," she says. "A pilot programme has just been launched in Greater Glasgow which features schools from West and East Dunbartonshire and Glasgow playing in primary and secondary leagues.
"Apart from the areas where we have development officers, we are also now moving into Inverness and the Highlands, the Borders, Dumfries and Galloway and Edinburgh."
Next August, performance camps will be held in Dunblane for girls at under-14 and under-16 level under the direction of women's national coach Vera Pauw.
"Vera Pauw has made a huge difference to the women's game," Miss Cheyne says. "She has brought a Dutch philosophy and made the players here more tactically aware.
"I think we have always had the talent to do well in this country but, whereas in America girls tend to be athletes first and footballers second, it's the other way around here. But that is changing.
"I always say that it is not an expensive sport to play. All you need is a ball and a couple of jackets and you can set up a game anywhere. So there are no barriers to anyone taking up the game."
Miss Cheyne believes that football offers an attractive option to schoolgirls and points out that they can play mixed football up to the age of 12. "And I've found that there are a lot of talented girls in the schools.
"Hopefully, one day a few of the girls that are currently playing in primary schools here will have an opportunity one day to play the game professionally."