Women’s and girls’ football in Scotland is on the rise.
Scotland currently sit 21st in the world rankings and are on course for a play-off spot for next summer’s European Championships.
Record numbers of girls are now playing the game at clubs across the country.
This is down to the hard work of parents, volunteers and Scottish FA girls’ and women’s football development officers.
Based in every corner of Scotland, their mission is to help increase the amount of girls playing the game and to assist clubs to develop girls’ and women’s sections.
In the South East of the country is Karen McConnell.
Karen has the privilege of working in an area which has become the home of the Scotland international team – Tynecastle in Edinburgh.
“It’s an amazing privilege to have all the home qualifiers in our region and the response from club has been fantastic,” she said.
“Months after the Republic of Ireland match in April coaches and volunteers still talk to me about the experience and amazing atmosphere at the game where the crowd really got behind the team and urged them on to two fantastic late goals.”
Karen believes the success of the women’s national team has been the perfect advert for the game.
She said: “ I think the quality of the football being played by our Women’s “A” Squad is slowly changing perceptions about the women’s game; that it is exciting, entertaining and well worth a watch.
“We have some fantastic players and role models in our national squad and their performances have genuinely been inspiring our young players to aspire to reach that level.
"I’m really looking forward to the visit of group leaders France on 19th September.
“The French are playing some incredible football just now, but I’m confident that with enough home support behind them, our team can surprise everyone and take something from the game.
"Either way, it’s set up to be a fantastic showpiece for women’s football.”
Explaining her coaching background, Karen said: “I first got involved in coaching after I finished school, where I was fortunate enough to be supported through my first few coaching certificates by the West Lothian football development officer Jim Grant.
“I was then given the opportunity to assist within the community programme in West Lothian.
"I really enjoyed the experience and continued to fit in as much coaching as I could while I was studying at University, which was when I also became involved volunteering with an U11 girls’ team at my old club.”
After finishing Uni in 2009, Karen picked up as much coaching work as she could; this included a host of Scottish FA-run Mini Kickers, Midnight Leagues and Street Football programmes.
“The experiences and skills I gained through my coaching greatly helped me progress my career in Sports Development and Active Schools, and I know without them I would not be where I am today- in a job that I genuinely enjoy and care about,” she added.
The Scottish FA operate a vast array of programmes to generate enthusiasm for the game amongst young people.
Focussing on the female game, Karen said: “There are now more opportunities than ever before for girls to participate in football, particularly in girls only activity which can make a massive difference to engaging girls who have not previously played the game.
“The main focus of my job is to get more girls playing within our grassroots football clubs, as this is where sustained participation can be achieved.
"The introduction of the Quality Mark Accreditation Scheme which encourages our grassroots clubs to support girls’ football in order to achieve the top Community Club award has made a massive impact on the number of clubs offering opportunities for girls to play.
“Programmes such as the Tesco Bank Football Challenge also give us the opportunity to introduce girls as young as six and seven to the game, through a structured programme in their school.
“Through McDonald’s funding, we then aim to link this activity in the schools to a local club with the provision to offer the boys and the girls an opportunity to play at the club.
“The recent UEFA Role Models project has also been a great success in terms of raising the profile of the girls’ and women’s game.
“ Some of our national team players have been attending local football events and activity to discuss their experiences of playing at the top level in the game and inspire young girls to follow in their footsteps.
"We hope that giving young girls positive female role models within the sport will give them something to aspire to and encourage more girls into the game.”
Asked what the most rewarding aspects of her job are, Karen said: “There are some very committed and enthusiastic volunteers working within the girls’ and women’s game- having the opportunity to work with them to grow and improve the game is both a privilege and an inspiration.
“We are particularly fortunate in the South East region to have a large League Management Committee who work well together to improve things for everyone, not just their own club, which I feel is indicative of the general goodwill and desire among our clubs to work together to continue to improve the opportunities for our players.
“A lot of work is being done at the moment to increase the amount of activity taking place at younger age groups; at U9 and U11s.
“This activity is all trophy-free, with a focus on fun and individual development. Seeing the obvious enjoyment of young players at 4v4 festivals for example, is without a doubt, the most rewarding aspect of my job.
“I am delighted that more and more clubs are looking to participate in these festivals and offer girls the opportunity to play at their club from such a young age.
"It is hoped that such positive experiences early on in the football pathway will help keep more girls in the game as they get older and reach the traditional “drop-out” stage in their teens.”
As the girls’ and women’s game continues to develop, where would she, in an ideal world, like to see the sport sit in the national sporting scene?
“I think it is the hope of everyone involved in girls’ and women’s football that we will see professional opportunities for players in Scotland.
"Realistically, I know this will not happen overnight, but every year the top level of the game in Scotland becomes more and more professional in the opportunities available to our players both within our domestic leagues and our national squad.
“In terms of elite player development, the success of programmes such as the Performance Academies is evident in the quality of players breaking into the Women’s A Squad.
“My job is to get more girls playing at the grassroots level, where there is still enormous potential for growth.
“As more and more girls and women take up the sport, I’d expect to see a continued increase in the commercial and media interest and support for the game.”