Natalie Ross on the Growth of the Women’s Game

In a wide-ranging discussion with The Cynic; Natalie Ross discuss her own career-journey, her experience of the enthralling end to the 2022/23 campaign and what the future holds for Celtic FC Women.

“Every single one of us has contributed to this season and that’s what’s gonna’ happen today. If you’re starting, you’re on the bench, you’re injured in the stands. Every single one of us is fighters and that’s what makes us different to any other team in the league. We’ve all been on our own footballing journeys and it’s brought us to this point, right here today…we’ve to go out there and show them what this means to us, what this club means to all of us.”

Listening to Natalie Ross address her teammates ahead of the final game of the 2022/23 season against Hearts in front of 15,000 fans at Celtic Park, there is no doubting her passion. It was a game she would be unable to take part in through injury, but it is clear to see why she was chosen as one of the senior players called on to rally the troops ahead of a potential monumental league victory in front of an unprecedented crowd. The league title was not to be that day. Rangers’ disallowed late equaliser against Glasgow City handed the 16-time champions the trophy once more in the final seconds of competition. That result was a huge anti climax for the whole squad and, of the experience, Ross tells The Cynic;

“We thought we’d won…myself and Lisa [Robertson] went into the changing room to get our strips on to come out to celebrate…jumping up and down when Rangers scored thinking we’ve done it, we’ve done it….but that moment, that was very, very tough. But yeah, that’s football. Football’s not fair sometimes”

Natalie Ross addresses the changing room ahead of Celtic v Hearts, May 2023 Photo: Celtic FC

Despite the obvious crushing disappointment of the day, it is clear that there was some solace to be found in the situation. Speaking about playing at Paradise, in an atmosphere that she and her playing colleagues could have barely dreamed of when she rejoined the club in 2016 she becomes almost incredulous;

“…even if you’d said that we’d have that many fans at the start of last season, I wouldn’t have believed you. Like 15,000. That’s just crazy for a women’s game in Scotland. I wouldn’t, I wouldn’t… It’s, it’s just, it’s just unbelievable.”

The Celtic End’ in full voice for the final league game of the 2022/23 Photo: Celtic FC

The women’s game in Scotland has undoubtedly made enormous strides and picked up huge momentum – particularly over the last couple of seasons.  With attendance and viewing figure records being regularly broken, an increase in the number of international players joining SWPL teams and new sponsorship and TV deals being secured – to name just a few of the milestones – the environment in which she now finds herself playing would not have been on the radar of a young Natalie Ross. She started playing football young and, like many of her peers, it was playing in a boys team that she discovered her love of the game, her talent and enthusiasm spotted by a member of staff at her primary school. Even at that young age, being a girl who wanted to play football had it’s challenges;

“I remember playing for the boys team…I played from under-sevens to under-11’s, under-12’s, and I would actually wear a hat because the boys would pick on me if I didn’t wear a hat…I tried to pretend I was a boy just so they didn’t pick on me. I enjoyed playing against the boys, but yeah, it’s changed times from back then when it was very rare to see a girl playing with the boys.”

When I ask her whether the boys she played with and against got used to a girl being included, there are echoes, even on the playground, of the attitudes that still prevail where being taken seriously as a player can only come with a certain level of success; 

“I think as the other teams realized I was a girl there was a bit of shock…I kind of got that respect, but it was only through seeing me play rather than me just being a girl, kicking a ball. So it’s amazing to see where football is now”

Despite the obstacles placed in her way, including the fact that her Dad was initially reluctant to take her to training “ ’cause he thought…the typical girls shouldn’t be playing football, can’t play football”, her talent was enough to see her join local girls side Aberdeen and it was, in fact her Dad, who from there saw opportunities for her as a player on a wider stage. Following a day when her mum was unavailable and he took her to training as a youngster she says with evident fondness;

“…since that day, he has very rarely missed a game… they stay up in Aberdeen and he still travels down now… he has literally devoted his whole life to mine and my brother’s football. I would never be playing or still playing at the level I am now if it wasn’t for my Dad, especially my Dad.”

She says that experience of watching teams in the central belt led him to encourage her to play further south, specifically for Hibs Girls, driving her to and from training, sometimes not arriving home until 1am with school and work to get to the next day. When he further encouraged her to make the jump to Hibs Ladies her response was robust;

“I refused. I said ‘there’s no way I’m gonna be playing for Hibs ladies. There’s no way they’re even gonna look at me’. I remember my first training session, we were sitting in the car at  Arthur’s Seat and I see all these players Stacey Cook, Rhonda Jones, Shelley Kerr and Suzanne Grant walking past me and I was like, ‘I’m not getting out of the car. There’s no way I’m training with these guys.”

Not only did she go on to play with these guys but she thrived in the environment and looks back on it fondly and I wonder what was in her mind about how far she could take football at this stage in her development;

“I never thought I could play football professionally. That wasn’t really in my mind. It was just competing…I just remember just loving playing football. But again, I think it was the environment at Hibs ladies. I never realized where it could get to until I got the move to Arsenal probably when I was about 18. And then you realize, God, this is even another level up and yeah, the setup down there and yeah, that’s probably when I realized. But it Hibs ladies, it was just, every time I think about it, I just want to smile.” 

As she mentions, only a handful of years later she would make a move to English giants Arsenal, a team who, the previous year had won the Champions League and whose squad at the time included the likes of Kelly Smith, Alex Scott and Katie Chapman. She was also in the presence of other great footballing names;

“I remember one of my first sessions Arsene Wenger coming and watching training and you just that, as a young girl was incredible. Yeah, it was unbelievable. Even now that’s probably the norm down there, but back then it was just, yeah unbelievable.

Ross appearing for Arsenal against Sunderland in 2009 Photo: Arsenal FC/David Price

Later in the conversation I ask her about any similar cross over between the women’s and men’s squads at Celtic and you can hear how much interest and involvement from established figures in the club means to a player in the women’s squad; 

“The only manager I can say that’s came and seen the women’s team is Ronny Deila….he came down and done a training session with us. This was years ago obviously and he was very knowledgeable about the women’s game…two hours he took out of his time, I remember at that time meant so much to me and other girls because he had an interest. He’d done a training session and we should have finished at nine and he’d kept us there till half nine.”

Ronny Deila training Celtic FC Women, February 2016 Photo: Celtic FC

It was back during her time at Arsenal that Natalie got her first taste of struggling with serious injury and was out of the game following an operation to place two pins in her ankle for the majority of her time with the London club. It was obviously a turning point in her career and one she looks back on with mixed feelings;

“Looking back you can say it’s bad luck…would I still be playing in England now? But I always try to think of the positives, that things happen for a reason and yeah, I get to spend more time with family…I’ve played in a lot of great teams in Scotland, played with a lot of great players and I’m just grateful for the experience I had down at Arsenal.”

I wondered if there were comparisons to be drawn with long term injury spells later in her career, most recently being out for 18 months with another ankle injury between 2021 and 2022.

“…when I got injured more recently and I was out for a total period of 18 months, I actually forgot how I felt when I was out with my left ankle. At the time, obviously it would’ve been really, really tough. But more recently I think it was harder because you know, people maybe write you off because you’re older, you’re not gonna come back. So part of me wanted to prove people wrong, to be honest.”  She laughs “…and I know 18 months is a hell of a long time to be out for anyone, but especially when you’re getting older. But as soon as you step back on that pitch, it’s weird, you forget about that 18 months of kinda hell…as you’re part of it again…what a great feeling”

We get onto the fact that alongside her club playing career, she was also part of the Scotland set up from an early age and how injury may have impacted the level to which she was able to be involved in the senior Scotland squad

“I was fortunate enough to get into the Scotland 15s and I worked my way all the way through 17s, 19s. And when I was about 17 I made the jump to the A squad and it wasn’t until I got an injury in my left ankle that I was kind of out of it…I found that tough…I found it tough with the way they deal with injured players and yeah, it was because I did feel myself that I think it was a good ten, 12 years I was out of the setup that I could have probably been back in it… there was a lot of good players in the Scotland team at the time, so I was lucky enough…myself and Lisa got a call up again and my luck I then got injured with my right ankle. So again, would I still be in it? Who knows? But I just have to be thankful. I try not to, to be negative about it…it wasn’t to be.”

Following her brief first stint at Celtic in 2012, she moved back down to England briefly playing for Lewes then spent a couple of seasons at city rivals Rangers. It is clear that for a player of her calibre looking to make an impact in Scotland, she was keen to go where she best thought her football could be supported and 2012 was a tricky time for Celtic, with a number of high profile departures;

“ …you want to play at the highest level. You want to play for good people on a good team and yeah, I know the Rangers rivalries, I understand that. But again, for me at the time I was developing as a player and being happy again playing football. Because 2012 that season didn’t end well.”

On how she sees the rivalry between the two clubs and imparts those sentiments to new players she says;

“I think the rivalry is getting bigger. I think it’s hard sometimes when a lot of foreign players come over ’cause they don’t understand the rivalry. And when we play Rangers obviously we want to really beat them and it’s a massive game…hopefully when they play their first game and they realize the crowd, and what it’s like and the tackles flying, they’ll understand.”

The established players also make it clear how important it is, she laughs as she tells me that “of course the senior players will maybe have a word in the ear and tell them how important it is.”

Ross against Rangers in the City of Glasgow Cup, July 2022 Photo: Clare Wilde

Ross has played for Celtic consistently now since 2016 and at 33-years-old and with a new three year contract signed this summer, will likely see out her career at the club. Since she rejoined, however, the team, and women’s football in Scotland has gone through some major changes. When I ask her about the transition to full-time professional football and the appointment of Fran Alonso in January 2020, she talks about the inevitable apprehension that comes with such big changes as well as being one of the squad players who also has a job outside of football and has to find a way to balance that. 

“I was a wee bit kinda apprehensive to begin with. I thought, how am I gonna actually work this because I do think it’s important to have something else other than football…again, that injury could have ended my career… I do find it’s a good distraction having a job. You know, even if you have a bad training or a bad game, your job, you need to kind of get that brush that under the carpet, you need to get on with that and you speak to people and it’s not just about football…it was a challenge to begin with but I feel I’ve got a good balance now.”

When I reiterate how much hard work she must have to put in she laughs and talks about her love of the game;

“Sometimes you don’t have a life, sometimes you just have to accept that football is your life just now. But football doesn’t last forever….I need to remind myself sometimes when you’re tired and grumpy that you’re doing it ’cause you love playing football”

And she clearly does love playing football. As fans watching the games week in week out, you can see her obvious passion whether on the pitch or from the bench. During her most recent period of injury she remained a familiar face in and around the squad, maintaining an element of that leadership role. I ask her about working with the younger players in the squad and how she sees her role in that respect;

“…you forget how young these girls are because they do hold themselves very well and it’s scary to think how many years I’ve got on Amy Sharkey and I’m trying to chase her at training, it’s not easy! So yeah, it’s great for these girls to come up because I remember when I was young, training with ladies players…you always remember that player that helped you, was encouraging.”

She speaks about differences in resources across the game, starting with teams at the top of the league; 

“…everyone knows out of the top three, Celtic have got the weakest budget and yeah, it’s frustrating but you can’t really dwell on that. We just need to kind of show on the pitch. And again, you know, people maybe say, you know, Celtic that they’ll be competing. Yeah, we will be competing. But if maybe if a wee bit more money went into it, we would definitely be winning the league. It, you know, it’s, it’s a shame that we maybe don’t have the same budgets, but I think we do well for the budget we do have”

There is also discussion of the league as a whole and where she would like to see it in the next few years;

“…for it to be a fully professional league. Every team training in the morning, like the men’s team being affiliated to a men’s team if they could, training being around them. I just remember my time at Arsenal when you’re around the players in a professional setup, you know, it does improve that the team in general and everyone’s attitudes towards the women’s team. So I would love in five years time if there was a really strong top league in Scotland, everyone was professional and you’re attracting players from top teams around the world that that would be the dream”

Who knows if we will see more of the scenes like those we saw at Celtic Park last season but Natalie acknowledges the growth and support of the fan base, even outwith the big occasions;

“It’s crazy…the commitment they show is incredible. I don’t think they get enough credit…because it means so much to all the girls.”

With the team off to a flying start in the league as this goes to press and Natalie herself with two goals already under her belt, it could be another monumental season for the club. With a raft of new players coming into the squad, it already looks like Fran’s system is working for them and the competition for places that we have seen drive standards is as fierce as ever;

“… last year there was a lot of competition …and I think that’s how we done so well because everybody continued that fight until the last game of the season. Everybody wanted to become involved….that’s how I can describe training. It was a fight you wanted to play. You didn’t just get handed a jersey, you were to earn it. And I do think this season’s gonna be exactly the same.”

Ross against Spartans at the Excelsior Stadium, August 2023 Photo: Ian Steele

Let’s hope that competition pays off and that this might be the season that Natalie Ross lifts her first league title as a Celtic player.

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