THE pictures in the papers of Scotland’s World Cup qualifying team celebrating were a joy to behold. What really struck me were the faces of the players. When images of women are splashed on the front pages of the tabloids it’s usually to convey either glamour or contempt. But here were women displaying natural emotion, their faces beaming with pride and happiness. It made a welcome change from the routine depiction of women as sex objects.

And what an achievement. In a week when Scotland’s dismal men’s team received yet another thrashing, our women stormed into the top tier of international football as one of only nine European nations to qualify for the 2019 World Cup finals.

But before we all bask in the reflected glory of Shelley Kerr and her squad, how many of us can say, hand on heart, that we’ve done anything to support women’s football? For decades, we’ve been bombarded with saturation coverage of the men’s game. It dominates the “sports” bulletins, monopolises the back pages of our newspapers and has its own dedicated TV channels. Almost every evening, we can listen to radio shows where men spend hours on end dissecting every twist and turn of the latest match, analysing the tactics, scrutinising the performances, arguing over refereeing decisions and evaluating the merits and deficiencies of coaches and managers.

Asked by a commentator whether he believed football was a matter and life and death, Bill Shankly famously quipped, “No, it’s more important than that.” But it’s no joke to say that for countless thousands of people in Scotland today, football is more important than Scotland’s political future, Brexit and climate change combined. And that’s despite the fact that our men’s game has been on a downward trajectory for 20 years.

Football is supposed to be Scotland’s national sport. But it has only really been taken seriously as a sport of men and for men. Back in 2013, when the SFA announced its decision to put some funding into women’s football, the Daily Record sports writer Gordon Parks could not contain his outrage. How dare they, he complained, “bankroll a ladies’ version of a game played in men’s shorts”? He even took the trouble of conducting a straw poll in his office – “and it was a damning majority verdict on the lack of technical and artistic ability on show from the female version of the beautiful game”. Any money available, he said, should go to a more deserving cause: the grassroots men’s game. “Call me a cynic,” he wrote, “but it’s more PC equality propaganda from people promoting a sport they wouldn’t bother opening the curtains to see.”

Five years on and Gordon is still on his high horse. But now his target is Nicola Sturgeon – for failing to provide enough financial support to women’s football.

He might have been forced to eat his words from 2013 but he’s just one of a small army of commentators who can barely bring themselves to speak of the women’s game without being at best patronising or at worst contemptuous. Many still seem to believe that women are too delicate for such a rough sport – so rough, in fact, that men paid millions of pounds to participate in it are regularly seen writhing in agony after being lightly brushed by an opponent.

We’re so surrounded by messages that men’s football is football that even folk like me – someone who likes football and is a feminist – has taken a while to sit up and take notice of the massive strides the women’s game has taken.

I’ve always liked football – but when I was at school, girls weren’t allowed to play. Boys used to play out on the street all day, every day. I would have loved to have joined in and picked up some skill. But there was no way the boys would let you. As a child, I went to Rangers matches. The only women allowed on the pitch were the models featured on Tennent’s lager cans – and their purpose was to be leered at and howled at by men barely developed beyond the first homo sapiens.

So, to get to the World Cup finals in the context of a country whose football has been forged in that context is admirable. Watching the national women’s team in action, I was struck by their fitness and skill – and wondered how they had gotten to where they are. I’ve no doubt there’s plenty of room for improvement, but at least our women’s game is improving by leaps and bounds, while even the most avid male football fan would have to accept that the glory days of our men’s game have faded into the mists of history.

Just to be clear – I’d love to see the Scottish men’s team qualify for Euro2020. But I’m not holding my breath. So, let’s put more resources and support behind that part of Scottish international football that promises some hope for the future.

Of our current 23-player squad, 19 women are professional club players. Fifteen of them play in England, two in Sweden, one in Italy and one in the USA. The remaining four play for Scottish clubs and are paid petrol money. In Scotland, we just don’t put in the resources to pay for professional players. In fact, our women even had to resort to collective action against the SFA to obtain decent allowances prior to their participation in the European Championship finals last year.

So, let’s hope times are changing. This week, BBC Alba screened a Scottish Women’s Premier League match between Forfar Farmington and Hibernian, and will be broadcasting several more in the coming months. But in general, media interest is low. And as a consequence, so too are attendances.

But it doesn’t have to be like this. When the USA’s national team won the World Cup in 1999, it gave a major boost to the sport, and today, the average attendance at international games is now around 80% of the men’s game.

So, as we approach the 2019 World Cup Finals in France next year, Let’s hope the media will play their part in getting the whole of Scotland behind our national team. For decades a dynamic group of women have strived might and main to get us where we are today. They have had to work with threadbare resources while facing down the sneers, cynicism and obstructionism of the male footballing establishment.

Women’s football is now the fastest growing sport in the world – and we owe them a debt of gratitude for paving the way for Scotland to take its place with the best of them.