Paul Brownlie is a veteran in Scotland’s women’s football game all things considered, but the challenge he faces at Motherwell is one of his biggest.
Taking on a side in need of a lift after taking 12 points during the 2020/21 season, Brownlie is helping the women’s wing of the club reach its potential, both on and off the park.
Brownlie has extensive experience in the women’s game, having been a senior member of Celtic’s women’s academy for seven years.
The Scottish FA then headhunted him to be their high performance football manager, which involved the planning, coordinating, delivering and evaluating all aspects of the National Performance Centre’s programme.
He has also been involved in the youth and senior women’s international teams, including the Under 15s, 16s, 17s and the A squad. Brownlie has enough to guide Motherwell through a pivotal stage of the building process.
There was also a smaller stint in the youth side of the men’s game. Brownlie coached in the Motherwell elite men’s academy at Braidhurst between 2018 and 2020.
But this season has proven promising for his new and young women’s team, taking 10 points already before Christmas, closing in on last season’s tally of 12 overall. Seventeen out of the 21 games played behind closed doors ended in defeat during a bruising term.
In a league where full-time operations like Glasgow City, Celtic and Rangers reside, it has proven challenging for provincial clubs to keep up with the rest.
But Brownlie says his side are giving it their best shot as smaller clubs work around the clock to try and maintain standards that allow them to be competitive at Scotland’s top table.
“We’re only six months into the project and it’s been really enjoyable,” said Brownlie. “It’s been challenging, but I think we are going in a really positive direction.
“I think our game last week against Glasgow City when we lost 5-1 showed the quality we are coming up against. Their quality was just the difference.
“For 55 minutes of that game we matched them, and then the calibre of player came into it.
“They can afford that as they pay money for it – as do Celtic and as do Rangers.
“There’s still a long way to go. Even for us as a football club, we still have a long way to go, but we are getting there. Our league position I think shows that.
“We already have 10 points for the season and that’s just two off what we got in total last season.
“So it gives you an idea of the transformation that is happening at this football club. I think it shows how seriously the club is taking this project and we are moving forward in a really positive manner.
“I think the challenge for the clubs in the same boat as us – Hamilton, Partick Thistle, Aberdeen and Spartans – is we are all aiming to be the best of the rest. That is probably the goal.
“Every team I have mentioned thinks they can beat each other. And everyone is entitled to think that way as they have belief in their players. That’s how I think as well.
“We’ve been quite fortunate that in this period of games we’ve had, we have beaten Hearts, we have beaten Aberdeen.”
Finances can be the difference at any level of the game, but it’s been very apparent in Scottish football’s elite women’s division. There’s some hope that a title sponsorship with Park’s Motor Group can help bridge some of the gap.
It won’t make up the full distance, but it will go some of the way. Celtic and Rangers’ decision to go full-time is indeed a positive move for the game, but it has created initial gaps in quality.
Alongside Glasgow City and Hibs, the top four are beginning to break away, with Motherwell leading the best of the rest column. Rangers’ 40 goals scored to three conceded over 10 games highlights the gulf.
It was only in 2017 when prize money for the winners of SWPL1 was introduced. But things are improving and coverage across the spectrum is on the rise.
There are more independent networks like Anyone’s Game providing regular coverage on the Scottish women’s game while on a more national level, BBC coverage has brought a weekly highlights package, live-streamed games and BBC Alba showings.
Indeed, 56,000 people tuned in for the SWPL highlights show via the national broadcaster in one September show, with a further 18,000 catching it on replay. It proved the largely untapped audience Scottish football has to build upon.
But everything loops back round to finances. Already this season, close to half of Motherwell’s prize money from last season has been used on bus travel to Aberdeen alone. That’s not including other associated factors that come with running a football club.
SWF chair Vivienne MacLaren said of the league’s new sponsorship deal: “This is a historic moment for SWF, the SWPL, and the entire game.
“To have a brand such as Park’s Motor Group show their support to girl’s and women’s football in Scotland is a sign of the work that has been done and the progress we plan to make.
“The Covid pandemic was difficult for everyone and I’m sure many had concerns about the momentum of the game. However, today’s deal showcases that the Scottish game is more attractive to commercial sponsors and partners than ever before.”
Brownlie acknowledges the progress that has been made in getting women’s football in Scotland more into the public eye, but there’s still a long way to go before it’s in full view.
“I hope the sponsorship can make some sort of difference,” explained the Motherwell head coach. “Certainly for us as a club, we are trying to drive things commercially. That side of things is really important.
“We are still waiting to see what we will be getting off the back of the sponsorship. We are working out the costs and different things we’ll get in terms of the BBC Alba TV deal and things like that. So right now, we don’t know the full extent of what the bottom line will look like.
“I think last season in terms of where we finished in the league, which was third bottom on 12 points, the money we got was roughly around £4,000. That’s not exactly a lot of money.
“You think about the cost of buses. We paid nearly £700 for the bus to Aberdeen for our away game there. We still have to go up there once more this season.
“So we will be about £1,400 on buses to Aberdeen alone this season and that eats into the £4,000 we earned from our league position last season. When you begin to break things like that down, it isn’t a lot of money.”
Attendance figures prove another challenge for Brownlie’s team to try and overcome. While figures at home games for the men’s team at Fir Park have traditionally been between 3,500 and 5,000 in the last 10 years, the women’s game is trying to catch up on the numbers.
They are still to hit the 100 attendee mark in the league, but Brownlie is confident that the figures will rise and rise as his team continue to build on the park.
He’s got eyes on swapping Bothwellhaugh for one afternoon and hitting the Fir Park turf in an attempt to boost attendances.
The Edinburgh derby between Hibs and Hearts this season has proven a template. 5,512 people attended September’s derby match at Easter Road, followed by a swathe of media coverage and external interest in proceedings.
Taking everything that has been done on the league’s promotion into account – and the women’s national team now playing their home matches at Hampden Park – Brownlie says there’s plenty going on to bring more eyes to the game.
“The attendances have actually been ok for us,” explained Brownlie. “At the game against Glasgow City, there were 97 people there. We are still trying to make it past the 100-mark in a league game. We are actively chasing that total.
“I think the highest attendance we had was 115 for the game against Rangers in the League Cup. But in the league, we have been falling just short of that 100 mark.
“I think the attendances are roughly about what we have been getting. I think that by nature, the likes of Celtic and Rangers, the city clubs, these attendances tend to be a bit bigger.
“Then some of the games get higher attendances because they are higher profile. I think every club is trying to market games and try to provide a bit of coverage.
“Obviously the Alba coverage does that for us and the BBC streams have been good as well. So these are all positive things. I know every club is working hard to try and generate interest in their games.
“Whether that’s capturing external clubs or trying to attract fans of the football, with the latter being something we are working on. We are trying to work out at Motherwell how we get the people who are watching the men’s team on a Saturday to watch our matches on a Sunday.
“That’s part of the challenge we are facing at the minute. I don’t think Hearts and Hibs are bigger clubs than Motherwell either to be honest. As a club, we are trying to go in the right direction and hopefully at some stage this season, we get the chance to play at Fir Park.
“We know that is something that is on the radar for the football club. But again, it’s about us trying to generate our profile with the club and work with the support. That comes with the product on the park too and we want to develop what we are offering on the park.
“That will allow supporters to hopefully get along and support us. For us as a club, we can only control what we can at this football club. We are trying to work in the right direction and there’s been real positivity since I got here. So I want to try and continue that.”
There’s a gradual building process happening with Brownlie’s plan and it will not all click into gear overnight. It will take time, patience and a lot of effort to get it to where he wants it to go, eventually.
He has ambitions for the club to fight right at the top of the game. And signings like ex-Scotland international Leanne Crichton certainly go a long way to fulfilling that ambition.
There’s one more game to go before the end of the calendar year – and it comes in the form of a big test against Brownlie’s former side, Celtic.
Motherwell aren’t near the level, on and off the park, to compete with a club like Celtic over the course at the moment. But Brownlie is hopeful of one day getting close to that.
“We need to be able to access the same resources to make sure we can compete with the top teams,” he added. “Celtic and Rangers are full-time professionals. They are both a long time into their projects.
“We are just at the start of our journey. That is something we are working towards but there is a process to get to that point.
“We’re in that process at this moment in time. There’s been a real integration from the football club right from the first minute I walked in the door here at Motherwell. That bond between the women’s team and the club is getting stronger.
“That can only be a really positive thing for us.”