It was a lesson in life passed down from grandmother to mother and then to daughter. ‘I always remember my mum telling me when I was young: “Reach for the stars and then go some more”. Her mum had told her the same. It was their way of saying: “Don’t settle for what you have, there is always more you can achieve, more you can have”.’
The speaker is Gemma Fay, now 36. The ‘reach’ aspect is prescient as she was Scotland’s goalkeeper for the best part of 20 years. The desire for more can be gauged by the accumulation of 203 caps by Fay before her retiral last year. It can also be illustrated by her approach to her post at Scottish Rugby as head of women’s and girls’ rugby.
With her road having led from a Perthshire countryside upbringing, through an extraordinary international career and a professional life spent mostly with sportscotland, Fay’s ascent can seem as effortless as a lazy stretch for the stars.
Gemma Fay, now 36, was Scotland’s goalkeeper for the best part of 20 years
However, the relaxed beginnings of playing with her brothers soon met a harsher reality in international playing grounds.
‘My dad made football goals in the back garden and when I was about five I was stuck in goals, not through choice. My three brothers sort of pushed me in there,’ says Fay.
She played for GSC St Johnstone, earning her first break when she was 15 and the regular goalkeeper was on holiday, forcing her to take the gloves.
Fay started her international career at 16 and accumulated 203 caps with Scotland
‘I had played in goals for the Under-13s but I usually played outfield for the Under-16s. This was an Under-18 match and I must have played all right that day because a Scotland scout was there and asked me to go for a trial,’ she says.
There was no immediate happy conclusion.
‘I failed,’ she says simply. A measure of her character is immediately poured out: ‘It just made me want to prove them wrong. I am a stubborn sort of person.’
This cussedness was rewarded with a call-up to the national squad quickly afterwards.
‘Yes, I was still 15 when I joined the A squad. I was too young to play in FIFA qualifiers. I missed a trip to Brazil because of that,’ she says.
She was soon travelling in the fast lane and made her debut at 16.
This says much about the state of women’s football then and the resilience and talent of the teenage Fay. This was an embryonic sport with a callow goalkeeper. It was in those times that the words of her mother, Catriona, came often to her mind.
‘There was a lot of stuff that people said that wasn’t great,’ she says. ‘I grew up in the international game, so that means I grew up making mistakes in international games.
‘You wouldn’t put an international goalkeeper in at that age now. I was the best we had at the time but I was very young. It was tough for me.
‘There are goalkeepers now starting their international career at 25. I started nine years before that. They can make their mistakes in the relative obscurity of club football. I found it tough going.’
Lee Alexander, who took over from Fay after Scotland played in the Euros last year, was 26 when she graduated into the national first team.
‘It is an amazing set-up now,’ says Fay. ‘The game has progressed so much in this country in the past 20 years. It is a completely professional and well-run operation.
‘I suppose we were the trailblazers and that can be a bit challenging. It was exciting at first but when I was 17, 18, I struggled a wee bit. Again, though, I am stubborn…’
Women’s rugby in Scotland is at the beginning of the road, much like Fay’s early days in the football team. But it has grasped its opportunities quickly, perhaps learning from its football cousins. Many of the foundations are firmly in place.
Scotland play Canada on Tuesday at Scotstoun Stadium, with school finals preceding the big match. SP Energy Networks sponsor the national side, who also will have their Six Nations matches broadcast by BBC Alba.
Fay, honed by the round ball game, has ambitions for the oval variety.
‘My message to every girl and woman in Scotland would be that rugby is a game for all,’ she says. ‘It is a growing game that is accessible to everybody. There are different positions that offer different opportunities that may be ideal for girls who are not suited to other sports.’
She addresses parents’ concern over injuries by saying: ‘Player welfare is at the centre of everything we do. That’s paramount. If the game is played well and coached well, it is a very safe sport.’
Fay brings a simple focus with regards to the national team.
‘I want them to qualify for the World Cup,’ she says of the tournament in New Zealand in 2021. ‘And I believe they will and can do well in the tournament.’
Qualification rests on performances in the next two Six Nations.
‘My ambition is to give these girls the best opportunity of getting to New Zealand. Once they get there, they will treasure that experience,’ she says. Fay’s swansong, of course, for the national football team was in the Euros last year in the Netherlands.
This belief in sport as a life experience is central to Fay’s philosophy. ‘Sport is great for mental and physical health and social satisfaction. You are not only competing against others, you are competing against yourself,’ she adds.
‘I always say to young girls that they must enjoy their rugby. I ask them: “What makes you happy? Does playing rugby make you happy? Does playing better make you happier?” That is for them to experience.’
This evangelical streak has been imbued in Fay through experience at the highest level of women’s football. ‘You can become a better person though sports,’ she says. ‘It has made me a better person throughout my life.’
But how? ‘In sport, you can’t hide. You have to be honest with yourself and honest with your team-mates,’ she says. ‘In other areas of society, that seems a hard thing to do but in sport you are forced into doing that.
‘If you make a mistake, you must put your hand up. You must assess yourself constantly so you can become better. If a team-mate makes a mistake you must be honest, too.
‘You take those kinds of skills, that ability to have an open, frank discussion, and transfer that across to different aspects of your life. Those are great skills to develop.’
She is aware, too, that certain positions hold higher risks. ‘The one thing I learned as a goalkeeper is that if I made a mistake, it is a goal,’ she adds. ‘But the ball has to go through ten players before it gets to me. So others have made mistakes, too. You can’t dwell on your personal mistake. You might as well be subbed. You must focus and concentrate on the next challenge. It’s how you react that is important.’
She has taken this belief into Scottish Rugby. ‘I didn’t have a history in rugby but I was welcomed because of my experience on the sports field and off,’ she says.
The father, Alan, who built those goalposts 30 years looks on proudly. Her mother, though, died before seeing her daughter reach 200 caps.
‘That was a great regret,’ she says. But is her mother’s mantra reaching yet another generation? ‘Absolutely,’ says Fay.
The gloves have been put away but she is still stretching.