For every Motty and Gary, there's a Julie and Kate

Women are calling the shots in the commentary box. Naomi Marks meets football's female elite

For Scottish football fans following their team's fortunes in France on BBC radio and television, the main World Cup lowdowns, updates, match reports and analysis will be delivered by one of two women. Hazel Irvine will be reporting from the Scottish camp for the BBC network, with Rhona McLeod doing the same for BBC Scotland.

The BBC's head of sport, Bob Shennan, is keen to employ women sports broadcasters. He refers to those such as Irvine and McLeod as pioneers. And, no doubt alert to the commercial risks of alienating the growing ranks of female football fans, he speaks of "the danger of presenting sport to the public through 28-year-old white middle-class men called Peter".

Yet for McLeod, who will be reporting from a World Cup for the first time, it was very nearly not to be. A lover of sport since childhood, she first suggested that she might report on a football match while working for one of the Scottish Sundays. Her editor was delighted; it was about time football was covered from the woman's perspective, he said. Could she look at the catering arrangements? Perhaps talk about the toilets, too?

Not so delighted, McLeod opted instead for a subbing post on the sports desk, leaving match reports to male colleagues. She explains: "If I wasn't going to be able to do the job properly, then I wasn't going to do it at all." Such anecdotes illustrate the difficulties faced by women wanting to enter football journalism. Still very much in the minority in both broadcasting and print, they appear to encounter resistance neither from those in the sports industry nor from the punters.

This is something McLeod discovered when she finally got her chance to move away from the desk and into the arena three years ago: "The players are brilliant to deal with, the managers are fine. The only problem is other journalists who don't like the idea of a woman doing the job."

Female sports journalists tend to be columnists, the world of the press- box being a fiercely macho place. McLeod's response has been to make sure she is twice as knowledgeable about her subject as her male counterparts. "Research, research, research," she says. "People will always look for weaknesses."

But the Radio 5 Live sports presenter Eleanor Oldroyd insists that the world of broadcasting is more welcoming to women than is the world of print. She points to a recent incident in which her colleague, the 5 Live Breakfast Programme presenter Jane Garvey, was taken to task by a (male) national newspaper reporter in La Manga - the Spanish resort where the England team has been in training - for having the temerity to suggest that press conference questioning of the England coach, Glenn Hoddle, had been anodyne.

Certainly the doyenne of football reporting, Julie Welch, agrees with Oldroyd that print journalists have some way to go before collecting any medals in right-on-ism.

Welch covered her first football match 25 years ago for the Observer. It was Coventry v Spurs ("You always remember the first, don't you?") and, although she encountered resistance from some other journalists, she reported the sport that she is passionate about for the next 12 years, at which point she gave up, swearing that she would never return to the press box. But three years ago she did. "Huge parts of me enjoyed it enormously," she says. "Another part saw all those ghastly, snarling men I'd seen in 1973, still hating women, and I thought: `I don't want to do this'.

"There were a lot of dinosaurs then, and there are a lot of dinosaurs now."

Welch will be covering France 98, however, but from home, as armchair critic for the Sunday Telegraph.

Kate Battersby, one of a handful of thirtysomething women who have, since Welch, succeeded in infiltrating national newspaper sports departments, will be in France. Chief sports writer for the Evening Standard, she says only once in the dozens of matches that she has covered has there being another female journalist in the press box with her. Objections to her presence are rare, she adds, but when they come they are vociferous.

One senior journalist wrote to her first sports editor, saying: "No woman should be allowed to write about sport because everything they say about the subject is a deluge of piss."

She shrugs off such blatant bigotry, but remains irritated by letters congratulating her for putting across a women's point of view. "That amazes me because all women are seen to have one lumpen view. Men, of course, are allowed to have individual points of view."

The Sun football reporter Vikki Orvice also dislikes being labelled. "You just have to be able to do the job," she says.

She points out that she has encountered little discrimination (though as a journalism student she was accused of having her father/brother/boyfriend write the match report that she handed in as a Christmas project). In any case, Orvice says, any woman who has negotiated the macho atmosphere of a newsroom has been well trained for the sports department.

Like Welch, she too remembers the first match she reported. It was Arsenal v Norwich, after she had persuaded the sports editor at the Daily Mail, where she was a news reporter, that she was serious enough about sport to handle it.

"People often say I must be hard," she says. "But I've just always loved football."

Not elevated enough yet to have her pick of the crop when it comes to choosing which matches she reports, she has just one game to cover in the coming football fest. Only England v Colombia will be hers.

But is she looking forward to it?

"Oh yes," she enthuses. "This is a dream job. It's wonderful."

KATE BATTERSBY

Her presence in the press-box prompted a stinging letter in which a senior journalist complained that `no woman ought to be allowed to write about sport'

RHONA McLEOD

`The players are brilliant to deal with, the managers are fine. The only problem is other journalists who don't like the idea of a woman doing the job'

ELEANOR OLDROYD

A sports presenter on Radio 5 Live, she believes that the world of broadcasting is more welcoming to women than that of print journalism

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