Game guys, meet the husbands of Scots sportswomen

Sportswomen step out with their Hobos - Herald Saturday mag. We all know about the Wags, but what about the men who stand behind successful sportswomen? First there was the unstoppable rise of the Wags, the smart, supportive and often glamorous women behind many a sporting success. But what about their counterparts on the opposite side of the gender divide? Meet the Hobos. Forget the sportsmen – the Wags wield the real power behind the thrones. From Coleen Rooney, the wife of England and Manchester United striker Wayne, or Amy Mickelson, spouse of US golfer Phil, to model Leah Shevlin, the fiancee of Rangers goalkeeper Allan McGregor, the wives and girlfriends often take centre stage.


It seems male sports stars needn’t try too hard to attract the opposite sex, but what about sportswomen? Do they manage to find supportive, good-looking Hobos – husbands or boyfriends – to rival the Wags?

Catriona Matthew has hit the Hobo jackpot – so dedicated is her partner Graeme that he carries her bag when they are out. Of course it’s a golf bag, since he’s married to the only Scot to win the British Women’s Open. He is always there to hold the baby too if required – Matthew, who is 40, won the British title earlier this year just 11 weeks after giving birth to Sophie. Her sister Katie was born in January 2007. “Having children has kind of calmed me down,” says Matthew. “I don’t get as bad-tempered. Graeme might agree, he might not.”

He made sure everything was taken care of – phone calls, travel arrangements, race schedules. All I had to worry about was eating, sleeping and running . The couple, who met 20 years ago at Stirling University where they were both on golfing scholarships, focused on her career, Graeme becoming her caddy and manager. It was a decision that paid off: in 2007 Matthew, then ranked 19 in the world, earned almost £3m.

Similarly, long-distance runner Liz McColgan credits her husband Peter with helping her scale the heights. As Liz Lynch, she was the only Scottish athlete to win a track and field gold medal at the Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh in 1986, taking a lap of honour amid a sea of saltires. Watching her was Peter, who was representing Northern Ireland in the steeplechase. They married in 1987 and a year later, McColgan won a silver medal at the Olympics in Seoul. She went on to enjoy a long, successful career and attributes much of her success to her husband, whom she describes as “quiet, supportive, assertive, loving and good-looking. Sounds good, doesn’t he?”

Today McColgan, 45, is hard at work in the management office of the health club the couple run in her home town of Carnoustie. “Peter was a major factor in my career. It was a partnership,” she says. “His support enabled me to train the way I did and he travelled everywhere with me. He made sure everything was taken care of – phone calls, travel arrangements, race schedules. All I had to worry about was eating, sleeping and running.”

In an era when most women runners retired after having children, McColgan surprised the world by continuing to race, and less than a year after giving birth to her first child Eilish she took the 10,000m gold medal at the World Championships in Tokyo in 1991. It caused a great sensation – a leap forward for sporting mothers everywhere.

Besides running three health clubs and gyms, the couple continue to put their energies into McColgan’s running. “It’s very hard to combine a running career with children as your sport isn’t your first priority,” she says. “Many times when I had big races one of the kids would be sick. But it was time management and partnership with my husband which helped me to balance everything.”

Running in the family

Now the mother of five, including a promising young runner in Eilish, McColgan is keen to see female athletes picking up equal sponsorship and other financial backing. “I was at a disadvantage to my male counterparts when competing as they were paid more and I feel I gave just as good a performance as most of them,” she says. “I was always a tough competitor and never shied away from a tough race.”

Few sportswomen will ever achieve the success enjoyed by McColgan or the money earned by Matthew but, according to sports psychologist Carole Seheult, who also represents Britain in the veterans’ fencing team, there are more reasons than cash for sports stars to attract members of the opposite sex.

“Sports stars are the kind of people others admire,” says Seheult. “They tend to be fit but they also often have attractive personalities. They are positive and determined. They can take criticism – if they get negative feedback from a coach they don’t go off in the huff, they think about how they can take that on board and improve. That’s a great skill to bring to relationships.”

In the past, female sports stars had a much lower profile than their male counterparts, but Seheult argues that the status of women athletes is rising rapidly. “The women are more vocal,” she says. “They are less likely to be in the background now. They are demanding equal treatment. In tennis, the women’s prize money keeps going up and it is the same in lots of sports. There are professional women’s soccer leagues in some countries. Women sports stars have quite a following these days.”

For Julie Fleeting, who has scored more than 100 goals for the Scotland women’s football team, played in the United States in 2002-03 and until recently wore the number 10 shirt for Arsenal women’s team, this is certainly true. The striker is married to Morton goalkeeper Colin Stewart and is undoubtedly the biggest name in their household – after all, she is the one who was made an MBE in 2008.

When I visit their new townhouse in the Ayrshire town of Kilwinning, they’re fussing over their ten-week-old daughter, Ella. Like new parents everywhere, they are clearly besotted with the little one and share their passion with a wide extended family, including Stewart’s mother Jean Hunter, who played football for Scotland in the 1980s.

Coming in from a training session, Stewart takes the baby from his tired wife and deftly changes her nappy, before walking around the room with her in his arms, trying hard to make the infant smile. Stewart, 29, who also runs a goalkeeping academy called Young Mittz, offers to pose holding the baby on top of the pile of footballs he uses for his training sessions. His wife rolls her eyes and laughs but joins in.

Fleeting, 28, had a difficult pregnancy and is still getting used to the sleepless nights that tend to go with new babies – more so than usual in this case, since Ella is lactose intolerant – but she has resumed training. “I have got a long way to go before I get back to where I was,” she says. “Longer than I expected.”

Before taking a break for childbirth she was the star of the Scotland team, who play their first World Cup qualifier in Greece today and another against Georgia at Tynecastle on Thursday. If the team qualify for the Women’s World Cup in Germany in 2011, she would love to be back in the squad. But these are uncertain times for Fleeting, who is on maternity leave from her job as a PE teacher at Auchenharvie Academy in Stevenston – her husband is out of contract at the end of this season. “That’s a challenge I have faced before in my career,” says Stewart. “We will have to find a new balance as a family.”

Despite the pressures facing Stewart, he is keen to help Fleeting regain her place in the national team. “Julie has scored important goals and she is one of their most important players,” he says. “She is still at a stage in her career where she has a lot of football in her. She will be eager to get back.”

Pooling resources

The last Scotswoman to have won an Olympic medal in the swimming pool, Elenor Gordon, says the idea that sportswomen are attractive to the opposite sex is nothing new. Her home in Hamilton, Lanarkshire, is festooned with medals, crystal bowls and certificates from a swimming career that reached its peak in 1952 when she won bronze in the 200m breaststroke in Helsinki. “I was never short of admirers, gold medals or no gold medals,” says Gordon, who is 76. “That doesn’t sound very modest but I can say that at my age.

“When we were at the Olympic village in Melbourne [in 1956] the men’s village was separated from the female village by a huge fence – by the end of the games the boys had found wire cutters so that wasn’t a problem.” She laughs, then continues. “When I went on the Atlantic voyage [to the British Empire Games in New Zealand in 1950], we were with the other British and Irish teams for six weeks. Can you imagine? We had a chaperone and she was supposed to keep us away from the boys. The boat deck was out of bounds and at one time she gave us all knitting needles to keep us busy. I still can’t knit. But there was never any shortage of flirting and romance.”

Gordon found her Hobo much closer to home – in Hamilton Baths, where she still swims. She married Scottish champion swimmer Ken McKay, whom she has known since childhood. “We have been together a long time,” she says. “We practically know each other’s thoughts.

“He was the senior champion and I was the junior champion. He fancied me but my father was the coach at Hamilton Baths so that wasn’t such a good idea.” McKay was still swimming competitively until last year when, aged 79, he had a heart attack in Hamilton Baths and was saved by the lifeguards.

After marrying, Gordon gave up swimming competitively in her mid-twenties to start a family, as was expected of women at the time. She and McKay had two sons, now with families of their own, and a daughter who died very young. “Ken founded the masters swimming association for over-25s in this country. We went to Canada for that in 1985 and I wasn’t going to swim, but he entered me in three events without me knowing. I won three gold medals. He has given me a lot of moral support.”

McKay won five medals there, but it is his wife whose career has gone into the history books. “My granddaughter’s teacher asked her: ‘Is it your gran who does the swimming?’” recalls Gordon. “She said, ‘That’s right,’ and the teacher asked, ‘What about your grandpa – does he swim too, and does he have lots of medals?’ ‘Yes,’ she said, ‘he has got lots of medals, but my gran’s are better.’

“Ken has got lots of Scottish medals but he doesn’t have the British, Commonwealth or Olympic ones. He just gets to polish mine.”

Driving ambition

Like Gordon, rally driver Louise Aitken-Walker, the first woman to win a national rally against male competitors and the first Briton to win the FIA Ladies World Rally title, in 1990, was one of the first 50 sporting heroes inducted into the Scottish Sport Hall of Fame at the National Museum of Scotland in 2003.

Her driving career began in 1979, and the following year she met Graeme Walker, an engineer working for a rival team. They soon became partners. She says he helped her make a success of her career.

“I wouldn’t have done it without him,” says Aitken-Walker, who is 49. “He was enthusiastic without being over-enthusiastic, supportive without being pushy. I would feel as though he was willing me to do well. There was no jealousy – he got as much pleasure and satisfaction out of my success as I did.

“I got a lot of confidence from it. I knew he was 100% behind me. I knew someone believed in me and that he was helping me and genuinely wanted me to win. Some men appear helpful but can’t stand being beaten – Graeme was never like that.”

As Aitken-Walker describes the gender balance in competitive rallying, it’s clear her achievements were exceptional. “The majority of competitors are men – you are always driving against men,” she says. “There will be a ladies’ award but that is it. My aim was to win the class. It was nice because a lot of the boys were terrified of being beaten by a female and I got a big buzz out of beating them.”

She was managed by her husband for a spell until she became very successful; thereafter he stayed at home, looking after the garage they’d bought in Duns in the 1980s. “I was proud as punch of her,” says Walker. “I was in rallying and I loved the sport. She was a great driver, a natural.”

In those early years, Walker recalls, it was a constant struggle to scrape together the funding for Aitken-Walker to compete. She was often away from home for eight months of the year. “She was getting the chance of a lifetime and we gave her all the back up – just being there and never saying, ‘Christ, you’re away a long time’ was important,” he says.

Aitken-Walker now runs a livery stable near the Berwickshire town of Duns, where she was born. Standing in a windswept field fixing a fence to keep the horses in, she says with a smile, “I’ve gone back to shovelling shit. It’s not glamorous.”

One of the worst times for her husband, left to look after the business alone in Scotland, was when she had a horrific accident in Portugal in 1990, her car overturning and plunging into a deep lake. Walker recalls his fear when the phone rang during the race.

“It was her manager and he said, ‘Whatever you hear, Louise has had a very bad accident but she is okay.’ Within 20 minutes the phone was ringing and journalists were telling me she had broken her neck.” The car had sunk to the bottom of the lake, but fortunately Aitken-Walker and her co-driver Tina Thorner were unhurt and managed to reach the surface.

Afterwards, Aitken-Walker got back behind the wheel, pushing herself to achieve more success. The following year she came 10th overall in the Lombard RAC Rally.

A couple of years after the accident she retired from rallying to have a family, giving birth to a girl and two boys. Her daughter Gina, 15, now rides horses competitively and her son John, 16, is a golfer. “Louise is very competitive,” says Walker. “Now, when Louise watches our daughter competing, it’s as if she is riding the horse herself.”

Walker explains that although his wife made a brief return to rallying after the children were born she never felt the same about it. “Before,” he recalls, “if the car was going over a blind crest she would give it every ounce of power the car had, but after the kids came along she was giving it 94% or 95%. Something in her brain was saying, ‘Back off.’”

Looking back, Walker says he doesn’t regret the fact the couple missed the big prize money he says came into the sport a few years later. “We had the best of it. Now there is so much money in it everyone has to toe the line, go to the gym, drink orange juice. We had great cars and camaraderie and lots of fun.”

While the Hobo may be a more shy and retiring breed than the Wag, and is less likely to be photographed in swimwear for a tabloid newspaper, the one thing that unites them all is that they have put their partners’ sporting successes above their own.

So for the woman who wants to get to the top of her chosen sport and stay there for as long as possible, particularly if she wants to combine that with motherhood, the lesson is clear. First catch your Hobo.