Scores of youngsters were involved in an Aberdeen mini football tournament in the summer of 2001.
The event, which was organised by the Evening Express, attracted hundreds of school pupils from across the north east, but, amid the frenzy and fervour on show from the callow participants, one child in particular turned heads with a jinking joie de vivre and an ability to make the ball talk.
This wee will o’ the wisp was Kim Little, nicknamed the Mintlaw Miracle, a girl with an unquenchable passion for the sport and somebody who was beating the boys until she had to leave mixed teams and forge her own path.
And now, 20 years later, Little has just been selected for her second appearance with Team GB at the Olympic Games in Tokyo after forging a career which has taken her all over the world and earned her global acclaim.
The talent was there from the outset
Little is now regarded as a veteran in the Scottish ranks at 30, but has never known a time when she wasn’t absorbed by the game.
As bright as a button, she gained five Highers prior to combining studies with plying her trade at the Arsenal Youth Academy, where she impressed all those who witnessed her dedication and technical expertise.
In person, she seems almost too diminutive to be capable of the glittering exploits which adorn her CV, including nearly 150 Scotland caps and being voted the World Women’s Player of the Year in 2016.
Yet, on the field, she seems to increase in stature and it is easy to appreciate why her impact has been so striking since her father, Calvin, took her to a park in Mintlaw when she was seven years old.
She recalled: “I spotted one of the local boys’ clubs playing a match on a nearby pitch and I thought: ‘Why stay on my own when I can take them on?’
“It just never entered my head that they might resent being made to look silly by a girl; why should it have done?
“Soon after that, I started turning out for a team called the Mintlaw Miracles and I just loved football. Even at primary school, I didn’t hang around with the rest of the girls at the interval – whenever there was an opportunity, I was dashing away to play with the boys and, right from the start, there was no reason to feel intimidated by them.”
The north star had eyes for the prizes
In 2002, Little was among the throng at an Aberdeen Skills Challenge competition, where she defeated a plethora of red-faced boys in a variety of disciplines, from keepie-uppie to shooting and dribbling across cones.
The mercurial teenager subsequently steered her school, Mintlaw Academy, to victory in the under-15 Scottish Cup final, scoring five of her side’s eight goals during their demolition of Forrester High.
And then, as the scouts began to hear about her prowess, she notched all the goals for Buchan Girls under-17s in their 6-3 success over the hosts at the Aberdeenshire International Football Festival.
Unsurprisingly, these feats attracted plenty of attention and Little was soon on the road to Hibs as the prelude to joining Arsenal, where she discovered that the women’s game was developing at an extraordinary rate.
Training with some of the world’s biggest names
Little was surprised when she received a call from Vic Akers, the then coach of the famous London club, even as she was studying for her Highers.
But, befitting somebody who gained an A in mathematics, she has a wealth of statistics at her fingertips, testifying to the massive surge in popularity of the women’s game since the dawn of the 21st century.
She has never been afraid of travelling to different countries or even continents. After all, this is the redoubtable customer who signed for Melbourne City in the Australian W-League just months after helping Scotland thrash Macedonia 10-0 in the European Championship in 2015.
She spent three months in Australia before re-joining the UN squad at Seattle Reign in the National Women’s Super League in the United States. And there is no doubt her have-passport-will-travel philosophy has improved her as a player and broadened her knowledge of what’s happening across the globe.
The atmosphere at Arsenal clearly inspired her to pursue grand ambitions and develop into one of the greatest talents of her generation.
She recalled: “Within a few weeks of me signing for Arsenal, I was playing at the Emirates and scoring one of the goals against Chelsea which clinched a fifth successive Premier League title.
” At training, the women got to use the same pitches as the men – they are like bowling greens, as smooth as silk, and you can’t help but become more confident with the ball at your feet in these circumstances.
“When we turned up at the ground in those days, we saw all the guys’ flash cars, the Mercedes and the BMWs in the parking area, and when we were having our lunch, we would find ourselves rubbing shoulders with some of the biggest names in the Premiership, including Theo Walcott, Cesc Fabregas and Robin Van Persie. We mixed very well together. Why wouldn’t we?”
Meeting the young maestro at McDiarmid Park
It was a late afternoon on a balmy Mayday in Perth in 2008 and McDiarmid Park resounded to the jargon of young footballers in their element.
There was talk of Premier League matches and European Championship qualifying tussles and the air was thick with the good-natured banter and bonhomie which pervades these sessions at the coalface.
But I’ve never forgotten how Little, all energy and effervescence, began doing keepie-uppie as if it was the easiest thing in the world, maintaining control of the ball with a mesmerising, metronomic efficiency.
“Hey Kim, stop showing off for the cameras,” shouted one of her compatriots, But there was no response. Instead, Little was in her own cocoon and not until she had completed her routine, did she return to reality.
It was an indication that she was as fragile as a moose and totally devoted to being the best in her vocation. It also demonstrated that she regarded genius as an infinite capacity for taking pains.
From Mintlaw to the Olympic Games
Little’s career has encompassed domestic glory and foreign triumphs, and she was the catalyst for Scotland’s passage to the European Championship in 2017, but was devastated when injury ruled her out of the tournament.
She was also among the driving forces when Shelley Kerr’s team reached the World Cup finals in France in 2019, but despite breaking the deadlock in the vital meeting with Argentina, which eventually helped the Scots establish a 3-0 lead, there was something very familiar about the fashion in which the wheels fell off in the last few minutes as their opponents salvaged a 3-3 draw.
That disappointment has led to major changes in the Scottish coaching set-up, even as a new generation of players emerge to stake their claim.
But Little is still there in the mix and she is one of only two Scots, alongside Caroline Weir, who has been selected for the Olympics in Japan, nine years after she appeared at the 2012 Games in front of many of her home crowd.
‘Kim has all the right attributes to excel’
I remember talking to the former Scotland manager, Anna Signeul, who spoke admiringly about the qualities which had propelled Little into the spotlight.
She said: “Kim never stops working, is 100% committed in everything she does and puts in a terrific amount of hours and effort on the training pitch.
“It doesn’t seem to matter what the weather is like, or the state of the pitch or what else might be going on in her life: she is one of those people who are never anything but focused on football and working for her team.
““She is an exceptional talent and there is no limit to how far she can progress in the future. She has technique, speed and power and she always reads the game incredibly well. So she has all the attributes to excel.”
A decade later, Little has boldly gone where no Scotswoman has gone before. And the impact of her achievements has persuaded a new generation to follow her example and ply their trade in England, in Europe, the United States…wherever the sport is making converts and gaining new admirers.
It goes without saying that Scotland’s rise up the global rankings isn’t down to any one individual. No team can prosper without a collegiate approach.
And yet, the influence of Kim Little on her domain since she was dribbling round obstacles in the Granite City all those years ago cannot be overstated.