There was little to cheer about as Scotland prepared for friendlies against Australia and Costa Rica in April.
Defeat by the Republic of Ireland in October last year had seen them fail to qualify for this summer’s World Cup in Australia and New Zealand. It was a bitter blow given they had also missed out on competing at Euro 2022.
There seemed to be dwindling optimism around a squad who were under-performing and in conflict with the Scottish FA over equal pay and treatment.
Enter 17-year-old Emma Watson. There had been some talk about this young midfielder who was running games for Rangers in the Scottish Women’s Premier League, but few had expected to see her named in the senior Scotland squad. Let alone the starting XI for both April fixtures.
Watson’s debut against Australia was, as described by manager Pedro Martinez Losa, outstanding. But it was her second game, against Costa Rica at Hampden Park, which made people really sit up and take notice.
Scotland teenager Emma Watson (right) is being tipped for big things in the women’s game
Within six minutes, she had put Scotland ahead with a close-range volley. With Losa’s side 3-1 up in the second half, Watson fired in a long-range strike to cap a memorable night.
To put the teenager’s rapid rise into context, two weeks later she would sit her Highers in PE, English, Maths and Biology.
There would be little time to dwell on her achievements for Scotland and Rangers, with a summer move to Manchester United completed in August.
On Friday night, with Chelsea’s Erin Cuthbert ruled out through injury, Watson could start Scotland’s Nations League opener against England in front of a sold-out Stadium of Light in Sunderland. Not that she will be in any way flustered by the occasion.
‘I think I just take it all in my stride and I take every opportunity that I get,’ said Watson at a Women’s Super League (WSL) promotion day recently. ‘It was a bit surreal getting my Scotland debut and then the next few weeks having to do my exams, but that was just what had to happen. It keeps me humble and grounded.
‘I think I learned a lot from that game and that camp and it gave me a lot of belief in myself that I can play at that level.’
Edinburgh-born Watson played for Boroughmuir Thistle before joining Rangers’ academy aged 11. After school, she would make the journey to Glasgow three nights a week to train at the club’s elite performance centre.
She was a pupil at Broughton High School, one of seven Scottish FA Performance Schools designed to offer extra football training to some of the nation’s most talented boys and girls.
Scotland has not been short of talented midfielders — Kim Little, Caroline Weir and Cuthbert have all come through the ranks over the years.
But there is something about Watson, who already seems at home on the international stage, that makes her stand out.
‘She is so keen to learn,’ remarked Real Madrid midfielder Weir when she was asked about the youngster in April.
Watson (centre) celebrates after making it 1-0 during the friendly against Costa Rica in April
‘She’s keen to speak to me and other midfielders and she’s got a great attitude and obviously her talent — you can see it there. She’s actually really physical for her age, she gets stuck in, which I’ve been impressed by, and technically she is good as well.’
In many ways, Watson has similar qualities to Cuthbert — strength, skill, vision.
While Cuthbert is more of a box-to-box player, however, Watson is someone who can carry the ball, the type of midfielder that everybody wants but struggles to find.
That is why Manchester United acted so quickly to entice her away from Rangers this summer.
‘Ever since I was young, my aspirations were to be a professional footballer and to be living that dream every single day is amazing,’ said Watson.
‘Coming from Rangers, they’re one of the best teams in Scotland, and then coming to a club like Manchester United, it’s a huge step and obviously I’m still young and still wanting to learn.
‘I’ve got so much to learn and develop still. This season I just want to stamp my mark on the WSL and prove that I am good enough to be here.’
Manchester United’s decision to keep the youngster around the first-team squad, rather than send her out on loan, speaks volumes for her talent and ability.
An outing against World Cup finalists England on Friday evening would undoubtedly be the biggest game of her career but, if the last six months have shown us anything, it’s that Watson is more than capable of stepping up to the challenge and feeling at home in this kind of company.