Hope Powell and Amy Merricks share their passion

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The 2018 FIFA World cup kicks off on 14 June in Moscow and football fans across the land will hope that 52 years on England can match the success of the famous World Cup winning team of 1966. Since then it was Bobby Robson who has come closest taking England to the1990 semi-final against West Germany, where they got beat 6-2 and eventually finished fourth overall after getting beat by Italy in the third place play-off. Robson is the longest serving men’s England manager since world cup winning manager Alf Ramsay.

The women’s game is going from strength to strength and commercially now attracting brands that once sponsored men’s football, Continental Tyres for example moved to sponsoring women’s football to reach a broader and potentially more influential market. Brands are attracted to female players for their position as accessible brand ambassadors and ‘clean’ role models. With the behaviour of some male footballers on and off the pitch sometimes attracting the wrong publicity, the enthusiasm in the positive attributes of female footballers only heightens. Many are excelling in careers outside of football because the game to date has not remunerated the way it does for male players. Eni Aluko is an example being a qualified lawyer.

If there are any parallels to be drawn between the men’s and women’s game, it is that to develop a team can take time, especially at international level and that can be compounded if the game itself needs cultivating to develop better players. Aged 31, the youngest ever coach of an England team, Hope Powell CBE, began her 15 year tenure in 1998. Powell started her football career at Millwall Lionesses, one of the oldest women’s football clubs and went on to play for Fulham, Bromley and Croydon in addition to 66 caps for England.

Despite the challenges Powell faced as England manager, her hard work and diligence has allowed for the team to continually improve and progress in the world rankings, ultimately reaching the finals of the 2009 UEFA Cup. Her legacy has allowed future teams to go on and continue to succeed – they are currently seeded 2nd in FIFA World rankings.

Now coaching at Brighton & Hove Albion, Hope is assisted by young up and coming coach Amy Merricks, the two having Millwall in common, with Merricks coaching there in 2014. The youngest UEFA A licence coach, Amy has always been struck by the effect good coaching can have on a team and its players, something Alf Ramsay was said to excel at. While coaching in America Merricks experienced this first hand and this sparked a passion which has seen her enter into coaching at an early age.

Hope Powell and Amy Merricks

We caught up with experienced Hope Powell and enthusiastic Amy Merricks to hear their thoughts on the women’s game:

What inspired you both to get into football?

Amy: I have two older brothers so very much a sport that the family enjoyed, although arguably I was better than them! So it went from playing football, wanting to be better than my brothers to then going out to America to coach and then to here.

Hope: I think watching it on the TV, the game, the spectators. I enjoyed every sport really and I think football was just the one. I played it on the streets, with boys and my passion was about playing. I just wanted to be a professional player from a very, very young age. All the kids on the estate played football.

I guess football has changed a lot from your playing days at Millwall, Hope, what do you think has changed the most in the way the women’s game is going?

Hope: Everything really… It’s gone from maybe 20-30 years ago where the level we played at was a good level but would be looked at as ‘grass roots’ now in comparison. I think the whole structure and the professionalisation of the game. The biggest change is the fact that there has been a massive shift from when I started playing to where it is now and it is continuing to move and is in a far better state than ever.

So what kept you going Hope in the early days, what sustained you? I know your mum was a not great advocate?

HP: I was that “Bend it Like Beckham” girl. The reality is that was my story, my love of the game and my passion. Most people involved with the game are in it because they’re having a love affair with the sport and I was no different.

Did either of you have any particular role model? Not necessarily football, but anyone who inspired you as you grew up?

AM: I guess any females that I saw striving in sport to succeed, especially in management as you didn’t see it that often. At the time, I was of an age where watching TV, it was probably Hope in charge of the England team! Other than that, it was always quite a shock there weren’t more female leaders in sport. I think that did drive me to think ‘ok, how far can I go?’

HP: For me, as a player, that was my era – I think one of my biggest inspirations for the game, and I’ll never forget it, was in 1976 and I absolutely fell in love with Peru and the player was Teófilo Cubillas. I really fell in love with that guy – I fell in love with game and I just wanted to be a player. The coaching came later – selfishly – because I wanted to work in the industry. Obviously my then coach at the time, Alan May and I got to hook up and he was my inspiration. The game itself though was the main driver.

Do you think the FA is doing enough itself to address gender equality within its organisation at the top level?

HP: I think they are putting things in place to try and support females to gain the necessary qualifications. I think it is about the clubs. The FA do not rule what clubs do. The decision making has to be about forgetting gender, let’s look instead at the qualifications they hold in relation to the position they’re applying for and let’s look at the initiatives the FA have for getting more females qualified. When I was at the FA, I did a lot to try to promote females in the game and they are taking off. I think we are now at a point where it is about providing opportunities. So if you spend months and thousands of pounds to get qualified but there are no opportunities then it is there where something is lacking. I think the decision makers are really the only ones that can change it. They need to give appropriately qualified females an opportunity. Once they do that, then I think they will be pleasantly surprised.

Have either of you experienced any discrimination on your journey through football?

AM: Not directly but I think that some of it comes into play when you go on courses and you’re the only female. I don’t think it’s ever intentional but there are a percentage of males that want to get through qualification and to the academy of a Premier League club and that’s when maybe they come first. It’s more of an indirect discrimination that I would say I’ve experienced on my coaching journey. In terms of playing it was different when I was at school as it was very unusual to have a girl on the team although this is not so much the case now.

HP: Yes, I wouldn’t disagree with that. I think that even today when women’s football is more visible, they don’t necessarily get the headlines. I think ‘unconscious discrimination’ is the way I’d describe it. I’ve been in situations where I’ve been an instructor on an “A” License course with a male colleague and I’m asking the student coach something and he addresses his response to my male colleague, even though my qualifications are far higher than my colleagues’ qualifications and certainly higher than the person I’m asking the question to! It is unconscious and I think that although that has shifted slightly, if you are in a group of guys and you are the only female, very rarely do the guys talk to you. I notice that a lot because it is one of my biggest bugbears.

AM: Yes, I agree.. you can be managing the team and ask something of the official and they will look at the assistant if it is a male when answering. You get that a lot.

In an industry where there is a lot of peer inequality, how do you think this will be resolved, especially given we now have full time professional women footballers?

HP: In football, the only way it will be resolved, and we are a long way off, is attendances at matches. I’m pretty much a feminist, pro-diversity and everything but until the women’s game demands the revenue for turning up and watching the game, then it won’t happen. If 200 people attend the women’s game, that’s how the income is generated. However with regards the coaches, backroom staff, physios and doctor, then absolutely there needs to be equality – the qualifications are the same and we do exactly the same job but given the way the men’s game is financed, I understand that disparity and the concrete reason for it.

I guess in simple terms people think that if you are doing the same job in the same industry then you should get the same pay.

HP: Yes, I and I absolutely agree. Where we are at Brighton is that a physio in the ladies team and the men’s team will get the same. I probably don’t get the same as Chris Hughton and I understand that and I’m not going to sit here and say that I should get the same as Chris. Realistically, the crowd pay to see what he coaches and the results he delivers on the pitch. The crowd are very important. It’s a difficult answer in the industry we’re in. In other industries, I absolutely agree that it should be the same pay for men and women doing the same job.

So are you saying that there is some element of performance in determining pay?

HP: Yes, I think so, even though we have performed – we came second in the league – it is the people that come through the gate that also matter.

AM: Exactly, it’s the market demand that helps drive the revenue of the club through for both the men’s and women’s game.

WSL1 is now turning professional with players required to have a minimum of 16 contact hours per week. We’re already seeing a growing number of foreign players coming in the women’s game with possibly more in the future. Do you think this will affect English players in getting both the opportunity to play in the WSL, and also to develop and be good enough to compete at international level?

HP: Undoubtedly. It’s been happening for a while now; even when I was England Manager, there were more foreign players that came in to the English League. You can’t blame them – it’s a nice thing to do, to go and play in England. If a club buys a player from abroad, then the assumption is that they must be better and they are more likely to start in the game. As a result, there is then a bit of a block on the number of others able to play.

What’s really important is that we need to try to look at what’s has happened in the past and then see what comes out in the new rules as to what might change. This is the challenge the game has. The game in England – WSL1 – is becoming more and more appealing. As a club coach, you’re trying to recruit the best players and developing a team to keep you in WSL1. However as a national coach, I’d be saying you need to be giving English players the opportunity to grow and develop. It’s a really big challenge.

Is there a danger that the women’s game will end up like the men’s game with a heavy reliance on foreign players at club level?

HP: My opinion is that it could be based on the number of foreign players in the league at the moment, especially if you look at Arsenal and Chelsea. It could also be down to the belief of the coach in the homegrown talent. But if your remit is to win the Champion’s League, then you might think differently! It will be a challenge going forward.

Any change will mean that there are winners and losers… To date, to play women’s football you probably have had to develop a good career outside of football as you wouldn’t have earned it playing football. Now, with the sudden change to full time contracts in WSL1, there will probably be some players with a difficult decision to make if they aspire to play at the highest level, between continuing a career or try and get a full-time football contract, which may not pay the same. Equally, if you are young and at an academy but with a chance to do well at university and get a high level degree, again you have a choice to make. Do you think anything could have been done to phase in the change to make it easier?

AM: I think there are a lot of changes coming in now to help that. We’re in the process of looking ourselves at what the changes really mean and if there are any compromises that can be made, particularly with regards to education. We’ve recently had a university in to see if they could perhaps come up with a solution whereby the degree can fit around the footballing commitment. At Brighton, it’s about ensuring that the players have the right tools and education which should be at the forefront of footballing careers and beyond.

The issue at the moment is that the game is growing so quickly it’s important that we try and move at the same rate. We are strong advocates of trying to ensure that players don’t just drop a career. We have players that have really important jobs that they’ve been involved with for a long time and they can’t just drop out – it wouldn’t be feasible.

HP: Exactly, and to be honest, we wouldn’t allow it either. I know how Amy feels and I know how the club feels – and we have a duty of care. The priority will be the player. I think there’s two sides to this; if you are a player and all you’ve ever wanted to be is a professional footballer and you’ve got the one chance, then you might just take it and I completely get that, they feel privileged and want to have a football career, but it’s probably irrelevant for a lot of the population. Equally we understand that we have a responsibility and a duty of care at the end of it to ensure that they have something that can help them live because football is a very short career! The Club – I think every club – every manager, and it’s certainly very high on my agenda, and Amy’s, is to make it work. If the player wants to make it work, there is no “no, you can’t do that; you’ve got a choice”.

If I think back to when Rugby Union went professional, there would be people that would have a job at a high level and there was a benefit to their company in that they gained PR exposure and were associated with successful players. They might only work a couple of days a week and played Rugby the others and I wondered if this type of half-way house had been considered?

HP: The problem with the league going forward is that with WSL1 growing all of the time and as Amy mentioned, there are more and more TV opportunities to showcase the sport and because of TV scheduling we could be playing Wednesday one week, think we are playing on a Sunday the next but it could be moved to a Friday night. The challenge we have is to be flexible. We’ve said to every player, and will say to every player that we sign, that they have to be flexible – there is no “you can have Wednesday off as a guarantee”. If they can work round that, I’m all for players doing additional work on the side as long as it doesn’t impinge on their rest and recovery. It’s a decision that some of them will need to make. Some of them might earn more money working, than as a full time professional and whatever’s decided, we will try to support them.

It seems that the FA’s modelling the women’s game on that of the men’s, certainly the way the leagues are working. What’s your opinion on that, do you think that’s right? Is it all about money, can the clubs get together to formulate something that works for the women that doesn’t mirror the men’s game?

HP: I don’t think the league is about money. If you ask any of the clubs who’ve invested, they’re not making money so it can’t be about the money. I think the ambition is to try and make it the best league in the world in order to give England a platform. The FA’s goal is to win the World Cup so if you’re a governing body that does own the game, then you’re going to do everything you can to improve it. The more success you have at that end, then the more it’s going to help. That’s what’s happened in the last 10-15 years.

There is no doubt it absolutely has improved the England but if you have foreign players coming in, then it is a double-edged sword?

HP: Absolutely, and that will be the challenge going forward.

Do you think we will see a female coach of a men’s team in the next 10 years?

AM: I would hope so but it has a lot to do with the decision makers. I would hope that there may be a club that, regardless of gender, says that actually this person has the qualifications to do the job. Whether or not it happens, I don’t know, but you’d like to think so.

HP: My opinion on that, and I would be a millionaire if I got paid for how many times I’ve been asked, is that wouldn’t it be great if we had more women actually coaching in the women’s game? The game is awash with male coaches so if we can get that sorted first and get more women coaching in the women’s game, that would be my wish first and foremost. Coaching in the men’s game, well, there are females coaching at academies so it is happening already. If we’re talking about the Premiership, then the problem with that is the scrutiny would be beyond belief. Such scrutiny is going to be “See, I told you they weren’t good enough” or, “because at some point, they will be sacked” and it will be scrutinised to the nth degree.

AM: It has happened in France with Corinne Diacre leaving her position as manager of men’s side Clermont-Foot to replace Olivier Echouafni as head coach of France Women.

HP: Caroline Morace managed in Italy the first woman to coach a professional men’s football team, Viterbese of Italian Serie C1, a post she took in June 1999. She eventually resigned from her position after only two matches. There are female coaches working in academies all over the UK, maybe with a ‘foundation face’ or whatever. But if you’re talking about the premiership, that’s a big decision.

It’s difficult though since managers just don’t get given time. Hope you had a good tenure at England and Arsene Wenger had 20+ years at Arsenal. When will that happen again do you think?

HP: Never! It’s never going to happen again because the game is so results driven. Certainly in the Premier League because it’s a business.

AM: You only really get one month now, you’re only as good as your last few results.

HP: Exactly. They can’t bring players through… we talk about home grown talent but what’s happening with sacking isn’t helping.

That said however, television stats show that there is growth in the women’s game. It is watched by more people – what do you think is driving that popularity?

AM: The opportunity to see it. The more the game is visible and accessible, going back a few years it wasn’t on TV let alone on iPlayer. I think that accessibility is the difference and the more it is seen on TV, mentioned in adverts and the press, then the more young girls and boys get to hear about and see female footballers, which in turn will help it grow and grow. Hopefully it will be a case of them saying “Football’s on TV” there being no difference that it’s either male or female – it’s all just football. For that to happen, it needs to be visible.

HP: I think another thing to add that doesn’t happen in the men’s game now is that the females are accessible and people like that. In my experience, being able to have fans who want to be able to get know you is why they keep coming back. At Brighton, even though we have a fan base and people like to come, it’s really personable for them. We also have a dedicated page on the Club website as well as twitter and the people like that. And the FA want to get more females involved which is why there is a highlights programme with videos of games so that people can see what’s going on and make it more accessible.

There must be some money attached to that. There were a number of bids for the Women’s World Cup with the BBC winning the rights to show it both in 2015 and 2019 so there is a market.

HP: Yes because I think the people recognise that the game is quite honest and there’s not as much aggression. It’s more of a family affair – it’s not as loud as going to a men’s game which helps I think.

We don’t live in a perfect world and despite the challenges you’ve faced, what has football given you both?

HP: Probably more than I could ever have imagined. It’s given me the opportunity to play and make life-long friends. It’s allowed me to travel and develop, and continue to develop as a person. The experiences it has given me, I couldn’t even begin to tell you! I’m very lucky and I know that. Most people would probably say that I’ve never had a job I’m that lucky. There’s so much – the people I meet, the friends I’ve made. It’s grounded me, it’s made me humble, it’s part of my DNA.

AM: It’s the feeling that it’s almost not like going to work. It’s the passion and enjoyment you get from it. One of the biggest benefits is when you can see that you are helping players develop both on and off the pitch. When you support them through education and years later they might even go off and play at a higher level, you get a real sense of achievement that you might have helped them get there. I think that definitely in the club environment, you work really closely and you do end up formulating a plan to build something together. That gives you a real appreciation of what you do. And, as a person, the game is developing and evolving all of the time so you have to adapt how you do things. I think you have to learn that so quickly and that makes it a really interesting industry to be working in.

HP: It’s constant. Everybody in every industry has to work hard but in this industry, it is relentless. Personally, I’ve worked in the industry all my life but I can say that I always come away having had a good time… even if we’ve lost 3-0, I’ve had a good time! The only time you don’t have a good time is when you get fired – that isn’t a good time! But the experiences you’ve had and the people make it worth it. I know people from when I was 11 and played and they’re still my friends today. People at the FA – even though I lost my job – I kid you not, I could go anywhere in the world and know I can stay with people. It’s the best thing ever.

Final question… having said that, if you could do anything else, what would it be?

HP: Me – I’d be a gardener. I want to sit on one of those tractors and cut the grass!

AM: But you don’t like the cold weather though?! I’d want to get an Olympic medal, don’t know in what, but I’d like to win an Olympic medal.

 

Paul Bailes
Editor-in-Chief

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