“Is it worth it? It’s shit pay, you’re outside in the cold and wet and then on top of that, you can be made to feel like a second-class citizen. Because you’re a woman.”
When you ask female coaches why there are so few of them in the professional game, the answers are telling. Just a third of Women’s Super League clubs – Chelsea, Tottenham, Aston Villa and Reading and, as of this week, Brighton, who have appointed Amy Merricks as caretaker boss – employ a woman as head coach.
Last week, Spurs launched the first fully-funded season-long internship for women who want to break into coaching, while Arsenal boss Jonas Eidevall has also publicly addressed the situation. “It’s not the WSL that’s the problem,” he said. “It’s a big problem that there are not female coaches. You have female Presidents and Prime Ministers, but you can’t have a female coach coaching in the Premier League for some reason. Why?”
Former England international Eni Aluko, who won over 100 caps for the Lionesses, believes female coaches have to “make sure they are pushing themselves out of their comfort zone and focusing on their craft, rather than just focusing on the gender”.
Aluko tells i: “The accessibility for women in what were traditionally male-dominated areas has got better, we’re seeing more female pundits, co-commentators but it’s still male dominated. We do also need to recognise that women have to be good at what they do.
“From a coaching perspective I’m really passionate about female coaches but ultimately when you get on the sidelines your gender doesn’t matter, it’s about tactics and winning football matches. Whether you’re up against a man or a woman, it doesn’t really matter. I can speak for punditry and it’s got to a point where whether I’m with Roy Keane, Ian Wright or Karen Carney, it doesn’t matter we’re women – we’re really good pundits.”
The FA’s target is to eventually ensure 75 per cent of coaching roles in the women’s game are filled by women. Footage of women’s football is now used in FA training and there are female-only courses at grassroots level.
The difficulty is getting people to sign up to them – it comes back to “is it worth it?” One former academy coach, who has worked at a WSL club, tells i: “In academies, they assume that you’re the physio. In grassroots and academies it does happen quite a lot where people automatically go over to a man and assume that he’s the head coach and just ignore you. I’ve made men shake my hand, so they acknowledge my existence.”
The same coach believes “football is a microcosm of society” and so it follows that “you do experience harassment and misogyny, as you do in any job… you’re told ‘you’re just a diversity hire, what do you actually know? Can you coach, can you actually kick the ball yourself?’”
Yet they’re not the only factors preventing women from taking up coaching. The hours are evenings and weekends, typically on hourly pay and often for the minimum wage.
“Coaching, it’s not really a career, because the pay is pretty poor to put it mildly. Coaching is a profession for people who can do random hours here there and everywhere to scrape together enough money to live off, but not if you need a secure job to raise a family or look after children.
“The hours are predominantly evenings and weekends, so who’s looking after your kids while you’re doing that? A lot of the men that do it if they’ve got children their partners are probably looking after them.”
You will get those who argue, understandably, that having so many male coaches in the WSL is no big deal – because football is football and the gender of the manager has no bearing on it.
It’s also not the clubs’ fault. When the FA appointed Phil Neville to the England Women’s job in 2018, there were four women who turned the job down, including caretaker boss Mo Marley. Kick It Out said they had “serious concerns over a recruitment process that resulted in the appointment of someone with no record of management in women’s football”, which many felt was vindicated when historic tweets emerged from Neville’s Twitter account containing misogynistic jokes, for which he apologised.
At the very least, the court of public opinion has changed. In 2021, a YouGov study found the majority of people – around 60 per cent – believed that female coaches and officials are just as competent as their male counterparts. And that was before the impact of the Lionesses winning the 2022 European Championship.
“Community champions” now visit clubs to train staff to ensure they are welcoming to female coaches, and to encourage “the mums on the sidelines” to take up officiating or coaching. It is not abnormal, though, for female coaches to be the only woman in the room on an FA course.
But football is not the only sport with a problem. In research shared with i, London Lions of the Women’s British Basketball League – where the ratio of female coaches is around the same as the WSL – found that 44 per cent of women said they were not aware of career opportunities in sport outside of playing. Another 41 per cent said there were not enough role models in management for them to look up to.
“In the UK, you need to invest in young coaches and coaches in the youth level,” Vanja Cernivec, the general manager of the Lions’ women’s team and a former scout for Chicago Bulls, tells i.
“What I’m noticing right now is that mostly it’s a hobby to be a coach and people are working for free, or they need to hustle with two jobs on the side in order to make a living. We need to professionalise the profession, it also makes sense that more opportunities are opened up for women to allow them to go down that pathway.”
Nor is it just English sport. While the international game is different, at domestic level none of the German, American, French or Spanish women’s leagues have a majority of female head coaches.
“Ultimately there’s gate-keepers that are all men and a lot of the industry’s based on relationships,” Aluko says. “So if for 20 years a male coach has had a relationship with other male coaches, owners, sporting directors, they’re not just going to step aside for a woman to take their spot.
“A lot of it is access to who controls who goes in and who goes out. A lot of the time that’s men and they want to pick who looks like them and what’s comfortable for them.”
The Women’s Football Awards, in association with Shein, will take place on 25 May. You can nominate now at www.womensfootballawards.com