Something that runs like a vein through women’s football is that everyone has a “The Roadblock” story, at least one (and there are usually more) occasion on which they were stuck knocking on a door that wouldn’t open.
For Kay Cossington, the Football Association’s women’s technical director, it came at school. She was selecting her GCSE options and wanted to do PE because she loved football. When it came to the practical classes, she was told that only dance and netball were open to her.
Football was in Cossington’s blood. As one of five children in a West Ham-mad, working class family in east London, she had a secret plan to absorb live sport.
Her Dad didn’t want her to experience the swearing, so she waited an hour, ran to Upton Park and was allowed to enter the ground with 10 minutes remaining when the gates opened for the early leavers.
The hard bit was running home twice as fast before her Dad got back. She spent her days on the concrete square outside the house, pretending to be Hoddle, Waddle or Gascoigne; there were no visible female football heroes for her then.
Cossington worked in finance with NatWest, combining it with playing for West Ham Ladies and taking the first steps in coaching. Joining children’s charity Barnardo’s opened her eyes to the idea that you could spend your professional life making a real difference, but it was when she got a full-time role at Millwall that she says her life changed.
“At the time I was already coaching the England Under-15 women’s team, but this was as a coach education officer,” Cossington says. “I remember going to the interview thinking ‘What am I doing?’. It was Millwall! But I got the job, and I took it.
“That was the great turning point of my life and one of its greatest moments. Everything I had learnt at Barnardo’s came to life there through the power of football. It taught me that you could do magical things with the sport I loved to change people’s lives and affect communities in a positive way. I became a first-team coach and technical director, and then the women’s game started to evolve.”
That evolution has felt a lot like revolution in real time. We are chatting 12 years to the day since the first ever WSL match, Arsenal vs Chelsea at Tooting & Mitcham United. For many years, England lost many of its brightest talents to the US college system, but that need no longer be the case. Now the WSL is arguably the strongest in the world with links to further and higher education programmes that allow for greater personal development.
Alongside the determination to never allow complacency to creep in, it’s worth taking the time to appreciate the pace of the transformation. It strikes that one of the most rewarding aspects of working in women’s football is that you get to make noticeable improvements in a short space of time.
“You do forget to allow yourself to appreciate what has been achieved. I love the next challenge, but the last 12 to 15 years have been an astonishing journey. It wasn’t that long since there were four or five of us as the only people working full-time in women’s football.
“Now, in the division at St George’s that looks after the women’s national teams, we have circa 65 people. That was unheard of before. In every aspect: growth, success, participation, performance – it has been exceptional.”
That peaked in the summer of 2022, when the Lionesses won the European Championship and went stratospheric. It was way ahead of schedule, as Cossington freely admits. Her role combines long-term strategy with focus on the immediate tournament cycles, and 2022 was a dream. Not only because of the fulfilment of the grand ambition, but because of the individuals involved.
“I was watching Alessia Russo, Chloe Kelly, Lauren Hemp, Leah Williamson – players with whom I had been a part of the journey, from selecting them at young age groups to seeing them represent their country and become the incredible people that they are,” she says.
“It’s so, so rewarding. I’m old enough to remember some of them when they were eight, nine, ten years of age. I remember the first time I saw them play.
“Every one of those players is a game-changer because they are authentic. It’s not just words, it’s definitive action: equal access, the work on pathways. They are genuinely interested and determined to make a difference.
“We are the guardians of the game, and it is our responsibility to leave it in a better place than we found it. That is how we will grow and create a sustainable model with the value of the women’s game at the heart of it. Having courage, being resilient, finding a way – these are the foundations of every element of the women’s game.”
The challenge for Cossington and her team is to oversee both a top-down and bottom-up approach. At the top, it is ensuring an elite performance environment so that the national teams can continue to compete to win tournaments, starting with this summer’s World Cup. At grassroots level, she uses the example of Millwall.
“I worked in two of the toughest boroughs in the country and I saw girls and young footballers in housing estates that were really talented. I was an England coach and I knew that I would never get them in that environment because the two worlds were just so far apart. My passion was always: how can I bring these worlds closer together to make those girls ready for performance sport, if that is their dream. It’s not enough to say ‘There is a club over there – go to it.’ That’s not enough.”
This is aided by an acceptance – no, an insistence – that the men’s and women’s game be treated differently. There is no copy-and-paste system or ethos. Within the FA, the technical division was split into two during the pandemic.
That allows for a sharing of information, but a separation of resources, control and, occasionally, strategy. The women’s technical division can recruit their own staff, make their own decisions, allocate their own budget.
“It’s the same sport, but a different game right now,” is how Cossington explains it. “We’re both teams of 11 players and we both want to score more than the opposition. But the journeys of the players getting to the world stage are uniquely different. So how we support that ecosystem is uniquely different too. One of the biggest things was getting everyone to understand that treating the men’s and the women’s game differently would have a positive outcome for both.”
There will always be challenges: talent identification, equal access within the education system, player development, mass participation. There are new ideas too: up to 70 Emerging Talent Centres that will be funded by the FA and Premier League for younger age groups and Professional Game Academies within the professional game for the 24-20 year-olds. It is both a daunting task and the most rewarding experience Cossington can imagine.
And there are wins, mileposts along the road that guide you along the way. During her first few years at the FA, Cossington became obsessed with discovering how other countries were making rapid progress: Germany, successful at every age group level and then seniors; the French and Spanish teams, successful at Under-17 and Under-19, but didn’t quite kick on thereafter; the power of the US, for obvious reasons; Japan, who went and won the World Cup.
She studied each of them intensely – participation, youth coaching, performance coaching, nutrition, education. The greatest compliment is how that shoe has changed feet.
“Over the last 12 months, I’m now getting the calls,” Cossington says and smiles as wide as the meeting room in which we are sitting. “That is the loveliest feeling in the world. I sit there and think ‘that was me searching and studying; now you’re ringing me’.
“That isn’t just because we won one tournament. That was merely the dream; we’re talking about the process. It’s because Leah Williamson went from a 13-year-old at an elite talent camp at Warwick University to becoming England captain. People want to know about a system that produces that quality and quantity and that age. And we’ll never stop improving.”