Six women changing the face of Academy coaching

Natalie Henderson has been with Newcastle United since 2014

Natalie Henderson has been with Newcastle United since 2014

THERE are 85 Category 1 to 3 Academies in England, employing hundreds of full-time coaches.

Of these, just six are women: Newcastle’s Natalie Henderson, Swansea’s Nia Davies, Sarah Lowden and Shelley Strange at Reading, Manisha Tailor at QPR and Claire Lynne Smith at Stoke City.

As far as TGG is aware, there are no female coaches working full-time in men’s first-team football. Despite being part of a very rare species - a female coach in the male game - Stoke's Smith says the Under-11 boys she coaches barely notice her gender.

“I remember once asking them, ‘So what’s it like to have a woman coaching you?’ They did a bit of a double take, as if it was a strange question. ‘It’s fine.’ And that was that.”

Despite this, it was only recently that she believed a full-time job in the men’s game could be possible.

From top, left to right: <b>Claire Lynne Smith</b> (Stoke City U11 Head Coach), <b>Sarah Lowden</b> (Reading U12s), <b>Manisha Tailor MBE</b> (QPR Foundation Phase Lead), <b>Nia Davies</b> (Swansea Foundation Phase coach), <b>Shelley Strange</b> (Reading U11 Lead Coach), <b>Natalie Henderson</b> (Newcastle U12 coach)

From top, left to right: Claire Lynne Smith (Stoke City U11 Head Coach), Sarah Lowden (Reading U12s), Manisha Tailor MBE (QPR Foundation Phase Lead), Nia Davies (Swansea Foundation Phase coach), Shelley Strange (Reading U11 Lead Coach), Natalie Henderson (Newcastle U12 coach)

Smith did her FA Level 1 while still a player for Northop Hall in the Welsh Premier Women’s League, during a spell out injured, before coaching a grassroots team. She then moved to the Stoke Regional Talent Centre, where Girls Director of Football Andy Holmes was her boss.

"I was really lucky Andy was there, because he believed in me and backed me," she says. "He said I should go for my A Licence, which was a surprise for me at the time, and he championed me to (Academy Manager) Gareth Jennings at Stoke City."

Last season, Smith led Stokes Ladies reserves to a League and Cup double and also coached England Girls’ U15s - all at the same time as working nine to five as a barrister’s clerk.

Her big break came last summer, when she was offered the chance to work full-time with the U11s at Stoke's Category 1 Academy.

“I’d been a barrister’s clerk for 16 years and they said, ‘What can we offer you to stay?’ I'd really enjoyed working there and was good at it, but being a full-time coach was my absolute dream. I said there was literally no amount of money that could stop me taking that opportunity.”

Holmes tells TGG: “I was gutted to lose Claire, but at the same time delighted to see her make so much progress. She deserves it for her enthusiasm and commitment alone.”

Being full-time has made a huge difference to Smith's development, “because of the detail you go into in terms of analysis and preparation and what you learn from experienced coaches.”

The six female Academy coaches are all part of the Premier League’s Elite Coach Apprenticeship Scheme (ECAS). This is a two-year programme designed to accelerate the learning and development of coaches with the potential to become elite Academy coaches.

In 2018/19, nine places on the scheme were reserved for BAME and women coaches, up from six in previous seasons, and the Premier League also helps ECAS coaches to get jobs at clubs.

“I’m so grateful for this opportunity," Smith says. "With ECAS, we’ve done visits to Bath University to visit a bobsledder and to Leeds Playhouse to speak to the actors there. You get insights into different worlds and learn so much.”

Newcastle U12s coach Natalie Henderson has already graduated from ECAS, during which time she experienced voice coaching at The Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC), a placement at fashion house Ted Baker, life at Spanish clubs Villarreal and Valencia, and watched Olympic diver Tom Daley train.

"You experience different environments, but there’s a lot of crossover you can take back to your club," she says. "At the RSC we learned about body language, tone of voice, how to engage people. It’s the same with young players, we want to engage them.

"Watching how Tom Daley works with his coach, the way they use an iPad and analysis to fix certain technical elements. The same goes on the football pitch."


Some may dismiss this advancement of female coaches as political correctness or quota-filling, but there is evidence from the business world that more diverse leadership teams outperform their rivals.

Avivah Wittenberg-Cox, CEO of gender consultancy 20-first and an honorary professor at HEC Paris business school, says: “Gender balance boosts bottom-line results, drives growth with new customer insights and enhances productivity with better talent acquisition and retention.”

Is there any reason why this shouldn’t apply in men’s football too?

Nia Davies, who has been working with the foundation phase at Swansea’s Academy since 2014, says: “If you have variety in your coaching staff you cater for all the kids in a different way.

"It was once seen as a man’s environment, but it should be that if you are good at your job you will get that opportunity.”

Professor Kathleen O’Connor, Visiting Associate Professor of Organisational Behaviour at London Business School, adds that women often bring different traits and characteristics to the workplace.

Her research has shown that women tend to fight hard on behalf of a group (but are often less effective when it comes to representing themselves) and, in general, use more collaborative skills with teams than men.

Speaking to Ben Lyttleton for his excellent book Edge, Chelsea Women manager Emma Hayes says: “Balance is critical in all areas of our life. I am astonished that, to this day, there are still so few females working in the men’s game.

“For me, it is absolutely ludicrous to think that Premier League teams, who hire expensive management and backroom staff, have no women in senior coaching positions.”


This is why progressive clubs are beginning to introduce more gender balance - in terms of both playing to coaching.

For example, players from Arsenal’s U12 girls’ squad train with the boys once a week. The club's Head of Coach and Player Development, Marcel Lucassen, says: “They are looking at each other for five minutes and then it is normal.

“What’s very good to see is that for them it is no different. It is more a difference for some grown-ups.”

Danish club FC Nordsjælland also have the girls and boys mixing at their Academy. “It is important for the boys to understand that of course the girls also have the chance to train as much as they do and to go to international tournaments and all of that,” Academy Director Jan Laursen told the This Football Life podcast.

"It is something where you can help the mindset of the players. We have to work on making the football world like the outside world.”

The Premier League also runs an Elite Heads of Coaching (EHOC) programme, in which it funds highly-qualified and senior coach positions. One person they have funded is Hannah Dingley, who has been Head of Coaching at Burton Albion since August 2016.

As Henderson - who has been an Academy coach at Newcastle United since 2014 - says: “When I compare when I started to now, I have noticed a big change.

“There are not as many people who look as shocked as there were. The biggest message for me is it doesn’t matter if you are male or female, black or white; if you are a good coach, you are a good coach.

“I hope other people see it that way as well. Everybody has their own qualities and everybody has their own experiences to pass on to the players. I think that’s really important, to have a diverse set of staff to help that."

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