Since the birth of the Women’s Football Super League in the UK in 2010 and with the formation of the Team GB football team for London 2012, women’s football in England is on an all time high. With female participation in the sport increasing year on year and ticket sales to senior international games rocketing, women?s elite football is finally on its way to getting the recognition it deserves.
Marieanne Spacey has been an integral part of the journey for the women’s game, having achieved some of the sport’s biggest accolades throughout her career. After being told she was not allowed to play in the boys football team in school, Marieanne went on to become one of the greatest footballers in English history winning 4 League titles, 6 FA Cups, 5 League Cups and earning 91 caps for her country.
After retiring from playing 2004 Marieanne began working towards her coaching badges and managed club teams such as Fulham Ladies FC. In 2013, she was appointed England Ladies Assistant Coach alongside new Head Coach Mark Sampson after the sacking of Hope Powell in August 2013. Marieanne is also the Head Coach of the U23 England squad and has a major role in the development of female football coaches with the FA.
FCN caught up with Marieanne after her latest U23 England Camp at St Georges Park, the English National Football Centre.
Can you tell us a little about your sporting background and what inspired you to play sport when you were younger?
I just wanted to take part in sport. I loved being outdoors, I didn’t like being cooped up in the house, so anything I could do to get out in the fresh air I would try my hand at. At school I played the school sports as they were for girls which was Netball, Hockey, cross country, trampolining…I just did everything that was on offer. I didn’t really get the chance to play football at school because they banned me from the boy’s team as the teachers said girls couldn’t play in the boys team. They let me play in the boy’s cricket team but not in the football team! This probably drove me even more to want to play football. I had always played football with my brother, my Dad and my Uncle, and that was my real passion, so any opportunity I got to play on the grass or to play outside I was there pretending to be a Chelsea legend and playing for England. I played Hockey for the county and had trials with the South East of England Squad, but football was my passion and that’s what I wanted to follow.
Was there a particular footballer that inspired you or was it pure stubbornness to prove that girls could play that made you want to play football?
Every week I would ride my bike down to the park where there was little league boys football going on. I would tell them I could play, but they were like no you can’t, you’re a girl, so the next week I went down and said my name was Matthew and ask can I play, but they still knew I was a girl and said I wasn’t allowed to. There wasn’t any one player or any real one thing that drove me to football, it was just the passion that every time I was out with a football at my feet I just felt that this was me.
From that initial passion, you went on to have an incredibly successful playing career. Was it a natural progression to go from playing to coaching and is this a fundamental part of you as a coach now?
I think there’s an expectation that because you played at the highest level you would automatically become a coach. For me it wasn’t a natural progression, I really needed to study football as a coach rather than use my understanding as a player. Everything I had done on the pitch were done ?automatically and I knew how to play the game, but what I didn’t know was how to coach the game, how to teach the game and how to share that experience in a way that broke down what I did autonomously into something that others could benefit from. So it took me a little while. I went straight into coaching, but I wasn’t ready to be a coach because I was still in my head a player. I didn’t have that background of education as a coach to really help me. So I took a bit of time away from the game in terms of playing and coaching, I went out to get my badges and really get to understand what coaching meant. Being a player did help me because I could demonstrate different drills and show what I was asking the players to do, but it was also important to have the other skills such as explaining how things are. I think we [coaches] also miss the emotion there is in football. We tend to think of it as a very technical and tactical game, but it is a very emotional game. You have to feel the game and you have to remember what it felt like to be in certain situations. So a goal scorer in front of the goal needs to keep calm under that pressure, so I could really share that feeling with the players that I coach.
Everyone seems to presume that a retired athlete or player can go straight into coaching. Was it quite a hard thing to admit or for others to understand that actually it wasn?t that easy to go from playing to coaching?
Some people will go straight from playing into coaching and they are made for that pathway, but for me there was an expectation that because I had played where I had, I would be a coach. So it was quite difficult knowing that I wasn?t meeting that expectation and that I needed to go away and learn and understand how to coach. To actually go away from the game was a big step to do, but now on reflection, it was the best step I had made because I went away and did coach education. I started to deliver on courses which gave me the teaching skills of working with others. It also gave me the skills to be able to break things down, so when I deliver an FA Level 2 course to coaches around technical detail, as much as it was helping them, it was also helping me. I started to broaden my thinking around coaching and teaching.
As a player, you are always going to make mistakes and you will as a coach, but the beauty of making these mistakes is that if you recognise them then you find another way to do things. That’s what I do with players; how do they deal with making a mistake? It’s not for me to tell them, if they keep making the mistake then I might guide them, but they will know themselves if they have made a mistake. I try to guide them to have a positive outcome in the mistake they have made rather than dwell on it.
Would you say this is part of your coaching philosophy, letting players work things out for themselves?
Yes, for me a philosophy surrounds the players, what do they want from themselves, what do they want from me as coach. How can I help this person achieve what they want to as a footballer? So I need to understand who I am working with and try to get the best out of them. And vice versa, how can they help me as a Coach to stay a step ahead in order to help them
Can you tell us about your role with the FA?
There are three parts to my job; Assistant Coach to Mark Sampson (England Ladies Manager) with the senior squad, which involves planning and preparing for the international programme and calendar.? When we are on camp, I deliver sessions, work alongside Mark, speak to the players and all the things that go with being on camp.
I am also the Head Coach of the England Ladies U23 squad which is a great stepping stone for the players. A lot of the players will be the next senior players so the philosophies and principles we have in the senior squad, I look to bring out with the U23s so that there is a consistency in delivery with the two age groups.
I also have a coach development role which looks at improving the number of female coaches and female coach educators and to give them opportunities to work in different environments. I support them to be the best coach they can be, whether that’s through qualifications which a lot of them will need to get the jobs, but also just to be the best coach they can be. Some might want to coach a certain age group, so it’s not a qualification they need. They may get to a point where they don’t need to take the next level up, but they need support with how they can be the best coach working with that age group, because that’s where they work fantastically well. You might have a fantastic coach that works with 5- 11s and you know that those 5-11 year olds are in the best possible hands with that coach. So you develop the coaches in their knowledge of 5-11 year olds whether it?s a football development, social development, or psychological development and really give them every string to their bow to be the best 5-11s coach as possible.
So your main focus in Coach development is on female coaches in particular?
Yes, so we have a female coach mentoring scheme which Brent Hills and Hope Powell set up about 15 years ago. I have just taken that on now and trying to develop that into something that is more than it is already. It is great at the moment but I’m trying to get more female coaches onto it and trying to develop them not just through their qualifications but develop them as people.
Why do you think there are a lack of female coaches in football, particularly at the higher level?
think there are more female coaches than people are aware of, certainly at Level 1 and the grassroots games. There are hundreds of Mums that go out every Saturday morning with their sons and daughters teams and are working with the level they want to work with. Without them the boys and girls teams at grassroots might not be running if that female coach (or any volunteer) hadn’t gone out and got their level one.? We say there?s a lack of, I say there’s a lot of female coaches at grassroots and I take my hat off to them because the work they do is fantastic. Especially when you look at the elite level; that?s where the players come from. It’s the grounding they have had with those female coaches at that level that gives us an opportunity to work with the best players and get them into the elite system. It also gives the players that just want to play for fun, the opportunity to play for fun. From there it’s about progression, so some coaches will go up with their age group as their son or daughter grow and then others will want to have a career in football coaching. I think now we have started to build more opportunities for females to coach in football, we have Centres of Excellence and player development centres which have predominantly female coaches. Everything take time and effort to progress and were we are now is the best place we could have hoped to be 10 years ago, even 5 years ago and where could we be in 5 years time That’s for us to keep working and pushing the female coaches, a lot of qualifications take 18 months to get, so we will keep supporting them and developing them.
What traits do you think women have to have to be able to work within the elite level of football?
Determination and belief in themselves. A lot of courses will only have 2 or 3 females on them, so the women are there because they want to be and because they have something to offer. An aptitude to learn, go on the courses and really try to understand what the courses are giving you.
Although your experience has predominantly been within the women?s game both as a coach and player, football is still a very male dominated sport. Have you ever experienced negativity or discrimination on your road up the coaching ranks?
I have been really fortunate and part of that has been because of my playing background. They know that I can play, so they all expect me to be able to coach. I’ve never really had any, apart from when I was young and they said I wasn’t allowed to play in the boys team. I have been quite fortunate that I haven?t been exposed to that kind of discrimination or sexist comments. Whether that’s because I have chosen to ignore them or whether that’s because they haven’t been out there I couldn?t tell you because I have been so focussed on what I wanted to achieve.
One of the barriers for female coaches is trying to juggle family commitments as well as coaching commitments. How do you balance your coaching responsibilities (particularly when you need to go abroad) alongside running a family?
I am really fortunate, in my early days when I was playing and my daughter was younger, I had fantastic family support. I couldn’t have done it without my Mum, Dad, brother and sister and all my family. I certainly couldn’t have done what I did without that support and I do have to give huge thanks to all my family for doing that. Now that my daughter is older, I am in a better place ?because she is 18 and she is independent. I brought her up to be a strong woman and to understand what she needs to do to get the most out of her life. So it put’s me in a good position now to be able to say I’m off to here. I miss her dreadfully when I am away, but I know that how we have brought her up, she is in a really good place.
If you had one piece of advice to give a female coach to help her progress in her career, what would that be?
It would be to believe in yourself, have an aptitude to learn and go knocking on doors to keep putting yourself into positions where you can get better. Go on coaching courses, go and observe, ask questions, be around people that you can learn from. There are so many things on twitter and the internet to gain information, but just be careful what you take in and what you see as the right thing. Try things, if it doesn?t work, then reflect on it. Always continue to learn and progress and develop yourself.
What are your future ambitions as a coach?
At the moment I am relishing the role I am in and I just want to continue developing in that role. I want to be the best I can be which means always learning, always observing and talking to other coaches. An ambition for me is to really get this mentoring scheme working and seeing the progression of female coaches achieving the best they can. At the moment I am not seeing much further than the World Cup next year. Being an Assistant Coach at a World Cup finals is an ambition that you might of dreamed of when you were younger or when you started coaching, so I am living ambitions as I am going I guess!