Effortista Carrie Dunn shares an excerpt from Roar of the Lionesses, her brilliant book on women’s football in England. Read on and find yourself inspired by Helen Mitchell, general manager of WSL side Sheffield FC, and Carla Ward, the captain pursuing her coaching badges:
The snowfall in South Yorkshire was minimal, but the temperature was low. Sheffield FC’s development team were quickly casting their eyes around for a potential alternative venue if their Coach and Horses ground, in the hamlet of Dronfield, was suffering from the deep freeze.
General manager Helen Mitchell was at the ground early on Sunday morning, four hours before kick-off, testing the state of the pitch and brushing off the residual frost. Her mobile phone was never far from her hand as she texted, answered and made calls to ensure that everyone was fully up-to-date with the day’s arrangements – teams, officials, ground staff and catering.
By 11 o’clock it was clear that the ice resting around the penalty areas was melting, and the pitch was soft enough to take players’ boot studs. The club’s training ground – one of Sheffield United’s facilities – was not going to be called into action.
Mitchell continued with her preparation work – making sure that the neighbouring pub, owned by the club, was ready to cater for the teams post-match, distributing the matchday programmes, and sticking the corner flags in their places. At noon, she started to wire up the stadium’s PA system, slotting in the somewhat elderly compilation CDs that comprised the pre-match entertainment. As the visiting team and management arrived at the ground, she sprinted out to form the welcoming committee.
She is essentially the founder and lynchpin of Sheffield FC women’s team. She took on the role of player-manager at Norton Ladies in 2002, and realised very quickly that a sounder infrastructure was needed if the club wanted to progress – or indeed simply stay in existence.
“The first year was fine, then in the summer the manager said, ‘I’m leaving, I’ve had enough,’ two weeks before the start of the season,” she recalled. “The girls asked me if I’d take over the management. I’d never done anything like that before, I had no coaching qualifications. I’d been in charge of the university team, but other than that, I’d done nothing. So I said yes because we didn’t have any other option.
“I did that for a year, and it was just really, really hard work. There was a small committee looking at finances and organising, so I got involved in that, obviously, and it became very clear that this was just a hand-to-mouth existence. We were going nowhere, we didn’t have a fixed base, each year we were looking for somewhere different to play.
“We thought, ‘Right, let’s affiliate with a men’s team, that’s probably the best.’ We can get a stable base, a bit of support, and we can get our name out there. We were an isolated team, not affiliated, there weren’t other teams playing for that badge. So I rang the chairman here, completely out of the blue, and just said, ‘How do you feel about having a women’s team?’ He was like, ‘Right, yeah, that sounds interesting, let’s meet up.’
“So we did, and he said, ‘Your timing’s brilliant because we are looking for a women’s team.’ So our call was really timely. We put together a five-year plan, where we wanted to be, what it would bring to the club, that sort of thing. The board said yes, and that was it.”
Sheffield FC are the oldest football club in the world. They are, understandably, very proud and very vocal about that fact. Their club crest bears that slogan; their office boasts a magnificent memorabilia collection from 1857 onwards, including a series of three letters from then-FIFA president Sepp Blatter congratulating them on receiving the governing body’s Centennial Order of Merit and also accepting the offer of membership at the club.
Blatter was not in evidence at the Coach and Horses on this November afternoon, but there was a healthy scattering of fans, many of whom were family members of the players, plus the traditional and proverbial man and his dog, Sunderland Ladies’ first-team manager Carlton Fairweather, and even some media interest from the Netherlands – not bad at all for a development team match on a freezing Sunday. Half an hour before kick-off, as the squads emerged on to the now-lush pitch for their warm-up, the sun suddenly burst through. The players’ variety of woolly hats and thermal gloves were still very much required, though, as were the cups of tea being gratefully guzzled around the ground as the chill wind continued to blow.
Despite officially being part of the Women’s Super League set-up, having secured promotion to WSL2 from the Women’s Premier League back in May following a dramatic play-off with Portsmouth Ladies, Sheffield FC had a tough latter half of 2015. That was simply because the WPL, adhering to the traditional winter season, finished with that play-off in May, and Sheffield essentially had a year to wait before their first team could get back in action again – the WSL’s summer scheduling meant they had missed the 2015 season, and could only take their rightful place come March 2016.
“That game was possibly one of the most intense games I’ve ever played in my life,” recalled captain Carla Ward. “There was so much emotion in it that it was just intense from the word go, to the point where when that goal went in I don’t think any of us had an ounce of energy left. It wasn’t frantic – it was more mentally draining. Honestly, I felt for them. Our girls were celebrating after and I had a horrible feeling for them. I had a word with their skipper and I was just like, ‘Someone had to lose,’ but it was hard. The emotion that day was unreal. It was a difficult day – and the best day of my life so far.”
The promotion to the elite of the women’s game was something that Mitchell never expected.
“I remember very clearly the chairman Richard asking me, ‘What’s to stop you going to the top of the women’s game?’, which at the time was the Women’s National League National Division, Arsenal and everyone, and I just laughed. Ability? Money? All the rest of it. And he was like, ‘So that’s all? So it’s achievable then?’”
Mitchell’s Sheffield team, however, exceeded everyone’s expectations, securing a string of promotions; but she never thought they would be able to move into the WSL, founded initially as a closed league with no promotion or relegation. When the WSL2 was added, Sheffield applied for entry, never expecting to even be considered due to the stiff competition from more well-known teams nearby.
“We’d only been in the Prem 18 months at that time, I thought we’d have no chance, but we just did it as an exercise, which we thought would be useful,” she said. “We didn’t expect it, mainly because of how juvenile we were and how young we were as a team, but also we were geographically close to teams that were really well established. We got good feedback from the application, we knew there were a few things lacking which we needed to get in place, and which we went away and worked on, and two years later we got the chance through promotion.”
With such a sizeable gap between the end of the WPL play-off and the start of the subsequent WSL season, some of the Sheffield players had temporarily moved to other WPL teams to stay match fit, while Ward was concentrating on gaining her UEFA B licence coaching qualifications by working with the development side plus the Sheffield University team and in local schools.
“I’m the only female on a 26-man course, but I don’t mind that,” said Ward. “I quite like being around the men anyway, because it tends to be a little bit more brutal and you know you’re going to get told if need be. It’s been good, to be honest, I’ve learnt a lot.”
That meant she was on the sidelines to watch the Sheffield development team trounced by the impressive Sunderland. Rachel Furness, the visitors’ Northern Ireland international with a wealth of first-team experience, marshalled their play, opening the scoring with a fine lob of young goalkeeper Lauren Santoro. The sun continued to shine even as the rain began to fall in a sharp shower, with a huge, bright rainbow spreading over the pitch at the end of the first half; the second half began with a spell of decent Sheffield pressure but their opponents soaked it up, hitting them with a sucker punch from Tyler Dodds, and wrapping up the game shortly after the hour mark courtesy of Charlotte Potts. Sarah Jackson’s rather poor penalty, which goalkeeper Grace Donnelly palmed on to the inside of the post, was a mere consolation for the hosts; as they pushed players further forward they left holes at the back. Furness and Dodds both notched again in the closing minutes with Maddie Hill adding a sixth seconds before the final whistle as the rain once again pattered down on to the pitch.
Throughout, Mitchell had been poised on the stairs to the offices leading to the pitch, that ever-present phone still in evidence, as she assumed control of the team’s Twitter account, posting regular updates from the game.
“Murdered,” she muttered at the end. “Just not turned up today, just didn’t get started.”
The players and staff shook hands after the match in the traditional show of respect. After a debrief and a shower, both sides headed off to the pub for their post-match meal.
It had been a busy week for Sheffield. Mick Mulhern – whose track record at Sunderland had made his name in women’s football – had been officially appointed as the women’s first-team coach prior to their entry to WSL2, officially replacing Mitchell for the 2016 season.
Mitchell assumed the title “general manager”, meaning many of her duties would stay the same, just without overarching responsibility for the first-team coaching and selection. Like many in the women’s football pyramid, she had worked scores of hours every week without the expectation of financial recompense, simply for the love of the game, balancing coaching and management with her work as a landscape architect in a local practice.
With Sheffield’s formal entry into a semi-professional league, though, she had reduced her hours at work to officially take on the part-time job of the women’s team’s general manager.
“When you’ve been doing the same things for 12 years, it can become a bit of a treadmill,” said Mitchell. “It’s been brilliant to have a different focus and a different challenge for me has been really refreshing, I’ve enjoyed that. We knew the sort of person we wanted to bring in, but it was just could we get who we wanted. It’s been a big surprise, but it’s exactly what we need.”
Ward, meanwhile, had her eye to the future.
“I want Mick’s job in a few years,” she said. “I’ve made no secret, to the chairman, to Mitch, look, one day down the line I don’t see myself at any other club, this is where my heart is, and I want it, I’d love to do it.
“When I’ve been at other clubs, they bring in players as and when you need them. This club, you have to bring the right type of person into this club, and it’s very much more of a family unit. Everyone looks after each other. It’s not just about the football, it’s about the group collectively, and it’s different. I love it.”
Even though she was racking up the hours for her UEFA B licence, she was still recovering from a second spinal operation, undergoing regular specialised physiotherapy.
“I’m doing all right,” she mused. “It’s not that I don’t listen but I’ve always rushed back before; I just hate being on the sidelines. This time round I’ve done everything down to an absolute tee and I feel really good. There are certain things I still struggle to do, it’s horrible. Back rehab is the worst.”
Had she ever considered retiring? She considered.
“Everybody was saying, ‘You’re going to have to retire, it’s your back, it’s not good,’” she recalled. “To be honest six months ago after I did it again I made the decision in my head. Then as soon as I started doing rehab, I started thinking, ‘I can’t. I can’t give it up.’”
An ironic smile crept over her face, and she glanced at Mitchell, who had just run past to riffle through some paperwork.
“Think I’ll ever retire, gaff?” Ward asked.
“We’d have to cut your legs off first,” came the reply.