When, after a highly successful playing career, Hope Powell landed her first coaching job at the age of only 31, it was a big one. As the first ever full-time coach of the England Women’s team Powell led the national side to four successive UEFA Women’s Championships and twice to the quarter finals of the World Cup. But, perhaps more importantly, during her tenure she was instrumental in pushing through a number of radical changes in the structure and standing of the women’s game and its emergence as a highly professional and high-potential sport.
Women’s football has come a long way since you hung up your boots. What role do you think you played in that progress and what are you most proud of?
The game has changed extensively thanks not just to me but to the combined efforts of a number of people. The whole international set-up and the support and organisation that surrounds it have really moved things on. During my administration we succeeded also in reaching certain important milestones, such as getting players onto central contracts so that they can focus on football full-time rather than having to fit it around other employment, and membership to the PFA. A high level of professionalism now exists in the game and it is higher profile and more highly valued.
In terms of particular achievements in my career as a manager, getting to the final of the 2009 European Championships, where we unfortunately lost to Germany, stands out. Coaching the first ever GB Women’s Olympic side for the London 2012 Olympic Games was also a fantastic experience for me, as was qualifying for the 2007 World Cup, especially as we hadn’t been a part of the previous three competitions.
Is there a period in your career that was particularly important in your development as a manager?
When we failed to qualify for the 2003 World Cup it was very tough, but the period that followed was a steep learning curve for me. I was determined to ensure that we wouldn’t face that kind of disappointment at the next World Cup, so I focused on preparing better and getting the support staff and infrastructure in a better place than it had been for the 2003 tournament.
There have been many highs and many lows in my career – some of the biggest lows being failing to get out of the group for the 2013 European Championships and, of course, losing my job as national coach. But I learned a lot from them. For example, with the former I hadn’t anticipated the level of interest there would be in the team during and after that qualification period, and the intense pressure it would put on the players. In hindsight I know I could have managed that better and, given the opportunity to manage again, it’s something I would be very mindful of.
Dealing with these kinds of disappointments is an essential skill in management. How have you learned to deal with the setbacks over the years?
In football, you are, of course, allowed to be disappointed, but the focus has to be on what happens next. As a manager, what’s important is to go through a process of reflection and review with your players so that you can learn from your mistakes and try to avoid disappointment next time. You need time to think about what went wrong and how you could do things better and sometimes I think managers don’t get the opportunity to do that.
I also believe you have to be honest with your team about why you got a result rather than making excuses. When we didn’t get out of the group for the 2013 European Championships, for example, it was because we didn’t perform well enough; we simply didn’t deserve it. It’s not in my personality to be satisfied with anything other than the best results; silver isn’t good enough. I think that if you’re satisfied you’re in trouble.
Importantly, though, you should also go through the same process of reflection and review following a good result or performance; you have to focus on the positives and learn from what worked well and what got results.
You were the first woman to get the UEFA Pro Licence, but how have you built on your management and leadership skills over the years?
I was quite young when I became a manager and it was a very new situation for me, as I had never managed a large group of people before. But I was fortunate to be mentored by Alan May and to have great support from the likes of Howard Wilkinson.
To some extent I’ve learned by trial and error, by seeking advice and picking things up along the way about what does and doesn’t work and what else I could try. I also looked at how other sports, such as hockey and athletics, were set up, what tools and analysis they used – anything that might help us to improve the women’s game.
As national coach, I constantly had to adapt, because the group dynamics and the situations we faced changed on a daily basis. That’s the nature of working with a large staff, all of whom are completely different.
You have said you would consider a job in men’s football if the time was right. People often focus on the challenges a woman would face in such a role rather than the particular expertise they might be able to bring to it.
I don’t believe management is a gender issue; it’s about capabilities. Some men are better at it than others and the same goes for women. It is about being able to manage a large, diverse group of people and get them to perform; gender is secondary. All I can do is bring myself and the attributes and skills I’ve acquired over the years.
Tell me about your current role.
I’m working on a number of things with FIFA and UEFA, including a lot of coach education, consultancy and technical analysis, and using my experience to help develop future female coaches. It’s fantastic to still be involved in the game and to have the opportunity to travel around the world and share all the knowledge and expertise I’ve gained over the years. It’s something I’m very proud of.
Do you have any ambitions or goals for the future?
Right now I’m doing exactly what I want to do. However, in terms of long-term goals, I’d like to see more women coaches at the forefront of the game, because men still dominate the main roles across the women’s international teams and domestic league. I’d like to up-skill more women and get them in positions where they could lead. I want to give more women the opportunities that I had.