London- Would Rachel Yankey like to become the first female manager in the Premier League? “Look, it’s not an ambition of mine. It’s not as if I sit there and think ‘that’s what I want to do’. If I was good enough to go in there and get a job … but right now, I’m nowhere near good enough.” So that’s not a no, then.
Once the record caps holder for England, the winner of six League titles and nine women’s FA Cups, recipient of the OBE and, still, one of the few names in women’s football to have widespread public recognition, Yankey can also do a passable impersonation of a politician. But while she may not be willing to give an interviewer a headline, she is certainly doing everything within her capability to change the perception of female coaches in the national game (and yes, that means the men’s version of it, too).
There are, as it stands, 29 women in England in possession of a Uefa A coaching licence. This compares with a total of 1,484 men. In the women’s professional game, the England team is managed by a man, Mark Sampson, while of the 20 clubs in the two tiers of the Women’s Super League there are only five female managers. In the men’s game, there is not a single female coach at any of the 92 league clubs.
Yankey is giving interviews as the figurehead for an initiative, launched by the online bookmaker Betfair, to fund 50 female coaches to their Uefa B badges. It comes alongside the FA launching its women’s “Gameplan for Growth” this year which announced a head of women’s coaching development to focus on the recruitment and deployment of female coaches in England.
For many years already, Yankey has been ploughing the furrow herself. She took her Uefa B licence while playing for Arsenal and is in the process of taking her Uefa A qualifications, in the hope of tipping that coaching total up to 30. She has coached at a grassroots level since she was a teenager. She has also presented no fewer than 60 episodes of Footy Pups, a CBeebies TV show that combines the adventures of an animated football team with Yankey teaching real-life skills to a group of mixed-sex primary school children.
“The whole way through my career, even when I was a 16-year-old at Arsenal, I’ve played football but I’ve coached kids as well,” she says. “I’ve always worked in schools and, I suppose, in the latter stages of my career, particularly at Arsenal these past few seasons, it’s been more about teaching the youngsters what was important.”
It is fair to say then that Yankey is as well-placed to talk about development within our national game as anyone. Her analysis is that the barriers to expanding the number of female coaches are manifold, but not necessarily insurmountable, the main problem being less an absence of qualifications and more a lack of jobs at the end of it.
“It costs quite a lot of money to get on to your coaching courses,” she says. The cost of training for a Uefa B licence, for example, is £1,000; for Uefa A it is £5,000. “By the time you get to your A licence, that’s taking football very seriously. That’s you saying you want a job that’s going to repay [the debt]. Now, are there the jobs out there, the opportunities for women where you’re going to actually get something? I’m not sure.
“I suppose it takes open-minded, brave chairmen and women to offer those opportunities. Because everyone wants that experience. When you look at the Premier League, if a team needs a manager it’s always the same names going round. So I think you have to be quite a strong person to offer a job to the new person. I know this is not what we’re talking about but it’s also the case with the number of black managers. There’s not enough black managers, there’s definitely not enough female managers. Why is that? I don’t know, but those barriers need to be broken down.”
Yankey does not want positive discrimination and is firmly against token appointments – she would like a situation where the best candidate gets the job. Having more women with coaching credentials, she says, will help to establish a more level playing field.
Yankey left Arsenal last winter after 11 years and 151 appearances and currently has no club. Now 37, she firmly insists she has not retired as a player. But hidden under the table across which we are talking is a complicating factor, the blooming bump containing her first child, due in August. Yankey says she has not made a decision about when she might return to the game but has had conversations with WSL clubs interested in taking her back.
Speaking with Yankey feels like talking to an Olympian or a footballer from an age well before academies and image rights. The way in which she approaches most questions about her career is simply to talk about the enjoyment the game has given her. It is a reminder that this is the same person who, at the age of eight, shaved off all her hair and called herself Ray so she could get a regular game when only boys’ teams were available. It is obvious she is also motivated by giving things back. And there is a sense that, despite all her trophies and accolades, Yankey feels she has not been able to do all she would have wanted to do in the pro game.
This is particularly the case with her international career which, after 129 caps, came to an abrupt end under Sampson in 2013. “I feel that I could have been given more of an opportunity to offer what I had as a footballer. Not just on the pitch but off it. I feel that I could have been offered more of an opportunity to give that to the team. But again, that’s the manager’s choice.”
As much as Yankey is animated by football at the highest level, she is similarly passionate about what happens in the school playground. To change the perception of female coaches, she says, to change the perception of women’s football at the professional level, it is necessary that football is understood as a game for both sexes, and that starts with children.
“There are many things we need to do to make sure that it’s seen as OK for females to play football, and seen as the norm for that to happen at an early age. The amount of parents I’ve spoken to about Footy Pups where they have told me their son or daughter has gone out into the garden and the first footballer they have wanted to be was a female. That’s got to be a massive change.
“But at the same time you hear some of the youngest kids say things like ‘football is for boys and ballet is for girls’. And I wonder: ‘where have you got that from? You must have got that information from somewhere …’ I think the governing body, the coaches, the school teachers, the parents, everybody has to play a part. It has to be done together, we all have to appreciate that football is a game for all and that anybody can play it.”
That is not to say that different genders cannot bring different qualities to the game. Despite several attempts, Yankey will not endorse my plan for a gender-neutral form of football. “Once you get to a certain age men can kick the ball further, men can run faster. So no, not for me.” But on the other hand, she believes that women coaches could bring more than just technical skills to some of those 92 football clubs that currently see fit to look elsewhere.
“I think there are different ways to coach. I think there can be a different way of thinking, a different way of seeing things. Perhaps [female coaches can bring] more empathy. You’re talking to players and understanding what’s going on, how they’re feeling. As a manager you’ve got so much pressure, maybe women handle pressure in a different way. I’m not saying either is right or wrong. But I think there are different ways, so to have a coaching team that is diverse is surely better than everyone being the same.”
The Guardian Sport