In his 2015 book Living on the Volcano, Michael Calvin explored what life is like managing a men’s football team, chronicling managerial spells of a handful of coaches in men’s football in England. Away from the money-soaked world of the Premier League, the pressures still remain; moving down the pyramid of men’s football, managers were still only ever given a finite amount of time to change the fortunes of a club. If Calvin were to write a sequel focusing on coaches in women’s football, it’s unlikely he’d sell so many copies. Less Living on the Volcano more, Living with a neighbour who occasionally plays loud music.
Whilst it’s true there are many managers in the men’s game who are arguably given more time than they merit, in women’s football, the apathy that pervades the game keeps many under-performing coaches in their jobs.
From Lyon to Madrid
A team well used to managerial turnover, Olympique Lyonnais have had five different coaches since being brought under the umbrella of the men’s team in 2004, each spending less time at the helm than their predecessor. From Farid Benstiti’s six years to Patrice Lair’s four, Gérard Prêcheur’s three to Reynald Pedros’ two and Jean-Luc Vasseur, who may yet only last one season. Club president Jean-Michel Aulas demands the very best which is why, when Pedros took charge for a second season, some were surprised. Lyon had again won everything on offer but they had lacked their characteristic flair in doing so. Pedros was nevertheless given a second season and again won everything, but there were clear cracks beneath the surface – cracks Vasseur has been unable to do much to repair.
Lyon remains the outlier however, and most teams are content with their managerial team and usually only look for replacements when the individuals opt to move on – a stark contrast to the men’s game. Which is why when Atlético Madrid dismissed Pablo López only three months after he’d been promoted to replace José Sánchez Vera (who left the role just four league matches into the season for personal reasons), the women’s football world didn’t know quite how to react.
The team hadn’t been able to recover from a battering at the hands of Barcelona and came within an inch to making the earliest exit possible in the Champions League at the hands of Serbian champions Spartak Subotica. The López tenure was a rocky one, with the team consistently failing to show up with all their might, their wins routinely narrow. A rash of draws was enough to all but lose sight of them in the title race. Drawn against their liga rivals, Barcelona, in the Champions League and facing successive Supercopa and Copa de la Reina matches in February, the club decided to cut their losses and give López his marching orders last month. Just like his two predecessors, current Atleti coach, Dani González is a company man, promoted from within the Atleti ranks but with no experience of coaching a senior women’s team.
The reigning Spanish champions have made it quite clear what they value in a manager and it’s not necessarily experience. Yet with how the league has gotten away from them this season – with the champions looking set to relinquish the title they’ve held for three seasons – looking for a manager with the know how in a top league rather than one who understand the Atleti way might have been a better avenue to explore. With how unceremoniously López was shown the exit, it’s likely to be abundantly clear to González his options are do a good job or look for a new one.
Elsewhere around women’s football, it’s rare to see managers dismissed with such ease, and it’s actually fans that are left calling for the head of an unsatisfactory coach. Whilst large swathes of football fans tend to err on the melodramatic side, spamming the comments section of online articles or social media posts, begging for a change of leadership, there are legitimate concerns to be heard.
When Marc Skinner moved to the Orlando Pride, he inherited a mixed squad that had been papering over cracks for as long as the team had been in existence, and without Alex Morgan or Marta digging in to give 200% and keep the team treading water, the buck stopped at his door. Unironically, it’s was the club’s loyal supporter group that backed the new manager to the hilt as the neutrals were left to repeatedly question his suitability for the role.
Another English coach probably left reaching for headache pills in recent months: Liverpool’s Vicky Jepson has repeatedly praised the performance of the struggling Reds in the WSL, much to the frustration of fans. The team, once champions of England, have consistently struggled for goals this season and despite being relegation threatened have only lost two of their 13 league matches by more than a one-goal margin. The general consensus is Jepson’s hands are mostly tied by the club and a change of manager wouldn’t solve the wider problems, yet some fans struggle to see more than six points from a possible 39.
As SBNation’s Kim McCauley recently pointed out, the Australian women’s national team (currently ranked 7th in the world) shouldn’t have only just squeezed a draw against a China team that had been in quarantine for a fortnight, unable to properly train.
Australia, at home, against a team that has been *training in a hotel hallway for 2 weeks*, barely scrape a draw.— Kim McCauley (@lgbtqfc) February 13, 2020
When federations going to start demanding more from their underperforming women's team coaches or pay up for better ones? https://t.co/cVuxOc3AGc
For all the talent in the Matildas squad – even allowing for an Achilles in defence – the Australian team has been a perpetual disappointment since Ante Milicic took charge of the team following the complicated dismissal of Alen Stajcic. The 2019 World Cup promised so much for the Matildas but Milicic failed to harness the natural ability of the squad and the tournament that should have been Australia finally realising their talent ended in all-too-familiar disappointment.
Lack of options
But if not Milicic or Jepson or Skinner then who? If US Soccer had decided that Jill Ellis was no longer right for the job after the USA’s early exit at the 2016 Olympics, who would have been her successor? There are clear issues of a lack of diverse pathways into coaching in women’s football which need to be righted around the world. It’s certainly no coincidence that seven of the nine coaches in NWSL are English-born and only one is a woman. The safe choice in the American league, seemingly, is English men - which given both the success and failures of NWSL coaches over the years, proves very little.
In time, pathways will open up and not only will we see more former players with varied experience and careers moving into coaching but overall, there’ll be a richer, deeper coaching pool. As such, teams will be left with more options when they need to appoint a new manager. But even with more options out there, it still seems like most teams will happily stick rather than twisting, be it through overconfidence or worrisome apathy. With the managerial carousel in perpetual motion across most men’s leagues, maybe it’s not such a bad thing that those in women’s football are given longer to improve teams – adequate time is a vital competent to improving teams – but teams are still far too reticent to admit the coach needs to go.