The FA’s announcement that the Women’s Super League will move from a summer season to operate on a standard August to May winter season as from 2017 is a little too late for some clubs. Sheffield secured promotion from the Women’s Premier League in May 2015 – and had to wait nearly a year before they could play again. The place where association football was founded, they are a club facing a lot of challenges – and dealing with them in unique ways. In this extract from The Roar of the Lionesses, Carrie Dunn talks to their women’s first-team coach and general manager and the chairman – and finds out just what it’s like running a grassroots football club when one of your teams has rocketed to the top of the pyramid…
Sheffield’s development side didn’t get to use the Coach and Horses ground, the Home of Football, for their Easter Sunday fixture against Birmingham City. Instead, they relocated about a mile across Dronfield, to Gosforth Fields, a community sports complex with a full-size 3G pitch available.
The cold wind gusted across the new-build residential estate surrounding the pitches as the dark clouds scurried over the sky. The glum weather did not, however, affect the mood of the players, clustering an hour and a half before kick-off in the balcony sports bar, overlooking the turf where they would be playing during the afternoon.
Clutching their bottles of water and dressed in their Sheffield tracksuits, they were waiting to get into the changing rooms, currently occupied by a group of youngsters who had been playing during the morning. The Sheffield squad looked smart but very young as they took their seats around the bar tables, chattering and catching up with their team-mates, while the Birmingham squad, more subdued after their coach journey, gathered in a corner.
As soon as the changing rooms were empty, the bar cleared as the players stampeded downstairs. One took a last look at the big screen showing the previous night’s MLS match between New York City and New England Revolution, where one of the visiting players had just been sent off.
‘That were never a red card,’ she declared, and left.
As general manager Helen Mitchell made her way down to the side of the pitch, new first-team coach Zoe Johnson walked into the bar. She had only got home a few hours previously, travelling back with her team after their draw away at Bristol, and had lost 60 precious minutes of sleep with the clocks going forward. Nevertheless, she decided to travel to Dronfield to watch the development side, who had been her charges until recent weeks.
When Mick Mulhern had taken over as manager, he asked Johnson, with three years of experience at the club, to be his assistant, which came as a surprise to her.
Yet by the second week of March – a fortnight before the start of the WSL season – Mulhern had left Sheffield by mutual consent. Johnson was then called to an even more surprising meeting.
‘The club instantly asked me to attend a meeting and just said, “Look, we think you’re the right person to take things forward. The girls buy into what you’re about, they all respect you, we don’t think there’s anyone better – that’s what the girls are going to buy into.” I was a bit taken aback.’
Johnson decided that it was an offer she couldn’t refuse. At the age of 25, she became the youngest WSL manager in 2016 – and one of the few women in post as well. After eight years of coaching, at Preston North End and Blackburn Rovers as well as Sheffield, she was about to start working towards her UEFA A Licence, and had realised that she would need to reassess her commitments – especially bearing in mind she was also working full-time as a maintenance surveyor during the day.
After her first few games in charge of a WSL side, she was still settling into the role, but she was clear about her coaching ethos and why her players had bought into it.
‘It’s always been the same, really – how I’ve always worked is that we want to be a possession football team, play attractive football, because that’s what Sheffield FC is about.
‘They’re used to winning games, they’re used to them going there, being the big dogs, battering teams. That’s not going to happen now, they’re the ones that are going to be getting battered, but I think they’re slowly realising that they go in as underdogs, they’ve got to graft, and they’ve done that, they’ve done exactly what we’ve asked of them.’
Sheffield’s first home fixture in the WSL had taken place a few days before, and Mitchell was still recovering from the experience, describing it as exhausting as well as a step into the complete unknown. One of the biggest changes for the club was the increased budget required to run a WSL team – and the extra staffing required.
Sheffield’s only full-time member of staff was Richard Tims, the club chairman, working across all the teams. A printer by trade, he used his experience in business and interest in marketing to create a new strategy for the club’s growth.
Part of Tims’s plans for the future was to develop a ground for the club somewhere closer to the city centre – somewhere with facilities, somewhere they could call home, and somewhere suitable for the club’s historic standing. After all, Sheffield FC are the world’s first football club – the place where the laws of the game were first written down. Globally the Sheffield FC brand has an impact – and Tims gives credit to ex-Barcelona president Joan Laporta for inspiring his marketing strategy.
‘The FA put me together with the Catalan Football Federation in 2003,’ Tims explained, ‘and I ended up chatting to him, and he invited me to the stadium the next day. I thought I was just going on the museum tour, but he met me on the steps, out of season, 9.30 in the morning, and showed me the inner workings of Barcelona football club.
‘What I learned on that trip was all the people in that organisation were more amazed to meet me than I was to meet them.
‘That’s when the penny dropped. Why are people in Sheffield not amazed at what they’ve got on their own doorstep? Why is the UK obsessed by the Premier League? So I started a marketing campaign to let the world know where football kicked off.’
Tims’s efforts paid dividends, with the club picking up the FIFA Order of Merit in 2004 alongside Real Madrid.
‘You’ve got the biggest and richest football club in the world, and then you’ve got little grassroots Sheffield FC. You share the same award and honour, and that’s fantastic as a marketeer. Whether you support Real Madrid or Sheffield, we all love the game. From a business perspective, if you’re the first football club in the world, does every football club in the world not genetically come from you? Should they not love you?’
That worldwide significance was at the forefront of Tims’s mind as he worked to secure the club a local base.
‘We’ve been gifted a piece of land by the city council on the very first field that Sheffield FC played on and where the rulebook was written, so we have a project called the Home of Football to relocate the first football club back home,’ he explained.
Tims had always been optimistic about Sheffield’s chances of reaching the upper echelons of the women’s game, despite them being one of only two WSL clubs not attached to a professional men’s team; but he happily agreed that a similar journey would never be possible for the men’s first team. Still, he pointed out, success and financial glory were not the reasons for the club’s existence.
‘We’re not trying to be Man Utd, Man City or Real Madrid,’ he said. ‘We just want to be the ultimate grassroots football club – integrity, respect and community, remembering where the game came from. It’s not all about money. We’re proving that.
‘The two gentlemen who wrote the laws of the game did it for the love of the game – not for money. We want to remain as close to those principles as possible – I think that’s refreshing. If you can be that social conscience to tell youngsters coming through that 99.9 per cent of people around the world don’t play football for money, they play for different reasons, that’s what our club represents.’
This is an extract from Roar of the Lionesses, Carrie Dunn’s new book on women’s football in England. It is available here. Carrie spent a year following some of the most famous – and not so famous – female footballers in the country, to see what the future holds for women’s football.