This week we turn the spotlight on women’s football and review the recently released autobiography of Hope Powell, who managed England from 1998 to 2013 after previously enjoying a lengthy international playing career. The book provides an interesting insight into someone who came to symbolise progression for the women’s national team but also for the stature of the female game in England…
Hope Powell last month celebrated her 50th birthday and it has been a life in which she has often found herself fighting the odds. Her childhood was not always easy, growing up in a household where her mother was the victim of domestic violence. As a girl growing up playing football Powell was very much in the minority, her younger days falling into an era when females playing the sport would attract derision and be viewed with perplexity.
Even when she made it to becoming an England international it was a world away from the professional women’s game that has now developed, having to pay to play at club level. Powell would be a role model for any black girls looking to make it in the sport, having to deal with an instance of racism in her playing days. And she is also one of the most high-profile openly gay figures in English football, snubbing an approach in recent years to manage Nigeria’s women for reasons including the nation’s policies towards same-sex relationships.
And even as a female manager within the women’s game she found herself in the minority, Powell blazing a trail by being the first – and so far only – woman to manage the England side. A constant theme of Hope: My Life in Football is how she has had to fight for equality, resenting the way men are given managerial jobs in the women’s game but not the other way round.
“We need more women in the top jobs,” she insists, while also reminding readers that her successor Mark Sampson is “less experienced and less qualified than me”. She was once linked with the manager’s job at Grimsby Town, but maintains she neither applied for the post nor received any contact from the Mariners about it. There was an approach from non-league Windsor which she considered taking, but the timing was not right for her. Powell would become the first woman to gain her UEFA pro-licence qualification, working closely with such established football names as Stuart Pearce to achieve it. Kevin Keegan emerges in the book as a supportive figure of England’s women, while a converted Howard Wilkinson would also prove a particular ally of Powell’s.
Standing up for herself
Powell certainly gives the impression she is not a woman to be messed with. During the book she recalls clipping an un-named member of Team GB’s men’s football team around the back of the head for ogling her players; of putting Derek Fazackerley straight when he thinks she is the new office girl at the FA, rather than the women’s team manager; and of standing up to a misogynistic man in Jordan who pushed in front of her, leaving him mumbling apologies. Most significantly she managed to help free her mum from a life of domestic violence, putting her own personal safety at risk to confront her mother’s partner and involve the police to ensure her mum could move on to enjoy a happier life. Any football challenge has been minor by comparison, although it has been far from straightforward.
Powell found herself banned from playing football with boys as a child, so she ended up defying her mum’s orders and joining Millwall Lionesses. By the age of 14 she was playing first-team football and she would quickly break into the England squad. In 1984 she helped England reach the European Competition for Women’s Football against Sweden, Powell getting an unwelcome insight into how conservative England remained about women’s football compared to elsewhere. The first-leg in Scandinavia was a big deal to the locals, the return game so insignificant to most of English football that no ground in London was made available by the clubs to stage the match (it was eventually played at Luton). Powell writes: “Swedish football was so far in advance of our own in terms of its development, it was almost embarrassing.”
For an English women’s footballer in the 1980s there was little glamour, even if playing for leading clubs such as Millwall Lionesses and Friends of Fulham as Powell did. She writes: “A lot of the games were watched by two men and a dog – sometimes it was just the dog. When I look back at the conditions we used to put up with, we really had a lot of dedication and determination. Many of the pitches we played on were disgusting mud-heaps, on which the ball just about rolled.” An appearance at Old Trafford in the Women’s Cup Final saw less than 1,000 spectators dotted around the ground for the showpiece of the domestic game. When she played for England at the 1995 World Cup in Sweden, the team endured sleepless nights travelling on trains between venues and Powell says she was left out of pocket by the trip – a tournament that attracted little interest in the English press.
Fast forward 18 years and things had well and truly changed, as Powell began to feel the amount of media intrusion towards her players at Euro 2013 was an unwelcome distraction. As she herself admitted it was a case of being careful what you wish for, having sought for so long for an increased profile for the women’s game and then discovered the negative elements of it.
That level of increased interest was at least partly down to Powell, who since 1998 had been in a job where success was judged on more than just results. She also looked to increase interest in the women’s game and see youngsters develop. Given the end results she can be seen as having succeeded in all fields, England qualifying for several major tournaments (and reaching the Euro 2009 final) as they began to find themselves in the top bracket of women’s sides. Young talent would emerge and perhaps most significantly, the English female game became almost unrecognisable from years before in terms of interest and status including the creation of professional leagues. The presence of a Team GB women’s team at London 2012 – led by Powell, who as with when she was unexpectedly offered the England job in 1998 initially considered turning it down – would also help increase the profile.
Yet for all her achievements, it was reported when Powell was sacked in 2013 after a poor European Championship that many players were not sorry to see her leave and saw her management as a “dictatorship”. Powell’s claim that there was “cowardice” from her players who backed away from taking penalties in the shoot-out against France at the 2011 World Cup – comments she says in the book were said in the heat of the moment and not meant for publication – could not have helped the situation. Critics may happily point out that Sampson took England further in 2015 than Powell ever did at a World Cup (Powell refuses to take any credit in the book for that third-place finish). Powell also believes certain people at the FA resented the level of control she had been allowed to gain over its female international football structure, something she puts down to the organisation getting her “on the cheap” and expecting her to be responsible for all levels.
But even those who fell out with Powell would surely concede that she helped the women’s game progress in England, being ready to take on the conservative elements of the FA and fight for improvements to the sport. She writes: “When you’re working class and black, never mind having a same-sex partner, you learn early on in life that you’re going to have to fight for everything you achieve… you will come up against people who have a total sense of entitlement and privilege. They pretty much run everything, from the government to companies and organisations, including the FA, who are threatened by people like me. We don’t fit their mould and, when we get into positions of authority, they’re not really quite sure how to deal with us. Throughout the time I worked at the FA, they were legion.”
Powell did not in any way fit the stereotype of an FA employee and she was anything but a yes-woman, continually fighting the establishment and seeking to strengthen the women’s game. She was not without her critics as England boss but Hope did indeed help give hope to many girls and women that they could make it in football – and enjoy a much more attractive career than the one she had on deserted mud-heaps in the 1980s. Her story is one that has been worth telling.
- Hope: My Life in Football by Hope Powell with Marvin Close, is published by Bloomsbury.
Blogging about the history of the England national football team, particularly in the 1980s and 1990s.