No manager but Brighton look to make their mark on the Super League

Captain Vicky Ashton-Jones lifts the Premier League Championship trophy after Brighton's 4-2 play-off victory over Sporting Club Albion (Photo: Jane Roberts)

Brighton were promoted to Women’s Super League 2 after winning a play-off against northern champions Sporting Club Albion (Photo: Jane Roberts)

Brighton are about to embark on the biggest season in their history without a permanent manager – and yet the new head of the women’s set-up at the Super League’s newest club says she’s unfazed by the prospect.

  • Club embarking on a new quest for a manager after failing to find the “right fit” first time round
  • Timetable for reaching WSL 1 and the Champions League to be revealed
  • What lured Brighton’s “stellar” signing to the club
  • The number of professional players set to be among the highest in the division
  • Sights set on WSL attendance record

Kirsty Hulland, a 26-year-old with a masters in sports business management, walked into her new job at the élite football performance centre with the club in turmoil after the sackings of her predecessor, Tracy Doe, manager James Marrs and the departures of several of their best players.

Yet she says she hasn’t had a moment’s problem with players or staff since her arrival, last October. And she views the coming season as an exciting new challenge with records to be broken and the prospect of what she believes will be a whole new level of success to follow.

But for all the confidence and ambition the former Birmingham City Ladies general manager exudes, she still has a very real obstacle to overcome – the club are still looking for a manager.

FAWSL Spring Series

  • One-off competition for all Super League teams to bridge gap between the end of the 2016 summer season and the new winter one, which begins in September 2017
  • Series runs from February to May, with each team playing the others in their respective divisions once
  • No promotion or relegation but a trophy for the divisional winners
  • Brighton will figure in the very first spring series fixture, away to London Bees on February 11

George Parris, the former Brighton and West Ham United defender, who oversees the development of the youngsters at the club, has stepped into the breach for the forthcoming WSL “spring series”, as he did for the crucial play-off in May which earned them their Super League berth.

But he is adamant that his future lies with the development of the club’s future, through the new regional training club (RTC) that succeeded the centre of excellence.

So while players, old and new, will spend three or four months getting to know Parris’s style, his likes and dislikes, during the interim spring series that precedes the new FAWSL winter season, they will be playing for a different boss once Brighton’s Super League adventure begins in earnest in September.

George Parris and Kirsty Hulland, Brighton & HA, Jan 31 2017 (Photo: Sent Her Forward)

Interim manager George Parris and new head of women and girls football Kirsty Hulland stepped in at a tricky time for the club

It is an unusual situation for a club at Brighton’s new exalted level to find themselves in, but Hulland is not unduly concerned and is confident that a new head coach will be in situ before they embark on their first full, competitive campaign in WSL2.

“Just before I joined they’d been through several interview stages. There had been experience anywhere from Women’s Premier League, WSL, even international experience, from my understanding,” she told Sent Her Forward.

Family values

“The club is very conscious of having the right fit because it’s having the values of the club. Across the WSL there are very different types of manager, and their outlook on how to play and the values that a club should adhere to.

“But I think we haven’t found the perfect fit.

“We’ve found coaches that are brilliant on the pitch but don’t hold the values, or do hold the values and the coaching levels aren’t there.

“We want to make sure we get the right fit because the girls deserve that if we want to progress and go to WSL1.”

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what they are looking for from their new manager, as a longish queue of applicants have found to their cost.

Whoever was in previously before me had done a brilliant job – Kirsty Hulland – Brighton women’s and girls’ general manager

Hulland refers constantly to the family nature of the entire club and its strong community spirit.

She speaks of moral obligations to work with the community and of a social responsibility.

There is also a strong sense of footballing style imbued throughout the club, based on the possession-based, play-out-from-the-back philosophy of Marrs, the man who lifted them from mid-table Premier League mediocrity to the title – and the brink of promotion – in his two seasons there.

Brighton's American Express Elite Football Performance Centre in Lancing (Photo: Paul Hazlewood/BHAFC)

The facilities at Brighton’s training complex, shared with the men’s teams, are second to none, according to Parris (Photo: Paul Hazlewood/BHAFC)

The development squad, who have made such a stunning start to their own Super League season (they’re top and unbeaten at the halfway stage), play in the same way, as do the juniors coming up through the RTC and academy.

And when Parris took charge for that crucial play-off, days after Marrs had left, he wisely opted to continue in the same vein, overseeing a convincing 4-2 win that lifted Brighton to unprecedented heights for the club, for their county, and indeed for the entire south coast, which thus far, has not had a Super League team.

New round of interviews

Given that rounds of interviews of top-quality coaches failed to find that elusive combination, what makes Hulland believe Brighton’s board will be any more successful this time?

With just six months or so to go until the start of the first WSL winter campaign, aren’t they running out of time?

“We are quietly confident,” says the quiet, but seemingly confident, women and girls general manager.

“We actually start interviews this week, with a new round of interviewees, and again, the applications were very strong. We’re very confident in this process.”

This time the club have not just been waiting for the right candidate.

“We’ve actually looked out to managers, as well, rather than just wait for applicants to come in.

Amy Merricks and George Parris, assistant manager and manager, Brighton & HA (Photo: Geoff Penn/BHAFC)

Amy Merricks was promoted from the development squad to become assistant manager to Parris (Photo: Geoff Penn/BHAFC)

“I’m quite relaxed as to where we are, to be honest.

“It’s always at the back of my mind, and also the FA are very much aware of the licensing requirements, and are happy with what we are doing at the moment.

“And they’ve actually been quite supportive throughout this process. I thought they might say ‘we need one in place’, but they completely understand where we’re coming from. They agree with, and support, us on that.”

In the meantime, Parris and Amy Merricks, who has been promoted from her highly successful role as development squad manager, will take the team through the spring series – although their fates after that are set to diverge markedly.

“I meet all the requirements,” the man who effectively fell into the job told Sent Her Forward. “I took the play-off game.

We don’t just throw money at it for the sake of throwing money at it – Kirsty Hulland

“If you’d said to me after the play-off game that I’d be sitting here now taking the spring series, I wouldn’t necessarily have believed it. It’s just panned out that way.

“The main thing from the club was the WSL requirements that we have to have an A-licence holder deemed as the manager.

“I’m sure if Amy had already had her A licence, she most probably would be, certainly the interim manager, herself.

“I’m quite happy to do the job, and we’re in the process of new rounds of applications and interviews, so I’m quietly confident that we’ll get the right person.”

When the new manager is in place, Parris expects to go back to his job as technical director of the regional training club, which looks after youth players.

But Merricks, he insists, will continue in her new role.

“Amy will still be the assistant manager,” he said. “So whoever takes over the role [of manager], they will be made aware of that. She will be still there.”

‘Stellar signing’

Despite the absence of a permanent manager, Brighton have been recruiting new players since Christmas, the most eye-catching of whom is goalkeeper Emma Byrne, a Republic of Ireland international who has won 11 top-flight league titles with Arsenal – including the Super League twice – and the Uefa Champions League in 2007.

Parris described the 37-year-old recently as “one of the greatest goalkeepers to have graced the women’s game”, and he found it difficult to contain his pride and excitement in having lured her to the south coast.

“That was for us a great coup,” he said. “Once we found out [through her intermediary] that she was willing to come to us, it was my job to convince her to come here. With the facilities and what we were going to offer, she was more than willing to come.

“That was obviously a stellar signing.”

Emma Byrne, Brighton goalkeeper, January 21 2017 (Photo: Paul Hazlewood/BHAFC)

The signing of former Arsenal and Republic of Ireland serial trophy-winning goalkeeper Emma Byrne made the Super League sit up and take notice of Brighton (Photo: Paul Hazlewood/BHAFC)

But he added: “The other girls (midfielders Alessia Russo and Jenna Legg and defender Laura Rafferty, all from Chelsea) are just as important because they’re at the other end of the scale. They’re that much younger. And the good thing for us is they’re all internationals, as well.

“Once Chelsea had decided they were surplus to requirements, we had to move quite fast.”

And both Parris and Hulland are convinced that the facilities at the club’s élite football centre, just across the road from their home ground in Lancing, are key to the calibre of player – and, they hope, manager – that is ending up at Brighton.

Parris added: “Sometimes you have to get people to come and view it, and once they have seen it, I’m sure that sells it. And this is not just the women – it’s the men, as well, in relation to the signings that they have had.

“The facilities are second to none, and once you come here, you sense how professional all the outfit is.”

Here, compared to WSL clubs in general, is a brilliant set-up and structure – Kirsty Hulland

It’s an assertion with which Hulland wholeheartedly agrees.

It was the facilities already in place at a club that had only just won promotion from the Premier League – allied with the avowed commitment from the board – that persuaded her to leave WSL 1 Birmingham City, where she had been general manager for three years.

“It’s a club with ambition,” she said. “It’s a real family club, and I like that. I’m not saying Birmingham wasn’t, but it was a new challenge for me coming across. The facilities they’ve got, everything they have in place here already…”

Champions League target

Hulland is all too aware that Brighton’s application to join the Super League (promotion on the pitch was not on its own sufficient to qualify for a licence and place in the league) and the FA’s decision to give them élite status among the new host of RTCs around the country were all but sealed before she arrived – in fact, before her predecessor, Doe, and manager Marrs departed.

“I was very lucky in the fact that whoever was in previously before me had done a brilliant job, and all the staff and players had,” she said. “It was an exciting opportunity for me, and it is so easy to be enticed when you see everything that is available here.”

Brighton’s spring series fixtures

Feb 11 London Bees (a) April 16 Watford (h)
Feb 26 Oxford United (h) April 23 Durham (a) 12.00
March 5 Doncaster Belles (h) April 30 Everton (a)
March 12 Milllwall (a) May 21 Sheffield FC (h) 1pm
April 2 Aston Villa (a) All 2pm kick-off unless otherwise stated

Brighton’s season starts here – FA Cup preview

Hulland was also attracted by the ambition of the club, and she believes that now is the time to put their reputations on the line and spell out what they hope to achieve – and by when.

“This is something we are going to be talking over in the next few months when we apply for the licence (for the 2018/19 season and beyond) because we should be setting the targets down on paper.

“I know there’s been previous interviews and it was said that within four years [they should be playing] Champions League, and things like that. But I’ve never seen, as of yet, actual plans on how we’re going to get there.

“I think we need to put a plan together in terms of on and off the pitch, what we need to do to get there. And I think the best time to actually look at what we’re doing is during the spring series, and then review after. But we can start the discussions now.”

Kirsty Hulland, general manager women and girls football, Brighton & HA (Photo: Paul Hazlewood/BHAFC)

Kirsty Hulland wants Brighton to commit to a timetable for promotion and Champions League qualification (Photo: Paul Hazlewood/BHAFC)

Hulland says her main input since joining in October has been to advise on players’ contracts as Brighton enter the world of paid professionals.

“Not necessarily in terms of saying who should get what, but advising them on how we go about doing a contract, what would work, what wouldn’t [and] how we need to adhere to licensing requirements for the FA long-term.”

Hulland has a place on the WSL management committee, which means she is in a key position to advise the club what is required as WSL clubs move to rolling licences, rather than fixed-term ones, from next year.

Professional contracts

What is clear is that when they embark on their Super League adventure, Brighton will have one of the most professional set-ups – literally and metaphorically – in the division, with the majority of their players likely to be on contracts.

“The WSL 1 is seen as professional and WSL 2 is that transitional basis. But we still set a professional environment for the players,” said Hulland.

“They get what the men get, the academy gets, and that’s fully available to them. So we’re professional on and off the pitch… but in terms of full-time professionals, no. They’re still juggling jobs.”

I certainly wouldn’t have any qualms in promoting three or four players from the development squad – George Parris, first-team interim manager and technical director of Brighton’s regional training club

However, Hulland confirmed that all four new signings are on professional contracts, and she fully expects the club’s ratio of players on contracts to exceed the division average.

In return, the club expects a level of commitment that reflects its public-service ethos.

“It’s understanding that the players are having a commitment to us, as well,” she said. “While the training programme is not changing too much because they had already made that transition – they’re doing those on-pitch requirements already – the club value what they’re doing, and as a club, at board level, they recognise that.”

With the top women’s clubs now investing heavily on bringing the world’s top talent to the FAWSL, there are growing concerns that some club are overstretching themselves, relying largely on parent clubs to sustain considerable losses.

Alessia Russon, Brighton (Photo: Paul Hazlewood/BHAFC)

Midfielder Alessia Russo was the first of the new signings to join Brighton (Photo: Paul Hazlewood/BHAFC)

Hulland is aware of that risk and hopes Brighton can strike the right balance to ensure that its eye-watering transformation is sustainable.

“Yes, there is money being put in and invested, but I think the club are doing it very smartly. We don’t just throw money at it for the sake of throwing money at it, because if you do that sometimes, you don’t have the right plan or the strategic management in place to actually put these plans forward.

“There is ambition at the club but that’s through every outlet, whether it’s the first team, the academy or the AITC (Albion in the Community).”

Comparing the set-up with that of her previous club, she added: “With Birmingham… I think they over-achieve every year, particularly given the budget that they have, and I think that’s down to the quality of staff and the support that Birmingham do give, as much as they can.

“But here is different in that they have the structure in place. When I speak of structure, it’s the medical facilities, the staffing, what’s available to staff, as well, like their development as coaches, which differs from Birmingham.

Jenna Legg, Brighton (Photo: Geoff Penn/BHAFC)

Jenna Legg, 19, has represented England up to U19 level and impressed for Chelsea on her comeback from injury against Brighton’s development squad earlier this season (Photo: Geoff Penn/BHAFC)

“Here, compared to WSL clubs in general, is a brilliant set-up and structure. You have a lot of WSL clubs that may say they’re full-time, but that’s not really the case when you break it down. It might be a full-time training model on the pitch, but there’s a wider view on what full-time is.

“It’s things such as player appearances, putting back into the community. Our girls are part-time, but they do that fantastically already.

“It’s a community club, and I think we have a bit of a moral obligation, really, and social responsibility to push that as much as we can. And that’s definitely the kind of environment that the WSL entice, with their sister-club programmes.”

We want to be a club of firsts – Kirsty Hulland

On the pitch, Parris is not only excited with the quality of recruit he has been allowed to bring to the club but also that some of the players who have been nurtured through the youth system might finally get the chance to play on English women’s football’s top stage.

Even after losing three players who will surely go down as among Brighton’s greatest ever – Jay Blackie, Deanna Cooper and Charlotte Gurr – in that shock exodus on the eve of the play-off, the club boast a host of talented players who played key roles in getting the club promoted.

Charley Boswell, Kate Natkiel (who featured for Watford in the Super League), Vicky Ashton-Jones and Ireland international Sophie Perry, who briefly tasted WSL football with Reading towards the end of last season, are among those who will surely shine at the new level, but Brighton have not been afraid to blood young talent.

And Parris is confident several of the development squad will make the grade, too, with the spring series – which has no promotion or relegation – an ideal environment in which to test them.

“We’ve always been quite conscious that we want to promote what we’ve got from within, because obviously, that’s part of my remit, being technical director. So that gets plus marks for me personally.

Laura Rafferty, Brighton (Photo: Geoff Penn/BHAFC)

At the age of 20, Laura Rafferty already has a dozen Northern Ireland caps (Photo: Geoff Penn/BHAFC)

“If we have x amount of injuries, I certainly wouldn’t have any qualms in promoting three or four players from the DS, because that’s good experience for them, as well.

“And we’re hoping, come August or September, there will be two or three that might be able to move up [to join the first team’s maiden season in the full WSL].”

Parris says he doesn’t envisage making any more signings ahead of the spring series, which begins with Brighton’s visit to London Bees on February 11, although he is not ruling it out.

Attendance record

However, he is sure his successor as the first Brighton manager in the WSL 2 will have his or her own ideas.

“The new manager will determine their particular squad. That was part of the thinking behind the signings that we got in.

“Hopefully, whoever comes in will certainly want to keep at least the four signings that we’ve made and then hopefully, keep x amount of the [existing] squad. But everyone will have their own opinions.”

Whatever Brighton’s achievement during their first season in the big time, the club are looking at clocking up another record.

Having achieved the Premier League Southern attendance record when 3,256 watched them beat Charlton Athletic in abysmal conditions at the Amex Stadium in December 2015, Brighton now have their sights on the WSL 2 record, which is currently less than half that figure.

With the Brighton & Hove Albion board having decided that the last of the women’s four home games in the spring series – against Sheffield FC on May 21 – will also be at the Amex, Hulland and co are quietly confident of smashing that figure and perhaps getting close to the WSL 1 high of 4,096, achieved on the final day of last season when Manchester City hosted Chelsea.

“We want to raise the profile of the women’s game, and we want to be a club of firsts, as well. So whether we can get the highest WSL 2 attendances or we can be recognised within the women’s game and make our own mark on the game.

“I’d like to see the WSL attendance record broken there, if not WSL 1.”


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