Powell relishes return to football after recovering that sparkle

Hope Powell at Brighton's elite training centre on her first day as head coach, Sep 28 2017 (Photo: Sent Her Forward)

Ambition mission: Hope Powell wants to manage Brighton in WSL 1 (Photo: Sent Her Forward)

Hope Powell has seen it all before. As England manager for what now seems an unimaginable 15 years, she led the country she once played for to unprecedented heights, twice winning the Cyprus Cup but more significantly, reaching the European Championship final and the World Cup quarter-finals twice, all while helping to knock the neglected England Women’s set-up into shape.

Yet when she steps into a media room at Brighton and Hove Albion’s state-of-the-art training facility to conduct her first interview as the women’s team’s head coach, her demeanour betrays a hint of nervousness.

Not that the 50-year-old is not used to dealing with the media. Her role as England manager attracted much scrutiny – not on the level endured by successive heads of the men’s national team but sufficient to make her wary – if not weary – of the attentions of those present.

And the publicity that accompanied her departure, following a miserable Euros campaign in 2013 was less than positive, probably for the first time in her managerial career.

See also: 

Brighton to bid for WSL 1 licence – Hope Powell

Brighton turn to former England boss Powell

But she is polite, cordial, upbeat, as one might expect of an experienced manager stepping into one of the most attractive jobs in English women’s football – confident, it would seem, in her own ability, yet grounded in the reality of a new, very public, challenge so long after her last one.

But she is self-deprecating, willing to make jokes at her own expense – about her memory for names, about the possibility of jinxing Brighton’s promising start to their maiden Women’s Super League season – they opened with a 1-0 away win at Aston Villa, where Powell was in the stands while assistant Amy Merricks took charge.

“I hope I don’t ruin it,” she joked. “There’s every chance of that.”

She is also nervous, it seems, about returning to the dugout after four years away – and working as a club manager for the first time.

“Ask me after Sunday,” she replied to a question on whether she was excited to be back on the touchline for this weekend’s second WSL 2 game of the season, at home to Durham.

Of course she is, though. And it’s clear she has high hopes, both for her and the team she has largely inherited – although she says she has had some input on the club’s transfer policy since being appointed head coach on July 19.

“The infrastructure, the set-up, the club philosophy… a really good community, family club, was really appealing,” she said. “I know (chief executive) Paul Barber, I know (head of football administration) Paul Mullen, I know (men’s team manager) Chris Hughton. Everything felt right.”

The first thing I didn’t want to do was go, ‘Sorry. You’ve lost your job.’ I’ve lost my job – that’s not nice – Hope Powell

Powell returns to the game she helped shape with renewed enthusiasm, having had four years to get over her sacking after England’s miserable showing at the 2013 Euros.

“Time away from the game, out of coaching, has been quite refreshing. It’s given me a little bit of a sparkle,” she said.

It’s also given her the chance to supplement her own education and help her personal development, working under the auspices of Uefa, Fifa and the Professional Footballers’ Association, with coaching education overseas.

“I spent some time in Thailand working with their team in the build-up to the World Cup, working with teams in Namibia… everywhere. It’s been great – just culturally, for my development, a different perspective.

“It makes you appreciate how lucky we are in this country.”

She added: “I’ve had a decent amount of time away from the touchline. I’ve been really fortunate [in that] when I lost my job Uefa and Fifa called me in, so I’ve travelled the world. I’ve seen other cultures, worked with other coaches, the PFA – fantastic organisation.

“So I feel like I’ve learnt so much more about myself.

“Don’t ask me what,” she adds with that self-deprecating tone again. “The game,” she explains. “[The experience] has been great.”

Powell says she’s “really into” helping other coaches develop. “That was one of the reasons I was drawn to the PFA,” she said. “Because it was working with the next generation of coaches.”

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

Amy Merricks remains a constant from the Premier League championship era to the Super League (Photo: Geoff Penn/BHAFC)

Fortuitously, that’s what she’s ended up with at Brighton.

Powell arrives in Sussex with an assistant manager already in place, appointed long before she was.

Amy Merricks was promoted from development squad manager to assist interim manager George Parris when James Marrs was sacked in April 2016.

The pair guided Brighton through the spring series – a Super League competition designed to bridge the gap during the league’s transition from a summer season to a winter one.

And Parris revealed to Sent Her Forward on the eve of that series that Merricks would retain her place after his successor was appointed. “Amy will still be the assistant manager,” he told me. “Whoever takes over the role [of manager]… will be made aware of that.”

Powell says she has no problem with the situation.

“I was fine with that,” she told Sent Her Forward. “It’s not necessary [to bring your own staff] when people are in place.

“The first thing I didn’t want to do was go, ‘Sorry. You’ve lost your job.’ I’ve lost my job – that’s not nice.

I liken it to tennis. I think the women should play five sets and get paid the same because they draw the same crowd – Powell on equal pay for women footballers

“I know a little about Amy. I know she’s doing her A licence currently. She’s doing very well… got some really positive feedback. I was very keen to work with her, and I’m sure going forward we’ll be fine.

“She’s a good… I want to say a good kid, but that makes me feel really old. But she is. She’s done really, really well, and I’m pleased.

“The staff who are already in place – they know the culture of the club. They know the club. They know the place better than me.”

Powell watched her new team play for the first time last Sunday at Villa. But she said she has also seen footage of their spring-series adventure, when they finished a creditable sixth in the 10-club WSL 2 division.

She said: “It was good. They did well. Amy Merricks has done a really good job. We’ve been in touch for the last however long since [Powell’s appointment] was announced.

“And they really tried to play. That was encouraging. I think going forward there are bits to build on. The girls were ecstatic to get three points. It was great.”

Super League élite

As one would expect of a former international manager, Powell is ambitious and has set her sights on managing Brighton in WSL 1 – which is to become a closed élite division next season, comprising full-time women’s clubs with their own academies and a commitment to sustain top facilities.

Given the remarkable support Brighton and Hove Albion’s board has given the women’s set-up in recent seasons, that is neither surprising nor unattainable.

“[The FA] want it now and we want to be part of that journey,” she said.

Not afraid to speak her mind during a colourful – and reasonably successful – career as England manager, Powell is reluctant to tackle the subject of the current controversies that have beset the English women’s game, which have featured the sacking of her successor as England boss, Mark Sampson, following a series of allegations about his behaviour.

“I thought we weren’t going there,” she said, in a tone that reflected the overall light-heartedness with which she had conducted the interview but carried an insinuated seriousness that suggested she’d rather not be asked again about a subject that the questioner had already been told was off limits.

“I was told we’re not going down that route, if that’s OK. Let’s leave that.”

Equality

But she was prepared to address the issue of equal pay, which has been thrown into the global spotlight by Brighton’s East Sussex neighbours Lewes, who have decided to fund their women’s team on a par with the men’s.

As a black woman in what was traditionally a white man’s world, Powell knows all about equal rights – and the fact that they are not always where one might want them to be.

And while she has not followed the Lewes story as closely as some, she is happy to offer her view.

“I don’t know anything, really, about the club,” she said. “I did hear about [the equality move]. In an ideal world that would be fantastic. The reality is that the revenue that the men bring in is very different.

“I’m not saying we don’t want it or we don’t deserve it, but the reality of it is the men’s game draws the crowd, draws the money.

“Because of Brighton doing what they’ve done, they’ve allowed them to invest in the women’s game. At this moment in time it’s better than it’s ever been. I think it will get better.

“I’m very big on equality – equal rights and all of that – but there is a point where there has to be a bit of realism.

“I liken it to tennis. I think the women should play five sets and get paid the same because they draw the same crowd.

“But when we draw those crowds I’m hoping that my pay packet will increase significantly – as for the players, as well.”

Powell’s first game in charge is against Durham at Culver Road, Lancing, on Sunday. Kick-off is at midday.

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