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Britain elected its first female prime minister in 1979, sent a woman into space in 1991 and saw the first female chief executive of a FTSE 100 company in 1997, but the wait for the first woman to take charge of a men’s professional football club continues.
Among the trailblazers working hard to break through the glass ceiling is former England captain Mary Phillip, who has quickly brought unprecedented success to non-league men’s outfit Peckham Town since taking over as manager of their first team.
The 43-year-old former Millwall, Fulham, Arsenal and Chelsea defender – born in Peckham – has been involved with her local club since the early 2000s and was asked to take charge during the 2019-20 season.
By the end of the delayed campaign she had led the club, who are Step 7 on the National League system, to their first piece of senior silverware: the London FA Senior Trophy, in August 2020. Despite her success she says she continues to experience prejudice from the opposition.
“Nine out of 10 of them [opposing clubs] don’t initially realise I’m the manager,” Phillip told The Telegraph.
“They’ll directly go to any guy who is behind me or in front of me to say ‘Hi, manager?’, and they’ll say ‘No, that’s the manager back there’ and point at me.”
“There was a game in my first season when I was told to pay for a ticket to get in, because ‘girlfriends had to pay’, and I said ‘No I’m actually the manager’.”
“Women should get the same roles as men and as long as you’re doing your job well, there’s no reason we can’t have those roles.”
At Peckham, attitudes are different. But Phillip, who won 65 England caps, played in two World Cups and won seven Women’s FA Cups with three different clubs, is modest about her achievements.
“I never tell players about my career in football,” she said. “If they know [about my playing career] then they’ve just found it out, but it’s nice, they take me for what I’m able to deliver. I know what I’m talking about and I’ve been able to deliver for them.”
“They don’t treat me any differently, they’re very respectful. I believe you gain respect. I don’t go out there expecting the players to respect me – I expect them to respect what I’m able to deliver for them. I’m there to learn, they’re there to learn, and we all learn from each other.”
Phillip is not alone in having managed a men’s side. Carolina Morace made history by briefly taking charge of Italian men’s Serie C1 outfit Viterbese in 1999, though she resigned after two matches citing the president’s interference with her technical staff. Morace, who is also a lawyer and a trailblazing commentator on men’s football for Italian TV, would later go on to coach Italy and Canada’s women’s teams. In Britain, Shelley Kerr became the first woman to steer a senior men’s team when she took charge of the University of Stirling in 2014.
Earlier that year French club Clermont Foot, in Ligue 2, appointed Helena Costa to manage their men’s first team, though her tenure was brief too after she also resigned citing “a total lack of respect” from the club’s hierarchy. She was quickly followed by Corinne Diacre, who in her first match in charge was presented with flowers from the opposition manager. In her three seasons in charge Diacre led Clermont to a best finishing place of seventh, despite having one of the smallest budgets in the league. She is currently manager of the France women’s national team.
Have these pioneers managed to shift the dial? By 2020 there were just under 35,000 Football Association-qualified female football coaches in England; the number of women with the Uefa ‘A’ licence had doubled in the space of three years from 41 to 82. Yet, when Chelsea Women manager Emma Hayes was briefly linked with the job at League One men’s club AFC Wimbledon last month, many fans’ sexist reactions were a reminder of how far the sport still has to go. The episode highlighted that none of the 158 clubs in the top six tiers of English men’s football have ever appointed a woman as manager. For many, there remains a perception that you need to have played in the men’s game in order to manage in the men’s game.
Yet Phillip would appear to be disproving that theory. Coronavirus lockdowns have since delayed her side’s challenge for further success in the Kent County League Premier Division, but securing the club’s first senior trophy will be remembered as a “special” moment. The club are run by volunteers, including Phillip, who despite holding the ‘A’ licence currently coaches the team – and their Under-18s – out of love for the game and her local club, while she works full-time in her day job helping youngsters in the community. She says a full-time, paid role as a manager higher up the pyramid would be “fantastic” but only if the role was right for her and her family.
Her coaching skills are not going unnoticed and this winter she was offered a role with England Women’s Under-18s, but Phillip explained she has temporarily declined the position because of work and family commitments during lockdown. The FA is understood to be holding the place open for her when the timing is right.
England legends Rachel Yankey and Fara Williams, as well as Arsenal academy coach Coreen Brown, have all been offered roles within the England youth set-up, as part of a number of FA initiatives to boost opportunities for female coaches.
This month, the FA also unveiled a new, 18-month “Coaching Excellence Initiative” aimed at developing more high-performance coaches working in elite women’s football. The scheme is not specifically targeting seeing more women working in men’s football, but Audrey Cooper, the FA’s Head of Women’s Coach Development, said it was part of the FA’s “endeavour to normalise women in coaching”.