Utah Royals, 2018-Present
Have you ever seen that GIF of a dancing monkey who’s grinning like a maniac and banging two cymbals together?
During the darkest period of my life, that was me.
It was my first season coaching in America, at Seattle Reign in the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL). And, for two months, we could not win a single game.
Every day, I’d walk into training with the biggest smile on my face. I’d crack jokes and dance to the players’ music. I was their entertainer, getting them up and ready for training.
We’d train well. We’d prepare well. And then we’d lose. Again.
Then the cycle would start over. I was the entertainer again. It was an ongoing ritual, every week. And it was so draining.
But it was also a period that bonded us like no other.
The former England manager Hope Powell once said to me: “When you win, you’re never as good as you think you are. And when you lose, you’re never as bad.”
So, video analysis is crucial. Watch the game. Analyse it. Strip it.
I always try and remind myself of Hope’s advice, but I get emotional. I hate losing.
But I do feel that it can make you who you want to be as a team. It can do the same for you as a coach, too, because the losses are what drive you on to want to be better.
Maybe that’s why they’re the things that stick in my head.
Ask me what it was like to win my first trophy as a manager with Arsenal, and I can’t remember. But ask me what it was like to lose the FA Cup final to Everton in 2010 and I can tell you exactly how it felt.
It was heartbreaking.
While Everton were picking up the trophy, I gathered the players together and said: “Remember how this feels. Because I never want this feeling again.”
"I tried to come across as this more authoritative person. But the players saw straight through it"
Arsenal was the hardest environment for me to understand. The most pressured. The highest in terms of expectations.
I’d been a manager at Birmingham City before joining the club, and spent two years working at Arsenal as an assistant coach. But stepping up to become manager was difficult.
I was 29 years old. I’d been friends with some of those players.
Jordan Nobbs was new into the team, so the conversation I had with her was very different to the one I had with Emma Byrne, who’s older than me and was definitely in my social circle at the time.
I had to ask Emma: “Do you want to do this? Do you want me to be your manager?”
“As long as you don’t change who you are, I’m alright with it.”
At first, I found that difficult. I tried to change: to come across as this more authoritative person. But it’s not who I am. The players saw straight through it.
“What are you doing? You’re a good coach. You see the game. Tactically you’re very good: that’s what we need from you. Do that.”
When people ask me what advice I’d give to coaches starting on their journey, I tell them: just be yourself.
There were three things I think helped me gain the players’ respect quickly at Arsenal. They knew that I had a clear idea of what I wanted to do. They knew that I was there for them. And they knew that I believed in that group.
Mostly, I had to realise that they just wanted me to help them be better.
The Arsenal way, as it was back then, was already the way that I believe the game should be played – so it was an easy transition. I just tweaked a few things defensively: I wanted to high-press teams. I wanted to do it aggressively. Tactically, that was probably the biggest change I brought in.
"I was doing a job I absolutely loved, but I didn’t own a house. I didn’t have any savings. I lived paycheck to paycheck"
But the best thing to happen to that Arsenal team actually came from the FA. When they introduced the Women’s Super League (WSL), they made it clear that their aim was to make the league more competitive. To encourage other teams to invest in the women’s game the way that Arsenal did.
That was my team talk for the season done. Everyone wants us to lose. Are we gonna allow that to happen?
In the WSL’s first year, we won the treble.
And, honestly, that’s what drove that team. It was the drive of the changing room and the people within it to prove that, whatever was thrown at them, they wouldn’t be knocked off their perch.
Moving to America was something that had been on my mind for a while. My brother had lived there for six years, and I’d spent time there coaching at summer camps and going to conventions. I loved the way of life, and had always thought that if the right job came along, I’d definitely be interested.
It sounds bad, but at the time I left Arsenal at the end of 2012, I still wasn’t earning great money. I was doing a job I absolutely loved, no question, but I didn’t own a house. I didn’t have any savings. I lived paycheck to paycheck.
When the phone rang that day and it was Seattle, I just felt like it was the right time to go.
"I learnt quickly that how things function here in the States is so different to home"
I took the job very quickly. Before I really understood what the project was. How much work there was still to do at this new club. But once the news was out in public, I started to realise what I was going into.
I remember getting an email from the club while I was still living in England, asking me: “What equipment do you want? How many cones? What colours?”
Oh my days. We’ve got nothing.
In the end, I thrived on that. We could shape it to be whatever we wanted it to be. I loved that.
Of course, there were challenges to working in a new country. I learned quickly that how things function here in the States is so different to home.
The first thing I had to get my head around was this: I have these players who play for the American national team and the Canadian national team, but I don’t pay them and they’re not contracted to me.
They have no affiliation to the club. They didn’t choose to be there. They were put there.
Well, that’s weird.
I remember speaking to Hope Solo for the first time and asking her: “Do you want to play for this team?”
She looked at me: “No one has ever asked me that question before.”
Pino – Megan Rapinoe – said the same. It was crazy to me. I made it clear to all those players that if they wanted to be here, then great, I’m all in. But if you don’t want to be here, then don’t come.
"I sat outside the stadium and said: 'I can’t do this any more’"
In other ways, the players here are really powerful. That was something I had to learn how to manage pretty quickly.
It’s a journey that coaches in Europe are probably going on now, but it was a rapid learning curve for me. If a player says they don’t want to play for you, they’re going to work out a way where they don’t have to. If they say they aren’t happy with a standard or a culture, then you’re probably getting fired.
Then, of course, there was the college draft system. When I first did it, I had no concept of what it meant.
Now I get it, but I don’t like it. I feel it sets an expectation that’s not accurate: it’s a draft with 160-plus players and 36 available spots. The ones who get picked are not necessarily going to play on your team, or even get a contract.
If you’re the number-one pick in the NFL draft, you’re probably walking away from that day $30m richer. When you’re walking away from our draft as the number-one pick, you might make someone’s roster. But you might not.
We’re working with the best 1 per cent of players in the world. That’s what these kids are trying to compete with.
When the season finally started, we got a point in our opening game against Chicago. But for the next nine games, we didn’t pick up a single one.
After our ninth straight defeat, I sat outside the stadium with my assistant and partner at the time and said: “I can’t do this any more.”
I was doing everything – strategy, preparation – no different to Arsenal. But whether it was an own goal or a handball in the last minute, nothing was going our way. Nothing.
The owner, Bill Predmore, told me: “You don’t need to worry about your job. You’re good. We’ll get through this and turn it around.”
He was so confident of that. In the midst of it, I really wasn’t.
Like I said, it was the darkest period of my life.
"It’s so hard to lift the team for those two playoff games when you’ve already won the league"
What enabled us to get through it was that we knew we were doing the right things. And we knew we were really close, because we were losing games by the odd goal. We were competitive. We just needed to catch a break.
June 26 2013 was the day our luck finally changed. We beat Boston Breakers 2-1 and everybody cried. Players, staff, every single person. All the emotion came pouring out.
That night, we celebrated like we’d won the World Cup.
The following year was completely different. From the start of the season until mid-July we didn’t lose a single game: a run of 16 games.
People kept asking, how were we dealing with the pressure of the unbeaten run?
I laughed. “Are you joking? Do you remember last year?”
Waking up every day not knowing when you’re going to win – that’s pressure. We had 10 or 11 players in that team who’d been there the previous year. They were just enjoying the journey.
Even in the Championship game against Kansas, which we lost, we played well. We battered them, actually. We just couldn’t put the ball in the net.
Our season deserved that cherry on top. But it’s so hard to lift the team for those two playoff games when you’ve already won the league (in 2014, by 13 points). It’s no coincidence that only one team – North Carolina Courage – has been able to win both the league and the Championship.
The players – especially the non-Americans – would say they much preferred winning 22 games to win the league than one Championship game: “We were the best team in the league. No one could touch us.”
I found it hard. I felt we didn’t get the reward we deserved.
"Coaching internationally is the pinnacle. It’s something you tick off your bucket list and say okay, I’m done now"
When the same thing happened to us in 2015, it broke me. It was worse than in 2014 because in the final – against Kansas, again – we were terrible. I think we had three shots in the whole game.
There was no reason for it. We prepared well, and psychologically the team talk was written: “We owe them, right? You need to go and show how much it means to you.”
That final will sit with me for a long time. Even writing about it now I get angry, because we didn’t do ourselves justice.
When I left Seattle in 2017, I felt the journey had run its course. The club needed a new voice.
At that point, I had no intention of staying in the league. I was done.
There was talk of me moving back to England to take the national team. And I had good conversations with the FA, but I was honest with them: at that stage of my career, I still felt like living in America was what I wanted to do.
I’d never say I don’t want to move back to England at some point – and, honestly, I think that job would probably be the only career reason I would – but I didn’t think it was the right time for me.
Coaching internationally is the pinnacle. It’s something you tick off your bucket list at the end and say: okay, I’m done now. It’s not a retirement job, but I’m not sure it gets much better than international football.
I didn’t feel ready for that. I don’t feel I’m good enough, or at the stage where I should be hitting the pinnacle just yet. In coaching terms, I’m still young.
It was the Utah Royals’ owner Dell Loy Hansen who changed my mind about staying in the NWSL.
His passion and desire to make women’s soccer a pivotal part of what he’s trying to do at his club (MLS team Real Salt Lake) made me feel it was something I wanted to be a part of.
I realised the potential of what this club could be – how far we could take it.
It was a new journey. A new opportunity to create our own identity, but this time in an environment where everything you need as a coach is already embedded in the club.
And another chance for me to ease the pain of those Championship game defeats. If I’m honest, they’re why I’m still here. I want to win that Championship.
I desperately want to win it.
Like I said, it’s the losses that drive you.