England Women, 2018-2021
I do my best thinking when I’m out running.
When I’m out in the hills around Manchester, that’s when my head clears. That’s when I think about the things I’m going to say to my players in the biggest moments, because those are the moments when they look to you for reassurance.
For support, encouragement, and belief.
Those are the moments when, as a manager, you really have to earn your money.
Taking England to the Women’s World Cup in 2019 was the biggest thing I’d ever done in my professional life. Throughout my whole career as a player, I dreamed about going to a World Cup.
I had the opportunity to go to one as the England women’s manager, with 23 unbelievably talented footballers who were desperate for success. Standing on the touchline as their manager filled me with incredible pride.
When the opportunity to apply for the job first came up, I remember speaking to my sister Tracey – then the England netball coach – about it over a Christmas meal.
I’d worked in the men’s game all my life – as a player and as a coach – so it would be a different challenge to any I’d faced before. I wanted to gauge Tracey’s thoughts. Should I go for it?
She didn’t hesitate. “You’ve got to. This will be the biggest and the best thing that you ever do.”
The timing was perfect. I’d been coaching ever since the end of my playing career – first with England’s Under-21s, then Manchester United, and, finally, in Spain with Valencia. I wanted to be a manager. Whether that was on the men’s side, women’s side, academy football or junior football, I wasn’t bothered. I just wanted to have my own team; wanted to build my own philosophy.
"I prepared like I’d never prepared for any meeting in my life"
But as soon as I got the job, my mind started whirring. I started challenging myself. What am I going to be like as a manager? Are the players going to listen to me? Are they going to enjoy my style? Are they going to be up to the challenges I’ll be putting in front of them? Is my philosophy good enough to be an England manager? To win a World Cup?
I was also incredibly excited. I couldn’t wait for the first training camp. The first session. The first meeting with the squad.
Until the World Cup that was the most important 30 minutes of my time as a manager, because that was the first contact I had with the players. It was my first opportunity to show them who I was, and what I was about. To deliver my philosophy. My aims. My vision.
I prepared for it like I’ve never prepared for any meeting in my life. I wanted it to be slick and smooth, but I also wanted to be myself – to be authentic.
We spoke a lot in that first meeting about winning. Not just winning the World Cup, the Olympics or the European Championships. It was about winning every single day.
When I was a player at Manchester United we had this philosophy that you don’t just win on a Saturday; you win seven days a week. I told them it’s a mentality. It means that every training session – every passing drill, every time we go in the ice bath, every time we recover, every time we go into a video analysis meeting – we’ve got to do it to world-class standards. Every minute of every day.
At the end of each day, we have a meeting where we ask: “Have we won today or have we lost? If we win more days than we lose then we’re going to be successful.”
"Every time I speak to a player, I’ve got to inspire that player"
Those standards were drilled into me as a young player at Manchester United. First, by Eric Harrison, and then Brian Kidd and Sir Alex Ferguson. From day one, Eric would tell us: “If you want to play football for Manchester United or be successful in life, you’ve got to work harder than anybody else.”
His values – hard work, behaving well, treating people with respect, preparing the right way, presenting ourselves correctly – have always stayed with me. They’re ones that I wanted to instill into my players right from the start.
I also really like Marcelo Bielsa. I’ve studied him. Everywhere he’s gone, his style is unbelievable. The way he likes to play football; the intensity of his work. The way he trains his players was probably how we were trained from the age of 16 to 20, but he does it with senior players. His values are so strong, it's incredible.
Society has changed since my days as a youth player. There is a different way of communicating that requires a more holistic approach. There has to be more sensitivity around the way you put your words across. Your tone of voice. Your body language.
I was fortunate to learn from probably the best communicator I’ve ever worked with in Sir Alex Ferguson. Since becoming a coach, I’ve learned that communication is the biggest part of my job. You might spend two or three hours preparing a session or putting together a video to present to the team – but, actually, I spend just as much time thinking about how I’m going to communicate it to the players.
Every time I speak to a player, I feel as if I’ve got to inspire that player. I’ve got to have an impact on them. Improve them. Make sure they’re learning.
That takes a lot of time and energy. It also takes skill. I’ve tried to learn it from various people, not just those in football. I go to motivational talks, listen to the way lawyers present in court, watch how prime ministers and presidents communicate; the way they handle themselves, their body language, their facial expressions.
"It’s like when you go home and see your mum and dad. Just by looking into your eyes, your mum knows how you are"
The challenge is that, coming into an international get-together, you’ve got around 25 players to look after, plus 25 staff. Each individual staff member and player is different.
Not everybody can be spoken to in the same tone – in the same type of language. You have to learn very quickly about each individual player.
It was something that Sir Alex did so well. He knew every facet of every player’s life, so he could relate to every single one as an individual. That made you feel so special.
His biggest skill was that he could walk into a room and, without even speaking to you, know how you were. He could just look into your eyes and he knew. He had a feel for it. That comes from not only knowing the player; that comes from knowing the person, too.
It’s like when you go home and see your mum and dad after you’ve left home. Just by looking into your eyes, your mum knows how you are. She knows if you’re sad. She knows if you’re happy.
That’s what Sir Alex was like as a manager, and it’s something I’ve worked incredibly hard on. When my players come into the room now, I try and look into their eyes. I try and look at their body language. I try and sense how they are as a group.
It’s crucial, because the expectation levels in the women’s game are rising incredibly – and these players are under immense pressure to meet those.
That’s why I wanted to build an environment and a culture that would equip them with everything they needed to be able to handle that. That meant testing their characters more than they’d ever been tested. Taking them out of their comfort zone. Placing greater and greater demands on them.
"If a manager cares about me then I’m going to give more"
It’s what I did as a player. Every time I went on to that training ground, I was tested more than I’d ever been tested. That’s how you build characters. That’s how you build a winning mentality.
It doesn’t happen overnight, though. It’s a process – something that’s built over a period of time. You can’t see it happening straight away, but 12 months down the line you start seeing them enjoying training sessions that are harder than they’ve ever done before. You start seeing a culture develop.
We challenged these players on and off the pitch. Challenged them hard enough so that, when it comes to the critical moments, they are prepared as best as possible.
You can't know until they get into those moments how well you’ve done that.
Management is all-encompassing. That’s something I’ve learned since starting this job. I find it very difficult to switch off. I can be at the cinema or out for a meal with my wife, and I’m thinking constantly about what my players are doing. How are they playing? Are they fit? Are they doing their recovery?
People say to me: “Just switch your phone off today.”
But, actually, as a manager you’ve got to be contactable 24 hours a day. You’ve got to be there for every single player. If you get that right, then you have a group of players who know that their staff cares about them – as players, but as people as well.
There's been ups, and real downs, both on and off the field. But at the end of the day, if I’m playing for a manager who I know cares about me, then I’m going to give more.
The bigger the challenge for my players, the more that they stepped up. The more that they’ve enjoyed, the better they’ve performed. We went into the World Cup with a team full of confidence and belief – and with no fear.
I’d been out running a lot beforehand. Thinking a lot. I already knew what I was going to say to the players before our opening game against Scotland. I knew my team for that game, too. Just as I knew my team for the next game against Argentina, and Japan after that. I like to prepare. To have a vision about how a game is going to go, and I like to get those pictures in my head early. To be decisive.
I knew exactly what I was going to say at what moment.
Tracey was right – it was the biggest and best thing I'd ever done. It was the absolute pinnacle.
I couldn’t wait to stand on that touchline.
Author: Tony Hodson