Liverpool Women, 2018–21
Wearing a massive badge on your chest – now that is pressure.
Being a manager of Liverpool Football Club comes with a lot of expectation.
The women’s game has grown to a point where there is that pressure now: where you get criticism if you get things wrong; where games can attract tens of thousands of fans to grounds, or hundreds of thousands to watch on television; and where social media trolls try to derail you and knock your confidence.
I faced all of that in my time as Liverpool manager, and my skin is certainly thicker for it.
When we played Manchester United in the Conti Cup in October 2020 (below), it was live on LFC TV. It’s one of the biggest rivalries in world football, so the game attracted a lot of attention.
We were playing against a very good team, featuring World Cup winners in Christen Press and Tobin Heath, and a quality manager in Casey Stoney, who could be adaptable and affect things from the sideline.
Huge numbers watched on TV. We were the underdogs, but we had a very clear game plan to frustrate our opposition.
We established control of the game without the ball and worked hard to put out their fires quickly in an aggressive mid-block. Then, when we won the ball – in those light-switch moments – we had to get quality territory up the pitch. We had to make those moments count, and we did. We won 3-1.
It was a great moment for us, particularly because it was in front of so many fans on television. Winning when you’re not expected to, with a calm, well-executed game plan like we had, is a proud moment for any manager.
“It doesn’t matter if you are a starter, a finisher or a supporter – it's about the ‘we’”
But Liverpool beating Manchester United – with so many people watching – also brought with it a problem: even more expectation.
Not long afterwards, we went to Blackburn and drew 0-0. The criticism and the abuse was worse than it’s ever been. At that stage in the season, we had only lost one of our seven league games. The fans wanted a repeat of the result against United, and rightly so. We were favourites for the Blackburn game.
The challenges were different in the Women’s Championship, though. Like most teams, Blackburn sat in and were relentless in a deep block, keeping all their players behind the ball and denying us any time or space in the final third.
Although we had loads of the ball and plenty of chances, we couldn’t find that match-winning moment.
I had to learn to deal with the criticism quickly. It gave me thicker skin, yes, but I had to maintain a calm clarity of mind when I was working. There was not a day I didn’t smile in front of the players – when the pressure is on, that’s key as a leader.
There are constant challenges in football management, but you have to steer your team and set an example with your energy – often blocking out the trolling that comes with being in football. That might mean having a surface resilience, but more importantly you have to focus on your process and your values.
You have to believe in yourself and keep giving consistent, clear messages to your players. I never doubted the players once. We had a culture where we put the ‘we’ before the ‘me’, and everyone had a valued role for the team on game day.
It doesn’t matter if you are a starter, a finisher or a supporter – it's about the ‘we’. And we did our best to drown out any noise from outside our camp.
“The fact that 23,000 fans had turned up to watch the sport I love and had sacrificed so much for was incredible”
That win over United was one of many highlights from my time as the manager at Liverpool. As was a 1-1 draw against a very good Chelsea side that went on to win the league and which was full of world-class internationals.
In both games, we came together as a group to overcome the odds. Doing that makes getting a positive result that much more powerful.
Sometimes, as a manager, you wonder whether the lows are worth the highs; whether it is worth the sacrifices you make and the sleepless nights you have.
But then you have these surreal moments that make you smile. Those moments make you certain it is all worth it.
We played a game in front of 23,000 fans at Anfield in November 2019 (above). I look back on the moment I stood in the technical area with You’ll Never Walk Alone ringing out in the stands as the players walked out. That is one of those moments.
Obviously, it was great on a personal level to be managing a Liverpool team playing at Anfield (below), but the bigger picture was more important that day. The fact that 23,000 fans had turned up to watch the sport I love and had sacrificed so much for was incredible.
For the game to be showcased at Premier League stadiums in front of that many fans, and shown on TV too, is huge. That day at Anfield felt like a massive moment, and one that both sets of players deserved.
I’ve wanted to help the women’s game grow in the UK ever since I spent two years coaching as a young adult in America.
“I spun so many plates to get as much experience as I could; there just weren’t many full-time jobs in the women’s game”
Seeing how popular women’s football – or soccer, I should say – was in America was so inspiring. Just the sheer number of people who played and coached the game over there was amazing.
I’d grown up in an environment where women’s football wasn’t very accessible or visible. I had to play with boys, mainly, because there weren’t girls’ teams around. To watch football, I’d go to men’s games. I used to go and watch Macclesfield Town regularly, then would get to Liverpool or Manchester United whenever I could get any Premier league tickets. Any time little Vicky Jepson could get access to those games, she’d be there in a football kit.
It wasn’t until I was 16 and I could do my Level 1 badge that I thought about coaching, really. There weren’t many visible female coaches at that time, so it didn’t seem like a realistic full-time job. Hope Powell was England manager at the time, and she was the only female manager you’d hear anything about.
I did lots of voluntary work to get some experience. I set myself the aim of accumulating 10,000 hours of on-the-grass coaching. I worked with the Macclesfield Town community scheme; I did school sessions, volunteered with grassroots teams.
Then, when I went out to America, my eyes were opened.
I travelled up and down the east coast: New York, Washington, Maryland. It was great. Seeing how many females actually participated in football out there was amazing. I could have stayed out there for longer because I enjoyed it so much, but the main thing the experience gave me was a desire to come back to the UK and grow the women’s game back home. I wanted to make a difference here.
I spun so many plates at the same time to get as much experience as I could, because there just weren’t many full-time jobs in the women’s game back then. I worked in the LFC Foundation in the day, but then my real passion was in the evening, coaching in the girls’ elite talent pathway.
I’d work with the Under-11s from 5pm until 7pm, then drive across to the academy in Kirby to work with the Under-21s. On top of that, I volunteered as an analyst with the first team with Matt Beard. I loved being a part of the journey when Liverpool won the WSL back-to-back in 2013 and 2014. At the time, before other teams started to invest in the women's game like they do now, Liverpool were the first full-time professional team.
“Hope Powell and Emma Hayes have done so much for the women’s game. They really care about the next generation of coaches”
I also got to work with the England Under-17 girls, with some incredible staff and young talented players, some of whom now play in the WSL. It was a great experience being in an elite, high-performance environment.
I had all the resources I could ask for there: the best facilities, a very strong, large group of staff to work with, and quality everywhere. I call it ‘posh coaching’. When you’ve worked in some of the places I have, you appreciate that kind of luxury.
Throughout my pathway, I’ve been in male-dominated environments – not that that has been a problem for me. I think all women in football have had moments where being a female has been a barrier – but it has made me stronger, for sure.
In those moments, you can roll over and have your tummy tickled and give up – or you can stand up, put your shoulders back and say: “I’ll show you what I can do.” It’s important to use those moments and those setbacks in the right way and bounce back.
It’s helped having people like Hope and Emma Hayes (below) as inspirations. They’ve done so much for the game, and they really care about the next generation of female coaches coming through. They both reached out to me when I got the Liverpool job and gave me support when I needed it. They also got in touch when I left Liverpool, too.
I’ll always be grateful for their contact and support. Empowering and supporting other women is so important to the growth of the game, and by doing that they have driven the game forwards. Now is such an exciting time for women’s football in England.
“Chris Kirkland and I were asked to steady the ship, and before I knew it I was being offered the manager’s job”
The quality in the Women’s Super League is amazing. We have world-class players like Sam Kerr, Pernille Harder and Sam Mewis, and Lucy Bronze is back again. The recent TV deal with Sky and the BBC is fantastic, and will help inspire the next generation of girls to play this sport.
The game is getting so much attention. At the last World Cup, England played Scotland in a sold-out stadium in Nice. When they lost in the semi final to the USA, 11.7m people watched on TV. People were singing Football’s Coming Home, and they were doing it for the women’s team.
It’s an elite sport, and a really good product is being showcased now. There’s so much change and growth in the game, and that’s credit to the teams that have continued to invest, attracting outstanding players to the WSL and making it more marketable.
It’s evolving so fast. It’s a different game today to what it was in 2018, when I got the Liverpool job.
Neil Redfearn had only shortly before asked me to step up as his assistant. It was my tenth year at Liverpool, so the club obviously trusted me. When Neil left, Chris Kirkland and I were asked to try and steady the ship (below); then, before I knew it, I was on the phone to Peter Moore, the CEO, being offered the manager’s job.
I’ll forever be grateful for that chance.
“Not many people can say they coached a player when they were eight, and then later gave them a professional contract”
It was tough, because lots of the players were Neil’s players and they hadn’t wanted him to leave. I was empathetic to that.
I told them we had to stick together, that the show had to go on even though Neil had left. We had a target for the season, and we had a huge game against Brighton that weekend.
We pulled ourselves together and found a win. It was massive for us; we got some momentum and went on a good run. I made the players feel valued, and I made sure they felt heard to try and create a highly supportive environment, empowering a strong leadership group for the changing rooms.
A lot of people wrote us off and there was plenty of criticism and negativity in the media after Neil’s exit, but we had a good season considering what had happened and finished eighth in the WSL.
I was at Liverpool for such a long time that I actually worked with Missy Bo Kearns as an eight-year-old, and then gave her a professional contract when she was 18. I used to tie her laces when she was a kid, so to see her work so hard and come through at every level is great.
Not many in the women’s professional game can say they have done that.
I have a good understanding of what it takes to make it into the women’s professional game. I did what my mentor used to call the 'grunt work' at every level of the game, so I know what it takes for players to become the next Niamh Charles.
When you’ve seen the journey that these young players have been on, and have been privileged enough to contribute to that, it’s what makes coaching addictive. Seeing players strive and succeed through their hard work and dedication is amazing.
I had so many special moments with special people by my side over more than a decade at Liverpool. It was obviously a very sad day in January 2021 when I left.
I’ve been able to recharge, reflect and rebuild myself with great support around me. The biggest thing for me is that I’ve had time for me. I’ve been able to look after my health better. I’ve been doing lots of reading, running and meditating, and watching more football just for enjoyment!
Sometimes, as a manager, you spend so much time and use so much energy looking after so many other people that you don’t really get time to put yourself first. I’ve had the chance to do that now, and it’s been refreshing.
It was an absolute privilege to serve the club for as long as I could – but as one door closes, many more open. And now that I’m out the other side of the emotions that came with leaving, I’m in a really good place and so excited about what the future holds.
Whatever the next challenge is, I’m ready for it.
Author: Ali Tweedale