‘I don’t just see women, I see players’

Women’s football is starting to attract a number of high-profile male coaches into its ranks. Former Manchester United and Everton international Phil Neville has just been appointed England manager, after all. The Mixed Zone’s Katie Whyatt asks one-time Leeds United boss Neil Redfearn about his move to Doncaster Belles

Neil Redfearn grins as he recalls the early New Year evening. As temperatures across Yorkshire plummeted, he led a training session for Doncaster Belles as snow whirred overhead, sleet tearing through howling wind. For context, there were school closures the next day. “It was horrendous. I put on the team app afterwards – ‘Champions are made on nights like this,’” he says.

“And it’s a fact. These girls put themselves out when it would have been touch and go whether we would have trained. They’d travelled long distances to get there and do it. I’m with girls who travel from Liverpool to train. That sort of commitment should be championed. Because that’s what sport’s all about. Their attitudes and desire to go on and do well – I mean, only what I’ve experienced at Doncaster – is probably better [than in men’s football]. I would say that the women are far more driven.”

Redfearn’s appointment as head coach of the side currently top of WSL 2 feels like a landmark moment for the women’s domestic game in England: he is the first former Football League first-team manager to take charge of a side in the WSL. He spent more than three decades in the men’s game, and played in the Premier League with Barnsley and Charlton. But he had spent almost two years out of the game after parting ways with Rotherham in what was his last managerial post; his first, famously, was at Leeds United, where he moved from childhood supporter to a series of coaching roles.

His transition into the women’s game should be no surprise. Redfearn’s partner is former England international and football correspondent Lucy Ward; through her work, Redfearn had been “engrossed” in the women’s game for years. “I sort of know it inside out, if I’m honest. I took a real interest in it, so it wasn’t that foreign to me – the level and the standard of play, and the type of play and how teams set up at this level.”

Through Ward, Redfearn had met Julie Grundy, Doncaster Belles’ regional talent club manager and now his assistant. Belles boss Emma Coates was on the verge of departing for a role within the England set-up, and Redfearn spent seven weeks coaching voluntarily at the club. “The thing that I missed was working with players on the grass [and] these were women who were elite players at their own level. The most important thing is good people. I’m not just on about the players, but the people above who’ve got a real football background. You need the right environment, and their ethos is about developing players.

“They want to win leagues and cups, but I think the most important thing for them, where they’re different from most WSL clubs, is they want to work with and develop their own players. They’ve not got a big money backer as such. They’ve got good people who put money in who’ve been brilliant – the Lygos have been absolutely fantastic for the club. But they haven’t got the [financial] backing like a Man City or an Arsenal. They’re a little bit different, and that appealed to me – it’s a blank canvas.”

Redfearn spent his youth career at Nottingham Forest, often encountering the inimitable Brian Clough. “He used to come and watch the under-18s on a Saturday morning, but he was very respectful of the kids, and very respectful of the parents – my mum got flowers on her birthday,” Redfearn recalls. “It was just a touch, that human touch that affects you as a person and a coach further on in your life. That’s the way to do it. He understood people. He was a perfect example of a manager getting people to work for him because he understood them.”

The Belles play at the Keepmoat, training there three times a week before playing on Saturdays. “We’re maybe a couple of days out of being full-time, but the principles of developing players are the same,” Redfearn says. “As coach, I’m more people-centred – I would see the person before I see the player. I ask about the players all the time – what they do, what their background is, what they want to do. Everybody’s got a different pathway, and when you get to know about the people, you can really get at the player. You’ve got to know what makes them work. I had a lot of success with that at Leeds, with the kids particularly, and I had a lot of women on my staff at the time.”

Ward was Leeds education and welfare officer; Stacey Emmonds was the strength and conditioning coach; Mary Lally was a member of Redfearn’s administrative team. “I had a lot of good, strong women around me, and they were far more aware of the people rather than the player. It gets you more in touch with that side as a coach. And I think once you start understanding that, you can really start to develop the player. It’s massive.

“I don’t think we should look at them as ‘women in football’ now – these are just elite people in football. When I go in and work with the girls now, I don’t just see women, I see players. I see the people. I see the people inside the player, whether it’s a woman or a man. The levels are all relevant.”

Part of Redfearn’s remit is to develop female coaches. “But that’s what I would have wanted to do anyway. I did it with my staff at Leeds – I was more about promoting my own staff and getting them up, and I got age-group coaches right the way through to the first team. That social-psychological corner [appealed to me at Doncaster Belles] – they’ve got this in-built Belles mentality, where they want to strive and do well and be successful. I’m all about people wanting to do better in their own field.”

Redfearn is optimistic about the future of the women’s game in England. “It’s nothing to do with the level or the standard – it’s how it’s portrayed and the marketing angle. I think that’s maybe where it’s catching up. These women have strived to get to the top of their sport. There’s far more women now who have got an interest in football and want to get involved. They love it. And if we talking about young girls and mums – there’s a real strong base there to tap into. Potentially, we’re right at the beginning of something really good.”

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