01 Apr 2010

ENGLAND'S OTHER NUMBER ONE

If Fabio Capello needs advice on how to guide a squad through the rigours of an international tournament, he should take a short stroll down the corridor of the FA’s offices and knock on the door of Hope Powell OBE, the England women’s national coach.


To date, Powell has been involved with England squads at five major tournaments (four senior and one with the U19s) and is busy preparing her charges for the next FIFA Women’s World Cup, which will take place in Germany in 2011. “Fingers crossed that we’ll get there,” she says. “We’re up against Austria, Spain, Turkey and Malta in qualifying. Spain have caused us problems when we’ve played them before… they’ll be a difficult challenge.”


So what advice does Powell have to offer her male counterpart on his imminent tournament debut? “There’s a lot that you have to get right before you actually kick a ball,” she says. “By the time you get to the venue you should have done most of your homework… you’ll know the teams that you’re playing against inside out, so the period before your first game is all about getting the squad used to each other and used to working in a strange environment. Towards the end of the preparation period you start to embed your strategies into the team, but once that first game kicks off, it’s really a case of taking each game as it comes.”


But then, no matter how well you prepare, squad members pick up injuries or facilities don’t turn out as promised – in fact, it’s unlikely that things will ever go exactly to plan. Powell believes that this is where the manager earns his or her keep. “You always try to have a ‘Plan B’,” she says, “but sometimes things happen that you can’t change and at that point it’s all about making decisions very quickly. It’s a challenge, but it’s really good fun.”


One challenge that Powell will no longer have to face is taking an entirely amateur squad away for a five-week tournament as, thanks to the inception of the Women’s Professional Soccer league in the US (now in its second year), nine members of her squad are now full-time professionals. Not only that, but many UK-based players now work within football (albeit not as full-time players).


“It used to be all about balancing work or college with training,” says Powell. “You have to really applaud the girls for the commitment they showed and the work that they did to get themselves not only selected, but also in a position to go away for five weeks. It does make a difference now that a lot of the girls who are still based here are in football-related jobs.”


A good number of these jobs are on the staff of the high-profile men’s clubs which, of late, have increased their commitment to the women’s game. Indeed, at the time of writing, only one of the top five teams in the FA Tesco Women’s Premier League table – Leeds Carnegie – wasn’t affiliated to a big-name men’s club.


While Powell – who became an honorary member of the LMA in February of this year – welcomes this involvement, she remains slightly wary. “It’s all about the resources,” she says, “but it hasn’t always worked. Take Charlton Ladies, for example. They were one of the bigger clubs a little while ago, but when the men got relegated (from the Barclays Premier League) the first thing to go was the women’s set-up.”


Despite this, Powell believes that the English women’s game is stronger than it’s ever been. It is, however, still some way short of where she would like it to be. So, where exactly is that? “It would be great if all of our players were professional and could make it a career to be full-time athletes. That would certainly help the national team.”


More than this, though, Powell believes that English players need to develop a winning habit. “Things won’t be where we want them to be until we start winning and continue to win,” she says. “We’re getting better. The U19s won the European Championship for the first time in Belarus last year, so we may just have started to turn the corner. The jump from U19 to the seniors is, of course, huge – which is why we introduced the U23 team – but I think we’re on the right track and closing the gap between ourselves and the big hitters such as Germany. Just like the men’s team, they always turn up at major finals expecting to win. They’re a bit like the Americans, where it’s all about winning… we’re a bit more about taking part.”


So what’s Hope Powell all about?


“Me? I’m absolutely about winning… nothing else matters.”