Player-manager relationships: What women’s football thinks about them

When the managers of all 12 Women’s Super League (WSL) clubs sat down for their press conferences on Thursday and Friday, this weekend’s matches were not at the top of the agenda.

Following the news last week that Willie Kirk was under investigation by Leicester City over an alleged relationship with one of his players, The Athletic and other media organisations pressed his managerial counterparts for their views on whether relationships between players and coaches can ever be acceptable.

Most, but not all, were definitive that the dynamic must always be strictly professional. The allegation against Kirk — Leicester say he is assisting them with an “internal process” — comes only a few weeks after it emerged that former Sheffield United manager Jonathan Morgan had a ‘secret’ three-year relationship with a teenage player while he was Leicester manager. Morgan has accepted he crossed the line of what was acceptable but says he has been the victim of a “witch hunt”.



How Morgan’s ‘immoral’ relationship with his teenage player led to his sacking

Among the points raised by managers this week were the game’s transition from amateurism to professionalism, the power imbalance between a manager or staff member and a player, clubs’ codes of conduct and a lack of anonymous reporting mechanisms. Chelsea manager Emma Hayes also brought up the challenges presented by player-to-player relationships.

“The women’s game is shifting from an amateur game into a professional game,” said Hayes. “In almost all areas of our game, we have to make sure there is a minimum standard in place. We have to have safeguarding, to make sure that it’s accessible for each and every club to protect players.

“The challenges of coming from an amateur game to a pro game means women’s sport has largely been social.”

Having provided that context, Hayes said: “Player-coach relationships, they are inappropriate; player-to-player relationships are inappropriate,” before returning to the importance of looking at “where the game has come from” and the need for “top standards”, which she believes goes beyond the topic of player-coach relationships, now that the game is in a professional era.

When asked directly, Aston Villa manager Carla Ward said a player-coach relationship should be a sackable offence — an opinion shared by Bristol City manager Lauren Smith. “Our job and duty is to protect players,” said Ward. “So to cross that line is unacceptable and it can’t happen.

“It makes me very angry because we’re here to set an environment, a comfortable place where people come to work, where they feel safe… I just don’t understand anyone who crosses that line.”

Ward, who had spoken to players about the topic over breakfast, said she did not know how “you get yourself in that position”.

“One person said: ‘Oh, you know, nights out…’, but you shouldn’t be on a night out with the players. I don’t know how it happens, it shouldn’t happen. The only way to clean the game up is to highlight it and get rid of it.”

Ward, a former player, also described the “very social aspect” during her career, which spanned from 2004 to 2018, just before the WSL became a full-time professional league in September 2018. “Where the line gets drawn is very simple. When the game got professionalised, you can’t cross that line.”

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Villa manager Ward has strong views on the issue of player-coach relationships (Neville Williams/Aston Villa FC via Getty Images)

Ward said “player-coach relationships probably happen all the time at grassroots level. Can you stop that? From a social aspect, no.”

As for the Women’s Championship (WC), where some clubs are professional but others are not, she said there was a “grey area” but concluded: “The top two leagues in English football, if we’re going to take women’s football seriously, it can’t happen.”

Bristol City manager Smith said whether a team is professional or not should not make a difference to player-coach relationships. “It is still a position of power between coaches and players and there is no grey area.

“It’s unacceptable and it shouldn’t happen. I believe it’s a sackable offence. That goes not just for the head coach position — it’s a position of power within the staffing team.”

Tottenham’s Robert Vilahamn, who said player-coach relationships are “unacceptable”, “unprofessional” and “crazy”, also recognised the power imbalance. “As a coach, I am in a power position with players and staff,” he said.

Manchester City’s Gareth Taylor took the same stance: “Player-staff or player-coach is not right because these people hold a position of power.” Taylor did not wish to comment on player-to-player relationships.

Manchester United assistant manager Charlotte Healy — who was stepping in for head coach Marc Skinner, whose wife is expecting their second child — also spoke about power imbalance.

“In other industries, hierarchical relationships aren’t allowed — relationships where you have people of influence, it’s not acceptable,” she said. “Our primary job is to provide a duty of care for players. The women’s game is professional. Our behaviours have to match that.”

Arsenal’s Jonas Eidevall, who said player-coach relationships are “inappropriate”, pointed to the NWSL reports as evidence of there being “major issues” within women’s football, adding: “There are still issues in some places.”

Smith was of the same opinion, saying there are “other instances across the world where things get ignored and pushed under the carpet. It’s not time for that; it’s time for action and consequences.”

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Jonas Eidevall of Arsenal spoke of the ‘major issues’ within the women’s game (Marc Atkins – The FA/The FA via Getty Images )

Every club has to have a code of conduct as part of WSL licencing criteria. There is a lack of consistency regarding teams’ codes of conduct, though, as with many issues in the women’s game. WSL clubs do not have to prohibit player-coach relationships but Villa’s Ward believes it is “an unwritten rule”.

“There are a lot of unwritten rules in life that people don’t cross,” she said. “Given where we’re at now and given some people still don’t understand that unwritten rule, maybe put it in black and white so then it’s clear.”

Bristol’s Smith added player-coach relationships go “against the values of safeguarding and that is written in (codes of conduct). You can apply contractual rules to something that goes against the values of the club.”

Likewise, United assistant Healy, whose club has an ‘employee relationships at work’ policy, said: “If they (the policies) are breached, there have to be consequences. Clubs and associations have to be strong on that.”

Vilahamn was in favour of regulation if it is needed and added: “It’s so clear we shouldn’t accept that and it shouldn’t be like that.

“I get it, people fall in love everywhere. But this is not where you should fall in love and you shouldn’t work with your partner in that way. If people don’t understand that, then we might need to find good guidelines so people understand that’s not acceptable in this environment. If people don’t understand that, we need to teach them it’s not acceptable.”

Hayes agreed it should be part of a wider WSL and Championship code of conduct and highlighted the importance of education.

“Things like racism, homophobia or banter have become situations where everybody has had to almost be educated up,” she said. “It’s important for people to be educated around why things are inappropriate, and why we have to create safe spaces for our players. There’s a bigger conversation to be had but I don’t think we can have the conversation without the historical context.”

One issue is there is no mechanism for players or staff to report such behaviour anonymously and safely to clubs or governing bodies without fear of repercussion.

“That is the biggest problem,” said Ward. “If you’re the manager crossing that line, it’s very difficult for anyone to report it. It’s a complete abuse of power. It becomes very difficult for someone to report a head coach, manager, general manager or director of football, because it’s not just managers and head coaches, is it?

“You can’t possibly go to that person because the first thing they’re going to do is rip up your contract. I’ve seen it. When I was a player, I saw this a lot.”

Eidevall agreed that such mechanisms need to be put in place, while Smith said “clubs should be responsible for what goes on within their clubs” and “if clubs don’t know what to do, they need to ask for help”.

Nikki Doucet, the CEO of NewCo, the company taking over the running of the WSL and WC when it becomes independent this summer, agreed it is important the right mechanisms and safeguarding are in place for the players when asked about anonymous reporting mechanisms earlier this year.

Hayes agreed governing bodies need to do more to provide reporting mechanisms for players and staff, adding she believes reporting mechanisms on “a number of fronts should already be in place… whether it’s racism or homophobia.

“I don’t think those challenges are limited to player-coach. I think it’s player-to-player, I think it’s around all the other subjects I’ve probably spoken about millions of times and just the next step for where the game needs to go.”

When asked why she doesn’t like player-to-player relationships, Hayes said they pose “challenges in the locker room” which are “far from ideal”.

“One player’s in the team, one’s not. One might be in the last year of their contract, one might not be. One might be competing in a position with someone else.

“Those things have been happening in dressing rooms. Longer-term, in an ideal world you wouldn’t have to deal with that.

“While you talk about it from a hierarchical perspective, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t present challenges — it does. We have to work an awful lot about how we manage those challenges in the locker room because they are far from ideal.”

Managers’ press conferences which were conducted after Hayes’, which took place at 3pm on Thursday, were asked about her comments on Friday.

Everton manager Brian Sorensen, who said player-coach relationships were “not acceptable”, said player-to-player relationships are “not in the same ballpark” and he had never found player-to-player relationships to be a problem. Liverpool’s Matt Beard, who condemned player-coach relationships, said he does not see player-to-player relationships as a problem.

“One in five people meet their long-term partner in a work environment. The key thing is that if there is a relationship, it doesn’t affect your day-to-day job. I’ve got no issues with it.”

Some clubs did not allow questions on player-coach relationships at all.

Brighton’s interim manager Mikey Harris, who is in his first role in women’s football, said he was not “comfortable giving an answer on something that I don’t have enough context for”, before the press officer prevented captain Vicky Losada from speaking on the matter.

Similarly, West Ham’s press officer shut down a question posed to manager Rehanne Skinner because of the “lack of relevance the question has to West Ham or our game against Liverpool on Sunday”. Leicester, who are dealing with the allegation against Kirk, said they could not comment.

 (Chris Lee – Chelsea FC/Chelsea FC via Getty Images)

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