Four years after being sacked as England boss, Hope Powell is back in the hot seat with a Brighton side aiming to break into women’s football’s elite.
Hope Powell has been on a gap year. At least, that’s how it sounds when the former England boss describes her time spent out of management. “I feel like I’ve learned so much more about myself – just don’t ask me what,” she jokes.
Powell officially took charge of Brighton and Hove Albion Women last week, more than four years after being dismissed by the Football Association following a poor Euro 2013 campaign. “Time away from the game in terms of coaching has been quite refreshing,” she says. “It’s given me a bit more of a spark.”
That spark is evident. The excitement of starting a new chapter in her career is etched across the face of the 50-year-old as she takes in her new surroundings at Albion’s splendid training ground. There’s little sign of the frosty exterior that Powell famously exuded as England manager, instead she looks relaxed and raring to go. She recently admitted that after 15 years in charge of England’s women’s team, she was tired and needed to recharge.
That’s perhaps unsurprising when you remember that Powell’s role at England extended far wider than simply picking the starting eleven. Many seem to have forgotten that Powell not only laid the foundation for the national team’s recent rise, but built the whole house by overseeing the establishment of the talent pathways and youth teams that have produced the stars of today including Lucy Bronze and Jordan Nobbs.
In reality, Powell has still been busy. She spent the last four years continuing her drive to develop women’s football, this time taking the fight across the world. Roles with FIFA and UEFA have taken her to Thailand, Namibia and beyond in an effort to provide coach education, which she recently translated into a similar role with the PFA.
Now Powell is back in management and ready for a new project to mastermind. “I started to miss the grass, the team and the players,” she says. “Then Brighton came along. The infrastructure, the set-up and the club philosophy was really appealing. Everything just felt right. Sometimes you can’t explain that feeling.”
By women’s football’s standards Powell won’t have come cheap, but the appointment is a statement of intent from a club with lofty, yet reachable ambitions. Brighton only earned promotion to the second tier of the Women’s Super League back in June 2016, but the women’s team is benefitting from the riches their male counterparts now receive as well as sharing use of the club’s impressive training facilities. With an ex-international manager now at the helm, the sky is the limit for the seagulls.
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Powell has aspirations to lead the south coast club into the top-flight of women’s football, a reality that may arrive sooner than she first imagined. Last week the FA announced that the WSL is to be restructured for the 2018/19 season to accommodate only full-time clubs. While the side that Powell inherits remains part-time, the club appears to be moving towards professionalising its women’s team.
The league revamp will see existing and new clubs having to prove they can meet certain criteria including having an academy, at least 16 contact hours per week for players and a minimum level of financial investment, all of which would appear to suit Brighton’s aspirations. “The criteria that the FA have set out, they want it now and we want to be a part of that journey going forward,” says Powell.
Some top-flight clubs, such as Yeovil Town Ladies, have already voiced their concerns that they will struggle to raise the amount needed to renew their WSL1 license. Powell, though, believes the new format could make the league more competitive and attract the best players from overseas. “Female players are just like the men, if they can go to another country and get a good footballing education and earn money they’re going to look to do that,” she says.
As for the elephant in the room – well, Powell plainly refuses to comment on the Mark Sampson scandal or Eniola Aluko’s complaints against Sampson for racism and bullying. But after consecutive weeks where women’s football has been dragged through the mud, it’s also refreshing to focus on a club and a manager whose prospects look good.
Amid the enthusiasm with which Brighton has towards the growth of its women’s set-up, it’s easy to forget that there is an ongoing league campaign and Powell’s first match in charge this weekend against Durham Women to look to.
While the FA struggles to clear the fog that hangs over the women’s national team following the controversy surrounding the recently sacked Mark Sampson, a rejuvenated Powell is breathing in the fresh sea air of a city whose women’s team looks set to have a bright future.