Equal to the task

There are now women working within the game at almost every level apart from team management. Anne Coddington spoke to several who have made football their full-time career

This year’s Carling Report provided the clearest view yet obtained that growing numbers of women are following football. Thirteen percent of supporters are now women and of the fans who started watching football regularly since the change to all-seater stadia five years ago, women represent one in four. 

In fact, the ‘long march’ of women through football’s institutions has been underway for many years. Karren Brady is by no means the only woman currently working in football. Closer inspection, particularly of administrators and marketing managers, shows a different picture: Gill Bridge, at 28, is the Managing Director of Blackpool; Brenda Spence, the Chief Executive of Wigan Athletic; Gill Palin, at Crewe the longest serving club secretary in the Football League (17 years); Sheila Marson, the QPR Club Secretary; Rachel Anderson, the only female football agent in the world; Charlotte Cowie, the Millwall team doctor; and of course Pat Smith, who is the Deputy Chief Executive of the FA (and who would be standing on the steps at Lancaster Gate should anything – God forbid – happen to Graham Kelly).
And as football becomes more attractive to women the number will surely continue to grow. But this can inevitably lead to tensions, not only as a result of preconceived ideas about gender roles: Sheila Marson regularly gets people phoning up for the secretary and when she says, “Speaking,” they say, “No the club secretary,” because they assume she’s the PA; or the standard fare of being taken for a player’s wife – but also because of generational differences.
At 42, Sheila Marson describes herself as being from the ‘old school’. She started out as a shorthand typist at the Football Association in her teens and went on to exceed her wildest expectations when she became club secretary at Chelsea and then QPR. She combines a real flair for office administration with a knowledge of the football world that guarantees discretion – Marson would never openly criticize the game or anyone in it. Her view is “that ultimately you’re just here to help the players and manager”.
As a longstanding fan, she understands the feelings of the fans but also the way football clubs operate, particularly now they are a business, and is acutely aware of the tensions between the two. When it comes to recruiting staff, she says, “You want someone who knows about football. If they didn’t know Alex Ferguson from Bill Clinton it could be embarrassing. But you don’t want someone who is just there because they think it is a glamorous job, that they’ll be working side by side with players, because they’ll be disappointed, or someone who’s a ‘real’ fan and thinks by working there they’ll get to see all the games for free.”
Some of the women who have come to the game more recently are less likely to accept the ‘unwritten’ male rules. Take 28-year-old Gill Bridge, Managing Director of Blackpool. She never intended to work in football. She began working for the Owen Oyston group of companies (which owns Blackpool FC) as PA to the Chairman. After working her way up through the company she then found herself overseeing the office of Blackpool FC when the previous managing director left suddenly and took over the job on a full-time basis three months later.
Coming to the game without any preconceptions meant she never thought twice about shaking things up. “There was no understanding of how to deal with outside organizations, there was no effective PR, meetings were never minuted, thre weren’t even any filing cabinets, never mind a system,” she explains. She had no time for a culture of amateurism that keeps people – invariably men – in jobs out of commitment to the club rather than ability to do the job. In the interests of profitability she got rid of people who had been at the club for years, taking it nowhere but relentlessly downhill from the heady days of Matthews, Armfield et al. She has also become a dab hand at negotiating deals for players.
Because some managers think women know nothing about football, they perhaps let more slip than they ought. She recalls one conversation where the manager described a player as “a bit injury prone” and immediately wrote that down. “Later when we came to discussing prices and he started singing his praises, I said: ‘But he can’t be that good, you said he was injury prone.’ You can fox around with them in that way.”
Like Karren Brady, she is nonplused by the sexist behaviour of some of the men she comes into contact with. Brought up in an era where women take their equality with men for granted, Bridge feels it is her right to be as tough, hard and outspoken as men. As such Ron Atkinson’s statement that women’s place is in the “kitchen, discotheque and boutique” is more likely to make her laugh than annoy her. If football’s men-only tendency can’t cope with women, that is most definitely their problem.
Brady and Bridge are the archetypal career women. Working in football is a job, and they want to succeed. But in wanting to show that they are one of the boys – and in the case of Brady relishing the fact that she’s better at her job than most male counterparts – they accept the long, anti-social hours – indeed they often have to work harder to prove they can do the job as well as a man.
 Rachel Anderson, a registered agent whose clients include West Ham’s Julian Dicks, believes football clubs need to strike a balance between profitability – “of course we’re all here to make money” – and appreciating everyone who makes a contribution to the game – “giving something back”.
In her late 30s with two teenage children she understands the problems of being a working mother and thinks football should be more family friendly. She suggests that football clubs could do more to make footballers’ wives feel valued: “Too often a player moves to a new club and his wife, usually with young kids, gets no support in making new friends or finding a place to live and schools for the children.” She suggests that clubs should have lists of schools, estate agents and other such amenities. “It’s the little things that make a difference.”
And ‘making a difference’ is precisely what the committed woman fan, player, writer or administrator intends to do. Who would have guessed that one of the 1995 Cosmopolitan ‘Women of the Year’, Alison Vaughan, would be a Football in the Community worker for Manchester City? A trained teacher, Vaughan uses football to “motivate inner city kids who just aren’t interested in school”, and is, in the process, teaching them how to be the responsible fans of the future. Commended for working in “an innovative and interesting way”, Alison is just the one of the women working in the game who could yet change football into a true sport of, for and about the people.

From WSC 109 March 1996. What was happening this month