Saturday, August 6, 2022

How English football pioneer Hope Powell paved the way to Euro 2022 glory

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“Twenty years ago that would have been just a dream for me,” said Hope Powell of Sunday’s final

Powell was born in 1966 – the year of England’s last international football triumph – to Jamaican parents on a council estate in south London.

While it was manager Sarina Wiegman who propelled England to lift the Euro 2022 trophy, it was the team’s former manager Hope Powell who set her on the road to stardom.

Although women were already playing football before the outbreak of World War I, she had few female role models to look up to: it was not until 1971, when she was five, that the FA lifted a ban on women’s football that had stifled women’s football as a sport since decades.

Even then, the sport was without major funding, television broadcasts or mainstream attention – even as men’s football was growing rapidly.

“The establishment officially considered women poor, weak little things that shouldn’t be allowed near a football,” she recalls in her memoir. Hope: My life in football. “It was against this background that I started playing football.”

Powell first made headlines at the age of eleven while attending Abbey Wood School, when a nearby school objected to her being placed on the team she had just beaten.

“Some of her teachers and parents made a fuss” about her game, she recalled. “They were just sick of being beaten.”

Despite the setback at school, Powell shrugged as she grew up and continued to play for the Millwall Lionesses.

She went on to represent several local clubs, most of them operating with little or no financial means, before joining an England women’s squad in 1983, aged 16, which was still in its infancy.

Powell represented England internationally 66 times before being hired as the squad’s first full-time manager in 1998 at the age of 31 – making history as England’s first non-white manager, first openly gay manager and youngest-ever coach of England’s national football team.

But she has inherited a club neglected by the FA, where men’s football gets a fraction of the attention, with few managers and players forced to juggle games with full-time jobs.

Kelly Smith, who played for England from 1995 to 2014, shared the athlete: “Hope laid the foundation for what it is now. She had to fight for everything – fight for an office in Wembley, they wouldn’t give her one. It’s things like that that people don’t see.”

Powell set about growing the team, organizing talent camps to recruit young and up-and-coming players, and fighting for more investment in the sport at every step. Under her leadership, England continued to hire support staff, while players were given contracts with salaries of £16,000 each to allow them to reduce their day-to-day commitments.

“There was no template to follow,” she recalls in her memoirs. “I was England’s first full-time professional coach and much of what happened before was achieved piecemeal by part-time staff and volunteers.”

Under Powell’s guidance, England reached the quarter-finals of the World Cup in 2007 and 2011, and in 2009 achieved the club’s best result to date – the final of the Women’s Championship. In 2012 she coached the Team GB squad at the Olympics and again made it to the Quarterfinals.

Powell received an OBE for services to women’s football in 2002, followed by a CBE in 2010.

She was fired from her role in England in 2013 after 15 years amid reports of difficulties behind the scenes. Gary Neville took charge and oversaw the club’s growth until Wiegman was hired in 2021.

Powell, who has now been inducted into the Football Hall of Fame and now leads the Brighton & Hove Albion women’s team, received an honorary doctorate from the University of Brighton last week.

Ahead of Sunday’s final, she told the crowd: “20 years ago this would have been just a pipe dream for me… Women’s football has gone from being a sport not readily accessible to young girls to becoming the number one sport among women in the country.”

“From a game where I had to pay to play, to a game where players are now being paid well and have professional contracts.

“A game that was never televised, to a game that has broken viewership. A game that few watched, one that saw attendances that matched and rivaled the men’s game.

“On my personal journey, I have also experienced how important it is to have the courage to have your own convictions and the convictions to follow them.

“Every setback is just preparation for a comeback.”

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