Sarah Manning Interview

Middlesbrough Ladies Captain Sarah Manning gives an insight into the progress that has been made within the ladies game, whilst also highlighting the realities of Women’s Football.

1. For those that don’t know, could you give us a bit of background about Middlesbrough Ladies FC and how you came to play for them?

Middlesbrough Ladies FC have been around since about 1976 I think, but it wasn’t until recent times that Middlesbrough FC backed them as their ladies side.  They are the biggest team in this area alongside Newcastle United Women FC and Sunderland Women FC and I’m very proud to play for them.

I first joined Middlesbrough Ladies FC when I was 13 and but wasn’t allowed to play until I reached 14 years old due to the FA rules that were in place.  I was playing for Boldon Girls FC (just before Sunderland) at the time which was the nearest Girls team for my age group.  My dad would drive me up there every Sunday morning after his night shift.  One day at my school a female football coach (Marrie Wieczorek) came in to do our PE lesson.  Afterwards Maz asked me to go along to Middlesbrough Ladies FC training which was so exciting for me and my family and that’s how it all started for me.

I played in the Reserves side as a wide midfielder and made my debut for the First team when I was almost 16.  I switched to centre midfield and continued playing even when I lived and studied in Liverpool but this commute became tiresome and expensive, and during my third and final (most important) year at Liverpool John Moores University I joined Tranmere Rovers Ladies FC.  After completing my undergraduate degree in Liverpool I returned home to live in Middlesbrough and still continued to play for Tranmere for another year – this time commuting in the opposite direction!  Some would think that I enjoyed commuting but that was definitely not the case, I just felt that I owed it to Tranmere because they had been so good to me.  I re-joined Middlesbrough in 2008, was made captain in 2009 and have continued to play ever since.

2. As a point of reference, what would be the men’s equivalent of the league you currently play in?

We are currently playing in the Northern Women’s Combination League.  It is difficult to compare our League to the men’s League as the structure is completely different.  Obviously the clubs in the professional men’s leagues can be promoted or relegated up or down the entire structure.  In non-professional men’s leagues there is more of a pyramid system since clubs operating at that level would probably not exist if they had to travel the country to play games.  Instead the leagues are regionalised so clubs can continue to function whilst competing against others from a regional area.  This is a better model of the ladies’ league structure.

Excluding the newly formed FA Women’s Super League, the National Division is the highest women’s league in the UK (approx 10 clubs) – teams at this level tend to be semi-professional and have a lot of backing from their respective male counterparts.  Feeding into this league are two separate leagues, the Premier League North and Premier League South (approx 10-12 clubs each).  Feeding into these leagues are the four combination leagues (approx 10-12 clubs); the Northern Combination and the Midland Combination (who both feed to the Premier League North), and the South East Combination and South West Combination (who both feed to the Premier League South).  I suppose you could say we are playing around the Championship standard in the men’s leagues if you take into account the number of teams involved.

3. You finished the season in the 3rd place, two points below the playoffs, how did you rate your season overall?

SM – It has been a difficult season this year – the squad have lost a few players for different reasons and has had to adjust.  We were actually without a recognised goalkeeper for almost the full season and this position has only been filled because some of the outfield players have stepped in.  Regardless of this we dropped points when we would normally have secured them so there is a lot of what ifs.  We deserved to finish where we did so we have to forget about this season and get ready for next season when promotion is our number one target.

4. What proportion of the team is made up of Middlesbrough born players?

All of the girls were born in Middlesbrough, as far as I know.  Almost all of the players in our squad are Middlesbrough Supporters too so to play for their own town means a lot to them.  In addition to that, none of our team get anything for playing for Middlesbrough, as is the case for most women’s teams.  The players are here purely because of their love of football and for Middlesbrough.  It is a massive commitment for all concerned.  Our squad is a real mix of students from colleges and universities and others with many different career backgrounds.  We often find ourselves coming to training tired having just finished work just 30 minutes before.  On top of that, the girls have to find personal player sponsorships and pay subs each week just to cover all the costs involved and be able to play.  I suppose it just shows how much it means to us as individuals and collectively as a squad.

5. In Steve Gibson we have a local chairman, in Tony Mowbray a local manager and in Marrie Wieczorek a local Ladies Team manager – does this make a difference in your opinion? And if so how does it translate to the squad?

I think this does make a massive difference.  Obviously, Steve Gibson has been fantastic in bringing the club back from the brink of its existence to its present position.  He has obviously poured his own money into something close to his heart and I think the fans can see how much the club mean to him which is always a welcoming sign amongst supporters and the home grown players who obviously want to do well.

In Tony Mowbray, I think we have the right manager for the club for years to come.  He’s a boro lad and I think this transpires across to the fans so much.  The club obviously have a special place in his heart.  His whole aura and the way he goes about his business is endearing and his efforts seem to be yielding results as the team started to play well at the end of the season.  I was at the Middlesbrough Disabled Supporters Dinner in January and Tony Mowbray was there.  I’ve got to say the way he conducted himself, mingled in with all the supporters and spent time with them (long after the playing squad had left) was fantastic and so refreshing to see.  I suppose being from the area, Tony knows what the fans want and no doubt he’ll be doing his best to achieve this.

Obviously Maz is from Middlesbrough, a Middlesbrough supporter and played for the ladies side for many years before becoming Manager.  As players we know that if the Boro have lost on a Saturday, she is going to turn up in a mood on Sunday! We are always weary about this and if we can get a win it goes a very long way to raising spirits again.  Obviously Maz likes nothing better than to see Middlesbrough doing well and she works hard to get the best out of us and we try and do our bit on the pitch.

6. How does the set up at Boro compare to the other Ladies Teams you’ve played for?

I haven’t really played for many different teams but have heard plenty from other players.  We have a good set up at Middlesbrough.  We have the Manager Maz, Assistant Manager David James and First Team Coach Chris, who has recently joined us.  It takes a lot of work to run a football team and I know we are always looking for extra people to volunteer and help.  Recently, local martial arts gym ‘Max Training’ have volunteered to help with extra training.  The instructors Matt and Sam run sessions every week aimed at building and maintaining our core fitness levels and I know the girls find the training exciting, challenging and rewarding.

Middlesbrough FC have in previous seasons provided us with playing kit, discounted training kit and a pitch to play and train on.  This has saved the ladies side a lot of money but there are still lots more things to pay for such as Referee fees, player registration fees, league affiliation fees, hospitality for visiting sides and transport hire and fuel costs.  This is why the girls try and get personal sponsorships and the team try to get shirt sponsorships to help with the costs, otherwise we would probably cease to exist.  I know all the girls are trying hard to find sponsorships and we are still looking for an away shirt sponsorship.  The generosity of Mr Varma and local company ‘pharmacy4meds.co.uk’ has already secured our home shirt sponsorship and this will go a long way to help but we still need more.  We rely on help to continue to exist.

7. Tell us a bit about the teams trip to North Korea in 2010, what was the most satisfying aspect of that tour?

I didn’t actually go on the trip to North Korea because of work commitments.  Naturally I was gutted to miss out on the trip but didn’t have much choice unfortunately.  The girls that did go told me a lot of positive things and I know they loved every minute of it.  They played a couple of friendly matches that were watched by 23 million people on Korean TV which is just unbelievable.  North Korea is a very secretive country and few people get access but it is a country that forged special links with Middlesbrough many years back.  I know the girls feel extremely privileged to have been invited to represent Middlesbrough and it is an experience that they will remember for the rest of their lives.

8. Any plans for a return leg in Boro?

In fact I believe talks are already going on regarding the visit of a North Korean team to Middlesbrough either this year or next.  I hope that does come off because I believe it will help put Middlesbrough in the spotlight for all the right reasons and I would love to play this time round.

9. What do you see as the strongest aspects of women’s football?

Women’s football is improving all the time and I think it’s difficult to choose the strongest area.  I know some people question the loyalty shown in the men’s game because there’s so much money involved now.  You don’t have this problem in the majority of female teams because there is no money!  A strong area therefore might be therefore considered to be the commitment of players.  In terms of playing, I think the technical ability and tactical understanding of female players has rapidly improved over recent years because there are a lot more good quality coaches involved in female football now than there was before.

10. Which areas do you consider to be the weakest?

I believe that a weak area could be the fitness levels of female players.  Male players at the top end of the game are athletes with individualised training programmes and a host of support mechanisms in place such as sports science, physiotherapy and rehabilitation and so on.  At that standard the men’s game is getting faster and faster each year.  Female players are full time workers, mums, students and so on who maybe get to train 2 times a week, therefore they’re not as fit as their male counterparts and the pace of the game is much slower.

11. In terms of the weaker areas there is a perception, especially among men, that goalkeeping in ladies football hasn’t quite caught up to the outfield players yet. In your experience would you say this is fair comment?

Unfortunately, Ami Bullen (GK) has moved on and is no longer with us.  However, I believe Ami was terrific for us in goal and I know the team were confident with her between the sticks.  I certainly do not believe she was a weak area for us, definitely not.  I feel like I’ll have to sit on the fence with this question.  I’ve seen some excellent keepers and some poor keepers so I’m undecided I’m afraid.

12. I notice there is a designated goalkeeping coach at Middlesbrough Ladies, is this standard practise at other clubs too?

David James (ironically) usually works with the keepers although as I’ve said previously we’ve been without a keeper for most of the season.  I think a lot of the clubs have goalkeeper coaches in place to work solely with the keepers.  Goalkeeping is a specialist position and I think it is good that they get 1 to 1 coaching because a lot of the squad coaching can be irrelevant for a keeper who would be best served working on their personal game instead.

13. What are your average crowds for home games?

It varies really.  When we played Arsenal in the last 16 of the FA Cup we had a crowd of approximately 1500 but other times it can be under 50 people.  I don’t think a lot of people in the local area know about us which is a shame because playing in front of a crowd definitely helps to raise your game.

14. What do you think can be done to attract more fans to your games?

If we can get more publicity to reach bigger audiences it would help.  We have a set of local girls giving their all to win for Middlesbrough Ladies FC and it would be nice to get more people to cheer us on.  I do believe that if we can get promoted this season, we can raise our profile further and attract more supporters.

15. Obviously there have been some high profile stories regarding sexism recently, what did you make of the recent Andy Gray and Richard Keys incidents?

I think the whole episode was blow up out of all proportion.  Fair enough they were in a high profile position and should have been a little more careful of what they say where and when, but I think they were just having typical male banter.  I suppose if sexism happened in a workplace than there would be similar consequences so some may believe that that warrants their dismissal but I’m unsure about that one to be fair.

16. Staying on that subject, the website obscuremusicandfootball recently highlighted the ill-informed musing of Tim Lovejoy from his 2007 book ‘Lovejoy on Football’. One such quote was: “I must admit that in the early days of Soccer AM we all used to watch women’s football and just absolutely wet ourselves. It was hysterical. Pure belly-laugh comedy” How frustrating do you find it when high profile names in the media come out with stuff like this? What can be done to change these attitudes?

I don’t think sexism will be eradicated, certainly not in my playing career anyway, so we just get on and play football.  It doesn’t really matter what these people think.  Women’s football is and has been for some time the fastest growing sport in this country despite what some people believe or feel it necessary to express.  I take sexist views with a pinch of salt because they don’t really affect the development of the game as much as some people may believe.  Undoubtedly, it is going to take some time for women’s football to catch up to the standard of the men’s game, but once it does, and it will, it will get the respect it deserves then.  In the mean time, we just continue to give our all and hopefully changed people’s opinions in time.

17. What do you think the men’s game can learn from the ladies game?

Like I’ve mentioned before, the amount of money in the men’s game has all but extinguished the loyalty and passion that used to exist.  I think if men can get back to playing for the badge again, like the ladies do, then they will be seen in a much better light and held in much higher regard amongst supporters.

18. What percentage of men are involved in the women’s game? Is that a positive or a negative in your opinion? 

There are a lot of men involved in women’s football – at most clubs to be honest.  I think this can help raise the profile of the female game amongst men so therefore it can only be seen as a good thing.

19. What targets have Middlesbrough ladies set themselves this season?

We’re aiming for promotion and the last 16 of the FA Cup too.  We’ve got a young and relatively inexperienced squad at the moment so we are looking to add players in all positions to ensure competition for places is high.  We hope to play a more attack minded and quick passing style of football this year and hope to have a successful season.

20. What has been your proudest moment as a Middlesbrough Player?

I was proud when I made my debut at almost 16 years but my proudest moment is becoming Captain.  I give my all every game for my team and team mates and there is no better feeling than winning.

21. Do any of the current squad have any famous footballing family connections?

None that I know of.

22. How will the recent launch of the FAWSL (FA Womens Super League) effect womens football long term?

I don’t know really.  I suppose we will have to see.  It is believed that it will attract more supporters to the women’s game by playing through the summer when the men’s game finishes.  This will be brilliant if it works but I suppose the proof will be in the pudding.

Sarah Manning Interviewsteve.welsh@gmail.com