Hope Powell on her life in football

PUBLISHED: 00:00 10 March 2020 | UPDATED: 16:20 10 March 2020

Brighton and Hove Albion Women's manager Hope Powell (c) Paul Hazlewood/BHAFC

Brighton and Hove Albion Women's manager Hope Powell (c) Paul Hazlewood/BHAFC

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How a south London schoolgirl who wouldn’t take no for an answer broke the barriers to become an icon of woman’s football. Amanda Riley-Jones talks to Hope Powell, first team manager of Brighton & Hove Albion Women’s Football Club.

Hope Powell playing for England in November 1995 (c) TGSPHOTO/AlamyHope Powell playing for England in November 1995 (c) TGSPHOTO/Alamy

'All I ever wanted was to play the game and fight for the cause of women's football. When I started training at 11, there weren't any female professionals. There was no money in the women's game. Mum had to pay my subs and buy my kit. We used to train on concrete. So when the groundsman says to me now: 'I hope the grass is good', I think 'It's grass!',' says Hope Powell, melting into a smile.

Hope was born in Lewisham, south London in 1966 (the year England won the World Cup). She grew up on a council estate with her mother, brother, stepfather, two stepbrothers and a stepsister and was the youngest in the house.

She had to fight her corner from the start. Now 53, she recalls: 'I started playing football when I was about six. At first, my stepbrothers didn't want to let me join in.' By seven, she was the only girl hanging out with a crowd of football-mad boys. When the 'top dogs' chose their teams, she was always overlooked. 'Then one day they picked me and I was better than all the boys,' she says.

She showed her mettle at home too. By the age of eight or nine, she used to step in to protect her mother from her violent stepfather. Hope (who describes herself as 'no nonsense, tough, say it as it is') says 'Some of the experiences I had as a child, they have had an effect'.

Hope Powell at a match between Brighton and Hove Albion Women and Charlton Athletic Women during the 2019/20 season (c) Geoff Penn/BHAFCHope Powell at a match between Brighton and Hove Albion Women and Charlton Athletic Women during the 2019/20 season (c) Geoff Penn/BHAFC

At school, Hope and another girl were the only females in a team of boys. But, thanks to an FA ban on girls over 11 playing in mixed teams, she had to find somewhere else to play. She discovered Millwall Lionesses, a local women's club, where she was coached by Alan May who became one of the biggest influences in her life and even a father figure.

She faced resistance at home too. 'The West Indian culture didn't consider football a female sport,' Hope explains. 'When I had a match or training, I used to sneak out of the house. I was like the Bend It Like Beckham girl.

'When I was still doing well at school, Mum began to relent. From 14, I often played against women two decades my senior. It toughened me up and Alan's fitness schedule made me more robust.'

When she was 16, scouts came to see Hope play and, to her amazement, she was called up into the England squad. Her first cap was against the Republic of Ireland in a European qualifier in 1983. 'I was one of the youngest women ever to play for England,' she recalls.

Hope, playing mainly as an attacking midfielder, went on to win 66 caps and play in the 1995 FIFA Women's World Cup. Nevertheless, she was perpetually broke. 'Players all had part-time jobs and ran endless social nights and raffles to pay for equipment and fees. There were no opportunities for women to go professional, so Plan B was to become a coach,' she says. With Alan mentoring her, she completed the FA's new female coach mentoring scheme and made a name for herself.

When she was asked to be manager for the England women's team, she was initially wary. 'I was a black female. I was thinking 'Is this a token gesture?'' she explains. At 31, she retired from playing to become the youngest-ever coach of a national football team, as well as the first woman and first non-white manager.

An OBE followed at 36. 'I took my mum, brother, partner and Alan. It passed in a blur. I have to look at the footage to see what happened,' she smiles. She also became the first woman in Europe to earn her UEFA pro licence - the highest coaching award. In 2010 she received a CBE and two years later became head coach for Great Britain's women's Olympic football team. In 2012, she was the first woman to be seriously considered to coach a men's team. She didn't because it was Olympic year but adds: 'If a career opportunity presents itself, then of course I'd consider it.'

It was a shock when she was sacked on the back of a disappointing women's European championship in 2013. 'I felt disappointed and will be forever,' she reveals. 'After everything I'd done over 15 years in charge of the team, I wasn't treated respectfully. 
But I didn't look back - otherwise it consumes you.'

For several years, Hope travelled the world, working for UEFA, FIFA and the Professional Footballers' Association. But when she started to miss working with a team, she came to talk to Paul Barber, chief executive of Brighton & Hove Albion.

Hope says: 'Success for me is about trying to build the culture and the players - to build something great. Our thinking aligned.' The club's core values resonated with her: treat people well, exceed expectations, aim high and make it special. She's been here since September 2017 and says: 'This is a good place to work. They are people-focused and they care. If someone is struggling, they'll get support. The club's values aren't just words. They live them.' Under her tenure, Brighton & Hove Albion WFC achieved an FA Women's Super League (then-record) crowd of 5,265 when they played against Arsenal last season at the People's Pension Stadium in Crawley. Another memorable success was the 4-0 victory away at last season's FA Cup finalists, West Ham United.

One of Hope's biggest goals is to build a consistent fan base. She explains: 'We have a lot of attention when there's a championship but then it dies down. We want to emulate or even exceed the support we had for the Arsenal match.'

Her main aim this year is 'to stay in the league and finish higher than last season. It's a tougher league this season though. The teams that have come in and the quality of players from clubs with bigger budgets make it quite challenging.'

She's always fought for resources to go into the game and is pleased that the women's team has attracted dedicated sleeve sponsors and Brighton are building a purpose-built facility at the club's training ground. It's a far cry from Hope's young days playing on concrete, wearing trainers.

Looking back, what does she regard as her greatest achievement? She pauses to think. 'I can't pick one thing. I'm proud that I played in the Cup Final, won medals, went to the Olympics. All of that. But as you get older, you think about all the people you've met along the way. Loads of people have helped me get here. It isn't just about me.'

She's achieved so many firsts, little wonder she is included in Brighton Museum & Art Gallery's current photographic exhibition of ground-breaking 21st century women. Hope says: 'There are so many talented women in the exhibition. I feel really honoured to be part of it.'

Hope: My Life in Football by Hope Powell is published by Bloomsbury at £16.99 (hardback).

100 FIRST WOMEN PORTRAITS

Hope is one of the trailblazers featured in a thought-provoking photography exhibition of sports stars, celebrities and personalities at Brighton Museum & Art Gallery.

100 First Woman Portraits, by internationally-acclaimed photographer Anita Corbin, is celebrating pioneering women of the 21st century who have broken down barriers and changed the world, often in male-dominated environments. It runs from 15 February to 7 June 2020

'It is my hope that women who dream big will look at these pictures and see that they are not alone.' Anita Corbin

Discover and celebrate 100 pioneering women of the 21st century in this major exhibition by acclaimed photographer Anita Corbin. These striking images capture an impressive record of female achievement, from beatboxing to bomb detection, computing to cricket, blast furnaces to boardrooms.

This exhibition features iconic portraits of celebrities, unsung heroines from across the decades, and 'ordinary' women doing extraordinary jobs. Including seventies rocker Suzi Quatro, Olympian Boxer Nicola Adams OBE, Lady Brenda Hale of the Supreme Court and football manager Hope Powell.

Free with Brighton Museum admission, residents and members free

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